LOCAL SOUNDS: Smilin’ Isaac – Boston, MA
I’m sitting on a stool in front of Corinne, trying to steady my hand in order to apply her make-up carefully. Her phone dings periodically, and she checks it in between eye shadow applications. She turns the phone towards me to show the remaining four Isaacs who are absolutely red-faced, sitting on the floor, blowing up over 200 colorful balloons with nothing but their own lungs and a healthy amount of deadness behind the eyes. We laugh and I try to finish up. We pick up pizza on the way and arrive and get to work.
Smilin’ Isaac had a lot to tell me about themselves after we completed our eclectic photo shoot, which could not have happened without the collective efforts of the band our fantastic lighting tech, Josh Semedo. I could introduce them more, but I think this interview tells you all you need to know in a thoughtful, earnest way. Here’s Smilin’ Isaac.
First thing’s first—What’s the Smilin’ Isaac origin story? Your name, when you all decided to make this a thing, etc.
Corinne: Originally, Smilin’ Isaac was a person—Isaac Fuller who died in 1691 at age 25. We’re not exactly sure of how he died, but it obviously couldn’t have been pleasant. The Smilin’ part comes from the Death’s Head on his tombstone—the eternal smile of a skeleton.
As for getting the band together, it was a slow and steady process. Originally this project started out as just Caleb, Anthony, and Myself (Corinne) messing around in Anthony’s living room. Caleb then brought his friend and classmate, James, into the mix and we began writing some concrete material. It wasn’t until much later that Derek joined and we got really serious about playing out. We eventually found ourselves in the position we’re in now! Anthony and Caleb playing guitar, Corinne as our lyricist and keyboard player, James on drums, and Derek on bass!
Working in a cemetery myself, I’m fascinated by the evolving symbolism of tombstones and how it reflects changing attitudes towards death over time. I’m always fangirling over this organization, The Gravestone Girls who do amazing conservation and education work for New England burial grounds. I had a plaster mold of theirs from ‘Smilin’ Isaac’s” tombstone sitting on my shelf when one day I was sitting with Anthony and it just clicked that “Smilin’ Isaac”, of course, had to be our name.
No band can perfectly fit in a box, but what genre do you all feel close to?
Corinne: I think what’s really great about this project is that we all have such drastically different backgrounds from each other and are inspired by many different genres of music. That being said, we all have equal admiration and affection for the specialties of other members. From where I stand, James and Caleb trend more toward the jazz side of things. Anthony gravitates toward math rock, being the time-traveling wizard he is. Derek has lots of experience in metal and alt-rock bands. And I think my background mostly sits square in the dream-po
Derek: I like to think that we’re hanging on the coattails of early prog rock bands like Rush and Yes, but adapting it for a modern audience. Much of the influence I’m drawing from for this project in terms of playing and sound stems from my adoration of Chris Squire.
Caleb: What I love about this project is that it’s so versatile and unique to us as artists. I draw heavy influence from a lot of different genres and have always dreamed of a project like Smilin’ Isaac. My take is that it adapts all of my favorite types of music. I started playing classic rock and blues as a youngster, then moved to jazz, fusion, early progressive rock, folk music, and acoustic music. I love listening to emo/midwestern indie, synthwave, chillwave, among other types of music. I just love that this project is an opportunity for me personally to explore genres I love to play and love to listen to. In this process, I’m fortunate to continue developing these passions in a tangible way.
Your music is, at least to an untrained ear, quite complex, with a lot going on and many moving parts, which is why it’s so fun to listen to. Can you talk a bit about your process, how your pieces are written, etc?
Corinne: We haven’t developed a strict formula for how our songs come into being per se, but we have created a loose system for polishing each song. The main concept writers for each song have been Anthony and Caleb. Generally, one of them has an idea that sparks the interest of the other and they begin working on acoustic tracks that they then send to me, and sometimes I’ll rearrange the structure and then write the melody and lyrics. Once the structure and general chord progressions of each song have been solidified James and Derek write their own parts and we begin tweaking the song for live performances and dynamic range.
I love writing for music more than any other medium (ie poetry or prose) because I so deeply crave clear communication through mood and setting more than through words. Before I begin writing for each song, part of my process is to create a visual headspace for the melody and lyrics: who am I when I am singing this song? Where am I? What time is it? And lastly, what is bothering me about all these things—haha.
For me, specificity is not important in lyrics. The instrumental music itself is already such a visceral presentation of not only where listeners are transported visually, but also every other aspect of the environment—whether it be emotional, physical, nostalgic, communicative etc… The lyrics are merely supplemental to the narrative we create instrumentally. They make it human, introspective, lonely.
How do you know when you’ve finished a piece?
Corinne: I think we could go on writing forever. Haha! I think our songs are structured less as “verse, chorus, verse, chorus” and more on an emotional arc. In this way, our songs climax and end suddenly—but not without a tension build. This sounds too explicit to print in your magazine at this point.
Caleb: I’ve definitely noticed something along these lines of “we can edit anytime!!” But when I think of a finished song, I think about an ending and if the song “gig ready”. Gig-ready implies practicing so much that we eventually focus less on our playing and more on the performance (trying to make the technique “second nature”) I’ve noticed one of two things usually occur with the endings of our songs; which often dictates when we can start practicing them into the ground for gigs. One scenario is the writing process of this song has been extremely inspired and the material for the entire piece appears before us – first course, main, and dessert (sometimes aperitif too). The other situation is when we’re so frustrated and tired of trying to figure out an ending, we level with ourselves and just force ourselves to write an ending, or go with one of the several existing endings we were lukewarm on. A lot of it is second-guessing and perfectionism. A lot of it ends up coming down to trusting ourselves and really evaluating what the song says to us as a band. That’s what I’ve seen at least.
