Susan Smith Photo by Jeff Bird

This week’s column came into being with an email I got back on Feb. 13. It was from Susan Smith who introduced herself to me as a good friend of Ben Rudnick, who had recommended me to her following a story I did on him back in November of last year. Smith spoke of releasing a brand new album called “Tonight We Sail” and also mentioned that she was familiar with Maine because of touring she had done back in the 90s with a trio called The Bird Sisters; she also included a link to “Night Skies,” the first track on that new CD — needless to say, I was intrigued by both aspects of her pitch and immediately set up a time and day to call her at home in Guelph (say “gwelf”), Ontario, Canada.

Q: To be totally transparent, I have no questions written down today, I just want to know about you and I want to know about your music — I sense a little blues, a little jazz … all in all, it’s a cool vibe you’re laying down here, Sue.
Smith: Well, thank you. I’m really happy with the project. Oh, where to start, where to start!

Q: (Chuckle)
Smith So, a little about me. I’m a singer, songwriter, and the reason I know your area is that I toured with The Bird Sisters … and we played the Left Bank and we stayed there and we were on WERU-FM; and that’s how I came to know your area. We also played at Unity College, that’s in the Waterville area, right? Then, oh my gosh, there’s the crazy connection with Ben Rudnick, my adored friend, who you know.

Q: He’s from Massachusetts, I believe, and you’re in Canada. I know you met him while traveling in Europe, right?
Smith: That’s how we met … and we have a very strong friendship that’s continued to this day. So, when The Bird Sisters were touring in the Northeast, Ben would kind of help us, he’d drive us around Boston, he’d get us to radio stations, and that was fun. My husband, Jeff Bird, who had played with The Cowboy Junkies for years, and I are friends with Ben and Diane and their daughter, Emily.

Q: Now you mentioned the paintings of Emily Carr, a famed Canadian artist and writer, were influential to some of your songs.
Smith: Yes. Ben, Di, Em and I have gone to Emily Carr art shows together and on my new record there’s a song called “Beloved, Scorned.” The name of the painting that inspired that is “Scorned as timber, beloved as the sky.” Well, Em, who was 13 or something at that time, and I were looking at that painting. I saw a picture of complete devastation of the forest through clear-cutting, and then in the middle is one tiny, baby stick tree that they leave and it made me want to cry at the desolation but I kept that to myself and asked Em what she saw, and she said, “Well, basically, I see this one little tree and like all of the sky is giving all of its attention to that one little tree.” (Laughter)

Q: (Laughter) Ah, youth!
Smith: Oh, it was so beautiful, so that kind of inspired me, that’s one of the seeds of that song that’s now on “Tonight We Sail.” It’s about, really, perspective and the eye of the beholder and how something beloved can be something scorned. So, that’s kind of a little connection to Ben and music. I’ve written songs with Ben and he was starting out in his musical career, and I was very encouraging of all that work. So my record, Lucky, that was a big aside, “Tonight We Sail” was this fantastic opportunity to play with The Potion Kings who are Kevin Breit and Jeff (Bird) and Randall Coryell and Howie (Southwood).

The Potion Kings

Q: How did you prepare for the recording session with the band?
Smith: Well, I gathered up a collection of my songs and when Jeff and I were going off to the studio he said to me, “You know you should be happy if we get three songs today!” and I said, “Three songs? I’ve got 25!”

Q: Oh, no.
Smith: Well, that first day we got 10 tracks done and on the second session, which we did three months later, we got an additional eight tracks. So from those 18 tracks, which were mostly my songs with a couple of cover tunes, Jeff and I took those tracks and did a lot of editing because one of the things that The Potion Kings are known for is long, long improvisations.

Q: Oh, now I understand the need for editing.
Smith: (Chuckle) Yeah, and you can hear some of that stuff on the record but in a live show you hear a lot more.

Q: Now, this is your second solo album, correct?
Smith: Yes, my debut solo was done in 2006 and that was a big deal. I also have three albums with The Bird Sisters and one with a group called the Ondine Chorus which is a project made up of acoustic instruments and vocal harmonies, but this record, Lucky, is the heaviest thing I’ve ever done. I’m just so honored to have made this music with Kevin and Jeff and Randall and Howie, how they all work together as a band on the fly, like they create together on the fly, in the studio it was all live on the floor. This was just a huge joy, I’m so happy with it.

Q: How has this COVID-19 conundrum affected you?
Smith: Oh, with the dumb pandemic we can’t get out there and play, but we are going to do a livestream show in March on Friday the 26th.

Q: Now The Potion Kings will be part of that livestream, right?
Smith: Yes, absolutely, and it’s going to be me and The Potion Kings and Gwen (Swick) is going to come and sing back-up. It’s going to be so fun, Lucky, because it’ll be all the album songs but it will be how they do it and there will be lots of extended soloing and improvisational sections, it’ll be without an audience because of COVID and it’ll be in a beautiful concert hall here in Guelph, Ontario, and we get to play live and we’re so looking forward to that!

Q: Is there anything, Sue, that you’d like me to pass on to the readers of this article that will run in the Augusta and Waterville daily papers?
Smith: Oh, I invite them to listen to the adventure that is The Potion Kings playing and I hope they enjoy the music. The link to the livestreaming concert is riverrun.ca then sign up for the In The Spotlight, the River Run e-newsletter and you will receive a link on March 26 to stream the performance live, there is no paywall for this show.

Lucky Clark has spent over 50 years writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at [email protected] if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.

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