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Our Song project inspires Meaghan Smith to custom-write personal songs for fans

After years of chasing pop music success, the Halifax songwriter has embarked on a new venture that communicates directly with listeners and their stories.
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To say musician Meaghan Smith's life is chaotic is an understatement. With two children under three, the Halifax musician enjoys a popular walking trail near to home for a bit of solitude. (ERIC WYNNE / LocalXpress)

Halifax songwriter Meaghan Smith makes some of the sweetest pop music ever to emerge from this region, deeply romantic and defiantly sassy with an all-day pass to the amusement park of the heart's rollercoaster ride.

But even when it seemed like she was at the top of the ferris wheel, the taste of the pursuit of pop music success started to turn sour.

In 2014, Smith was one of the rare East Coast artists with a major record deal with Warner Music Canada, had been working steadily with the help of musician/husband Jason Mingo to build a fan base around North America and beyond, and her latest album Have a Heart was a whole can of earworms mixing modern pop gloss with nostalgic radio-friendly hooks.

But at the same time, the traditional way of doing things, spending a small fortune making a record and then taking months on the road to promote it, just wasn't working. Especially not for Smith.

"I was totally done with it," Smith says over a hot morning beverage at the Lucky Penny Cafe. "Even before kids were part of the picture, it was really draining. I'm an introvert who can act like an extrovert when I need to, so spending six weeks of either being on stage or traveling, staying in hotels, taking multiple flights a day sometimes, it wasn't good for my mental health.

"I'd struggle a lot with anxiety and depression while I was on tour. To the point where Jason said to me, 'You can't keep going like this.' "

Life became a lot more complicated when, around the same time as Have a Heart's release, the couple discovered they'd soon be parents, "not totally on purpose." Health issues around Smith's pregnancy and delivery of their first son River helped ensure that her old routine would be a thing of the past.

And without new music or tour dates, the infrastructure that had supported Smith record label, management, agent simply faded out of the picture.

Smith still wanted to make music, but she didn't want to be a cog in the machinery of the music industry.

"And it was hard, because you spend 20 hours building up to that two hours that you're on stage, and those two hours of performing meant so much to me, but it was the other 20 that were taking their toll," she says.

So the multi-talented musician, artist and animator stepped away from the road and recording, which also meant that for the first time in a long time, Smith found herself without any obligations to anyone other than her family and herself.

"I'd reached this low point, and then I realized that no one was expecting anything from me, so what did I want to do?" she says. "What would my music sound like if I didn't really think that anyone was listening? Again? Because that's kind of where I started.

"It's a cool place to be. You're not worried about anything, or what anyone will think, and that's kinda nice."

But people were still listening, and Smith still had fans, and she knew that she owed them some sort of explanation.

Last year, she laid it all out in a post on her Facebook page, outlining everything she was feeling about making music, and letting fans know why she had taken an extended hiatus. She was done with working to create an artificial perception of success, and wanted to reassure them that when the music started flowing again, it would be on her own terms.

"In the music industry, you're not supposed to admit that you're struggling," says Smith, whose honest outpouring was met with an overwhelming show of support and understanding. "You can say it in a song, and people want to hear that kind of vulnerability in a song, but for artists there's this sort of shame surrounding not being really busy and not being super wanted and all this stuff."

After that connection, Smith realized that the divide between an artist and their audience didn't need to be a broad, protective (and sometimes isolating) chasm. And while she and Mingo were also getting ready for the arrival of their second son Linden last fall, the seed for her new project Our Song was also beginning to germinate.

"After reading all these really supportive responses, and people sharing their similar experiences, I had this idea that maybe I should go into their world for a while," she says. "Instead of just having them listen to my songs, I could go into their lives, learn about them, and write a song.

"So I'm in their world, instead of them always having to come to me, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it wasn't that crazy of an idea."

The idea is a relatively simple one, and even an ancient one if you think back to the days of medieval bards writing songs for their patrons. Through Smith's website, fans can hire her to write a song inspired by the subject of their choosing. They share their stories, and depending on what they're looking for, the songwriter develops those thoughts into a fully fleshed-out composition, produced in the couple's home studio, with a personalized letter and lyric sheet. It can be bare bones voice-and-guitar, or a full-band production with Smith's customized lyric artwork and a video.

"I have no idea how to make a pair of shoes, but I really need to wear shoes, right? So I have to buy shoes from the people who make them," she says. "Most people don't know how to make their own songs, but I know how to write and perform them, so I thought I'd ask listeners to let me make their songs.

"Who's doing this? No one, not that I've found. I've looked around, but really no one is doing it, and I thought that was incredible. I can't find anybody with the kind of experience I've had who's doing this for their fan base. And so far it's been life-changing for me."

The results have been profound, like Good Good Heart, written as a comforting lullaby for a couple's as-yet-unborn baby, or This Is Love, for a couple's 45th wedding anniversary.

In a way, it's a godsend for an artist to have inspiration for new work come in through the front door, but the trick is to turn that inspiration into something that's meaningful for both parties.

"On the emotional side, it's so fulfilling," Smith says enthusiastically. "It comes back to when I was feeling so isolated, and I wrote about this on my web page  am I the only one feeling this stuff? And in hearing other people's stories, I realized no, not by any stretch.

"Everything has different circumstances, but everybody feels the same sort of emotions about those circumstances. So when people come to me with their stories ... first of all, I'm so ashamed that I didn't know what's going on in people's lives, all these incredible things they're dealing with and going through. I feel so lucky to know, but also I can relate to these stories."

It's a multi-step process for fans to turn their stories into songs. First they email Smith to explain their idea, then she responds with a questionnaire to get to the heart of what the song is about. The song will be their story, but it will also be available for everyone to hear, via Smith's website and platforms like iTunes, where three of the songs have been posted already.

Some subjects click with Smith immediately. It's easy to get into the necessary mindset for a lullaby or an ode to devotion when you've already been down those paths, but some assignments require a lot more communication and empathy.

Currently, she's working on a song for a woman whose husband passed away, but it's the love that still lingers, and not the grief, that's driving its creation.

"I haven't lost a spouse, but I've lost people who are close to me, and I know what that love for someone feels like," says Smith. "I can feel my own version of that, and that's how we're connected. And there's a connection that's just been made, and I no longer feel alone, and that person no longer feels alone, and everybody who hears the song and can relate to it, they don't feel so alone either.

"I know it sounds like a cliche, but we really are all in this together, for real."

In the end, the final work remains Smith's. On her website, she explains how the songs are not co-writes, but rather "customized to your individual story ... written specifically for you."

And most of the time she'll let the subject matter dictate where a song goes melodically and tonally, but that doesn't mean she's not open to suggestion.

"The tone of a song totally matters," she says. "I just got a message from someone asking me about that specifically. Her son passed away, but she didn't want it to be a sad song because he had a great life and that's something I can relate to. That's a song I can write.

"I will absolutely take that into account, because in the end, what I keep coming back to is what we can all connect to, and that shared feeling. So the most important thing is for me to know how the listener wants to feel when they hear it. That's my goal, to create and preserve feelings for people."



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Stephen Cooke

About the Author: Stephen Cooke

Stephen Cooke is an award-winning arts journalist who's been covering the local, regional and national scene for over 25 years.
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