Mindy Smith

On performing "Jolene" with Dolly Parton and "Better Boat" with Kenny Chesney, making the move from Long Island to Nashville, and how her personal struggles shaped songs like "Come To Jesus" and "Out Loud."

The affable Mindy Smith garnered attention in 2003 when she recorded a cover of Dolly Parton's "Jolene" for the tribute album Just Because I'm A Woman. It drew attention from many in the music industry, but most of all, Dolly Parton herself. Smith went on to receive a record deal with Vanguard Records, releasing her debut album, One Moment More, in 2004. Featuring the breakout single "Come To Jesus," which charted at #32 on the Billboard Adult Top 40, it also featured the bittersweet tribute to her mother, "One Moment More," as well as her cover of "Jolene." Following it up with Long Island Shores in 2006, she continued to draw interest with the singles "Out Loud" and "Please Stay." Smith went on to release two more full-length albums and multiple singles, as well as a Christmas album and EP.

With an indisputably peaceful voice, Smith has the rare quality to transpose listeners into her music, inviting them into her world in a distinctly relatable way that makes her feel like an old friend telling a story. Both in her music and in life, the humble Smith shows an appreciation for where she came from and the everyday gifts her music career has given her - from friendships with other songwriters to the ability to work on her own struggles through her music. Adopted at birth in Long Island by a preacher and choir director, Smith later lost her mother to breast cancer as a teenager, a heartbreak she shares in her songs. She has faced adversity and tackled personal battles, overcoming a difficult eating disorder in the midst of a rising musical career. She continues to find the strength to heal through song and in large part due to her spirituality.

Her music can't be defined and her voice is unearthly. She stretches the realm of Americana, blues and pop, making it hard to brand her music, which at one point held her back as record labels weren't sure how to approach her sound. Now, she never stays in one style too long, making each new album an adventure.

Armed with a catalog of music and the talent to back it up, Smith is set to head out on a mini tour this fall after working on a new project. Before hitting the road, she spoke to Songfacts about how her personal life has shaped her musical one, and how her path may not always have taken her where she thought it would, but it always took her where she needed to be, and that has been a blessing, especially when it came to her music.
Nicole Roberge (Songfacts): You're set to go on tour August 27th and have been in rehearsals. You have something else in the works also. Can you talk about that at all?

Mindy Smith: We have finished a project and I'm really excited about it. It's hard because you want to put it out there, but these things take time. Sometimes it takes almost as long to get it put together as it does to put it out there to people. I'm excited. It's been 10 years. It's been my biggest project since my Mindy Smith album. 2023 will be the year for it.

Songfacts: Your last album was self-titled and self-released and featured some really powerful songs. "Pretending The Stars" is musically stunning and lyrically catchy, and "Sober" is gritty and evocative. What was your goal with that album and those songs?

Smith: With that record, I really was able to put it out myself. That was very empowering to sort of take ownership of my masters and test waters that I hadn't tested before. It's a different beast to do it on your own. The album was just a coming-of-age thing in my personal and creative life, just being able to be more in control of those elements. The song "Pretending The Stars" is a fun song. The whole experience was very empowering for me.

Songfacts: Naming it "Mindy Smith" sounds empowering.

Smith: Yeah, and I've joked about it before. Mindy Smith, Mindy Smith - it's funny to say that. To me, that's funny. The point of putting out that record was because I was wanting to take more control of things. I'm not ungrateful for having had the opportunities with the label partnership when I was with Vanguard. I was and still am very thankful for that, and there's no question that it has been a tremendous help with my career, but it just became apparent that I wanted to try to do something different. I was fortunate to have been given the opportunity to do so surrounded by a new team and spearheaded by Heather Moody and TVX Group.

Songfacts: This is, sadly, somewhat timely in that you sang on Olivia Newton-John's "Phenomenal Woman" on her album Stronger Than Before (2005) with Patti LaBelle, Delta Goodrem and Diahann Carroll. What was that experience like and how does it impact you now?

