My first interaction with Caroline Smith was way back in July 2012, when her band still went by Caroline Smith & the Good Night Sleeps. Caroline and her bassist Jesse Schuster agreed to record an interview during a house show in Madison, and the entire night was a lot of fun!
Over the past two years, Caroline developed a different style. The release of her 2013 album Half About Being a Woman marked a departure from her indie rock outfit to a more soulful sound. In my opinion, the new direction suits her well. It’s fun, and it’s completely genuine. It’s 100% Caroline.
From the beginning, I certainly knew she was talented—heck, that’s why I asked her to do a Murfie podcast. But ever since she tapped into her soulful roots, I’ve become really hooked on her music and current collaborations. In April of this year, we caught up again for another Murfie podcast, before her show with Dessa at The Majestic. The audio version is a lot of fun, but I’ve transcribed most of it below for your reading pleasure!
K: Right now I’m at Ancora Coffee in downtown Madison with Caroline Smith over here sipping her coffee.
K: Thanks for meeting me! You mentioned you just drove here from Rochester, Minnesota, not Rochester, New York. So how are things in Minnesota?
C: Things are really great in Minnesota right now. I mean, if we’re just talking lifestyle-wise, the snow is finally gone, so life can begin again. People can start to smile again. But for us musically—for my band in Minnesota, things are better than ever. The regional music scene is just bar-none.
K: I’ve found a lot of bands now—I don’t think this has to do with the fact that we’re in Wisconsin—but Minnesota seems to be a hub for music now.
K: All kinds of music. Hip-hop….
K: Indie rock, stuff like that. I like the new direction that your album, Half About Being a Woman, is going in.
C: Thank you!
K: It’s kind of soul, R&B. The first few seconds of the first song, you know that something, something different is going down…
C: Something has changed, yes!
K: So tell me a bit about the evolution of your music—is this something you always saw coming, something that you always wanted to try?
C: No actually. So everything that happened happened really organically, except for the music that I started writing for—I would specifically say Little Wind. Because I think Backyard Tent Set was still really poppy. And I think at the root of of the new record, they’re just pop songs, shameless pop songs.
C: And I think when I first started making my first couple records, I was eighteen, nineteen, twenty. And I think—specifically for women—that’s a really confusing time in your life. I think you’re trying to be someone that you necessarily aren’t, and I think that you’re trying to kind of forge your own path, and figure out who you are, the woman that you want to be. And who I wanted to be was like Feist. And you know, Thao, I want to get down stay down. But um, that’s not who I am, I’m just Caroline Smith.
C: And so for this new record, we started writing songs in the vein of Little Wind. So like, indie rock songs. And I was just so disheartened. I wasn’t interested in the songs I was writing, because they just weren’t feeling genuine. I was like, “What’s everybody else doing?” and then trying to do that. And we ended up covering this Aretha Franklin song, one of my favorite songs, called “Drowning in My Own Tears.” And that just felt really natural. And it’s a record I grew up listening to, it fits in with the collection of records that I grew up listening to and then tried to go against. You know, trying to be this new woman who’s more like Feist or something like that. And when I covered that song, this whole world opened up to me, and I knew what I needed to do. And I wrote the record, and it was kind of scary because—how were people going to react?
C: But, I’m glad I did it!
K: Yeah! It’s interesting too, there’s a lot of bands who evolve over time. Probably just ‘cause they’re growing as a person. I mean, you mentioned you were in your teens when you started, and how old are you now?
K: I know you’re never supposed to ask a lady her age, but…
C: Eh, it’s okay!
K: But yeah, I mean if I think of just the past few years of my life…especially in your early twenties, you change so much.
C: Right, don’t you feel like so much has happened?
K: Yeah, seriously!
K: So much has happened. I mean, I mentioned to you when we were walking over here that I saw you two years ago at The Anna Lee, and you played “Child of Moving On.”
C: Yeah. That was the start of it.
K: Yep! That was the start. And you’ve definitely carved a spot out for yourself in this neo-soul, R&B style. You mentioned Aretha Franklin is one of your influences—were there any other direct influences on that?
C: Well, Aretha Franklin’s not, like, an influence—Aretha Franklin is like, somebody you’ll never, ever, ever be like ever. You can’t. I just wasn’t born like that. But I think the biggest influences I had for this record were all really natural. And I didn’t dig for them, I didn’t look for them. I just tapped into what I listened to growing up. The songs that my mom and I danced to in the kitchen when I was growing up. And it happened to be really strong. My mother is just a through-and-through die-hard feminist. So they all are a cast of strong women singers, and vocalists, and songwriters. And so, a lot of Janet Jackson—me personally, TLC, I don’t think my mom listened to TLC—but Carole King, and Natalie Merchant.
K: Cool. Your new album is very woman-centric. I was wondering, being a woman in the music industry, have you ever faced any kind of challenges along with that?
