By Claire Miglionico
CALGARY — It’s hard not to love local heroine Samantha Savage Smith. Her persona is down-to-earth, she sings sweetly and strums gently, releasing feel-good, gentle indie rock songs that more often than not leave you with chills.
When she’s not jamming in her basement or recording an album with local producer Lorrie Matheson, she’s in the jamming in Nordic nations with Icelandic songsmiths or touring with her band. Despite all this, she remains easy to talk to; she emits a completely genuine love for music, one that is deeply rooted. Indeed, Smith began singing at age nine and playing guitar at 11. She says once she figured out how to play a few chords together, she started writing “bad crappy songs” and playing them for her mother and brother. Although Smith went on to play in bands in high school, her self-doubt became crippling until Matheson stepped in: he heard some of Smith’s demos and worked with her to develop and record her debut. She was just leaving her early 20s when her debut Tough Cookie was released, first on Western Famine, then by Toronto’s Arts & Crafts for wider distribution.
With much more musical experience under her belt, Smith is now releasing Fine Lines, her sophomore album on Winnipeg indie label Pipe & Hat. The album delivers a more refined, evolved “grown-up” sound that stays true to Smith’s indie folk-rock identity. It’s still very authentic, yet charming and better defined.
“I would say the songs are more complex now. I have personally put a lot more thought and effort into them,” says Smith, admitting the writing process took much longer than that for her previous album.
Fine Lines offers more than love and heartbreak, she says.
“It’s about life challenges, my own personal challenges with myself. It’s grown because I’m older.”
Smith and her band mates recently wrapped up a two-week Canadian tour promoting Fine Lines. It stretched out east as far as Winnipeg, passing through Saskatchewan, going all the way west to Victoria.
“We tour in a mini-van. It [gets] tight,” she says with a laugh. “It’s long drives; you’re driving for eight or nine hours every day at least, sometimes 12.”
Touring, though, is something Smith enjoys.
“The first week is kind of the hardest because you’re not in it quite yet,” she says of the “weirdly” long days that come with touring the vast Canadian landscape. By the time they get to play their set, she says, they wrap up and are on the road again.
Right before touring begun, Smith found herself in Iceland once more for the annual Iceland Airwaves music festival. She was invited back for a second round of a collaborative talent exchange called EMBASSYLIGHTS. The collective who took part includes Calgary musicians Mark Andrew Hamilton from Woodpigeon, Smith, Clinton St. John and Laura Leif, alongside two of Reykjavík’s most intriguing songsmiths Benni Hemm Hemm and Prins Póló. The idea stemmed from Woodpigeon’s Hamilton, who wanted to focus on collaborative song writing.
“We met up with [Hemm Hemm and Póló] in Reykjavík, sat in their room for three or four days and wrote an album. We played a show our first night in Reykjavík and on the Sunday, we recorded all of it [within] the day,” she recalls.
Iceland is all too dreamy, a Mecca for the musically curious and hungry. It was Smith’s second time in the territory. She describes the music scene there as similar to the one we have in Calgary, only much bigger.
“[At Iceland Airwaves], there’s [around] 250 bands and only a small percentage of international bands [who] can only go and play once. They never do repeat acts and showcase mostly all Icelandic bands,” she says.
Back home, Savage Smith took part in the PEAK Performance Project Alberta, a radio competition that saw Edmonton’s The Wet Secrets take home the winning prize of $100,953 after months of boot camps. Although the experience came with some downsides, including a few scathing assessments of her musical approach, it was a learning experience she valued as it forced her to “question quite a bit of things you haven’t been really been forced to think about.”
“The actual competition itself is really hard work. You do the showcases, there’s this crazy final report you have to [hand in]. You have to meet deadline and figure out how to prioritize. It definitely takes it out of you,” she describes.
The experience was ultimately positive as it got Smith deeply considering her focus.
“I’m stoked,” she says. “It [got me] to want to move forward and do my own thing.”
With Fine Lines, Smith went back into Arch Audio, Matheson’s cozy Inglewood recording studio. Two main elements shifted; meaning Fine Lines is a different beast than Tough Cookie.
Firstly, lyrically, Fine Lines moves away from the personal intensity of its predecessor, although Smith swears her songs still come from a very personal place.
“[Although it] may be a disconnected experience from myself, I’m still writing about myself,” she says.
Her song “Kids in the Basement,” for example, is about making music.
“It’s the highs and low of doing that, the grassroots of trying to be a musician, what you give up for it,” she says. “It’s pretty obtuse in what it can mean because it directly doesn’t really need to be about anything. I don’t know if they intentionally do, but I want songs to rather give a sense of feeling than have a direct message,” she describes.
Secondly, although Matheson had quite a bit of studio input on the songs for Tough Cookie, pre-production differed this time around. It was co-produced by Smith and band member Chris Dadge, with whom she demoed the songs at home. The end product features contributions from an array of Calgary indie musicians, including members of Snailhouse, Woodpigeon, Lab Coast, Friendo, Ghostkeeper and Chad VanGaalen’s band.
She says the overall experience was relaxed and “a lot like recording with your pals.”
Being Calgary born-and-raised (as well as clearly having a strong support group from local musicians), means Smith loves cities like Montreal and Toronto but calls Calgary home.
“I had a lot of hometown love and support from people which made a huge difference for me,” she says of her decision to stay in the city. She describes the music scene here as having a great community vibe.
“There was a point where you had heard of all the bands in Calgary but now you have to keep up to it, “ she says. “It’s good because that just means the scene is getting bigger.” That being said, she decries the increasingly high rents, which make it difficult for any artist to live in the city.
“ I used to live in Vancouver and the rent was crazy, but now in retrospect, the rent is the same!” she says.
Smith says there’s a certain appeal in moving to bigger cities, but ultimately, Calgary is where her heart (and couch) are to stay, even if it’s for logistical purposes.
“[Calgary] is my home base,” she says. “When it comes down to it, if your band is prepared to tour a lot, it really does not matter where you live. The idea is you’re on the road and are constantly present in all those cities anyway.”
She finishes, “And then you can go back to wherever you want to chill out on the couch.”
The release party for Fine Lines is January 23 at the Palomino Smokehouse and Bar.AB, Alberta, Palomino, Peak Performance Project Alberta, Samantha Savage Smith