On April 12th, I attended a show at the Black Cat featuring the band formerly known as Eskimeaux* as the opening act, followed by Why? It was the first time I had been able to see Gabrielle Smith and her gang perform live, so I was very excited. The show was incredible, and the band was very tight. Every pause or idiosyncratic beat was facilitated expertly by Felix and Gabrielle, followed by head nods and curtsies between Oliver and Jack. The band is a joy to watch live, as you can see and feel their chemistry in every song. The set included many of my personal favorites, along with a few previews of new material. Following their set, I met with Gabrielle for a “brief” interview that ended up lasting over an hour. I can only speak for myself when I say this, but our correspondence felt more like catching up with an old friend than it did an interview. Gabrielle Smith is honestly one of the most pleasant human beings I have ever had the pleasure to meet. I have transcribed questions from the interview below.
*Since this interview, the band has changed their name to Ó. This came to fruition following a confrontation with Inuk throat singer, Tanya Tagaq, in which she made clear that the term “Eskimo” is considered derogatory by much of the Inuit population.
Q: What music did you grow up on?
A: When I was growing up my parents were really into Carol King, the Carpenters, and I grew up in choirs. So I was always performing, thinking about, and singing really weird hymns. A lot of Hallelujah and stuff like that. And my grandma is a pianist, so she would always play really good classical stuff.
Q: Was that when you started with music making? (Like when you were a kid, through choir, or did you do other things?)
A: Yeah, it was between that and I took violin lessons when I was growing up. But I didn’t really think of it as “making music.” I feel like when I was little I didn’t understand that choir, and orchestra, and Ace of Base were the same thing. There was this really big separation for me between musician, which I didn’t understand as being human, and the product. I sort of knew phonetically El-ton John and Ce-line Di-on, and Ace of Base. But didn’t understand that they were people until I was much older.
Q: Was it sort of like finding out that Santa Claus isn’t real?
A: It’s kind of the same thing. You’re like “Oh my god, someone made this. This is like art, I guess. Woah.”
Q: Are you still coping with that realization?
A: It’s kind of hard to. I feel like making music and doing this has made it clear that musicians are human beings. But I still didn’t connect some of my favorite ones. Like Why? for example. I was like “I could probably meet so-and-so if I networked this way.” Or “I bet this person through this person knows person X.”
Q: So it’s still kind of non-people with artists that you’re into?
A: Yeah. I mean, especially ones from my younger years.
Q: Did you have any specific female influences in your life when it comes to songwriting or even getting into instruments?
A: Yeah. Definitely Bjork was a huge one. Joanna Newsom. So amazing. So amazing. It’s unreasonable. I remember hearing her for the first time. There was this kid that went to a different high school. I thought he was so cool. He had a band, and wore scarves, and was very glam. He had “The Book of Right On” on his Myspace page, and I was like “What is this? I’ve never heard anything like this before. This is so amazing. It’s kind of annoying and it’s so brilliant. And the lyrics are so amazing. And I’ve never noticed lyrics before. And holy sh*t.” It was a huge realization. So, Joanna Newsom. Really big one. And probably Greta, from Frankie Cosmos.
Q: I was actually going to ask you about shaving your head. Because I know you’ve done it, she’s (Greta) done it, and so has Adrianne Lenker from Big Thief. I was wondering if it was significant in some way or if you all just did it?
A: So, I was on tour with Oliver’s project, Bellows, and Felix’s project, Told Slant, and The Hotelier. Pride Weekend happened and my friend Meghan shaved her head, and I was like “Wow. You look so hot and cool. I just think I need to know if I could do it.”
Q: Are you into any other art form? Because I know that you went to University of the Arts.
A: For like a second. I went for like a month. It was so bad. Not that the University of the Arts was bad, I was bad. I just felt like they… First of all, I wanted to go for animation. And they were like you could go for animation or you could go for film and we’ll give you a half scholarship. And I was like “okay, what’s the jig here?” And I never found out because I only stayed for a month. I basically got offered to go on a tour with this band, and then I said yes. And then I called my parents from Indiana. And I was like “I’ve been on tour for a week, and I’m not in school. So…”
Q: How did they take that?
A: They were really pissed, obviously.
Q: When did they finally come around- Have they come around?
