Author Archives: jeansmith

Jean Smith solo 2000

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I made my solo album in 2000, fairly soon after I quit drinking and ended a relationship. I’m not sure if either of those things are audible, but that’s what was going in my personal life. I’d worked and recorded with two very powerful musicians at that point. David Lester (guitar in Mecca Normal) and Peter Jefferies, who plays drums and piano, with whom I was involved in a certain amount of studio recording beyond what was typical for with Mecca Normal. I’d also been playing acoustic guitar in an instrumental duo where I do lead accents to fairly conventional melodies that I didn’t write.

I wanted to make an album alone, utilizing various theories I had about composition and sound. I took the bus from Vancouver to Olympia to record with Pat Maley who engineered some of Mecca Normal’s K Records releases. I brought the sax (which I got in the early 80s, before I met David), the acoustic guitar and few things I’d recorded here including the relentless cymbal that runs evenly through the length of Siamese Hips, and then, at end, other elements drop away and it’s just the cymbal. It was things like that, how layers of sound worked together, that I was interested in. I wanted to replace the urgency of my other projects with space within which I added elements without having to battle for that space with anyone else.

Peter and I had been using drones in 2 Foot Flame, in which I played electric guitar and sang and he played electric piano and drums. The piano was sometimes a drone element so I’d become well-versed in how a drone could function in a composition, giving a sort of fill in wash so other sounds are more unified. Actually, the cymbal sound, the blur that surrounds the strike, is like a drone. I also used a vocal drone in that song, where the undulating note is buried in the mix. These were the sorts of things I was interested in doing. Creating fairly even constructions with a certain amount of personality to play other instruments to. So of course I had to figure out which to record first and, to be efficient, we wanted to record all of each instrument after setting up. I’m sure it was all a bit mystifying for Pat, considering he knew me as a singer and suddenly I’m there in the Capitol Theatre wanting to use one of the giant speakers for the films as a microphone because I’d heard this could be done and so we recorded the drum sound that way.

I’ve always worked well at what could be called improvising. Six of the songs on the first Mecca Normal album were written as they were recorded on our Fostex cassette 4 track — including I Walk Alone which I added the vocal over-dubs to immediately after recording it. I have always been the engineer at rehearsals, which, for a band of voice and electric guitar means mic placement and not over-recording, and all the tasks associated with archiving the best versions of songs, mixing them to cassettes so that we could learn the songs in subsequent rehearsals. I still have all our rehearsal tapes.

I wanted my solo album to feel confident. The playing isn’t about virtuosity — it openly and unapologetically defies that. In a way, there’s nowhere to hide in these pieces. There’s no repeating learned phrases, melodies or patterns. It’s basically about playing a track and, in the moment, knowing that there needs to be space to add other tracks and those tracks will affect the overall, finished composition. I wasn’t precious about the playing — most tracks were first time through, except one of the long piano ones which had some technical problems that required I play it a couple of times at least and they were basically different constructions, different pieces. It helped immeasurable that Pat Maley was on my side as a friend and a fan. He wasn’t an engineer who, I can imagine, would be giving me flack for a way too long piano piece (Root Smooth Sapling Whips) that just goes along pretty much the same for 10 minutes. I knew I’d be adding to it with other elements — in this case sax and acoustic guitar. I didn’t want the individual instruments to take over at any given point, so you’ll hear them being brought back, away from solo territory, every time they are inclined to jump out too much. This, philosophically, represents my internal struggle within a complex self, and the history of the way men tend to play together, which can be kind of competitive. The main instruments I’m using are known as solo-ing instruments — piano, sax, guitar — but I keep pushing them into a different kind of servitude that I maintain in a less masculine way, as uniquely singular components interacting with each other without one dominating. So, yes — those are themes in Mecca Normal too. Equality, leaving and making space without it being an unwelcoming, gaping, blank space. Also, using two things to make a third thing. David isn’t accompanying me.  When we set up for a live show, I’m not in the middle — we share the stage equally and maintain a conversational connection for the duration. That sensibility is in the solo compositions as well.

Another great part of working with Pat was that he let me mix a lot of it alone. I get up really early and that’s when I like to work, so I’d walk into town and open up the studio and start mixing. This allowed me to concentrate without a sense that any men were having any thoughts whatsoever about what I was doing while I was doing it. Paradise!

When the CD came out (Kill Rock Stars, 2000) I sent it to godspeed! you black emperor who contacted me wanting me to open their west coast tour. Which, when you record a studio album as a solo musician, it doesn’t automatically translate to a stage show. I used a CD for backing tracks and played the electric guitar and sax live, focusing on the songs with words for a my opening set which were all at bigger venues than I normally played. It was kind of a trial by fire playing alone and not drinking, so I count it as a success, although the audience was there for godspeed! (a 15 piece band… or whatever) and I was not that!

