Massachusetts based group Smilin’ Issac, who were profiled in one of our Local Sounds columns, have unveiled their debut EP – Dead Drop. The record was recorded on analog tape at Mystic Valley Studio in Medford, MA with Alex Garcia-Rivera. I asked the band’s frontwoman Corinne some questions about the release of the EP and about the recent closing of Lowell, MA venue unchARTed, a venue that has been crucial to the young band’s early success.
How were each of these songs written? As a collaborative effort? did one of you write lyrics and another melody?
Corinne: For each of the songs I wrote the melody and lyrics, but the instrumentals were a collaborative effort. Each member wrote their own part for each song, however the main structure and progression of the songs on the EP were mostly written by Caleb Green and Anthony Brocatto with feedback from others in the band at each step of the way. Anthony and Caleb each have their own “babies” of the EP, for example, This Time Last Week was Caleb’s passion project–which he directed most of the instrumentation for. And likewise, Anthony had Friction–his pièce de résistance.
What are the details behind the cover art for the EP? Artist, why was it chosen, was it created specifically for the EP?
Corinne: Actually, this piece was not created specifically for the EP, but was instead part of a surrealistic photography project by an Argentinian artist named Kathy Chareun. I implore you to check out her Instagram (@kathychareun). The original name for the photograph was “Negative Spirit”. I came across this photo in my search for artists and Kathy was kind enough to let us purchase the rights to use her photo for our EP and marketing. I had spent so long cruising the Flikr and Instagram when this photo came up in my feed and it stopped me in my tracks. There was something so eerily foreboding about the body language of the figure in the misty woods and I just remember thinking “That’s it. That’s the cover”. Not only does it match the “uncanny valley” vibe of the sound of the EP, but also (like any good album cover) I think it helps put the music in visual context for people who may not have heard any of our music before–let’s them know a bit about what they’re getting into and leads them in.
How did you challenge yourselves on the writing/recording of this EP?
Corinne: Wow, um, so many ways. Probably the biggest challenge we have all faced so far as musicians was recording straight to tape in a fully analogue studio. It’s something that isn’t done that often anymore and if it is, it’s usually done with the aid of some sort of digital production–so more often you’ll encounter analogue hybrids. Thank god, Alex Garcia-Rivera at Mystic Valley Studio in Medford was there to help us see through the dark and into the light at every step of the way. I think there was one song, where I sang close to 50 takes of one line–or it certainly felt like it. The danger of going straight to tape was that every time I wanted redo the line I had to permanently erase the one I just had recorded. There’s a lot of second-guessing of yourself: “Can I do it better?” “Am I not pushing myself hard enough” “Am I pushing myself too hard?” But in another way, there’s a freedom to it. At the end of the day, we never had to go through 10 takes where I put a different emphasis on each word, and had to decide which was was going on the album. It was just–“Oh that felt good–great! That’s the one!” and it was that kind of artistic temporalness that I respected–like, respect out of fear. And it was exactly that kind of environment that allowed “happy little accidents” to occur that made it onto the final version of the EP! For example, the bridge on Five Alarm Fire, was a complete improvisation–a patchwork of a few vocal tracks played together. At one point recording that song, Anthony and I both sat over his Moog Sub-37 synthesizer and he was responsible for managing the mod-wheel, while I played the the rapid fire ending-riff with both hands. There was no “we’ll fix it in post” option for us. How we played it was how it was going to sound on the tape.
Just tell me a little about the importance of unchARTed in Lowell and its place in your hearts and the local MA music scene outside of Boston.
Corinne: Oof. This question comes like a dagger to the heart. UnchARTed in Lowell was our favorite place to play. Our first gig out at an establishment (so non-house-show) was at UnchARTed and it really opened our eyes to what a joy it was to play out. The community was always out in full force and it felt safe and positive and it was always a great show. Not only was it a great venue to play because of its infrastructure and decor, but it really did feel like the beating heart of the MA music scene. It will so deeply be missed by so many.
Stream or purchase Smilin’ Issac’s new EP Dead Drop: