WHEN THE SINGER/SONGWRITER BECAME A MOTHER, SHE LOST HER MUSICAL TEAM BUT FOUND A NEW CREATIVE OUTLET
Meaghan Smith’s plan was to give herself a year to make it as a musician in Halifax, and if that didn’t work out, she’d just move back to London, Ont.
About 17 years, several albums, and one Juno award later, she’s still here. “Can I be from here now?” she laughs. “My kids are born here, my husband’s from Tatamagouche.”
She bears the Halifax badge of honour of being able to reminisce about a bar that’s now closed: the Tickle Trunk on Spring Garden Road, where she performed at open mic nights. “It was perfect because I didn’t really know anyone,” said Smith, “If I make a total arse of myself I’ll just move home.” She describes her wicked stage fright, an obstacle she has (mostly) overcome.
Smith has since put down roots in Halifax; she met her husband and musical collaborator on the 34 bus from Clayton Park to downtown, and regularly walks the trails of St. Margaret’s Bay while mulling lyrics.
What else is she up to? Her Instagram feed provides some clues. Smith has a photo series captioned “What my hands are doing”. Things her hands might be doing at any given time: throwing a toonie in a waterfront street performer’s guitar case, strumming a ukulele with one of her sons, tracing a heart on a fogged-up window.
What she’s not doing is touring a new album. Her priority is raising her two sons close to home, a decision that changed the trajectory of her career, and prompted her to find a new way to make music.
After having children, Smith was confronted with a conundrum many working parents face: not having enough hours in the day (and in her case, certainly not enough to do a tour).
Her label was patient and postponed her upcoming tour, but wanted to know when she could get back to work, making her realize it wasn’t a matter of needing more time. She couldn’t envision ever touring with a baby or young child, going from airport to rental car to hotel to venue, and repeat. “I now have this baby and I know what touring is,” she recalls. “I don’t think I can do that with a baby.”
Rather than postponing the inevitable, she was honest with her label, parting ways with them and her manager. Her voice has no trace of bitterness as she explains the business model of making an album, then promoting and touring it. “I’ve accepted that everyone’s left my musical team,” she says. “Maybe I’m not going to do music anymore, maybe I’m going to work at Chapter’s, or nothing. I don’t know.”
Disconnected from her fans and music career, Smith had to find a way to be creative again. “Everything changed,” she says. “I lost a huge part of my identity which is a touring, performing musician.”
About a year and a half ago, she posted on Facebook asking her fans what they thought she should do. After jettisoning a few suggestions such as crowdfunding for a new album, because again, an album means a tour, she decided she wanted to start telling their stories, and embarked on a new project called Our Song, writing songs for her patrons, one by one. She got back to the basics of writing and singing music from home.
Les Cooper, a music producer who worked on her first album, The Cricket’s Orchestra, thinks her songwriting is a rare talent. “She’s a really good writer,” he says. “She’s a great singer, but there’s lots of great singers. There’s not lots of great writers.”
Singer/songwriter Jill Barber introduced Cooper and Smith. “The second I heard Meaghan I was like Oh wow, I really want to work with her,” says Cooper.
He describes Smith as “intuitively” musical. “I believe she taught herself how to play guitar,” says Cooper. “The music that comes out of her, it’s very pure. There’s no kind of technical roadblocks with her.”
Cooper was never formally trained, he plays by ear, and relates to Smith musically: “She’s one of those people that hears a melody in her head and she picks up the guitar or piano or whatever instrument and she figures out a way to do it.”
What can patrons expect when they ask Smith to write a song? A lot of questions and no guarantee she’ll take them on. Smith has been commissioned to write songs to commemorate anniversaries, weddings, new babies, and even deceased spouses.
But she turns down requests if she’s not able to connect to the story, or doesn’t approve of the motivation. Like a man who wanted a song written as an apology to a girlfriend he had cheated on. “I’m not going to judge people,” said Smith, “But I’m not into emotional manipulation with songwriting.”
Smith’s core philosophy is that we are all connected by the emotions we experience “[If] I can connect with that emotion, the emotional experience you’re having, I can write your song,” she says. “It doesn’t matter the circumstance.”
Candace Berry, a local Halifax photographer and friend of Smith’s, agrees. She commissioned a song for her daughter, Everly, to express what she couldn’t put into words.
“We had a conversation, because she wanted to know ‘what do you want to have this song say? Or what do you really want your daughter to know?’” Berry says.
The song ended up featuring throwaway snippets of their conversation. In Berry’s case the title of her song “Deep Deep Down” is something Smith quietly picked up on from their interview, but Berry doesn’t even remember saying. She kept her distance during writing, understanding the importance of giving the artist creative licence, and hoped for the best.
As for the reactions from her fans when they receive their song? Smith admits she’s witnessed some powerful emotions on display, and even some ugly crying. “But I think it’s beautiful.”