Jean Smith solo “A Little Black Dress” live (Seattle audio with visual from a different source) opening for Godspeed! You Black Emperor

Meeting Calvin Johnson

Mecca Normal first played in Olympia on a west coast tour in 1986 after we put out our first album. We met Calvin at that show, but years later I found out Tobi Vail was also there. I don’t think I was quite at a point where I was regularly speaking between songs on stage, telling women to form bands with their friends and write about their experience.

Mecca Normal live in Olympia, 1986 – audio

We started working with Calvin and played Olympia fairly frequently since it’s about 4 hours from where we are. The scene there was very different than Vancouver’s 4-guys-on-stage scene that we basically rebelled against. There were more women making music – Heather Lewis in Beat Happening and other bands on the label with women in them, like the Cannanes — and there was just a whole different vibe, not making playing music a monumental feat that only very special people (men) could get into. Plus, K Records itself was a partnership between Calvin with Candice Pedersen. We met Lois early on and she treats us like visiting dignitaries, showing us around, introducing us to people. We liked this!

In 1989, Mecca Normal toured across the US with Some Velvet Sidewalk and the Go Team which was Calvin, Tobi and Billy Karren (both later of Bikini Kill), so we knew them and we met Molly and Allison in Eugene when they came to a show and later invited us for dinner. They were fans, so yes. We knew the co-founders within the context of visiting their communities and us playing, recording and visiting.

Kathleen and Billy came to one of our recording sessions — Kathleen and I actually sang and recorded a song together. I knew she was a fan and I’d heard her sing and was totally blown away. She interviewed me for her zine. So the dynamic was one of us being the band they liked and us appreciating the time we spent there, meeting people, seeing a fair few local bands on the same bill, yet it seemed more than that.

When Riot Grrrl became something people were talking about, we were already on Matador Records, touring in Europe, and really, in a way, we just heard about it in terms of the impact it was making in the media. We basically knew the bands and the people in them, but we were about 10 years older and we were actively seeking out media opportunities to illuminate our ideas about feminism and women starting bands with their friends.

My name started to get passed around as someone who would talk to journalists at a point when there was supposedly a media ban within the Riot Grrrl movement. I was getting interview requests from mainstream media that we wouldn’t have been getting if it weren’t for Riot Grrrl. Rather than not talk – because I’d been talking for 10 years at that point – I was very careful not to speak for Riot Grrrl or to give details about specific people involved. I gave the same statements about feminism that I’d been giving all along, basically, and focused on general themes about why young women might be angry and want to from bands to express their concerns.

I did the Jane Whitney Show which was totally bizarre. The producers actually tried to get me to engage in some sort of cat fight with what was called an MTV girl they had on the show. She (I forget her name) phoned me at the hotel the night before and begged me not to… whatever. So I at least got advance notice of the intentions of getting a feminist (me) to take a scantily-clad dancer to task. During the breaks for commercials producers came out and encouraged me to interrupt people etc. None of this went the way they wanted. The MTV dancer more or less made herself look idiotic while I was repeatedly represented as someone who used bad language in my lyrics – another surprise angle to the show! This is on YouTube, but maybe don’t link it… I guess it’s copyrighted.

The people involved in Riot Grrrl knew our feminist inclinations and it was always very much appreciated to have some light cast back to us once they were in a position to name their influences and inspirations. Yes, it defined us in a way and who’s to know what would have happened to us if we hadn’t been assigned the sort of Riot Grrrl adjacent label, but that has more to do with the act of labelling than anything. The media had already labelled me ‘angry feminist’ which didn’t allow for me to also be known as extremely funny and very sexy – because that would be confusing! Women in general being regarded as complex (in a good way) is universally problematic in patriarchal terms. Cripes, I just googled “patriarchy and feminism” and I saw an article that included: “the concept of patriarchy has been essential and problematic to the development of feminism” …oh… OK… yes, I suppose that’s true, but who thinks that way?

When I think of Riot Grrrl I think of specific people and a social movement that inspired a lot of young women – not to play a certain style of music, but to work with other women to address their concerns about sexism. This is so powerful. That Riot Grrrl as a movement attempted to exist without a hierarchy, without rules, without relying on the media that was at the helm of all manner of distortions, was very inspiring. Also, since it appears that what I had been saying did inspire them (along with tons of other stuff) and having them understand the fuel that it gave me (without ever having to talk about it) to be able to say that I did change the world (without feeling like a bragging fool) is a tremendous example of women working together without being caught up in the challenges we face with capitalism and competition, patriarchy and power – it defies all that and it shows other women that this can happen, that art and music can change the world. So, rather than it being contentious or weird to say I changed the world, I created a classroom event in which I talk about how all this came to be and this brings the whole thing along for subsequent generations to consider in their arsenals of activism (which is my specific intention).

