Caroline Smith on the Minneapolis music scene, sexist sound guys, and the beauty of Beyoncé

“Oh…is your bike locked to that sign too?” It was a typical Minneapolis moment—after concluding our conversation at Plan B Coffeehouse, Caroline Smith and I discovered that we’d locked our bikes to the same street sign. Fer cute.

The singer-songwriter is a longtime local favorite who, with her band the Goodnight Sleeps, has reached new heights over the past year with a superb new album (Little Wind) and a following large enough to fill First Avenue. I caught up with Smith while she was home on hiatus from a tour promoting Little Wind; the band’s next gigs are opening for DeVotchKa at the Minnesota Zoo on July 6 and playing at the Twin Ports Bridge Festival the following day.

How often are you recognized by fans now when you’re out in Minneapolis?

More and more now, I get questions about how I deal with fans! I get recognized quite a bit, but it’s contained to Minneapolis. You’ve got to not let it get to your head. It’s totally cool—it makes you feel like a movie star—but often when I ask how people know me, it’s not necessarily because they know my music. It’s, “Oh, our sisters go to school together,” or “I’m living with your best friend’s boyfriend.”

How is the tour going?

It’s going well. We’re taking the summer off to write and record. Jesse [Schuster] and I are going to do a duo tour for a couple of weeks. We [the full band] did like eight solid months of touring, then when we took a break it was like, “What do we do with ourselves?” I’m excited to get back on the road—it feels like home.

How have audiences been responding to the new material?

People are responding well to it. It’s different than the folkier sound we were known for—this is more aggressive pop, more in-your-face, with guitar distortion. We didn’t plan on that happening, but it did, and we’re trying not to fight it. We were nervous, but at some point you have to drop that.

What are some things you’ve learned—over the years and recently—about playing live?

Never let on if you’re not having a good show. Chances are, the audience has no idea. You’re onstage and you’re like, “This sucks,” and you think the audience is like, “This is terrible”…but really, they probably don’t notice.

Have you felt pressure to release albums more frequently to get attention?

We just started understanding that part of the music thing. We weren’t thinking, “We want to release an album to make more fans,” we were just making music and then people liked it. With this next record, we’re giving that a little more consideration. We like having fans and we don’t want to lose them, so we’re trying to hustle more…but I don’t do well with pressure when it comes to creativity. I try to just do my thing; I keep [the pressure] in the back of my head, but I try to keep it pretty chill. I don’t treat it like a 100% deadline job yet. 

So you still have a day job?

Not as much so. I have a really nice job with a restaurant; they’re extremely supportive, and when I come in they let me pick up shifts. If I’m in a bind I try to work there; otherwise I feel like if you don’t make music your only thing, you don’t work as hard at it.

Where would you like to be—geographically and otherwise—in ten years? Would you ever consider moving out of the Twin Cities for career or other reasons?

I love Minneapolis. I’d love to explore a new city or even explore a new country at some point in my life…as far as my career, though, I’d love to be sustained by music but otherwise I don’t have lofty goals of making it on MTV or the Grammys. I know people who have small fan bases; they tour and do well for themselves. I’d be happy with that being my career. I really like writing music, so I’d like to write for other people some day too.

What artists do you consider models, creatively and career-wise?

It’s hard to name one specific artist, but [I respect] any artist that holds their integrity and is just based around really pure unadulterated talent—having songs and talent first, before buzz. I’m, like, obsessed with Beyoncé. I think she’s so talented; she deserves every ounce of her success. She’s so humble, such a wonderful role model. Locally, I feel like we’re all just a community, so I don’t think of “looking up to” people. I respect a lot of people in this business. I have a friend named Elliott [Kozel]; he’s in Sleeping in the Aviary. He writes every single day—writing is his passion. He works really hard, and that’s really admirable.

So the local scene feels like a supportive community to you.

There’s a little back-and-forth going on these days, isn’t there? It seems like when you’re part of the local scene you can bash it, but when someone else bashes it, you’re like, hold on, you can’t say anything bad about my local scene! I don’t know what’s so wrong with bands just being famous or recognized in one region. I think that’s really nice, because music is starting to turn into something that’s more of a commodity. You’re spending more money on gas for touring—those costs are really expensive, and I think it’s really beautiful to be able to just put that aside and thinking, “I don’t have to tour.” It’s like buying and thinking locally—like shopping at your corner hardware store. Listening to your local music encourages creativity in your community. Minneapolis is totally unique in that sense.

How so?

I’ve just never seen another city so obsessed with their music scene. New Yorkers have a great music scene, but they don’t cherish it as much—it’s just convenient. A lot of people in New York aren’t from New York, but in the Minneapolis music scene, maybe 90% of the people are from here. There’s the occasional person who moves in and kicks ass, like Chastity Brown, but most musicians are from around here. It’s a really special thing. It is a bummer that sometimes it feels cliquey, and that sometimes makes me feel a little weird to be part of that, but we try to keep perspective.

What do you think musical careers will look like in the future?

I think people have to work a lot harder now, which takes a lot of the romanticism out of being discovered. There are 400 times more bands being recognized now, because you don’t need [a record label]. You have to spend more time networking—there are a ton of bands fighting for your spotlight. It’s beautiful, but it’s also kind of tough. Sometimes you go hear a band and you’re like, “Why are you successful?” and it’s because they’re good at networking. That’s frustrating, but I’m a firm believer that if you write good music and work hard, you’ll get recognized. Maybe it takes luck to get on MTV, but filling a room with 100 people is not that hard to do if you’re passionate about making good art. People want to hear that.

What kinds of questions do you wish you’d get asked in interviews like this?

I don’t get asked enough girly questions! I just get kind of bro questions. When I get asked [gender-specific] questions, it’s usually by feminist blogs who want to know what it’s like to be a woman in a man’s business—which is totally true! I love those questions, but I was also glad to be interviewed for a makeup blog.

So what is it like to be a woman in a man’s business?

It’s really frustrating sometimes. My mother was a feminist, which makes me not a feminist—that’s a rule of nature, you end up the opposite of your parents—but it’s really frustrating. You get a lot of discrimination from sound guys. I have a lot of gear. I research it, I know how to use it—you have to know how to use it—but they refuse to trust you. They’re like, “You don’t know how to use it; you’re a girl.” I get that maybe one out of every four nights on tour. I’m like, “I don’t want to be a feminist, but you’re turning me into one.”

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Jay Gabler's picture
Jay Gabler

Jay Gabler (@JayGabler) is a digital producer at The Current and Classical MPR.