by Mark Bell

Caitlin Smith: In Sight Of The Finishing Line

by Mark Bell

Caitlin Smith: In Sight Of The Finishing Line

In her regular NZM column called ‘Finding Your Voice’, celebrated Auckland jazz vocalist Caitlin Smith freely passes on a broad range of tips, both physical and spiritual, invaluable for singers of all ages and stages. As with all this magazine’s esteemed columnists, the motivation is not financial, more an expression of her love for the craft and perhaps a giving back to the gods of music, who have blessed her with a voice of honesty and excellence that is widely lauded in the jazz arena, where she has focused her own musical creativity. Of course, as those same columns indicate, such excellence is never achieved without years of considerable effort. In April this year Caitlin will independently release her second album of originals, entitled ‘You Have Reached Your Destination’. The album, as its name suggests, has itself been a considerably challenging seven-year journey, as Mark Bell discovers.

There are always plenty of people who seem to be of the opinion that musicians are egotistical and a bit lazy. That they sit around – probably high on drugs – waiting for government handouts and perform out of a need to ‘show off’ – that whole ‘money for nothing’ ethos. While there are doubtless musicians out there who fit some or all of these criteria, if any of those people were to sit down with Caitlin Smith for a while they might come away with a very different idea of the sort of traits that constitute a serious musician.

Caitlin Smith is the most humble, passionate, spiritual, courageous, honest, articulate, funny, independent, dedicated, hard-working and selfless artist I’ve yet had the pleasure of interviewing. As a partially sighted person she’s also categorised as legally blind, has her battles with depression and anxiety, gave up the booze three years ago and candidly admits to major issues with self-confidence.

To be sure her life so far has had its fair share of obstacles, but through a large portion of it music has sustained her, both financially and spiritually. With the impending release of her second album of original songs, ‘You Have Reached Your Destination’, a long seven years after her debut ‘Aurere’, Caitlin is not holding back on a variety of topics – to the extent that I had to pop up to the dairy to get more batteries for my dictaphone.

The long gap between records is an indicator that this project has been anything but plain sailing, in fact fraught with enough obstacles to have sucked the life out of any less determined artist. In her liner notes, she talks of the concept of the labyrinth, how just when you think you’re nearing the end you realise you’ve still got a long, long way to go. I’m pretty sure it’s a metaphor for the album, which was beset by such problems as a cyst on her vocal chords, a cancelled tour, embezzled funds, relationship break-ups and meltdowns, problems with studios, engineers, producers, musicians… you name it.

It’s a credit to her dedication that it got finished at all. I ask whether she feels the well-titled ‘You Have Reached Your Destination’ turned out stronger as a result of overcoming all the setbacks.

“Probably not,” she admits with trademark disarming candour.

“I actually think it should be easy, but every single step on this journey is really conceptual in that what I’ve used for the cover art and the concept behind it is this concept of the labyrinth. It’s the meditation that takes you on this really circuitous route to the centre of the circle, or a shape like an octagon. It’s not a maze because mazes have dead ends, this one is a guided pathway.

“And so I guess what I’ve felt is that this process has been a little bit of an internal pilgrimage, so you feel that same sense of peace, and like you have reached your destination – even though that’s not location-specific – if that makes sense.”

In conceptual support, the 13 tracks are linked by in-field recordings of Caitlin walking through the locations where each song was first written.

“The (location) tracks I see as being the steps in between the songs because as a blind person I write on the hoof, and I don’t drive. I’m often really grumpy about that. What I’m trying to do is give sighted people an access to the world that partially sighted and blind people have where sound is everything. So you are informed as to time of day, air temperature, weather, location, population density, heels that you’re wearing, weight of the body… all of this information will be heard.”

For the last five years, Caitlin has generously been providing NZM readers with her highly knowledgeable ‘Finding Your Voice’ columns on singing technique. While teaching is inextricably wound up in her career when you also factor in that she currently averages over two three-hour gigs a week, it’s a very demanding schedule she sets herself.

