INTERVIEW: Greta Smith Uses Words About Song Writing and Scandal Coats!

Greta Smith makes some truly delightful music. Formerly performing under the moniker Egret, Smith recently changed thing up to Greta Smith and the Egrets, who just released the very excellent “Old Girls.” Smith’s music is mellow and engaging, and actually quite perfect for the weather we’ve been having lately, where you can sit on the porch and enjoy a little warmth and a nice breeze; this is what Smith and company make. You can see Greta Smith and the Egrets play next Saturday, April 19th at The New Vintage with Quiet Hollers, Miss Shevaughn & Yuma Wray, which is also the debut release for the new album. We were fortunate enough to catch up with her, and hear all about how she writes, why she writes, and what she’s into. 

Never Nervous: Tell us about Old Girls. What sets this apart from your previous work?

Greta Smith: Recording is expensive and songwriting is cheap, so I have a pretty big backlog of songs.  I knew as soon as I wrote “Apologize” that I was going to get up the gumption to ask Dan Sturdevant, whom I think is amazing, to play on this recording. Once he said yes, I picked songs that I felt would go well together, and make the best use of his guitar style. Some of these songs are older than some of the songs I put out five years ago. Some of the songs are the newest ones I had written when we recorded the new album. 

NN: How do you write? Your music seems particularly vocal driven. Do you write the vocal melodies first? If so, how?
GS: Almost without exception I write a song by just singing it to myself, making up the words and melody together as I go along.  I have the normal writer’s tendencies of talking to myself and eavesdropping, but I also sing to myself a lot. Like, narrate what I’m doing or thinking while I’m doing it—in song. So, when a phrase worth keeping comes along, it usually already has a melody I can build off of. Then, after it’s all done, I sit down with the guitar and figure out an accompaniment.  My guitar skills are extremely limited, so if I did it the other way around, all of the songs would probably sound exactly alike.  Actually, I have a handful of songs that I really like, but never play, because I can’t do it on the guitar.  
NN: What is your favorite instrument to play and why? Tell us about your relationship to that instrument.
GS: If someone said, “Greta, you’re never allowed to touch another instrument. You have to just sing,” I would be okay with that.  I like playing guitar, especially with my band, but I love to sing. As far as my relationship to my voice goes, well, it’s complicated. Does anyone like the way they sound? I bet Aretha Franklin likes the way she sounds. I don’t know, singing is the most natural, easiest thing in the world and it’s also really challenging, really athletic, really personal in this way that makes failing at it mortifying. I joined a choir. It’s like training for a marathon with ankle weights, then you go run the actual race without them and it feels easy.  In the choir we sing Mozart, and I suck at that, because it’s Mozart and I have no training. But, then it makes singing my country folky songs breezy in comparison.  I don’t know. I started singing in public before I really knew how to sing at all  because I liked my songs, and then I would just feel miserable about how hard it is to sing.  But now I’ve gotten over a hump, I think.  I’ve learned a couple of things, so now I just want to learn more and I’m more okay with it not being perfect on the way there, because what I’m learning about singing is interesting and fun. 
It’s weird, because I didn’t start writing songs on purpose. It was involuntary, and then I wanted to sing them because I wanted them to have a life. And, to really sing well you have to be relaxed, in the moment and trust yourself.  This is, like, the challenge of my life because I am obsessive, anxious and self-conscious. Making music has been one big exercise in learning how to go with my gut, and not think everything to death.  I think it’s good for me, but it’s terrifying.
NN: What does the title mean to the new record?
GS: I went to see Joan Baez at the Brown and she told this story about Bob Dylan. They had been lovers when they were young. She had been around on the folk scene before him, and he kind of used her contacts to make his way to becoming Bob Dylan. Then he dumped her and acted all aloof to her. Then, as you can hear in the lyrics to “Diamonds and Rust,” he drunkenly called her years later, and said all these nice things to her. After she told that story, she played “Diamonds and Rust” and at the end instead of singing “I’ve already paid” she sang “I’ll take the Grammy.” That whole thing got me to thinking about how, even if you aren’t the kind of person who holds grudges (which I’m not), if you are a writer who writes about yourself (which Joan and I are), you carry these stories around with you forever. You tell them to yourself a million times.  You’re always trying to think of a figurative way to describe how it was meaningful, and what that has to do with what’s going on now. The people in them become archetypes or metaphors themselves. I don’t think Joan Baez is pining away for Bob Dylan or even still mad at him, but the situation stills feels fresh enough for her to make a bitter joke about because she’s been singing “Diamonds and Rust” all this time. 
