Leaving home and changing your name has rarely sounded so good.
Each of the four tracks on Bad Habit, the new EP from Your Smith (formerly known as Caroline Smith), represents a different point on a creative compass from an artist who has found her center.
Five years have passed since Smith’s last album, Half About Being a Woman; in that time she moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles and went through “loads and loads and loads of self-discovery.” Within that upheaval, she found a voice that she’d long been searching for.
“Moving to L.A. was a huge transition,” Smith says over the phone, fresh off a trip to Guitar Center to pick up a new pedal before band practice. “It was a hard thing to do, but it definitely helped push me as an artist. I’ve been settling in to L.A., settling in to what I want to do with my music, and who I want to be as an artist. Minneapolis is so comfortable. Leaving Minneapolis, and leaving that comfort, was the single greatest thing I did for my creative career.”
Smith has lived in L.A. now for almost three years, but it took her a while to find a sound that reflected her true self. “I’ve written somewhere along the lines of 125 songs [since moving]. I’ve just been writing and writing and writing,” Smith says. “I wrote an entire album that didn’t end up getting released. It got mixed, there was a cover for it, and I just had this moment—I was in an airplane, and I was listening to it, just trying to choose a track order actually—and I just thought, ‘This doesn’t feel like me.’ I felt like I was forcing it. It felt like I was releasing music because I was trying to adhere to a timeline that served my career, but it didn’t serve the listeners to my music. That’s what it was saying to me, and I just didn’t want to be that type of artist. So, I didn’t release it, and I went back to the drawing board.”
Abandoning a completed album gave Smith the personal freedom to explore just what she wanted to say and how she wanted to sound, but it also made her question whether she still wanted to make music anymore at all.
“Scrapping the album freed me. I gave myself permission to write the music that I wanted to write,” Smith says. “It was not like a magical moment when I scratched the entire album. It was an existential crisis, to put it lightly. I was totally fantasizing about leaving and about quitting. For me, personally, I really just had to be patient and unchain myself from the industry and what the industry was expecting of me. I had to let it go. I had to shed that completely to be free to make what was most genuine to me.”
Smith wanted to ditch the R&B sound of her last album and pay homage to the smooth pop-rock of her youth. “I had decided that I didn’t want to do R&B anymore. I was giving up on what I thought the industry wanted from me,” she says. “So, I wanted to go back to what I grew up listening to. I was listening to a lot of Van Morrison at the time, a lot of Steely Dan, just trying to cleanse my palate.”
Smith’s concerns that her collaborators, the songwriting team Nicky Davey (who’ve written for the Internet and Syd), might not be interested in this development were assuaged when they informed her that they were in a Steely Dan cover band.
“The three of us wrote ‘Bad Habit’ that day,” Smith says. “That was the first song that I wrote as this unchained free woman. My publisher, Maria Egan, called me into her office, put the song on her speakers, put her hand on my knee and said, ‘This is you. This is what you sound like. This is your song.’ And I was like, ‘Wait, I could’ve just been me this whole time?’”
And indeed, Bad Habit is the celebratory sound of an artist figuring out who she is. It covers a lot of ground: The title track starts with a long drive from home to L.A., “The Spot” pulses with the joy of finding somewhere to call your own in a wild new environment, and “Debbie” reflects on a perspective-altering trip to Nicaragua with friends/collaborators Tommy English and Joe Janiak.
“The crickets in the background are genuinely crickets from the Nicaraguan jungle, because the doors were open when we were recording it,” Smith says of “Debbie.” “When I listen to it, it brings me back there. That was one of my favorite days of my life. Sharing it with the world is like me sharing a really precious memory of myself, where I felt happy and good for arguably the first time in two years.”
The EP brilliantly blends polished L.A. pop with elements of the old-school Minneapolis Sound. “The roots of Minneapolis are so deep inside me. I feel extremely connected to Minneapolis, and it’s a badge of honor that I wear proudly here in Los Angeles. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ influence is always going to come through,” says Smith. “But it’s alongside my other influences, like Paul Simon and Carole King and Jackson Browne. I was excited to start making this music because I felt like I had figured out a way where those influences can live in harmony, where it wasn’t one or the other.”
And with this new direction comes a new name: Your Smith. “At this point, I’ve been doing this for almost 10 years. I played Best New Bands in 2008 [as Caroline Smith and the Good Night Sleeps],” Smith reflects. “What happens when you are releasing music for 10 years is you are going through a lot of changes and feeling things out publicly, and making mistakes. With this new chapter in my life, I have a message that I want to send, and I know who I am. I just wanted to start with a fresh slate. Don’t mistake me, this is who I am. But I didn’t want to alienate anybody that knew who I was already. I wanted to be just Smith, but I wanted people to remember that I’m still your Smith.”
But while her name has changed, Smith’s music still pulses with an originality and honesty she hopes will continue to resonate with her longtime fans.
“If you look back at old photographs of yourself, you’re always you, you just hadn’t quite figured it out yet,” Smith reflects. “Your Smith doesn’t have it all figured out yet, either. But what I’ve accepted is that I’ll never have it totally figured out. I’m just allowing the new space that I’ve created to keep growing, and learning from there.”
Where: First Avenue
When: 8 p.m. Fri. Sept. 21
Tickets: 18+: $20/$22; more info here