Mindy Smith

Two songs from her latest release, Long Island Shores [Vanguard], define a great deal of Mindy Smith’s inner turmoil. In one, she sings of her roots in Tennessee, reminding herself out loud that the Volunteer State has been good to her. Yet, a few cuts later, she laments how her soul craves to “go home to Long Island again.”

Though these may resemble fictional tales of displacement and confusion wrought by some bi-polar poet, they are not. Smith’s true-story songwriting is nothing if not deeply personal, and the tug between her hometown of Smithtown, Long Island—which she left as a teenager after her mother’s death from cancer—and her adopted home of Tennessee is hugely evident. So are Smith’s heartaches and loves, and her tears and fears. To say Smith wears her emotions on her sleeve would be a gross understatement.

“She gets quite emotional when she performs,” explains producer, band mate, and musical director Lex Price. “There are songs that we’ll play live that definitely hit her. She goes really deep when she’s performing. And it’s hard in the studio when she’s doing her vocal tracks. It’s sometimes so emotional that it can be difficult.”

And Smith plays her guitar with the same fervor and nuance with which she expresses her lyrics.

“Her guitar playing is so full of her emotion that it’s just impossible to cop,” states Price. “And the magic is that she may not play the song the same way each time. It all depends on that particular moment. She’s a great guitar player. She won’t tell you that, but she is. She’s very humble about it.”

Mindy, tell us about the guitars you’ve collected.

I’ve got a couple of Martin acoustics that I usually bring on the road. One is a small-bodied guitar—like a parlor guitar—and the other is a cutaway acoustic-electric. I’ve also got a Gibson acoustic, a Silvertone electric with the amp in its guitar case, and a cool Vox bass. There are also a couple of guitars I like to use for specific things. I found this 1910 Columbia student model in a boutique store in San Francisco, and it was only $500. It’s an unusual guitar, because it’s made of oak, and it has a very special tone. I saw it way in the back of the store, hidden away like they didn’t want anyone to find it. I just had to have it. And I just bought another Columbia from a store in Seattle through the Internet. And I also have this beautiful guitar that Randy Lucas built for me with a spruce top, back and sides. I’ve got expensive tastes, but I try to keep things under $500.

Buying a guitar without playing it feels a bit risky, doesn’t it?

Yes. I usually don’t do that. I like to hold a guitar first. The second Columbia is completely different from my first one, but it’s still nice.

How much do you play guitar live?

I play on most songs, because I have an unusual fingerpicking style, and it’s just best if I do it myself. My fingerpicking is hard to mimic, because I’m mostly self-taught. It’s not easy for me to explain how I play.

What first drew you to the guitar?

I went to a songwriter event in Knoxville. It wasn’t like a circle, but you could get up and play songs. Everyone was supportive of each other. They didn’t critique anything, but people would give you feedback.

So it was sort of like an open-mic night?

Yeah. It was like an open mic, but people weren’t solely performing original songs. At first, I sang some Alison Krauss songs, because I had recently discovered her. But, after that, I decided I had to write my own songs. I wrote some lyrics and a melody, and a friend who lived upstairs brought her guitar down and figured out some chords for the song. That’s when I realized I wanted to learn guitar.

I took my first lessons at a community college in Knoxville, and the teacher was great. He showed you what you were interested in. If you were interested in classical guitar, he made sure to teach you classical guitar. I was interested in songwriting, so he showed me chord progressions, and then I would write a song around those progressions.

So your learning process at that point was a combination of guitarcraft and songwriting mixed together?

Yes. I wrote songs for the class. It was a cool experience.

You grew up in Long Island, but you’ve spent quite a few years in Tennessee. What does living there bring to your writing?

I think everywhere you live brings something to your writing. I love Tennessee. I like big cities, too, but Tennessee is so different. The pace is so much more laid back.

How does your writing process go?

Usually, I come up with a few chords on the guitar, then a melody, and, then, hopefully, the lyrics. When I write, I can be very focused. I can work on a song for hours, and, other times, it comes out in 45 minutes. But I don’t like to revisit songs, so I try to finish it the first time through.

When you come up with your melodies, do you simply hum through them at first?

I use nonsense words. If you heard my lyrics at first, they wouldn’t make any sense. When the music is done, then I work on the lyrics.

You do quite a bit of writing with collaborators, such as Maia Sharp and Beth Nielsen Chapman. How does the co-writing process work for you?

It’s interesting working with other writers. I like to learn from them—to see how they do what they do. And it’s a give-and-take situation. You have to know what each other brings to the table, and you have to respect that. You can definitely see the difference in the way I write, and the way some of my co-writers write. With Maia, for instance, she writes lyrics very differently than I do, because she likes to rhyme things. But I respect that, and I have a good time writing with her. I’m pretty particular about who I write with. I won’t write with just anyone. I have a lot of respect for the staff writers around here in Nashville, but I really have to know someone before I can write with them. I wouldn’t like to be thrown into a room with a stranger, and then be expected to deliver a finished song.

Now, I do like to write alone, as well. I’m a very emotional songwriter. I cry when I write songs such as “Peace of Mind.” But there’s a sassy side of Mindy Smith, too. Maybe, if my career keeps going, I’ll record a whole album of sassy songs!