I think we’ve all got our own version(s) of Joan’s Bob Dylan story, and I started writing about mine in the first verse of ‘Old Girls” before it had a chorus. I think while I was writing the verse I realized that writing songs about your life can have the effect of living an eternal internal adolescence.  
Everything is a big deal. You’re always walking around, asking yourself Angela Chase style questions like What is the significance of this random thing some stranger said to me? and What is meaningful to me about this object someone gave me? And then you go home and you listen to your favorite song one hundred times in a row because it’s How You Feel and you want to write your own song about that. And then you write a song and it’s like a note you’re going to pass to someone in the hall tomorrow.  It’s about How You Feel. This is hilarious, but not a bad thing. It’s just weird because you’re actually a grownup with a grownup job, a stable relationship, getting your oil changed and cooking square meals.
NN: Why the change from Egret to Greta Smith and the Egrets?
GS: I started Egret as a solo project. I got some band mates pretty quickly, but I was writing all the songs.  The band has had a lot of personnel changes over the years, mostly due to people’s availability. People move, people get more demanding jobs, people join other bands, those bands go on tour… One of my band mates moved to Brazil! Anyway, I was playing solo a lot there for awhile, and I still do, so it’s just less confusing if I put my name out front.
NN: What is the best or favorite song you’ve ever written and why? Can you even objectively distinguish between best and favorite?
GS: This is impossible to answer.  
NN: What makes for a good performance? Is that different as an audience member or as a performer, and if so, how? Speaking of, what’s the best show you’ve ever played and why?
GS: Alex Glasnovic (he plays under the name Solenodon) had two birthday parties, two summers in a row.  They were both at the now defunct Solidarity, which was tiny, so they felt like house shows.  The most fun I have ever had playing music has always been at house shows.  No one is there accidentally or incidentally, there’s usually a nice mix of people you know and people you don’t know, you can see everyone’s face…. They make the show feel more like something you and the audience are doing together than like theatre, which for me as a performer is more fun. One time I saw Nina Nastasia play at a really small venue and everyone was sitting on the floor right up by the stage, which was only about five inches high.  Her set was almost entirely requests.  That felt like a house show, even though it wasn’t, and was one of the best I’ve ever seen.
I’m digressing.  At these birthday parties of Alex’s, he invited a ton of songwriters he knows—which is a lot—to each get up and play a solo two or three song set.  So, I got to hear, like, fifteen sets, but there were a lot of breaks, so people got to socialize.  Anyway, those were a blast.
As far as playing with a band, anytime I get to play with my band is the best, even at practice. I could play with them every night of the week, and never get sick of it. I love them as people, and I think they are stellar musicians. As I said, I feel pretty good about my songwriting ability, but my guitar skills are pretty basic. My band mates allow the songs to be what they were really born to be.  
NN: If you could play with any musician that’s ever lived, who would it be and why?
GS: This is a really tough question!  There are so many great songwriters that I look up to. I mean it would be equally amazing to sing a duet with John Prine, Emmylou, Townes, Neil Young… I guess I’d have to go with Dolly Parton.  I suspect we’d have the most things to talk about after the show.
NN: If I remember correctly, the only time we met, we talked a little about TV. What’s the best thing on TV right now, and why?
GS: Pretty much all I watch is Scandal and Mad Men.  This makes sense. Most of the music I listen to is country, old standards and musicals.  I like melodrama. I like soapiness. I like love triangles and plot twists. I like that both shows ask big questions about life and relationships, but never give you any answers. I enjoy a gray area. And Olivia Pope’s gray coats.
NN: What have you been listening too lately, and why should we?

GS: It’s possible that if I answer this question honestly, no one will listen to my music. (Just kidding.) I’m really trying to be a better singer, so almost all I listen to these days are songs that are fun to sing along with.  That means a lot of show tunes, a lot of standards, a lot of choir music, a lot of Youtube country karaoke in my pajamas. I’m a Sondheim fanatic. I have a Dolly Parton mix in my car that I listen to and sing with on the way to work every morning, because I’m trying to learn to breathe like her.