A: They’ve come around. They came around. I mean, my parents have always been really supportive. But they really, really, came around after Frankie Cosmos played at the MOMA. That was the moment, they were like “Oh, this is cool.”
Q: Was it a hard decision for you?
A: I didn’t like it at all. I was miserable. We were just watching Westerns, and it’s so unreasonable. There were kids in my class that had turtlenecks and low pony tails. It was like the black turtleneck with the round glasses, the low pony tail, and the beret was what really pushed it over the edge for me. You can do anything you want. You can dress that way and it’s totally fine! I just think that sitting in a class talking about which Western is the best in the summer, while wearing those things. And that being said, it was really air-conditioned, so I kinda wished I was wearing it too. But I didn’t give in. My point is that these kids just took themselves really seriously. And I feel that the point of art school is that you’re supposed to unlearn everything you know so that these professors can say “this is how you do it. This is what art school is all about. This is the technique you never knew. If you don’t allow us to fully give you what we know, you’ll just waste your money here.” But these kids were like “my name is Remington.” I don’t know how else to explain it. It was just a vibe that I got. The kids were just super like “I was the weird kid in my town in New Jersey.” That’s also fine. I don’t know, I feel really stuck-up saying all this, but. My priorities were just elsewhere. I also think I wasn’t ready to go to college, realistically.
Q: Were you trained on the instruments that you play now, or were you self-taught?
A: I took piano lessons very minimally from my grandma. It was nice, except I was an asshole. She was teaching me about all these important things like scales and I was super not interested in what she had to say. I was like “Piano sucks.” It’s super overwhelming. It looks like nothing, so it’s just really weird. But lo and behold, I play keyboard in Oliver’s band. Well, I play synth. It’s more like pushing a button and turning the knob. I do know the chords!
Q: How was growing up in New York? Did you feel like you had a normal childhood?
A: I think so. My parents work so hard. My dad is a lawyer. And my mom’s had a bunch of different jobs, but they’ve always in the finance department of whatever thing she’s doing. Right now, she works at this humongous insurance company. I think they insure business, so like malpractice insurance. I only know this because I worked there for a little while, and they gave me this really fancy title. I was a “Junior Financial Analyst.” However, I was scanning W-9 forms and digitizing their clientele. I was basically a scanner.
Q: It’s fine. I just gave myself a job. My sister has this madrigal group so I made myself their “administrator.” But now I’ve actually started to do things!
A: What are you doing?
Q: I’m booking a gig for them! It’s crazy.
A: Wow, a madrigal choir. That’s so cool. I love that.
Q: My sister’s all about renaissance music. I’ll be listening to my music in the car and she’ll just be like “can I put on my recital repertoire?” and I’ll be like “Oh my god, okay fine.” And it just completely ruins my day, but it’s fine. She’s actually really good, so I don’t mind. But I don’t really like other people’s voices.
A: There was one day where for a few minutes we listened to Gregorian chants. And it was so amazing. Jack is really into this mash-up artist named Neil Cicierega. He just came out with a new record Mouth Moods. So, you should totally check it out.
Q: Is it what it sounds like it’s going to be?
A: Yeah. Well, he’s really about All Star by Smash Mouth.
Q: Why is everyone all about that song?
A: It’s just what it is.
Q: SO confusing.
A: It’s just the most amazingly horrific pump-up jam. You’re just like “yeah, I think I can do whatever I set out to do today.” So one day, this guy, Neil Cicierega, decided to mash up the YMCA to the Inception soundtrack. It’s really moving and really emotional. So we’ve been pranked a lot with that. You should just listen to it. It’s bad to describe it. You should listen to it even though you shouldn’t.
Q: I understand. Back to All-Star, the radio station played All-Star for 24 hours straight once.
A: That’s like two- two stories about that. One day, we tried to listen to Build This Pool by Blink-182. We tried to take the 45 minute challenge. We made it like 10 minutes I would say, but we had to stop. The other story is that I used to go to this camp, called Camp Lohikan. It was on the New York/Pennsylvania border. It was a really shi*ty camp. But the camp owner thought it would be really funny to play Hero by Enrique Iglesias for a full day over the loud speaker for the entire day of camp. So I forever know all the words to that song. We tried to cover Hero actually. We learned it one time, but forgot it since. So, we’ll have to learn it again!