Smith: That was so fun. A friend of mine that I'd been writing with, a writer and artist that I just adore named Beth Nielsen Chapman, was working closely with Olivia for many years1. They were really good friends. I was sitting at home and I got a call from her asking if I wanted to come sing on this Olivia Newton-John track, and I was like, "Umm... yeah!" It always makes me feel good to be included in projects like that because Nashville, this town, it's a community. Writers and artists here, we try to take each other along for the ride and that was a really sweet extension of Beth to come along and have me sing on that track. It had some amazing other artists. I had no idea who was going to be singing on that track. Just to be a part of that was extremely special. I wish I had the opportunity to have met her, but I'm happy to have been able to sing on something with her.

Songfacts: I like that you say it's a community of writers there because sometimes it can be so competitive, and people try to block each other out.

Smith: It's true, and obviously any industry, any business, is competitive in one sense or another. Nashville is different in terms of the creative community, in my understanding. I have not experienced some of the other entertainment towns, living and trying to carve out a career. I think Nashville is unique in how artists and writers support each other. You find it's a lot easier to get on board with other people around here than to push away or push that off and try to hold it all for yourself. It's a really nice community.

Songfacts: That must help with the creative process.

Smith: It does, and it really helped me a lot, too, early in my career. That experience coming here and not knowing anybody, but being able to hit up writers' nights every night and create friendships and bonds that I still have to this day. That's what made it easier to stick around. I'm very fortunate how my time here has been. Those earlier days when I didn't know anybody, it was sort of like those writers' nights were like the welcoming committee. Back then, in 1998/99 when I came here, there was a lot of encouragement. I'm thankful for that experience. It's so different now from what I understand, how to get your music heard and folks to listen.

Songfacts: "Come To Jesus" was a very well-received song on Country, Adult Contemporary, and Alternative, and it's impressive that it wasn't defined as Christian music or even country. It was embraced as its own remarkable song. What was your intention with that song, and did you anticipate it would be so well received?

Smith: My intention when I write, I'm writing to process something that I'm going through. The intention when I wrote the song was to work through something challenging. At the time I was broke. I wasn't sure I was going to be able to stay and keep this going in Nashville. I wasn't sure what my next steps were going to be. I had lived in a kind of shady area, which now is booming, and everybody wants to live there. When I lived there it was not great. I had gotten mugged. All these things started closing in and I didn't know what I was going to do. I had to really find my faith, not only in something bigger than myself, but in what I was doing. That song, the nature of that song, came from that struggle.

Not only that, but a lot of times I find myself struggling spiritually, like am I even doing this life right? I question myself a lot. There were some other things that were distracting me from being my best self in my personal life as well. To find that balance, my approach is to write a song.

When the label, Vanguard, told me that was the one song they wanted to release on my first solo project, I was nervous with my first song being called "Come To Jesus." I didn't want it to define me. I do write a lot of spiritual songs about trying to find my way but I also write about life and love. Still, I had to trust in other people that that was the right move. It really worked out for me. Even releasing the song as my first self-penned single, I had to find faith in that as well. It all sort of has been a continual theme for me, especially with that song, and frankly with a lot of other songs.

My songs are about my spiritual journey. They're vague enough but they're also very personal, and I think I get around it by being very inclusive lyrically.

Songfacts: I think they're relatable and they stay very relevant. "Out Loud" had a powerful message then and that remains today, with a positive energy. The lyrics still ring true in a universal sense ("Think it's time we need a change/we need to change a few things").

Smith: It's interesting with the song "Out Loud." When I wrote it, it was about communicating and loving each other. Not a peace-loving song. Everybody's hurting, everybody's struggling in one way or another. It could fit into this world we're living in now in a lot of different ways. Everyone's feeling like the noise is so loud. I almost wish that sometimes we could use it to be a little quieter compared to when the song was written, with more listening going on.

I'm thankful for that song. It has morphed over the years to find a place where it still works when I perform it live, and it works for the people I'm sharing it for too. It has been that song over the years that has done that. It's not been stuck in a box.

Songfacts: "One Moment More," being in memory of your mother, how important was that song for you to write, and is it difficult or cathartic to sing?

