– by Shawn Conner/photos by Diana Keng
This year, at the 2011 Juno Awards, the award for Best New Artist went to Meaghan Smith.
Smith is a former animator whose debut album, The Cricket’s Orchestra, was released by Warner in early 2010. (Smith released it herself before that.) The record followed an EP called Lost With Directions that came about, indirectly, through her day job – after overcoming life-long stage fright, she began performing her songs for co-workers in the stairwell of the building that housed the company’s animation studios.
The Cricket’s Orchestra isn’t cartoonish, exactly, but it does share some qualities with animation – it’s whimsical and colourful pop music that draws on sounds and textures from earlier eras, like the ’30s and ’40s. But Smith is a fan of more modern music as well – you may have heard her cover of the Pixies’ “Here Comes Your Man” for the soundtrack to the movie (500) Days of Summer.
We caught up with the Halifax-based, London Ontario-raised singer in her temporary home in L.A., where she was living with husband/guitarist Jason Mingo while promoting the album in the U.S. Meaghan Smith was busily painting small portraits of animals, robots and other characters to sell on a tour opening for Chantal Kreviazuk and then Americana artist Joe Purdy.
SC: Were you a long-time fan of animation or did you just kind of fall into it as a career?
Meaghan Smith: I sort of fell into it. When I was younger, my whole whole life, I’ve drawn and sang. But I was really really shy as a kid. I was too terrified to sing in front of anybody, so I focused a lot on my art and my drawing. And when it came time to graduate from high school and my parents were like, “What are you going to do with your life? You can’t stay at home forever,” I realized I needed to find a practical job, and to have some fun doing it. So I chose animation. And it’s funny how animation led me into music.
SC: Which led to the infamous “the stairwell concerts”…
Meaghan Smith: Yes, the stairwell concerts. And the recording. I did a demo in the recording studio where we usually record voices for our animated videos. So it all came about in a very serendipitous way.
SC: Are you an animation fan now? Do you seek out the latest, like Coraline or Up?
Meaghan Smith: Absolutely, I’m always the first one at the theatre. Some of the CGI ones that don’t really look like they’re pushing the envelope artistically I’ll pass on, but anything by Pixar, Coraline, and this new amazing stop-motion film I saw the trailer for, The Fantastic Mr. Fox. It looks freaking crazy!
SC: Are there any obscure animated films you would recommend?
Meaghan Smith: Well, they’re not obscure to me, but there’s this Japanese director, [Hayao] Miyazaki, and I own all of his films. I love everything he does. I would say check out all of his movies, they are all just amazing.
SC: I was kind of relieved when I put your CD on that it’s not your typical coffeehouse singer-songwriter type stuff. And it is kind of animated, whimsical, it’s not your standard me-and-a-guitar and my-heart-is-broken kind of stuff.
Meaghan Smith: Yeah, totally. It’s me with a DJ and some horns and strings, and my heart is broken! But I love anybody who put themselves out there. I respect coffeehouse music. What I’m doing is completely unique, I think it’s different from a lot of stuff out there. I’m not putting anyone else down. I wanted to bring in different elements, different eras and colours and textures, and mesh it all together.
SC: It does remind me a teensy-weensy bit of Nellie McKay. Do you know her? She’s just released an album, Normal as Blueberry Pie, that’s a tribute to Doris Day.
Meaghan Smith: I was raised on Calamity Jane. She’s just great, I love Doris Day.
SC: Is that where you get your fashion sense from? [On the back of her illustrated bio, Smith is pictured in a polka-dot blouse.]
Meaghan Smith: [laughs] Sure, why not. Actually, I get my fashion sense from Pretty Things Boutique in Halifax. I just buy whatever they have.
SC: You’re not scared to rock the polka-dot.
Meaghan Smith: No way. In fact I’m wearing the polka dot currently.
SC: Your first release was an EP, Lost With Directions. Are you in fact bad with directions?
Meaghan Smith: I’m super bad with directions. But that record is nothing like what I’m doing now. It was a really nice thing the CBC did for me for me. In Halifax they’re very supportive of upcoming and young talent, and they kind of just made a record for me. I wasn’t overly involved in the actual production of the record…
SC: But that’s actually your voice on it.
Meaghan Smith: Yes, I sang the songs. And I wrote them. They made that record for me, I think it was four, five years ago. That gave me the recording slash music bug. I took that EP and I worked it, and that’s how I paid for The Cricket’s Orchestra.
SC: And you have a song on the soundtrack to the movie (500) Days of Summer, a cover of the Pixies’ “Here Comes Your Man”. How did that come about?
Meaghan Smith: I’ve been a fan of the Pixies since high school. So when the movie producers came to me and said “We need a cover of this, would you be interested?” I jumped at the chance, I just pulled out my Omnichord and made up my own version of the song.
SC: I always thought that song was about a dog waiting for his master.
Meaghan Smith: I have no idea what that song is about.
SC: What were you thinking when you recorded it?
Meaghan Smith: For some reason I picture something happening in the 1800s. There’s a reference to a box car and “outside the family stews,” I picture a whole family getting up in arms, a premarital pregnancy or something like that. And there’s a reference to a beard hanging, and that again speaks to me of olden times. I just pictured some kind of trouble but then some guy comes to save whoever needs help and, “here comes your man,” you know?
SC: Did doing that song open any doors for you?
Meaghan Smith: Yeah, definitely. It really went over super-well as far as the soundtrack went. It was one of the most downloaded songs. And I’ve been meeting a lot of people out here who know me from that placement and who have gone on to check out my other music.
SC: And is Grey’s Anatomy next?
Meaghan Smith: That already happened. It happened like last year!
SC: So who’s in your band, is it just you and your husband?
Meaghan Smith: Yes, just me and my husband, that’s Jason Mingo, and our bag of tricks. I play the Omnichord, we have samplers, we get a little bit funky with things. It’s not a straightforward guitar duo set. But yeah, it’s a little unconventional.
SC: You seem like someone who would have interesting merchandise…
Meaghan Smith: I’m going to bring, besides my record, these little paintings that I’m doing, they’re two-and-a-half by three inches, they’re paintings of various characters and robots and animals. They’ve been selling really well, I’ve been selling them on Twitter. I’ve sold a whole bunch.