C: So many challenges.
K: Really? Like what?
C: Yeah, there are so many examples. So the one that’s most frustrating—and I say this now, because I’m on tour—is sound engineers. Sound engineers, when you walk into a venue, most of the time will introduce themselves to the men. And when they have a question about something, about the audio, they’ll ask a man, because they don’t think that I know. And when I ask for something that is really legit—I mean I don’t have immense training in audio engineering or anything like that—but I know if I like something, I’ll ask how to do it, so I can do it on tour. And they’ll kind of scoff at me and be like “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” And I’m like, “That’s not fair, man, I’ve been touring for like six years! But this dude that I brought along, this is his first tour ever and you’re gonna ask him, he knows?” That’s so annoying, you know?
C: And now that I have backup singers, they’re like “Wow, you’ve talked about that before, but it’s a real thing!” It’s not just a complaint, or anything like that.
K: Interesting! It’s interesting dealing with the after-effects of a lot of traditional roles that have been a certain way for many decades.
K: And then being one of those people who are an example of how things have changed…not everyone has realized it yet. So that’s really interesting, I was wondering if you experienced that at all. And you actually answered another question I had for you, which is if you had backup singers with you on this tour. Because your new album screams, “I need some backup singers.” Your songs have so many layers.
C: Big time. You know it’s come to the point where it’s hard to do shows without the backup singers. It’s a totally different thing. And also, it’s so much more fun having ladies with me.
K: Yeah! Totally. So how has the band been doing lately—is Jesse still with you?
C: Yeah, Jesse’s still with me.
C: He’s probably grumbling about me under his breath right now as he’s setting up my guitar rig across the street. But yep, Jesse’s still with us, Arlen’s still with us. He’s not with us tonight, actually—he’s playing a show with his other band, Cloud Cult. So same cast of characters.
K: Excellent. I’ve heard a lot of great things about Dessa. I’m not familiar.
C: She’s great. I’ve gotten to hang out with Dessa and play some shows with her a few times. I even got to be her backup singer once. But I really, really, really admire Dessa. And when I get to see her, I love picking her brain or throwing something out there that we can relate on. She’s not that much older than me, but I feel like she’s been on the scene a lot longer. I really admire her wit, and her sharp business mind, and her entrepreneurship. It’s amazing.
K: It’s awesome to have someone like that to look up to who has been doing it a while.
C: And I feel really grateful that she’s so accessible for me. So she’s great, her performance is great, her band is great. She has a lot to say, and she says it in a perfect way.
K: Cool! I can’t wait to check out the show. My last question for you, since we were talking about the music scene in Minnesota—I was wondering if you’ve ever considered leaving Minnesota. I know a lot of people who pursue music, they maybe go to New York or L.A. Have you ever considered leaving?
C: Well we do leave, we leave about six months out of the year.
K: Ah, there you go.
C: So we tour constantly, and I feel like that has always been our goal as a band. It was not something that fell into our laps, it wasn’t something that just kind of happened. From day one we were like, “We want to be an interactional band.” Because Minneapolis is famously known for just having a very insular scene, which is fine. I think it’s totally great if bands just want to be successful there, because it’s possible, and it’s a great community. But for some reason that was just not our trajectory that we had in sight. So we do leave Minneapolis a lot, I spend months here and there in New York. But the truth is that as a musician that’s—and this is like, for any tips out there, for any musicians that want to do something, and then they move to New York, or they move to Brooklyn, or they move to Los Angeles—one can’t tour and shoulder the expenses of touring when you have to pay New York rent. And Minneapolis, among other communities like Austin, Texas, is really supportive. Portland and Seattle are really supportive communities, and the renting is a lot cheaper. So you can rent a whole house and pay 300 dollars a month, and all the money that you make from playing local shows with a supportive community, you can put towards building your career. So I think you can go to New York and you can find success—and more power to you if you do it, I think you’re a total badass if you can—that means you’re really talented. But for us, it just worked out for us to be in a small community, have affordable rent, and be able to use that to fund our tours and our international campaigning.
K: That’s some great advice, for sure. I love picking your brain too, I mean being a woman in the music biz myself as a DJ, it’s cool. And I see nothing but good things for you in your future. So thanks for talking with me today, this is really cool getting to catch up after two years!
C: Yeah! Totally. It’s good to see you Kayla!
Be sure to stay up-to-date with Caroline at carolinesmithcarolinesmith.com, and on Facebook. She also has music available on Murfie! Check out the Audiotree Live video for “Child of Moving On,” my favorite Caroline Smith song.
Kayla manages social media and customer support at Murfie. You can hear her on the radio hosting U DUB, the reggae show, Wednesdays on WSUM. She enjoys hosting the Murfie podcast, cooking, traveling, going to concerts, and snuggling with kittycats.