Tue, Apr 22, 2014.
You can't blame Meaghan Smith for being on a high today, of all days. See, it's release day for her new album, Have A Heart. Apart from her much-appreciated Christmas disc It Snowed in 2011, it's her first new material in five years since her proper debut album, The Cricket's Orchestra. "I'm so excited, I couldn't sleep last night, but I'm just full of adrenaline today," she gushes down the line from her Halifax home. "I got about 10 minutes sleep," she figures, amazed at her stamina in a non-stop day of interviews.
She has much at stake with Have A Heart, and more reasons than most artists to celebrate Delivery Day. She's travelled a long, hard road, mostly of her own making, to get to this point, but she wouldn't have had it any other way. It all goes back to The Cricket's Orchestra, an eclectic mix of old and new, with elements of jazz, parlour music, folk and modern production all in the mix, topped by a heavenly voice. Its charms worked, grabbing her a North American deal with Warner Music, and the 2011 Juno Award for Best New Artist. That, says Smith, began the odyssey of this new album.
"I think what happened was that I accidentally won the Juno, and then I started hearing about the Best New Artist curse, have you heard about this?" she asks. "It's this thing when you win, and then it goes downhill after that, it becomes the highlight of your career. Apparently this has happened to a few groups. And I thought about this a lot. I started writing new songs right away, the same way, up in my room with my guitar. And they were sounding the same as my last album. And i was bored, and I thought maybe that's the curse, you end up repeating yourself. I didn't want to get caught in the trap of doing the same album over and over. I didn't want to get trapped, so I decided I needed to challenge myself. I tried to think of the hardest thing I could do. And it was to write a pop song! I thought I needed to challenge myself and maybe my audience."
For many previous fans of Smith's, this would and did come as a complete surprise. Even on tour the past couple of years, there had been little indication of what was to come. Certainly nothing on The Cricket's Orchestra could be considered pop music by today's standards. And really, Smith herself had little knowledge of exposure to it, and wasn't in tune with the Top 40 at all. "My producer and A&R guy Ron Lopata told me if I was going to do this for real, for the next two weeks I had to listen to pop music. I started listening to Katy Perry, Flo Rida, Rihanna. And Michael Jackson's Thriller, one of the greatest pop songs ever. I sat down and actually studied them. I don't read music, so to figure out what they were doing, I sat down and drew a picture. I'd take coloured markers, choose a colour to represent say, the bass line, so I could see how they were doing things. There's so many sounds going on but they don't overlap. I'd have symbols too, like jagged lines for horn stabs, some more round textures for vocals. Me with my dyslexia, this was the way I could visualize it."
Smith also went through a long process of trying to build the right crew to make the album she wanted. She travelled to the U.S. and overseas to soak up potential sounds and collaborators, started work with a couple of different producers, but in the end, found her best team right at home, under her nose. Her A&R rep, Lopata, is also a talented musician. And her husband, Halifax's Jason Mingo is also a musician, and plays in her band. Along with Ash Howes, the production and instrumentation was pretty much taken care of. But it took months of frustration and false starts to get to that point. "It was a struggle, it was a really fun, exciting life-changing, traumatizing struggle," says Smith of the process. "There were so many points where I thought this wouldn't happen. We lost producers, people quit or didn't show up, we almost ran out of money, I almost was part of the Toronto Eaton's Centre shooting (Smith and Mingo were on their way to the food court, changed their minds, and then watched the gunshots happen from the Atrium above). And we thought, "Do we want to go through with this, is this really how we want to go ahead with our lives?" And the answer was yes! It meant so much to get through this. That's why I'm so proud of it, of today. I'm so proud I didn't give up. We stuck with it, and it's everything I hoped for."
The first single, Have A Heart, came out a few weeks back, and predictably caused a stir with the change in her sound. Thankfully, she says, almost entirely positive. "I'm getting a wide range of reactions. I'm really involved with my fans on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, whatever. And I'd say there's only about 2 per cent that are negative, and they are really negative. And I get it, I've been that way with some artists, when they change and I don't like the new direction. But overall the comments have been really positive, really supportive."
Smith however, will be keeping a low profile for the next few months, at least when it comes to touring. That has to wait until the next delivery. "We're putting out this record, and then Jason and I are putting out a baby in August." That will be the next time that Smith goes, umm, pop.
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Bob Mersereau has been covering music, and the East Coast Music Scene since 1985 for CBC. He's a veteran scene-maker at the ECMA's, knows where the best shows and right parties are happening, and more importantly, has survived to tell the tales. His weekly East Coast music column is heard on Shift on Radio 1 in New Brunswick each Wednesday at 4'45. He's also the author of two national best-selling books, The Top 100 Canadian Albums (2007) and The Top 100 Canadian Singles (2010).