Smith: The song was not difficult to write because I was hurting so badly. It's the first song I had written when I came to Nashville. Nashville was the first town I had lived in by myself without a family member or friends nearby. I was born and raised in Long Island and lived in Cincinnati where I knew people from my childhood. Then I lived in Knoxville where my father moved shortly after my mother passed away. And that's how I wound up in Nashville. Nashville was the first place I was alone with myself, and the healing and realizing I have to make this life work. I was very close to my mother. I was sort of forced to take the reins. In that sense, it was not a difficult song to write. Did I cry while writing it? I'm not a crier, but I did cry while writing that song.

It's cathartic. At times it's difficult. It depends on who's there. If my dad is there in the audience, or my siblings or people who knew my mother, I'm a lot more emotional. It's also emotional because I miss her all the time. It's a healing song, and it keeps me connected to her when I do get to sing it and share her with folks. It's both. It brings me back to reality and it's a grounding stone in my life. Loss can really do that to you. It threw me. That loss was a big one in my life. It got me thinking about what I was going to do with my life and how I was going to manage it.

Songfacts: "Everything Here Will Be Fine" was released eight years later on your self-titled album. Is that a response to "One Moment More" and those feelings?

Smith: I don't know if that's a response to "One Moment More" as much as it was another period in my life where I was thinking about how it must've felt for her to have to say goodbye and not want to let go. Just reflecting back on that, where maybe sometimes you have to subtly let people know it's ok. People need to know it's ok and you're gonna be alright. I can't speak for other people, I can only speak for my personal experience. It took me a long time to get to that point in my life where I told her it was ok. At that time, it was just me processing once again, letting her know - because I feel like she shows up and drops little hints and signs. It was important for me to process that and say it out loud. And that's where that song came from.

Songfacts: You've had a great response to that song as well, and though it's your story, it has helped others with grief.

Smith: I appreciate that. I'm always very grateful through the power of music, that I'm able to share something that helped somebody else heal, because it helped me heal. That's the greatest gift.

Songfacts: How much of your upbringing inspires your music?

Smith: I would say a lot, because I'm a preacher's kid from Long Island, which is rare and I think for me, my personal journey being adopted. Knowing from a very young age what I wanted to be but having so many hurdles in front of me with that. I'm not playing a victim, but back then it was very daunting to get over some of those hurdles. It was a struggle. My music teachers were not kind to me at all. It was very difficult to want to keep doing music. It was such a big deal to me. It was as big a deal as a young athlete wants to play a sport and their coach doesn't give them an opportunity for any reason or they're just shot down. It makes it hard. It's the same thing for me in music. It was just in me. I would say that prepared me for being in an industry that isn't very kind to people. I had that under my belt. It's those things that shaped me. Just even being able to see the big wins, even though to other people they're not that big of a deal.

Songfacts: You also write about your two homes in the songs "Long Island Shores" and "Tennessee," both with love. Do songs of home speak to you?

Smith: I think songs about home are always gonna strike a chord. "Long Island Shores" is just being proud to be from New York and thankful for my life there, even though I had to leave it. There are still connections there but the memories and the childhood, even as challenging as it was, there's still a lot of gratitude and pride to have been raised in Long Island, New York. I'm not just talking about pizza and bagels. I'm talking about the community I grew up in with my small church. And that my dad and my mom made a life for us there. It's important for me to sing about and share about that with my siblings.

The song "Tennessee" is just an ode. I would've never thought I'd wind up in Tennessee or Nashville. I'm thankful that I am here. I don't know how else I would've been able to do this for my life or music as a career. All my paths, the little journey to get here, it wasn't something I planned. It was something from somewhere else. I've always said, "God picked me up and put me where He wants me to be." Including my adoption. Sometimes I don't do such a good job of listening to where that is. Nashville has been where I'm supposed to be. It still is. When I wrote that song, I was thankful that I found a home here.

Songfacts: I know you love animals and I've read that "Please Stay" (Long Island Shores) was about your dog at the time, Sophia. Was that inspired by her being so loyal?