Q: If you weren’t doing music what would be doing? What would your dream job be? Because I’m assuming this is your dream job.
A: It is my dream job, definitely. Well, I have this back-up plan. Which requires a lot of money. So it’s not really a good Plan B. But my friend and I are super passionate about animals. She works at the ACCT in Philadelphia. It’s a kill shelter, but her job is getting animals to rescue. So she calls rescues all day to promote animals that are ready to be adopted. She’s very cool. We have this pipe dream to have an animal sanctuary. And there was a moment this year, I guess it was last year, where I was just feeling super down on everything. I was like “What the f*ck am I doing? Why am I doing this? What does this mean? This is super weird. Well, you know. This is such a weird job. And it’s based on validation which doesn’t always come. Or like when you’re not on an album cycle, what are you doing? You’re just living your life and it’s weird. And I grew up in a choir, so being like “listen to me” is a weird impulse that I don’t really possess naturally. So anyway, I was having this whole moment of crisis, and then I called up my friend. We were talking about it and saying “we could just have an animal sanctuary.” And she was like “There are a bunch of goats in my job right now. You should come down and pet the goats.” And I was like “I can’t come down, because if I pet the goats I’m going to take them home.”
We discussed the pros and cons of having a goat as a pet in New York City, but decided that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea. However, according to Gabby, a goat would likely be one of the few animals that would understand her dog. She’s had her dog, Frankie, for 4 years. He’s a smallish pitbull-esque dog that a lot of their neighborhood kids are scared of. However, Gabby stated that he’s a very good “muffin.” We talked a little bit about the Chinese zodiac, along with the origin of the line “2011, the Year of the Rabbit.” (It was a “really good rhyme” that was incidentally true!) This led to a discussion about reading horoscopes and being a Taurus.
Q: What do you embody about a Taurus?
A: Well, we’re really stubborn. And we love food and money. And aren’t really good about either of those things. In that, because I have such a high standard for what food should be like, I’m really picky about quality. Though I’ve been trying to get better because obviously touring is a nightmare. It’s more of just like an “oh my god, this texture is disgusting” type of thing. I’m really weird about food. Like, I don’t like fruit. Yeah, none of it, it’s gross. I mean, I like lemons and limes.
We discussed the correctness of calling lemons and limes, “fruits.” Ultimately, we decided to be honest and call it what it is. They’re more along the lines of sauces and stuff to make lemonade with. Lemonade, according to Gabby, is just “sauce in a cup.” Back-up Plan C for Gabby may well end up being “Cup Sauce” lemonade. She’s even come up with the slogan: “Buy it. Do you like it?” A slogan that I immediately shot down and told her that she’d likely need to hire a better PR person. Gabby then brought up her stage banter during her set and said it’s not very good at selling. I, however, disagreed. Her understated and meek “thank you’s” perfectly compliment the direct tone in her songs.
She did tell the crowd earlier in the night that she was in a really bad mood. An issue that started earlier in the day with a looming phone call that she had already pushed back. The ride to DC was also stressing her out, and causing her to be angry and grumpy. (Something that I could never imagine!) She was able to turn it around though, and it ended up being totally fine. There were also some issues with the voltage of her second-hand Japanese amp. She was getting shocked during soundcheck but the sound guy helped her out with all the technical bullsh*t!
Q: Have you ever felt that you’ve had something to prove, because you are a female musician, to people who might know a lot about the technical stuff and things like that?
A: I think that I did when I was younger and first starting. I feel like I was really, really, adamant about being my own producer and recording everything myself. And whenever I enlisted the help of other people, it was as an arrangement kind of thing. I had a really big, well it wasn’t a really big deal, but I had this other bandmate who was a man. For a while, it was just the two of us. And a lot of times, people would come up to him, asking him questions. Or they’d be like “producer, Him, and songstress, Gabrielle Smith.” It was just like “Ew. F*ck. Uh, no.” So it took a lot to kind of re-write that. But, that being said, I am super, super, lucky. All of my friends have been supportive and treat me as an equal even though most of them are male. We all share secrets about songwriting with each other, and it’s this super reciprocally nice supportive process. So I’ve been in a bubble basically, for my whole coming up time. (She’s referring to her music collective here.) It’s been easy in that way, but I do think that people, even on this tour don’t assume- like, I work my own merch table, and a lot of times people are like “oh, is this the opening band? Are they good?” And they just assume that I’m not in the band. Most times, people generally know who we are before we get there. Yeah, it’s been really chill, to answer your question. I feel like it was harder when I was younger, but now I don’t really care, so I don’t think about it.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I feel like, usually all of my songs have already come out before we come out with an official record. So yeah, this time, we have a whole record written. I’ve written a couple more songs on this tour that I want to see if they’re better than some of the other songs. Because some of them are kind of like- they’re good, but they don’t make sense on the record.