Can you share a bit about how your band functions within itself—you’re all friends and quite close, and I wonder in what way that affects your work?
Corinne: I think, if anything, the fact that we are all great friends make this project more creative and less business—Which is the perfect environment for higher quality artistic products.
It’s okay to spill your heart out because we all care for each other. As the lyric writer, I take it as my job to act as the empathetic arm of the band. Especially since I do not write all the music—but appear as the front-person to the audience as the singer.
Music is inherently emotional and when the writer of a song or phrase is not recognized in that manner by the rest of the players, the communication line is broken not only within the band but also from band to audience. We need to understand each other and act as a cohesive front or risk coming off as disjointed and self-serving.
Anthony: And I think the fact that we are such close friends outside of the ensemble is a key function to the music we produce. The first year of us being an outfit was pretty tumultuous for me. At various times Corinne, Caleb, and Derek each extended to me a place to sleep and food to nourish when I had neither. Furthermore, returning to our creative process, writing technically demanding music has long served as a healthy coping mechanism for me. While the instrumentation I was writing was often lush and blossoming, the source material couldn’t really be hidden from my closest friends as they were helping me through my troubles every step of the way. I also really want to emphasize how meaningful it is when Corinne extends that “empathetic arm” creatively. She puts so much of her own voice into everything she writes, yet on occasion looks to dig deeper into the pathos of our instrumental writing. When penning her early drafts of our song “Friction”, she really wanted to know exactly what I was thinking and feeling and I found that incredibly validating as an artistic collaborator. Then again, maybe she just needed to know what awful thing would inspire someone to write using almost entirely prime meter.
Caleb: I have a lot of feelings on this, and I hope it can give some sort of answer to your question. I see this project as a passion project. For me, at this time in my life, this requires working with friends. I feel extremely lucky to be working with not only my partner and my best friends but also some of the most interesting and talented people I know.
I guess this is going to turn into my shoutout section. Derek is super inspiring to me on so many levels. His technical and historical knowledge of instruments, production, starting bands, and easy going fun personality is something I admire deeply. He joined this process about a year after we realized it. He fit in perfectly as our bassist not only because of his playing but also because he was already a close friend. Not only is he our bassist, but he also serves as an authority figure on production, gigging, and much of our development as a serious band due to his prior experience in touring bands like “Searchlight” and “Mourning”. @Derek Love you bud. James was an obvious choice to be our drummer not only because he’s one of the most talented drummers I’ve ever come across, but because he’s just a pure goddamn sweetheart. He and I met at Berklee in the fall of 2015 (well before this project was realized) and hit it off right away. His versatility as a drummer with jazz, fusion, and rock as his roots made him the obvious drummer for this. I also knew everyone Anthony and Corinne would love him. @James Love you too bud.
Anthony is in my honest opinion one of the most important artists of our time and I am not just saying that because he’s cute. His unique style as a guitarist is unparalleled by anyone I’ve ever seen or listened to. His writing is honest, heartfelt, pure, and challenging. It goes without saying that he’s integral to this project because of this, but also because he’s been a friend to all of us for a long time. Corinne and Anthony have known each other for longer than anyone else in the band. Because of this, they have both seen each other grow as artists and people over the course of the past 5 years. That deep understanding of growth shows directly in the interplay between the music Anthony plays and the lyrics Corinne writes. Without that, I don’t know what this project would be. @Anthony Love you too bud.
Corinne… besides the fact that she’s my partner of 3+ years and that has all of its own love and respect, she is integral to this project as a friend to all of us. I feel strongly about Corinne’s artistic abilities in a similar way as I see Anthony’s. I feel Corinne is the best lyricist I’ve ever heard or met. Her deep ability to internalize feelings, feel them deeply, and make others feel them deeply with her lyrics is profound. Her process in writing lyrics as striking and complex as hers is beautiful. Part of what I love about Corinne’s writing just on its own is how thought-provoking and addictive it is to read and listen to. What I love about it in relation to this project is that it represents in so many ways the struggles and successes this band has had on an interpersonal level. It represents so much. The relationships formed before and during this band’s growing process have shown through the lyrics, even if just as a metaphor when the lyrics don’t specifically talk about it. I could write a book on how much I love her as my significant other, but I won’t. I will say that I’m extremely thankful to make music with my partner. It personally makes the music I play and write much better.
Overall as a band, being close and being friends make the process more fun. It makes it so we can be truly honest with each other. It makes things easier to understand when we have disagreements because we have mutual respect for each other as people. It makes it that much better when we create something amazing together.
Do you have any specific plans for 2019?
We’re recording an EP this winter and are hoping to release it by early summer! Also… gigs.
Where can listeners find you and support your music?
Periodically playing in the middle of the forest- but if you can’t track us down there, we have a live session on YouTube, and some demos to hold you over on our Bandcamp. Keep an eye on our Instagram for goofy stories, a look into our creative process, and information on our upcoming gigs. Find some of these things on Facebook too!
Smilin’ Isaac performs on Wednesday, February 6th at 7:30 pm at Union Tavern (345 Somerville Ave, Somerville, MA) Tickets are $5 and are available at the door
Keep up with Smilin’ Isaac:
Additional photos from our photoshoot with Smilin’ Isaac: