Lessons learned from Laura Smith

One of my all-time favourite singers and songwriters passed away not long ago, so I’m writing this column while my emotions are still raw and bubbling just beneath the surface.

That seems only appropriate when writing about Laura Smith, the Ontarian-turned-Maritimer who bared her soul with unabashed honesty on her four studio albums, in dozens of unforgettable songs, and on stages large and small over her nearly-68 years on the planet.

That’s even more remarkable when I consider that Laura didn’t make her self-titled debut album until she was 37. Mind you, she had been writing songs for years.

“Whirlaround,” the melancholy final track from her breakout 1994 release B’tween the Earth and My Soul, was written in 1978 in the basement of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. In the album’s liner notes, Laura admitted that she “was supposed to be practicing for a piano exam.”

This wouldn’t be the only inspiration from Laura’s early years that stood the test of time. When I interviewed Laura for CIGO-AM Radio’s East Coast Rising program following the release of her 1997 album It’s A Personal Thing, she confirmed that the song’s penultimate track, the jazzy “Liquid State,” incorporated decades’ worth of Laura’s love of all things aquatic.

Lured to the East Coast when she fell in love with a lighthouse keeper in the early ‘70s, she incorporated watery wavelengths into much of her catalogue. To promote her first major radio single “Shade of Your Love,” Laura took the plunge and shot an entirely-underwater video with assistance from a Halifax synchronized swimming club. During that fateful CIGO interview in 1997, she confirmed that B’tween the Earth and My Soul was nearly titled “Songs From The Bath” because that’s where Laura came up with most of her ideas.

That interview taught me a lot about journalism that I still retain to this day. I was asked to do it with one hour’s notice, when the CIGO on-air host that was supposed to question Laura had a scheduling conflict and asked me to take on the interview because he knew I liked her previous album. So, in between two live hourly newscasts, I conducted the musical equivalent of cramming for a final exam, listening to all 13 tracks of It’s A Personal Thing and carefully studying the accompanying liner notes and press material.

When I finished the interview and asked Laura to record a quick promo for East Coast Rising, I told her how impressed I was to hear such a lively voice after 20 minutes of arduous questions. There was a pause at the other end of the phone, and then she replied, earnestly: “Arduous questions are questions without any thought. Your questions were definitely not arduous.”

A few months later, two college friends of mine saw Laura perform in Boston on New Year’s Eve. They approached her afterwards and mentioned my name. According to an e-mail they sent me a few days later, Laura was thrilled that our chat avoided the indifference some interviewers show their guests: “So many times I’ve sat down with a DJ, and they haven’t listened to my album, and the first thing they ask is, ‘So, tell us about yourself.’ And I say, ‘No’ and just sit there.”

I don’t necessarily recommend that approach for artists who are frustrated with interviewers unfamiliar with their work, but I’ve carried that lesson with me through the hundreds of interviews I’ve conducted since that fateful day in the spring of 1997.

Later in life, with another album under her belt, Laura Smith had one more surprise for me. In 2016, I resumed studio work on a long-delayed album of my own, and I had often imagined Laura as a potential duet partner for one of my songs. So, in a flurry of e-mails and contacts made to various industry professionals, I sent a brief message to Laura’s e-mail address, figuring I would be waiting for months to get a reply.

I got my answer less than 12 hours later, in a message that shocked me with its enthusiasm and generosity. She even signed it “Ta, Laura” as if we had been friends for years. As I didn’t have a proper recording of the song for her to hear, I sent Laura another e-mail and promised this would all come together shortly.

It didn’t. She never heard the song. We never took it into the studio. This will likely remain one of the biggest regrets of my professional career for a long time.

But I’m still grateful to have known Laura Smith and her incredible body of work even a little bit over the past three decades, and the lessons she taught me will remain in my heart for many years to come.

Ta, Laura.