No one—least of all Mindy Smith—expected her career to start like this.
As a contemporary singer-songwriter determined to record her music in a style that suits her self-written songs, Smith figured she’d start her recording career quietly and work to build it slowly. She didn’t expect to make a big, attention- grabbing splash right away. She certainly didn’t expect to gain exposure on late-night talk shows and cable music specials before her debut album came out.
But every once in a while the arrival of a remarkable talent gets the reception it deserves. Before releasing her debut album, One Moment More, Smith had already performed on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. She appeared with a list of superstars on the Lifetime Network’s Women Rock special. She had a video in top rotation on CMT. And she had the lead-off single on the acclaimed Dolly Parton tribute album, Just Because I’m a Woman, which also had contributions from Norah Jones, Sinéad O ’Connor, Melissa Etheridge, Alison Krauss and others. “My head’s spinning,” Smith says. “It’s all been so far beyond my expectations. It’s been unbelievable,really. I feel blessed.”
But maybe Smith and her supporters shouldn’t have been so surprised. After all, she ’d encountered similar over-the-top excitement when record labels and producers first heard her songs. At one point, Smith held meetings and fielded offers from several major labels. She responded by spelling out her priorities. “I told everyone the same thing, that even though I live in Nashville I don’t consider myself a country artist, but a singer-songwriter and I wanted to present myself as I am, “she says. “I wanted the record to sound as much like my live performances as possible. I didn ’t want somebody else’s stamp on it. I didn’t want a producer to give me his sound. I didn’t want to spend two years waiting until someone thought I had a No.1 single before they put my record out. That’s not why I make music. What I care about are my songs.”
Instead of accepting the major-label offers, Smith made the bold decision to sign with Vanguard Records. “As I kept discussing the other offers, I kept coming back to Vanguard. I believed that I could make the record I wanted to make, and that I could do all my own songs. I trusted that there wouldn’t be any pressure to be someone or something that I didn’t want to be. “As it turns out, she couldn’t be happier with the results of her debut album, One Moment More. “All those fears and horror stories I’d heard about making your first record, none of them happened to me, “she says. “I am completely overjoyed with my record. I’m very proud of it. It’s me.”
For good reason, too. Smith’s debut is a stunningly powerful document of a brave songwriter and innately expressive singer tackling life’s biggest issues with unfettered honesty. Personal in tone, yet universal in reach, Smith’s songs delve resolutely yet delicately into the most tender aspects of relationships, spirituality, loss and perseverance.
“I wanted the record to be consistent. At the same time, I wanted it to represent different pieces of me. There’s not a song on there that isn’t personal or autobiographical. All my songs are that way. That’s the reason I write songs - to deal with my life and with difficult things that come up, that I have trouble understanding. That’s what I write about. I have this need to tell the truth about what I experience, and that’s what I put in my songs. I think that’s what draws people to my music. I think they hear that it’s real.”
As she had determined from the start,she wanted her songs presented as she heard them in her head - and close to the way she ’d presented them live,solo or with a band.Co- producing with veteran Steve Buckingham (Mary Chapin Carpenter,the Chieftains,Dolly Parton),Smith set her lyrics to spare,moody arrangements that blend acoustic and electric elements.The music subtly highlights Smith ’s lyrics and her one-of-a-kind voice,a powerful instrument she wields with a restraint that ’s ripe with emotion and revelation.
“I was really fortunate to hook up with Steve, “notes Smith, who produced six of the songs herself and collaborated with Buckingham on the other five. “He helped me sculpt the songs and make them a little more refined, and he listened to my ideas and made sure we agreed on everything that happened. With an outside producer, I think it’s important to communicate and be heard. A lot of producers take over projects. That’s not what I wanted.”
One thing is clear: Mindy Smith knows who she is and what she wants. She’s struggled against adversity for most of her life - she even has a song about it, “Fighting For It All. “Despite the barriers she’s had to cross, she has never opted for an easy road. And despite all the hardships she’s endured - or maybe because of them - she’s always trusted her instincts and her own vision for what she could do and who she should be. In the end, that clarity comes through on One Moment More.
Adopted at birth by a minister and his wife, the music director of her husband’s church, Smith grew up in Smithtown, Long Island. Early on, she felt drawn to music. “I heard music in my head,” she says. She found her biggest supporter in the woman who adopted her, Sharron Patricia McMahon Smith, who she has and will forever know as her mother. An outstanding singer, her mother sang in church as a soloist and as a choir leader. Even when other music teachers discouraged Smith, her mother told her she had a special talent and encouraged her to follow her interest in music.
“She had the most beautiful voice I’ve ever heard,” Smith says of her mother, who died of cancer when Mindy was 19 years old. “She had the ability to touch people, to move mountains with her voice. If I learned anything from her, it’s to put all of your emotion into your performance. That’s what music is for, I think. She showed me how important it is to be honest with my music, to let it come from within.I’ve learned from other people I’ve listened to, but I also learned from the best because I learned from her. That’s why I dedicated the album to her.”
While attending college in Cincinnati, she became the lead singer in a band and co-wrote songs with other members. When her father moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, she moved there too. She remembers waking up one night with a song in her head, but without a tape recorder to hum the melody or the ability to figure out the chords herself. So she took up the guitar, learning to play at open-mic nights at Knoxville clubs. Shy about it at first - she’d often sing a cappella, holding the guitar in her lap - she eventually dedicated herself to playing, and she developed into a formidable acoustic picker.
When her father re-married and moved to North Carolina, Smith decided she was ready for the next step. With only $300 to her name, and knowing only one person in Nashville, she made the leap. Struggling through low- paying jobs and difficult writer ’s nights, she persevered. Amid the thousands of young, ambitious songwriters moving to Nashville, it became apparent that Smith was special, and her reputation spread. Several publishing offers came her way, and she signed with the respected independent, Big Yellow Dog Music.Given the budget to record as frequently as she wanted and in the style she desired, she created a series of demos that attracted a line of record labels wanting to sign her up.
“I finally had the chance to record my songs and my voice the way I wanted to, and all of a sudden everything changed for me,” she says. “The light came on. For years, people had been telling me, I can’t believe you don’t have a record deal. It got to where it was very hard to hear that. But I had faith in myself. I just needed the chance to do my best songs the way I wanted. As soon as I did that, things started happening.”
With all the ruckus her introduction has created, she’s glad she stuck with her vision and held tightly to what her instincts told her to do. Now she only worries about one thing: finding time to write. “Songwriting has always been the thing that has kept me sane - well, barely,” she says with a laugh. “But I ’ve been so busy that I haven’t been able to write in weeks. It ’s an outlet I have to have. So I’m finding myself having to tell people, Don’t forget to leave me some time to myself. Don’t forget I ’m a writer.”
That’s not something anyone is likely to forget. With One Moment More, Smith makes it clear: She’s a uniquely talented songwriter and singer with a vision perfect for pulling people inward and reminding them of how to face the challenges we all confront. “Even though Mindy is still young and new to the music business, I believe she will leave her mark as one of our greatest writers and singers ever,” says Dolly Parton, who embraced and encouraged the younger artist after hearing her contribution to the Just Because I’m a Woman tribute album. “‘Jolene’ has been done many times by many artists,including me, but Mindy’s version is my favorite. I wish her all the best.”