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A Conversation with Michael Smith

Artistic Intern Lavina Jadhwani chatted with Smith about his inspiration for The Snow Queen

Victory Gardens newsletter, November 2006

LJ: How do you approach your work? Where do you find your inspiration?

MS: I think it depends on what Iím doing. One of the nice things about being a musician is that there are a lot of ways to approach making something up or constructing something Ė you can look at it from a word point of view, you can look at it from a melody point of view, or a feeling point of view (and by feeling I mean some other song that you really like that you want to imitate in some way). For me, most of the work I do is sort of based on moods that Iíve heard from other songs. I donít ever attempt to be original, itís more like Iím imitating what Iíve heard before because what Iíve heard before is always kind of educational Ė the construction of other peopleís songs, the construction of other peopleís music. You encounter, in the music world, so many people who have thought about it for so much longer than you have on the one hand, and, on the other, they may just have been born with a talent thatís extremely prodigious right away. When you hear music from that kind of person, itís a lesson. So, for me, itís really imitating other people, and what that means for me is that part of the things I imitate are their ways of working.

LJ: What is your process when you compose?

MS: Iíve discovered over the years that one way I can write a song thatís kind of interesting is to simply sit down and play the guitar for a little bit and record it. And then listen to it over and over and over and, after a while, Iíll get a feeling Ė Ďoh, this sounds like a certain kind of songí, or Ďit sounds like a certain kind of moodí, and then I can construct words to that kind of mood. Sometimes someone will give me words or Iíll have words for some reason and Iíll think about those and theyíll suggest a mood. Sometimes I donít know whatís going to happen and I just go to work. And particularly, in the last 10 years or so, Iíve been focusing a lot more on recording than I ever have before. I never used to think of recording as something a musician had to put his mind to. It was more like you made the music and other people came and recorded it. And that really is a primitive and naÔve notion, it turns out, as time goes by. I used to think the same thing about arrangers Ė if you wrote a song, someone else arranged itÖ and that actually doesnít happen. If you construct a song, you pretty much have to present it the way itís going to sound. And you pretty much have to record it the way itís going to sound. You canít wait for somebody to come along and say, Ďoh, I have an ideaí, because other people, theyíre working on their own songs.

LJ: How many instruments do you play? How do you incorporate them into your recording process?

MS: Really, what it comes down to is, as you get more into the music business Ė itís up to you to present the music the way you expect it to sound. And that means learning about recording, learning about playing instruments, to a degree. I started out playing the guitar, and people would say to me, ĎDo you want to play something else?í and Iíd say no. I was not curious about other instruments or other ways of looking at things, and now one of the last things that Iíd say is that Iím not curious. I really do follow where my heart goes and I attempt to play other instruments. Now Iíve gotten to the point where I can render something on those instruments Ė I learned how to play the bass because I wanted to record [it] and I learned how to use the drum machine because itís too much trouble to hire a drummer and tell him what to play or see what he comes up with. Everythingís what they call Ďin houseí these days, for me. And even [for] The Snow Queen, what I did is make tapes of everyoneís parts. And it wonít necessarily wind up that everyoneís going to follow what I laid down on the recordings, but I certainly made it real enough for people so that they can get a feeling, whereas before, I wouldíve sat down with a guitar, period. Sung the song, played the guitar. Now I have a drum machine that I use, I do overdubs of harmonies, I use a bass, I use a keyboard, and I play the guitars and I might play a flute or something, or a synthesizer or a mandolin or a twelve string guitar or whatever I can find, maybe very primitive percussion instruments Ė shakers or tambourines or xylophones. And for me, itís exciting to be able to make a finished product, which is what Iím after. In fact, whatís interesting to me is the sound of it, rather than the written song, per se. Now itís more exciting to listen to the recording.

LJ: With languages, they say itís harder to pick up more skills as you get older Ė do you find that is the case with musical instruments too?

