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.
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).
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.