Smith: It was. I loved her so much and I didn't want her to ever leave me. She did her best for 17 years. She did a good job. She was a little love bug. Everyone says this about their dog, but Sophia really had this special way about her that calmed people. She was my little attachment. She was my better half at the time. I wrote that song and I really think she took it to heart. She wasn't gonna give up on me and she never did. She was my little rescue dog. With that song, I would often say, I don't know who saved who. Even though she's a rescue dog, she saved me.

Years later, I wrote a song with Matthew Perryman Jones called "Who Saved Who?" inspired by Sophia and just the idea that so many beautiful animals can save you just as much as you can save them. So many animals that are in shelters or neglected, just wandering the streets.

Songfacts: Was this part of the animal rescue series on PBS, Shelter Me, which you sang "Starting Over Again" for?

Smith: That song I wrote with Cliff Goldmacher was a perfect fit for the cause led by creator and Executive Producer Steven Latham. It was given a new dimension by the brilliant animator Paul Fierlinger and Sandra Schuette Fierlinger to bring to life the very real story of shelter pets and how special they are. You just need to take a chance on them. That came after "Who Saved Who?" but the first thing I did with them was write and record the theme song for the series, called Shelter Me. It evolved into putting out a compilation record to help raise proceeds for shelters across the country. The record included several other artists who added their work to the compilation. I wrote and performed "Who Saved Who?" with Matthew Perryman Jones and I'm thankful for it because I think it can be for any circumstance if you love somebody. Being able to use the talents I've been blessed with to help rescue animals in shelters is always rewarding.

Songfacts: "Highs And Lows" (Stupid Love) is so relatable. The highs and lows of life, but with lyrics like:

Boxes of things I love
Now and then I open them up and
Shuffle around through junk and old bills...
Piles of nothing add up to something that I just can't throw out


Everyone is holding onto those things they can't throw out, and you sing about this in such a vibrant way.

Smith: That song is about how I went through this period where I was collecting things from thrift stores that I thought needed to be saved. I was finding treasures. I thought if I get on the Antiques Roadshow, this is gonna be the one. I'd look at something and think, "Somebody worked on that, somebody made that, and it's my job to save it." It was weird. It's very strange. I ended up having a lot of stuff. Also, I don't know why I had these bills from 1996. All I needed to do was run them through the shredder, but I still had them. These little things I hold onto, I attach a sentimental value to them, when life is gonna keep moving. Highs and lows.

I recently found the courage to share that Stupid Love came after a hard breakup in my life, but not just with a person but with the eating disorder anorexia that I had carried for about 20 years or so. Letting go of that was like a hard breakup. That whole record helped me get to where, first of all, I wanted to do music again. Because shortly after my second album, Long Island Shores, was released, I performed "Out Loud" on The Tonight Show and then headed straight into treatment. Which was a bummer because it kind of put a stick in the wheels of promoting that album. I had to stop and slow down, but it's what I needed at the time. I don't talk about it often. I'm just now feeling like sharing it. But that whole record, that song "Highs And Lows," has some of that woven into it. The things... life.

Songfacts: That's really brave of you to share that, thank you.

Smith: It's being vulnerable that's scary. After treatment, I was still holding onto it. And I'm just figuring out, it's not doing me any good. And that song, holding onto that stuff. A lot of those songs are about that for me. I always have those people who know there's an undertone to the songs, even when they sound happy, there's some kind of tragedy just swimming underneath the surface. A lot of that record is like that. "Couldn't Stand The Rain" - that's the one Amy Grant sang on. There was an element of a bad breakup too. A real one. A lot of these songs are flippant songs. Like, this is how I'm going to handle this, and just to kind of get back on the horse.

That's the nuts and bolts of that song, "Highs And Lows," even though it's cloaked a certain way. But it's mostly about how life is too short. You've gotta let some of that stuff go. Whether it's bills from 1996... as long as those bills are paid, you need to throw them away. A lot of my songs have that undertone to it. That challenge. I would say that with "Come To Jesus," I'd say that with "Out Loud." Because it was such a powerful thing in my life.

