Safe home, sweet light, no longer of this world
On wings, safe and sound are you carried
No longer casting shadows, no longer counting days
You are love and you are loved always
— Safe Home, Sweet Light
If someone were to ask who’s my favourite male Canadian singer/songwriter, I would not be able to name a single artist. There are too many favourites, starting with Cohen, Tyson and Lightfoot, through Cockburn and Wiffen, to Bennett and the Rogers Brothers.
Conversely, if someone were to ask who’s my favourite female Canadian singer/songwriter, I would reply immediately, without reservation and unequivocally — Laura Smith.
It’s not that there are fewer premium female singer/songwriters in Canada, which would conceivably make the selection easier. I respect and admire many.
I appreciate the work of Joni Mitchell as much as any music ever written by a Canadian, irrespective of gender. But I’ve never met or talked to her. In contrast, I’ve met and talked to Smith numerous times over the last three decades. Although I’ve reviewed some of Mitchell’s albums — and saw her perform at Mariposa in 1968 (I think that’s the year) — I’ve never reviewed a concert. Meanwhile I’ve reviewed all of Smith’s albums as well as her concerts in Waterloo Region.
So I eagerly look forward to Smith’s return to the region November 19 when she makes her Folk Night at the Registry debut. The double-bill — which also features the Nova Scotian folk duet Naming the Twins — has been sold out for weeks.
The last time I reviewed a concert was in the fall of 2010 when Smith performed at Kitchener’s La Hacienda Sarria. She shared the stage with Ryan MacGrath, a Nova Scotian singer/songwriter who reminded me of Rufus Wainwright in terms of songcraft, musical style and presentation, with a little Jacques Brel tossed into the mix. Guitarist Mike Ritchie accompanied both artists.
Smith seemed right at home in La Hacienda’s rustic ambience which evokes the mood and atmosphere of the Mediterranean with architecture reminiscent of Spain, Portugal and southern Italy. The renovated factory reeks of Old World charm and drips of romance amid hardwood beams, black ironwork, weathered clay bricks and stone.
Before proceeding I must describe Smith’s voice. She has a vocal style that causes the fine hair on the back of my neck to spring to attention. It’s a bourbon and honey soaked contralto, burnished by the vagaries of time into a rich patina, with a vibrato that polishes the edges to a deep sheen.
Smith has the creative soul of an ancient Celtic songstress. In 1984 she left prosaic London, Ontario (the hometown we share) for the raw, primordial beauty of the Nova Scotian coastline, eventually finding romance in the arms of a lighthouse keeper. Nova Scotia has been her home ever since. No wonder there’s something Old World about her songs of yearning and loss that ebb and flow in time with the ocean’s endlessly pulsating rhythm.
I recall elements of the review I wrote for the Waterloo Region Record to offer a sense of the sonic delights that await those who attend a Laura Smith concert. She drew material from three of her four albums including her self-titled 1989 debut, B’tween the Earth and My Soul (1994) and It’s a Personal Thing (1997). She subsequently released Everything Is Moving in 2013.
Her first set included I’m a Beauty. Smith possesses a disarming honesty and she introduced the tender autobiographical song by recalling times in her youth, adolescence and young adulthood when the femininity of a gangly girl-turned-tall woman was tested by the callous insensitivity of others. She said she wrote the song while cradling a six-pack of beer and sitting on the floor in a motel room in Saskatchewan during her first tour. Talk about heartbreaking, not to mention the strength that waters the seedbed of creativity.
The evening’s highlight was My Bonny, her most-beloved song. She enhanced the traditional chestnut with contemporary lyrics that capture the original’s haunting sense of loss and deep, bone-aching sadness. Smith talked about ‘making’ a song that ‘belongs.’ My Bonny belongs. And, like Jimmy Rankin’s Fare Thee Well Love and the late Ron Hynes’ Sonny’s Dream, it’ll endure as long as good songs are cherished and passed down from generation to generation.
Smith’s candour, openness and vulnerability were evident when I talked to her prior to the concert. It had been a hellish few years for her; but she emerged from the long, dark tunnel of pain a stronger woman and a rejuvenated artist. Conquering personal trials proved inspiring as she spoke through a filter of sincere gratitude.
Talking over the phone from jazz guitarist Tony Quarrington’s house in Toronto, Smith guided me through a series of accidents that led to a dependence on pain killers. ‘It put the kibosh on working as a solo artist,’ she confided.
Although she was taking ‘narcotics for pain that would not go away,’ she had spent two summers in musical theatre playing Marilla Cuthbert in Anne and Gilbert, following the adventures of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s famous heroine Anne.