To have women I respect acknowledge and include me in their history is very inspiring. That Riot Grrrl is available to access as a current source of inspiration is an inspiration! With other cultural movements it seems the moment passes and further references to it seem hinged to the past (sock hops, hippies, Mohawks) whereas Riot Grrrl is based in a politicized sensibility more than style, but if there was a style, it might be called: anyone can do it, the angrier the better.

To have our new – and only — live album (1996) come out right now is great timing, but so far no one is connecting these things — Bikini Kill shows, NYT features, the Riot Grrrl film (directed by Amy Poehler). There’s a great feminist medley on the new album of Man Thinks Woman /Strong White Male / I Walk Alone (in which I go out into the audience like I do at almost every show).

Mecca Normal blog post on the NYT coverage

Mecca Normal blog post new album “LIVE in Montreal, 1996”

Jean Smith Background

I grew up in a rarefied environment, in an architecturally designed house with a lot of jazz (50s and 60s era) on the stereo — Bill Evans (piano), Lester Young (sax), Oscar Peterson (piano). We ate things like real Caesar salads and clams, but I felt like those elements of my experience were held in contempt by those who came to aggressive rock (punk, hardcore, etc.) by having grown up eating hotdogs off TV trays watching wrestling or whatever.

It took me a long time to understand why I wanted to sing very deliberately about injustice. I recall thinking that in order to successfully quit drinking I’d have to figure all that out and I knew it was going to take some work. The solo album was the beginning of that process which still playing out 20 years later. Having done this work, this figuring out, I am in a strong position to deal with problematic relationships.

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New York Times Popcast

New York Times Popcast: The Return of Bikini Kill and the Long Tail of Riot Grrrl

3 minute Mecca Normal segment of the New York Times Popcast about Riot Grrrl features “I Walk Alone”

We recorded “I Walk Alone” as it was written, and released it in 1986 on our first LP on Smarten UP! — the label I created using the same name as my fanzine (subtitled: a How to Change the World Publication). The album was re-released by K Records in the mid-90s.

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The first LP (Smarten UP! Records, 1986) includes “I Walk Alone” re-released by K Records

“I Walk Alone Live” in 2015

Smarten UP! zine by Jean Smith mid 1980s, Vancouver

Smarten UP!, my mid-80s zine was “a How to Change the World Publication”

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Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill) Network, Toronto, 1992

It was interesting to hear one of the participants in the podcast lamenting the lack of live recordings of some of these bands, which is why David and I are thrilled about the new “LIVE in Montreal, 1996” album (Artoffact Records, 2019) which includes “I Walk Alone” as part of a 3-song feminist medley.

“I Walk Alone” has been in our set for most of the 35 years we’ve been playing. I almost always leave the ‘stage’ to go into the audience to sing it, something that has not been recorded and released until now.

Listen on Bandcamp Man Thinks Woman / Strong White Male / I Walk Alone “Live in Montreal, 1996”

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Mecca Normal entry in the New York Times Riot Grrrl Listening Guide

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New York Times

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Riot Grrrl United Feminism and Punk. Here’s an Essential Listening Guide

Politically, riot grrrl blasted feminism into the future

Mecca Normal ‘I Walk Alone’ (1986)

“Because of their geographic, sonic and political proximity, the Vancouver duo Mecca Normal got swept up in the categorization of riot grrrl, but in fact, Jean Smith and David Lester had helped inspire Hanna to pick up a microphone. They have also survived the moment, still collaborating to this day. “I Walk Alone,” from their first album, set the tone for much of what was to follow. It’s the anthem of a woman staking her claim to independence, solitude, home, safety, the streets and freedom. Bold, blunt, raw and feminist, it remains timely and necessary.” – Evelyn McDonnell

“I Walk Alone” is also on our new album in a three-song medley with “Man Thinks Woman” and “Strong White Male”

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LIVE in Montreal, 1996 is part of the CBC Radio Brave New Waves Sessions series (Artoffact Records, 2019)

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CKUT interview

Download or listen to the podcast of this broadcast here (available for 6-8 weeks after broadcast date). If the podcast doesn’t run smoothly (or disappears) I made a YouTube video of it using random Mecca Normal-related footage.