Songfacts: You mentioned Amy Grant, and Matthew Perryman Jones earlier. You've collaborated with several other songwriters on your material. Do you like that process better than writing alone, and are there certain writers that you seem to gel with the most?

Smith: It's a different process altogether and I do like it. For a short period of time, I was doing so much cowriting that I thought I forgot to write by myself. I'm happy to report there's a number of songs on my new project I wrote alone. Cowriting is great because it brings in another perspective that I may not have thought of musically or lyrically. I love to have other input from a melody stance. I love when I take a song I may have started at home and bring it to another writer that I think it would be a good fit for. We go, "What do you have? Do you have anything you've been working on?" I love where those songs wind up. Some of these songs I wrote with John Scott Sherrill. I learned a lot from him. He is such a great mind for knowing how to say something in a song lyrically in a way that is thought-provoking. The song I wrote with him, "If I Didn't Know Any Better," was first cut by Alison Krauss that I later cut for Stupid Love. Just the touches he brings to his songs. He is a legend, one of the best, just like Amy Grant. They both were inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in the same year.

Writing with other people gets you unstuck a little. It pulls you out of your head. I have my people I know when I sit down with them, I'm gonna get something at the end of the day - Maia Sharp, Dean Fields, Daniel Tashian. Even sitting down with new people and finding new approaches, it's a fun thing.

Songfacts: Other people have covered "Jolene," but yours is very special. It's a pensive, beautiful arrangement. You and Dolly Parton developed a friendship, she performed it with you, she's in the video - what does that all mean for you?

Smith: Oh my gosh, it's everything. I was sitting at home in my little apartment, just trying to figure out whether this was gonna work out or not. I got a phone call from a fellow named Steve Buckingham, one of the VPs at Vanguard. He had heard my demo - it was like an EP that I had worked on with a gentleman named Jason Lehning. "Come To Jesus" was on that demo. He reached out to me and said, "Do you want to sing on this Dolly Parton project I'm doing?" He listed off the other female artists that were involved. Of course, I'm a fan of every single one of them, which included Shania Twain, Alison Krauss, Shelby Lynne, Norah Jones - just ridiculously amazing female artists. I had nothing going on, but I'm like, "Yeah, I think I could make that work." He sent over some songs that he was thinking would be a fit on the record and I picked "Jolene." But there was another act who wanted to do "Jolene." So it almost didn't happen, but that act backed out, and it wound up mine.

But honestly, I didn't know how to play it. And that's why the chord progression is that way, because I was trying to figure out how to play it, and it worked out really well. The day that I met Dolly was the day she was hearing it for the first time. I was in the room with her and she didn't know what the song was at first. It really was so organic how she just embraced me as a young artist and took me along for the ride in a way that I would never have dreamed of. How that all panned out and how generous and kind she was to me so early on to invest her time in what I was doing - it was everything. I look back and I can't believe that happened.

To have a front seat in the hypothetical car with her to see how she operates in certain circumstances with interviews, or when we did Jay Leno. She's a total pro and she's so engaging. She's of another world. To have that experience, I can't even put into words how valuable that was from a learning standpoint as well.

Songfacts: She seemed to really admire your version. That must have meant a lot to you.

Smith: I credit the players and the production, and that all plays a part in how a song comes together. It takes on its own life. I credit the musicians and obviously Dolly for writing it, and Steve Buckingham for including me on the project and producing the record. All the elements that came together, beyond just me picking up the guitar and figuring it out, it made the song what it was.

When that song came out, prior to the release, I was having trouble getting a deal here in town, because they didn't really know what to do with what I was doing. After that song, I did have a lot of opportunities offered to me. I had four record deals on the table. It goes to show you, it just takes sticking with it. For folks out there still trying to do this, you never know what doors will open from certain opportunities. Maybe somebody didn't see what they could do with the music until after somebody else did. Sometimes one opportunity like that can create so many other opportunities.

