By Jordan Reisman
Photo courtesy of The Redettes.
There are various ways for a musician to live their life with the music they create acting as the soundtrack. Some choose to base their entire lives around what they’re producing, playing for strangers months out of the year with the rest of that time used for creating more of it. Others choose to work at a place that provides them the income to pursue music as a hobby that they can work on in the hours that they have to themselves when not making money for someone else.
The Redettes from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, namely Marquette, fall somewhere in the between of these two planes of existence.
Sycamore Smith, the band’s frontman, has a long history of playing in punk rock bands in Michigan, as a solo artist, and now in The Redettes as a sort of combination of the two as a punk-influenced indie rock band. However, music to him has never been his full-time gig, as BTR caught our chance to speak with Smith as he was on his break from work, wherever that happens to be.
“All of us work 40 hours a week, none of us are full-time musicians. It’s definitely more than a hobby to us, and it’s more than a hobby to me because I’ll never stop doing it. It’s always been my hope to only do music but it just hasn’t worked out that way,” explains Smith.
Smith played in an unnamed Michigan punk band, with a sound a la The Replacements and Wire from the late-’80s to the late-’90s so it’s safe to say that punk rock is the genre he originally “comes from.” After this band broke up, he moved out of state and started playing “solo acoustic, more folk-based music” as Sycamore Smith until the middle of 2005. Then one day he started thinking, “Well, I’d like to take these folk songs that I’ve been playing in a folky way and rev them up the way I used to play the old punk rock songs,” he says; which he admits is “not exactly a new idea.” The Redettes were borne out of this unoriginal idea.
One of the devices that Smith uses in his songs is storytelling. Many of the songs on 2011’s ED feature characters that meet dire and unfortunate circumstances. He cites the Kinks as one of the major narrative influences, as “they always had interconnected songs and characters that would go from one album to the next.”
Interestingly though, the man is not one for storytelling in his own life. “Not at all,” he says. This gift really only manifests itself in his music due to the fact that he grew up listening to artists that injected narratives into their songs like Harry Chapin, saying that in person, he “keeps to himself.”
As far as the kind of narratives that appeal to Smith, keeping attention spans focused is paramount — not least of all being his own. “First and foremost, it has to entertain me and it does in fact, entertain me. Being that I’m not in high demand and never really have been, that’s about all I can strive for, is to entertain myself,” Smith says.
Though if you’re looking for consistent and fluid storytelling though, the Redettes are not your band. In terms of narrative, ED is more like a season of Louie.
“It’s not a narrative that has a beginning, middle, and end. It doesn’t have any rhyme or reason to it. I don’t mind having a character who gets killed in one song and then comes back to life in another song and gets killed at the end of that one in a different way. I don’t know if I’ve actually done that but that’s a good idea,” says Smith on the narrative of his songs.
Many of the songs from ED and their newest single, “Under the Mistletoe”, deal with themes such as alcoholism, break-ups, and death — the perfect, neverending trifecta, right? I’m hesitant to use the word “darkness” to describe these songs because it conjures up images of misunderstood goth kids and that’s a bummer, man. However, Smith tends to focus on the darker sides of his characters, though he sees it a bit differently.
“There’s a line that I’ll use when people tell me that my songs are dark, I’ll say, ‘No, I think they’re funny’ and when people tell me that people think my songs are funny I’ll tell them, ‘No, they’re dark. The darkness lingers more than the lightness,” says Smith, in a Vincent Price-like voice.
Though Smith isn’t necessarily playing up life’s darkness for the listener’s benefit, he does injects a healthy dose of realism into the songs, it is like seeing the world through his eyes. In reference to finding the humor in darkness he says, “Maybe I’m just a pessimist, but I think that’s more true.”
The last piece of music the Redettes released was a Christmas song… in late June. It’s called “Under The Mistletoe”, and to the casual observer, it would seem like a genuine Christmas song that just never got the proper December release date. This is half of the truth, they had originally planned to release it on a comp around Christmastime but didn’t and so they were just “sitting on it.” The other half goes back to Smith’s desire to entertain himself.
“It just seemed funny to us, but is it funny if nobody laughs? I said ‘Well, we’ll release it in June and we’ll release it at the furthest point from Christmas that you can get,” says Smith. “I guess it’s…perverse.”
He describes it as “a break-up song that happens at Christmas” which acts as a way to test the waters if you can hang with the Redettes. If you can see the darkness in Christmas, you might have just found your new favorite band.
To get under the proverbial mistletoe with The Redettes, click here.
Check out The Redette’s music and interview on the latest episode of Discovery Corner on BTR.