Q: Is there a theme that they’re not fitting?
A: Well yeah. The record, I think, the overarching theme, is sort of the opposite of O.K. Where O.K. was very like “and this moment is this, and I’m in love with this person!” and “ this moment is this, and I like you.” And “this is how you’re affecting me in this moment.” It was very descriptive of external observation and how I was feeling about them. The new songs are a lot more internal, and more about trying really, really, hard to exist in the present and not being able to fully be there. It’s a lot more impressionistic. There’s more color rather than nature. It’s a lot more internal and hard to escape yourself kind of feeling.
Q: And this was around the time you were having your “goat moment”?
A: Oh yeah! So sick- I’m gonna call it that from now on.
Her hope is that the band will hit the studio after this tour and the next tour (w/ Frankie Cosmos). She’s hoping they’ll be done tracking the record by July, and that it’ll be done and ready to release by the Fall. She’s very excited about it. In a new song, there’s even a visual of a goat that is trying to stand on a moving truck bed, but is having a difficult time standing up. She was hoping they would play this new song on tour, but they couldn’t due to instrumentation needs.
Q: What’s your favorite part about coming to DC?
A: Well, usually. This is going to sound like a humble brag, but I’m really good buddies with Bob Boilen. He’s the best, and so nice. Kate Tempest is in town, and he was like “I’m so sorry, I can’t come to the show. Usually you know that I’d come make it work, but you’re playing at exactly the same time as Kate Tempest. She never comes here, so.” And I was like “it’s totally fine,” but now I’m really sad. We just like chill. He’s so chill. The last time I saw him, Eskimeaux came here and played at Rock and Roll hotel with Japanese Breakfast, and he stopped by the NPR office. And we had written this Christmas song the night before that we performed on All Songs Considered. It’s really good. I actually stole- for one of the new songs that we played tonight, I realized that I actually stole one of the melodies and chord progressions from the Christmas song. And I had to text Michelle and be like “I hope this is okay. I’m really into this song that I just wrote, but I know that I stole the “Christmas tree-ee” part, and I know that it’s maybe not chill to do that. And she was like “oh my god, it’s fine.”
We then discussed the fact that interning at NPR’s Tiny Desk is my dream, our love for HBO’s Bored to Death, and methods for figuring out the name of someone you’ve forgotten. If you’re wondering, the right way to do it is by introducing another friend to the aforementioned forgotten friend, and just hope that they’ll say their name.
Gabby told me about her favorite things about touring: amazing food and being touristy. (Places that she recommended include White Sands National Park and Meow Wolf in Santa Fe.) Along with seeing friends from other cities and getting to tour with bands that are super inspirational to her.
“This is so surreal, and it’s really amazing that I was able to get so out of it that I was in a bad mood.”
When I told her that it was completely human to feel bad, and that she shouldn’t be apologizing or feeling bad for feeling bad, she said something that made me realize what an amazing artist (and person) she is.
“I just want so badly to not normalize this experience at all- and have it be this overwhelmingly amazing thing.”
We talked a bit more about the pros and cons of touring. According to Gabby, the worst thing about tour is that she’s not as available to be a good friend. It’s hard to be like “just so you know, I’m still your friend. Tell me if you need anything, I love you.” Another things is navigating her coffee addiction. Something that started when she was working at a coffee shop in New York. She told me a bit about her experience there, which she asked to have off the record. She now drinks two cups a day, but Oliver is on a very rigorous coffee schedule. She goes along with it, but now has gotten into buying tinctures, so that she won’t need coffee as much. Apparently they taste like sh*t, but she’s been putting it into Kevita. (Which is basically just “bubbly cup sauce.”)
Q: Super weird question, but would you be willing to take a mirror selfie with me?