Songfacts: You were featured on Kenny Chesney's "Better Boat." He had this to say about you:

If you close your eyes and listen to her voice... she brings calm. She brings a sense that it's all going to be alright, that everything's ok. When I hear her voice, it's like an angel. Her voice is so genre-less. Her voice when it comes in, it just has this sense of healing to it that not a lot of people have.

How do you feel about that, and how did this collaboration come about?

Smith: Kenny is somebody that's always been encouraging since my first record, One Moment More. He reached out to me years ago. He picked up the phone and called me just to tell me he loved the music on that record, in 2004 or 5. A couple years ago I got a call after the Hurricanes (Irma and Maria). He was making an album and wanted me to sing on a song with him. Of course, I said absolutely, I'm 100% on board to sing. Then he sent me the song, written by Travis Meadows and Liz Rose. The song is so powerful, learning how to build a better boat to get to where I need to go, or how to navigate life in waters in the face of some trauma or chaos.

Kenny has always been supportive. Music is like that, like how water floats and it finds its way to people. I'm so thankful and appreciative to be included in things. That was a big deal because I needed that boost in my life, and he provided that for me. You get downtrodden. You think, "Am I relevant anymore?" And then out of the blue you get a phone call. It really was for me, a better boat situation. I had a lot of connection to that song myself, in my life and the journey I was on at the time. It was sort of a little life preserver tossed to me, and Kenny provided that and I'm so pleased and thankful for that.

Songfacts: You have beautiful Christmas music, with original songs like "Snowed In" and "Santa Will Find You." Did you always want to record your own Christmas music and what is that process like for you?

Smith: It's so funny because Christmas music is the gift that keeps on giving. Every year people want to find something new to listen to for Christmas, but they don't want to push too far outside the boundaries in their minds of what Christmas music is supposed to sound like. It's a strange phenomenon. I have been able to write a couple jingles, albeit not all by myself. A couple of them are cowrites. It's funny because I'm not the person who does a lot of Christmas decorations, but I love the sentiment of Christmas and the fellowship of family. The anticipation - you put yourself from a kid's perspective. Christmas is everything! You count down the days. Some people start the day after Christmas. At first, I was very reluctant to do a Christmas album. I was not into it all. I was convinced by the songwriter and artist Chely Wright to write a Christmas song here and there. And the label, Vanguard, got really excited about it and there you have it, all these years later. To follow it up with an EP and another Christmas single, and it's about that time of year to write another Christmas song. You write them in August and you have to find the Christmas spirit when it's 100 degrees outside. It's a fun element of music to have. I'm taken aback at how people have reacted to the Christmas stuff.

Songfacts: You have a lot in the works - what more do you want to say with your music?

Smith: I'm at a point now where I'm happy. I'm thankful and excited about a new project. I used to get so caught up in how people would respond to it. But now I'm just happy to have made something that I'm proud of. I hope people get it and get where I'm coming from.

With my new project next year that I'm going to be sharing, I'm thankful to be making another go at it, taking another stab at it. There was a time where I would go back and forth, listening to the voices in my head. You're questioning. I think a lot of people do that, especially us creatives. But I'm excited to have new stuff.

August 29, 2022

For more information on Mindy Smith, and upcoming tour dates, visit www.mindysmithmusic.com.

Photo: Fairlight Hubbard

About the author:
Nicole Roberge was 18 when she started doing music interviews, traveling to New England rock clubs and beyond. After winning a Rolling Stone writing contest in college, she pursued journalism full-time and went on to publish in The LA Times, ELLEgirl, Blurt, Hear/Say, Songwriter Universe, J Vibe, and Script Magazine, as well as running her own online music magazine, Tuned in Music. She is the author of the memoir, Hang In There, Wherever "There" Is.

Footnotes:

  • 1] Beth Nielsen Chapman, who co-wrote Smith's Long Island Shores track "Edge Of Love," released a collaborative album with Olivia Newton-John and Amy Sky in 2016 called Liv On. She also co-wrote many hit country singles, including Faith Hill's "This Kiss" and Martina McBride's "Happy Girl." (back)

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