MS: Yes, and I wish I had understood that when I was a child. I wish I understood that I shouldíve paid attention. Adults donít understand the possibilities of a child. Adults look at a childís ambition in kind of a cynical [way] orÖ they donít give it the credence that they should. I knew at 10 years old that this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to play the guitar and sing songs. I knew that, and it seemed like such a fanciful notionÖ a young age is when itís possible to absorb so much information, on the one hand, and youíve got so much free time, and youíve got a youthful wayÖ I feel grateful that I started when I did, because I started during the Golden Age of music, which was approximately from 1955 to about 1970. I was 15 to 30 at that age, which, for me, was a wonderful grounding in the years between Elvis and the Beatles. The things that happened along that time were wonderful thingsÖ I was lucky to be born when I was. Iím the same age as the Beatles, and so I experienced all the things that they experienced.

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LJ: Who were your biggest musical influences?

MS: Elvis, the Kingston Trio, and the Beatles. I would say that all those people still are to some degree. Elvis because [he] was the first time I understood the notion of a performer being mysterious. People donít do Elvis as mysterious now, heís kind of a joke. But when he first came out, he was very mysteriousÖ I remember seeing him, I was mesmerized by the way he looked, the way he acted. He was physically beautiful and he was comfortable stylizing himself in an extreme fashionÖ Elvis was really willing to follow his heart.

And the Beatles because of the extraordinary songwriting. Plus they were willing to do that performing thing Ė they were hard workers and it was clear that they were hard working right from the start. When they were first on the Ed Sullivan show, they were performing with a slickness and a one-pointed-ness that just seemed like they mustíve rehearsed forever. And they had. They started writing when they were 15 and theyíd have long, long periods of intense playing. They were working 8 hours a night. So when they showed up, they were just as slick as can beÖ what they chose to play in a given song was so thoughtful. They learned how to imitate hit songs Ė not just the songs or the words, but to learn what the bass playerís doing, learn what the piano playerís doing, and when you learn all those things, you learn what you can do for your own songs. Their construction was just divine, they showed me so much.

LJ: What are you listening to nowadays?

MS: I listen to a lot of stuff. I go everyplace Ė the last thing I downloaded was ĎConcert for Sitar and Orchestraí by Ravi Shankar, for instance. I like Crowded House, a band from New Zealand, they have some beautiful songs. I like Katerina Valente, sheís a European phenomenon, and I adore what she does. I like jazzÖ there really isnít a kind of music Iíd turn off, possibly with the exception of rap.

LJ: Youíve worked on several adaptations of literature before Ė what drew you to The Snow Queen, in particular?

MS: The Snow Queen was my favorite fairy tale when I was a little kid. I would read it over and over. When I was a kid, the story was very, very long for me and I would periodically forget what happened in the story and I would go back and read it over and over again because it was such an adventure to remember. And I literally didnít understand the interactions that were going on Ė itís an odd little story. I just liked it because it was so long and unpredictable and weird. I loved the ideas behind it. I loved the sense of adventure.

So, maybe 10 years ago, I was working a gig someplace in Colorado and some friends of mine, some theater people, said, ĎWeíre going to do a version of The Snow Queen,Ē and I said, ďOh, I love that story, if I write some songs for it will you use them?Ē And they said yes, so I dashed off 10 songs that weekend, which is extraordinary for me. They are sort of glimpses of the songs I have now. I never knew if they used them or not, but it was so much fun that I kept working on them and, over a period of time, amassed some songs that I thought were fun. The theater work Iíve done has always been the result of an opportunity.

Iíve been working on The Snow Queen for about 10 years. Iíve gone through many, many versions of some songs Ė flat out changed the total tune to one song about 5 times. And each time, Iíd record it and Iíd love it for a few months, and then Iíd start to dislike it and Iíd make a new one. And that has been exciting Ė I feel that a lot of the songs are very, very strong because Iíve thought about them for years. They stand the test of time because Iíve kept looking at them.

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LJ: Do you usually sit with a piece for this long?

MS: Yes. I would say, often these days, itís unusual for me to do anything really, really quickly. Iíve had songs Iíve worked on for 2-3 years. And a lot of my artistic life is that artistic discovery. Most of the time, I spend a lot of time on a given piece of material.

LJ: Victory Gardensí audiences have seen two other productions of yours before. What can they expect from The Snow Queen? How is it different?

MS: This is a lot more light-hearted than anything Iíve been involved with before. I did the best I could to make sure that if Hans saw it, heíd like it. I did not change the story. I just went with Hans and I think I understand this man and I think that he worked from a very deep, unnamed place and came up with this stuff and didnít even know why himself. And Iím not going to mess with that. I think that he was really in touch with his creative side, to the degree that he became world famous very early. I wouldnít dare to mess with his stories, so I havenít. Iíve had to leave things out, simply because it would be a three hour show, but I didnít take any characters out. I think heíd be happy with it.