“That’s the other thing that I’ve been really depressed and anxious about, is that yeah. I should be working on my solo stuff, I should be working on writing my songs. I shouldn’t be spending up to 30 hours a week teaching, but then the teaching, especially the songwriting coaching, has just made me so muscular and so aware of that song-craft.”

Given her extensive knowledge and the amount of writing she’s already done on the topic, I ask if she’s considered the possibility of putting out a book.

“Shit yeah. I spoke with Nick Bollinger (writer and music critic) about this and you know the people who put out ‘How to Listen to a Song’? He reckons they’d be into ‘How to Sing’.”

“From an insider’s perspective I just want to be able to set the record straight and demystify the bullshit that surrounds singing or being a musician. You know what, you wanna learn how to play guitar? You sit down with that guitar and play it – that’s how you learn.”

Caitlin has a Sunday residency at Auckland’s de Bretts Hotel, but has weaned herself away from the corporate entertainment agencies which,  a few years back, were providing her with a regular flow of private and corporate function bookings – typically performing jazz and ‘popular’ standards. In that role, she regularly faced the challenge of performing close to audiences in impromptu venues – marquees, offices and the like.

For such an accomplished, forthright and polished performer it’s surprising to learn she still has problems with self-confidence and what she calls a “warped sense of independence”.

The daughter of liberal academic parents, she was sent to a mainstream school, rather than Homai school for the blind, wherein the days before visual aids she found the going tough.

“I used to stand on the side of the blackboard not being able to see anything and just faking it, just getting whomped by my teacher for getting things wrong when she was giving visual instructions for something – not pleasant.

“When I was going through school, what I learnt to do was deny my struggle. So what I will do is be fiercely independent for no good reason – and you can’t be independent because that’s disabled me more than anything else.”

Finding a producer for her second album was one key area where things didn’t exactly fall into place. A well-known jazz guitarist was lined up for the job when his wife emailed the night before going into the studio to triple his negotiated fee and insist that he play all guitar tracks, and be paid on a per-track basis. So that was the end of that.

Caitlin ended up producing the album herself. I say she should be justifiably proud of a great-sounding record, and she acknowledges this, but rather amusingly likens it to being a solo parent.

“It would be kind’a nice if I had someone else to help!” There was also a costly false start some years back with academic/author/music researcher Andrew Dubber, who Caitlin had felt would be an ideal producer. In the event, the costs of getting him to and from his Birmingham base proved a sticking point. There were other setbacks that don’t need to be delved into too fully. A hung-over engineer forgetting to put backing vocals in and reneging on his undertaking to mix the record; that cyst which required six months recovery; a drummer refusing to play a feel that Caitlin requested; her father injuring himself badly; the relationship meltdowns, a student working on a tour for Caitlin embezzling money and the tour subsequently falling over – a litany of disasters that no-one deserves to be subjected to. She seems to be in a good place now though, excited by the prospect of touring nationally, through Europe, the States and Australia, and no doubt relieved to have this difficult struggle largely behind her.

As befits someone with such a humble nature she lays a huge amount of credit with the contributing musicians who, she says, breathe life into her songs. The core band was Nick Gaffaney on drums, Aaron Coddel (bass), Alan Brown/Kevin Field (keys) and Dixon Nacey (guitar), with a variety of other guest musicians and singers fleshing out the full, sophisticated sound of the album.

And so here she is, Caitlin Smith, talking up her new record. Through seven years of convoluted twists and turns she kept pushing forward and inexorably made her way to her destination.

“With my journey and what it is I do, I represent what it is to be an authentic musician. I represent what it is to just make music, be a musician right? There’s no artifice, I ain’t got no stylist, publicist, PR person, manager and I don’t use sex that much to sell what I do with my music! But I feel this album is a really interesting benchmark in that it really is all about music, songwriting, musicianship. Just being absolutely about the music and what music does and what music can do to people – which is really transformative. It’s really powerful shit.”

The album was finally released in mid 2020.