Already known for her deeply personal, impactfully passionate music, Sarah Smith has truly laid bare her heart and spirit with the release of her new album. Simply titled 11, it is a creative tour de force, with 17 songs that take the listener on an epic journey through the deepest recesses of the London, Ontario singer/songwriter’s soul; a cascading, revelatory, sometimes emotionally taxing but breathtakingly honest collection of music that will undoubtedly strike a chord with any and all who hear it.
Smith’s had a long and varied career and first coming to national prominence with noted and critically-acclaimed rockers The Joys for more than a decade. Since going solo in 2012 she has engendered a fervent and ever-growing fan base on both sides of the Atlantic, primarily because Smith’s honesty and artistry have shone through in every aspect of her life and musical career. Her live performances can be incendiary or hauntingly sweet and serene – dancing along every emotional channel in between. Her songs are steeped in reality and authenticity. Every note, every lyric, every vocal inflection has meaning and are all insights into the mind and spirit of a truly remarkable artist.
With 11, Smith has kicked open the doors to her heart, her truth, her pain, her joy for the world to see.
“I can’t even describe the feeling that goes behind art. There is something that drives me that I can’t ever explain – but it’s something that I absolutely have to do. It’s about having an outlet. It’s about feelings and intense emotions and the only way I know how to deal with them is by throwing them into music. This album is about my relationship and it’s a very complicated relationship that has been through a lot of struggle and a lot of celebration. So there are a lot of mixed emotions and those emotions have to come out somehow for me. If I don’t get them out, then I will get sick, so this is my way of getting them out; I write music, record it and play it,” said Smith as she prepared for a special sold-out album launch show at the Aeolian Hall in London on Nov. 11.
“When people asked me about this new album, I just kept saying, ‘I am just going to let it happen.’ And honest to God, I am sitting here talking to you and I can say that I really did just let it happen. It all came together one day at a time and it was very cathartic. I threw everything I had into it including my time, my energy, my money, my musical ideas, my art – everything. I did that because it felt like the right thing to do in my life at this time. I didn’t care if it put me in debt to make this album because I just wanted to lay it all out on the table and make the best record it could be. I was so driven.
“It’s more than just a release of emotions, it helps me process what’s going on in my life. My music is where I always find my answers. And sometimes my music foretells the future. Sometimes I write things and then they come to fruition four or five months later. And, honestly, this album is for me and my partner. I live my life really, genuinely open. So when people ask me questions I always give an honest answer. If it was the Queen I would give her the same answer as I give you. If it’s my lover; I give her the same answer as I give my dad. I don’t have an edit button. And I know I am opening myself up to a lot right now with this new album. Sometimes when I really think about it, I wonder what am I doing? But ultimately, I don’t care what people think. I need to do this for me and for my relationship.”
Smith has been in a loving, caring, passionate and inspiring relationship for 11 years (hence the album title) and has been married for a decade. But as a musician who spends well over half her life away from home, travelling the highways and byways of Canada and, increasingly, Europe and the United Kingdom, the relationship has been fraught with emotional tumult at times. And she even admits that she is not 100 per cent sure how her life partner will react to the breadth and depth of honesty of this record.
“I think she is really scared. She is really private and she is a very different person compared to me. But my intentions come from love; they come from love and healing and I don’t ever want her to feel anything but that. I hope the music speaks volumes about that. I hope when anyone listens to this album they don’t think anything but that I am yearning for her and how much I love her,” Smith said, her plaintiveness barely disguised.
“The ultimate message of the album, regardless of what I may have said over the entirety of the 17 songs is ‘I love you.’ It’s a love story, a real love story – my love story. It’s an album for me and it’s an album for her. And the number 11 is actually a funny number because there are two ones in it. One and another one, and when you put those together sometimes one and one doesn’t make too. Sometimes it actually makes a parallel. It represents a mirror and my love and I are mirrors for each other. So when I look at her and I see love, it’s really my image bouncing back at me. This is what I have discovered about our relationship and what I want people to understand – what I want her to understand.”
The album was primarily recorded and produced with the assistance of London-based producer/engineer Kevin Doyle, who also produced Smith’s first solo album, Stronger Now in 2012, while a handful of the tracks were also recorded in Germany with frequent collaborator, and producer of her 2014 sophomore release The Journey, Pat Anthony.