David Lester Mecca Normal

Jean Smith Mecca Normal CKUT

This is Vince Tinguely’s last ever show on CKUT in Montreal! He’s been on the air every Tuesday since 1995… is that even possible? What a great time talking with him for TWO hours this morning (now that’s a proper interview!) interspersed with tracks from our new album Mecca Normal LIVE in Montreal, 1996 (Artoffact Records, 2019).

VIDEO: CKUT interview audio mash-up with Mecca Normal footage.

NEW ALBUM: LIVE in Montreal, 1996 from the Brave New Waves Sessions series on Artoffact Records, 2019

Recorded live in 1996 for broadcast on iconic CBC radio show Brave New Waves.
Jean Smith – vocals
David Lester – guitar
Peter Jefferies – drums

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The Best Punk on Bandcamp: April 2019

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“Experimental duo Mecca Normal have never followed trends. Their output over the course of their 30+ year career has centered around David Lester’s expressive guitar and Jean Smith’s fearlessness, both in thematic content and in vocal delivery. Which is what makes Brave New Waves an important part of their discography—not only is it the band’s first live album, it also features Peter Jefferies, who played with Mecca Normal briefly in the 1990s, on drums. Recorded in 1996 for broadcast on a now-defunct CBC radio program, the songs hit just as hard today as they likely did back then.

The seven-minute long mashup of “Man Thinks Woman,” “Strong White Male,” and “I Walk Alone,” three powerful feminist anthems, is particularly noteworthy. Over Lester’s defiant, and at times repetitive, guitar, Smith riffs on the white male patriarchy and the power of a woman walking alone through city streets. During live shows, Smith often leaves the stage during “I Walk Alone,” walking through the crowd and ad-libbing without a mic; on this record, we hear her do just that, her voice trailing off, while Lester plays a walking blues-ish guitar line. But it’s all a feint—a few seconds later, she comes back with a bang, growling: “Because it’s my right to walk anywhere, at any time of day, in any city, wearing whatever the fuck I want to / I walk alone.” It’s no wonder the Vancouver band served as an inspiration to the women who would go on to form Bikini Kill.” – Kerry Cardoza, BandCamp

LISTEN/BUY

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11 DAYS TIL BIKINI KILL IN L.A.: The Women Behind the K

11 DAYS TIL BIKINI KILL IN L.A.: The Women Behind the K

Lively article about the early days of K Records filled with info and music videos featuring Heather Lewis of Beat Happening, Tobi Vail, Candice Pedersen, Lois and me!

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photo: Jean Smith

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Magnet Review

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“Jefferies finds ways to complement the careening wildness of Smith and Lester’s interactions without reining them in.” – Bill Meyer, Magnet Magazine feature

Sook-Yin Lee CBC radio interview

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AUDIO: Sook-Yin Lee talking with Strombo about Mecca Normal in this national (Canadian) radio interview (CBC)

Sook Yin Lee (Canadian broadcaster, musician, filmmaker, actress) discusses her early musical projects, lessons learned from Mecca Normal’s Jean Smith, punk rock and existentialism.

3 hour, 27 minute, 30 second mark

“Mecca Normal led by Jean Smith, who was considered the god-mother of the riot grrrl movement. She was always somebody on stage, it was her and David Lester playing this very urgent and energetic beautiful but rusted passionate music that was very political and artful. Both of them are visual artists as well and I think they were part of the Black Wedge Tour, that was a very political movement of art and culture, and resistance, activism. Activism was key in that community growing up, and so yes, she was always on stage. And she was one of those people who half of the punks hated her and couldn’t stand the singing, “What is that noise?” and so many people loved her. They did feel to me in the very early days that they were kind of, you know, on their own path. Not necessarily of the crowd and completely full of conviction. This song is a beautiful song, its called “Throw Silver” and there’s something in Jean Smith’s voice that is like an injury, it’s like a wound, but it’s a wound that is healing, that is like a shard of glass that is beautiful. She encompasses these paradoxical gorgeous elements and she’s a real powerful, dynamic woman of words and painting and song.” – Sook-Yin Lee

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“Live in Montreal (1996)” review

“If you haven’t picked up Mecca Normal’s recently released Brave New Waves, a live recording from ’96 in Montreal with Peter Jefferies on drums, you are missing out. Tremendous.” – Bret McCabe (Johns Hopkins Magazine writer, arts journo, Baltimore, MD)

album cover Mecca Normal for CBC Brave New Waves session.jpg

 

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Rabble Interview: David Lester

AUDIO: the radical origins of Mecca Normal guitar player David Lester – long time mixer of art and politics, profoundly influenced by the Emma Goldman bio “Living My Life”

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