LJ: Youíve worked with Frank Galati beforeÖ

MS: Frank is extraordinary, he makes you want to please him. Thatís his job. You get the feeling that he knows exactly what he wants to do and he knows that what heís going to do is going to be a good shot. You can trust him. Itís partially that heís so charming that you want to please him, but itís also because heís got his finger on it. You know that if you please him, then people are going to be pleased. When Frank says itís going to be a lovely show, then you know itís going to be a lovely show. When Frank was dissatisfied with the music, I was dissatisfied with the music Ė I had to fix it, itís good sense. I trust him to see over the horizon when I cannot.

LJ: Tell to me about the use of puppetry in this piece Ė whatís it been like working with Blair Thomas? Is that something youíd envisioned early on? How did that idea come about?

MS: In truth, I didnít have any idea of how it would be presented, physically, even though I had constructed all these songs and presented them to Dennis [Zacek]. Frank was the one who introduced the notion of using puppets and using Blair. I had no idea what was possible in the world of puppetry and I still donít. Blair is a mystery to me Ė what moves him to do the things he does, the things he conceives, the way he looks at things are very difficult for me to grasp. Itís like talking to a mathematician or a cook, itís a different world, a different language. Blair is an artist and an artist in a kind of discipline thatís ancient and not particularly U.S.-oriented. His nature reaches out to people who are from a different school.

Ö Frank truly is the guiding light here for me, and as far as puppets are concerned, I am using puppets because Frank wants them. And I canít imagine how youíd render it otherwise, I canít imagine how youíd create this fantasy world simply with human beings. Disney would say itís a cartoon, Kubrick might attempt to render it realistically, but I canít imagine how to render itÖ I thought of it in terms of ĎIíd like to make some songs that work and capture the wonder, the humor, and the mystery of this storyí. And Iíve done that as well as I can. This is the biggest thing thatís ever happened to me. This is the theater Ė itís much more crucial.

LJ: You have some live performances coming up in the area Ėdo you enjoy continuing to perform live?

MS: I have to, physically, in order to keep up my chops. Itís different to play in your house. As I get older, I find itís much more physically laborious than it used to be to continue to play music. Itís arm and hand activity thatís very intense and brain activity thatís very intense in the sense of keeping focused. You really have to get out there and do it and it keeps you warmed up if you do it, it keeps you rolling. I donít like particularly performing Ė itís ok, itís fun. But I think that Iíve gotten good at it because I want to be able to deliver to people. The way performing is a joy is that I can deliver for people. Iím very conscious of the fact that theyíre willing to have a good time and theyíre willing to focus on what it is Iím going to present. So I feel like I owe them something Ė I owe them being focused. And if I havenít worked for a couple of weeks, Iím not focused the way I was.

LJ: Are Chicago audiences different than the ones you encounter elsewhere on the road?

MS:Yes. I see that there is a focus and an excitement in the way that people in Chicago listen to music that I donít encounter other places. Iíll go to Colorado or someplace and itís difficult for me to perform, or New Mexico, or Arizona or, to some degree, California. There seems to be a different mindset and I have to get around it. Iím just aware of the fact that these are strangers. When I first came to Chicago, I immediately felt, ĎThese people are very interested in what Iím doingí. The possibility was there and that definitely has remained. I definitely feel this when I work here. Chicago people are kind of earnest in a way, they are willing to jump in with both feet and to contemplate what you are feeling Ė you donít necessarily get that from other people.

LJ: What else are you working on? What are your upcoming projects?

MS: I have a band Ė my wife and I have found some players that are simpatico with us. Itís a lot of fun, weíre a six piece band, we make a lot of noise. Itís called Barrowsmith. I record at home a lotÖ I have a friend whoís doing a cabaret show of my songs in New York. Her name is Lisa Asher and sheís really, really good and I think sheís going to come to Chicago again. I do projects with other people Ė there are a couple of records that have just come out, recorded by other artists. Whatever occurs to me Ė Iím thinking about trying to make a record of songs I really loved when I was a kid. I would say that Iím not bored.

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