“The first song I wrote for this album was in Mexico in February of 2015. I started writing on my holiday and from there the creative energy was just going crazy and over the next year and a half I wrote more than 50 songs for this album. Then I showed them to people in my life, like Pat and Kevin and the guys in my band and we kind of whittled it down to 30 songs. And from there it was tough to cut it down more, but I couldn’t do any less than the 17 I have because I felt they are all strong songs and needed to be part of this album,” Smith said.
“And as far as recording went, we went into a studio for three days in July, over a Sunday, Monday and Tuesday and we just killed it. We were prepared. We practised for weeks and we got the arrangements down. And also every time I would go to Germany I would go in and lay down some ideas. I am literally always recording. So with my band, we did those three days with Kevin and did 14 songs over that time. And then the rest of it got added on sporadically over the summer; we added cello and horn parts and different slide guitars and piano, steel drum and percussion. I also recorded with Kevin in my basement all the rest of the ideas. I even did the vocals in my basement. As soon as I had two hours to my name, I was recording something else for the album.”
And the result is truly a work of a passionate, gifted artist firing on all creative cylinders. And, again, the songs act as touchstones of various aspects – the good, the bad, the indifferent, the ugly, and the beautiful – of Smith’s relationship.
“Wake Up Alive is a song about dreams that have a really deep message in them. Have you ever had one of those dreams that are just so profound and you wake up and you feel that there was a message in your dream, and when you wake up you realize you really needed to hear that message? Waking up after a profound dream that changes your life because of that message is actually something that happens to me all the time,” she said.
The song Angels and Anchors is a heart-rending exploration of pain, anguish and rescuing hope from inside a morass of seeming hopelessness. Its accompanying video, which features Smith and the song’s co-writer Paulie O’Byrne, is stark in both its simplicity and it’s incredibly evocative tone.
“We wrote that sitting in my basement together. He is a victim of sexual abuse and he has been travelling the world talking about that as well as about addiction and mental health. We just wanted to write a song for people who are struggling so they don’t feel alone. And I think the concept of angels just makes you feel not alone,” Smith said.
“And to think that there are these angels that are anchored here on earth, I know it makes me feel even less alone. It’s just to give people hope that they are not alone and somebody is here to carry us. Our angels come in all sorts of shapes and sizes – you decide what your angel is. I know I have lots of angels in my life. I think the power of the song and the video comes from the vulnerability behind the song. It’s not always easy to be so open. There are a number of songs like that on this album. My drummer sent me a message saying, ‘I don’t know what, Sarah, but I feel like crying when I listen to this CD. And I never cry.’ So I guess I am kind of channelling some powerful message and emotions through these songs.”
Of a similar vein is perhaps the most gut wrenchingly revealing song, Undertow, which is part love letter, part mea culpa – part reverential note to a wronged lover, part humbling apology.
“That is the most honest I have been in a song, ever. It’s like, ‘okay, I’m an asshole and I dragged you through this and I am sorry. And I hope people don’t hate me for what I did.’ Like I said, I really put it all out there on this record, no more so than on this song,” Smith said, adding that the album wraps up on a note of positivity with the track Already Here.
“That song was written and recorded in Germany with Pat Anthony and we have a magic together. There is just something about the writing that we do together that is very inspiring. And I always come out with positive lyrics when I write with him. I think this song has a very positive message because it’s saying that everything you’re looking for, everything you need, everything you’re making in life – it’s already here. And it might be a philosophical way of looking at things, or it might be a mystical way of looking at things, but it’s my truth. When I feel the worst ever I have to stop and say, ‘wait, everything I need is already inside me. It’s already here, this light, this fire, it’s already here. I have nothing else to prove, nothing else to search for. It’s all here and I have to dig deep inside that soul and find it again.’
“And it’s also saying that I have it with my friends and family and with my higher power, which is very important to me. When I am feeling shitty I always seem to forget that higher power connection and I think this song is also a reminder of that. And to me the higher power consists of the love energy. When I actually stop and remember and think, I feel it. When I think of what a higher power is, when I pray or when I give thanks or ask for help or I am open to being a conduit, the higher power is always just pure light, love and peace.”
11 was released digitally through most platforms on Nov. 11 and hard copies are also on sale through Smith’s website and at shows. For the next few months, until February, she will be staying in the Canada touring in support of the record, before heading back to Europe, where she is very much in-demand, particularly in Germany, Holland and Belgium.
“I will also be spending time getting together with friends and rekindling my relationship, exercising, being with family and really focussing on home life. But I do have some new songs, so getting those new songs worked out is also going to happen. It’s just a time to refocus.”
For more information on Sarah Smith and 11, visit http://www.sarahsmithmusic.com.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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