Years previously Smith studied jazz at York University. She returned to university in 2005 – this time it was Acadia – to study music therapy. But a couple of falls the following year combined to damage her teeth, shoulder and spine. ‘I was out of commission again in 2007, taking morphine to relieve the constant pain,’ she recalled.
From September 2009 through January 2010 she was in a methadone program before collapsing. ‘I came apart at the seams. The drugs took their toll. It was a physical, mental and emotional breakdown.’
Her friends ‘rallied round’ and she ‘changed the nature of the pain’ through the intervention of a chiropractor and other medical practitioners. ‘I went into detox and now I’m drug free,’ Smith confirmed. ‘It was a long haul and I remain a work in progress,’ she asserted with chuckle.
With only four albums released since 1989, Smith has never been prolific. Songwriting has always been a creative struggle, which makes the gift of her songcraft all the more remarkable.
Her medical trials exacerbated the situation. Nonetheless, she resumed writing by completing a song, I Built a Boat, she began in 1998. It’s one of the anchor songs on Everything Is Moving, which she co-produced with Paul Mills for Borealis Records.
‘There’s a door in my mind where songs come from,’ she explained (echoing My Gate’s Wide Open, the opening track on It’s a Personal Thing). ‘Sometimes the song door doesn’t open, even when the painting door does.’ (Like Mitchell, Smith is a painter as well as a songwriter.)
She interpreted finishing I Built a Boat as a promising sign. ‘I read it as an indicator that I was out of the woods and on my way.’ In fact, she had a handful of new songs she subsequently introduced at La Hacienda.
We ended our chat with Smith telling me about the volunteer work she does outside of music for a housing group and a women’s centre. ‘I try to get involved in the community. It’s not a replacement for music. It’s a way of keeping engaged with the world. It’s all good. It’s a wonderful life.’
My most extensive face-to-face interview with Smith occurred in 1994 when she appeared on Listen Up, a TV program on Canadian singer/songwriters originally broadcast on VisionTV. I was the writer and off-camera interviewer for all 39 segments, some of which I also acted as associate producer. I recommended Smith for the show. I recall Andrew Horrocks, the show’s award-winning sound engineer, raving on about the beautiful tone of Smith’s opened-tuned, acoustic guitars, which she fingerpicks or strums (sharing another musical attribute with Mitchell).
She reflected on the creative process in terms of So Close to My Knees. ‘When I get to a place where the process starts to work I’m thrilled and I just let it come.’ Referencing Bob Dylan’s Bucket of Rain, which she had been listening to at the time, she observed that one of the things he achieved (and which all successful songwriters achieve) is ‘abandoning reason to create an image.’ Indeed, Smith’s wonderfully conversational songs are constructed from the bricks of image, much of which are literary in shape, colour and texture.
When discussing Shades of Your Love, her natural honesty surfaced when she confided that she was ‘disconcerted’ by the attention she was receiving as a recording artist. ‘I wanted it forever,’ she conceded, adding that she tries ’to keep it in perspective. I spent years when only the closest of friends loved me and loved my work and they will be there after the public is through with me.’ I doubt the day will ever come when the public abandons you, Laura.
Following is my review of Everything Is Moving after it was released:
A new album by Laura Smith is not only good news, it’s cause for celebration. Her first recording in 16 years, Everything Is Moving is a superb album of traditional songs and covers, augmented with five originals.
Vocally, Smith has never sounded better. Her burnished contralto reveals a life fully lived, with its joys and sorrows, struggles and achievements. It’s a voice of courage and perseverance, of healing and inspiration, of honesty and beauty. It’s a voice that comforts like a dram of Islay malt whisky in front of the hearth on a cold winter’s night.
Co-producer Paul Mills and Smith have assembled a wonderful group of empathetic musicians including internationally acclaimed Celtic guitarist and Elora resident Tony McManus, Vinyl Cafe music director John Sheard on piano, David Woodhead on bass, Guido Basso on flugelhorn, Lenny Solomon on violin and Brent Titcomb on percussion, among others.
Whether traditional, covers or originals, the songs form a seamless tapestry of aural splendour as Smith charts a journey from darkness to light. After years of wandering and searching, she has finally gained safe passage home. Welcome, dear Laura.
POSTSCRIPT: Although Smith’s Folk Night debut was restricted to a single set, it was a superb performance — soulful and profoundly moving. Two highlights came from Everything Is Moving. She delivered gorgeous a cappella offerings of two originals: I Built a Boat and Safe Home, Sweet Light. The latter was written in remembrance of the death of one of her six siblings whom she had no idea she had until very recent years.
Check out a young Laura Smith performing My Bonny produced by Paul Kinsman on YouTube. If this is the first time for you, better grab a tissue or hanky first.