a blog about music, visual arts, entertainment and everything in between
by tamara hilmes, intern
Addison Independent intern Tamara Hilmes caught up with Festival on-the-green performer Moira Smiley of VOCO earlier this week. The New Haven native relates her gradual journey west and overseas, and reflects on how her rural Vermont upbringing continues to inspire her musical pursuits.
Addison Independent: Hi Moira. Is that how you pronounce it? Moy-ruh?
Smiley: Actually, I pronounce it More-uh. Like Laura, but with an “M.”
Addison Independent: Oh, alright. Well, I guess first could you tell how and when you were first approached about performing in the Festival on-the-Green?
Smiley: Sure. I had actually been in touch with the Festival people for a couple of years, and I ended up seeing one of the organizers at some other folk festivals. And I always loved the festival when I was growing up. I always thought it was such a magical way to hear music.
Addison Independent: You were born in New Haven, is that correct?
Smiley: Yes, I grew up there. I lived in New Haven right up through when I went away to college, so I guess that would be about the first 18 years of my life. I still go back, but not often enough. My parents still live in New Haven, and they’ll be at the Festival to watch me perform.
Addison Independent: Where did you go when you left New Haven?
Smiley: I attended the music school at Indiana University to study piano. When I was younger I had studied with a local teacher, Diana Fanning, and Elaine Greenfield in Burlington. I studied for seven years at Indiana to get an early music degree. I actually started a group in college and we were touring internationally, but it unfortunately broke up.
Addison Independent: You’re currently living in L.A. Can you tell me how you ended up there?
Smiley: That’s a good question. I first moved out to San Francisco and in 2001 I moved to Los Angeles. It was a big change, but I was ready for it. In between, I spent a lot of time in Europe and in New York City, too.
Addison Independent: Would you say that the places you’ve lived have played a role in influencing your music?
Smiley: I grew up in quite a strong folk community. The people surrounding the Festival on-the-green were all young back then and really experimenting with all kinds of music. There was Irish music, Sun Ra… there were a wide number of influences. A lot of improvisational music was coming out of Middlebury, as well. I also spent time in the Montpelier Area where people were experimenting more with Eastern European and South African sounds. And my parents play a lot of early-American or Shaker music. I was actually teaching voice this past year and doing a lot of work with the early-American genre. So, I had always had a strong background in folk due to my growing up in New Haven, and I turned to the piano as sort of a musical map, to offer me some direction.
Addison Independent: So how did you end up becoming involved in VOCO?
Smiley: About four years ago I posted an ad on Craigslist, and got some band members that way. It took a couple of years for the band to work out, personnel-wise. It’s tricky because I have so many musical interests, and it took awhile for one sound to really mature. But I think that’s what’s happening now.
Addison Independent: And how would you describe that sound?
Smiley: Simply stated, we’re celebrating vocal harmony. We really have two streams of influence: there’s the Eastern European sound, which would be from places like Bulgaria, Hungary, the Ukraine, Croatia and Serbia. And the second is what I would call Appalachian, or I guess the early-American Shaker style. So it’s sort of these combined to create our own take on new music and improvisation.
Addison Independent: I’ve also heard that you do a lot with what you call “body percussion.” What does that mean exactly?
Smiley: Body percussion is simply where you use your hands and feet to play the skin and the floor. When we do it, we are all four standing together and moving together. It really allows us to enjoy the rhythm of the music. And it’s great because we’re musicians and not dancers. Also, our music is so beautiful and intense, that we need a way to place. It makes us laugh.
Addison Independent: Being a composer, do you write most of this beautifully intense music yourself?
Smiley: It’s mostly coming from me, yes. But we most certainly all arrange the music. Our cello player, Jessica, is a very talented arranger, and she comes up with some really dynamic cello parts. And Christine, a choral conductor and jazz singer in her own right, and Jess, who’s performed with various reggae and hip-hop groups in the past, have a good sense of rhythm and for how to sing harmonies together. We’re really all about the spirit of experimenting, and we try to spend as much time as possible improvising. For example, we try to set aside time during practice just for improvisation.
Addison Independent: Will you be improvising at the Festival on Thursday night?
Smiley: It’s possible, but it’s the first day of our tour, and we usually don’t like to improvise until we’ve had a couple of days to warm up.
Addison Independent: The Festival is the first stop on your tour?
Smiley: Yes. It’s a tour that goes all along the East Coast, from Maine all the way down to Georgia. We’re playing a lot of festivals, in theaters, clubs in New York, and some performing arts centers as a part of their summer series.
Addison Independent: Will you mostly be playing from your most recent album?
Smiley: It will be a mixture, definitely. And we actually have another album coming out August first, so we’ll be playing from that, although unfortunately we won’t have it in Middlebury.
Addison Independent: But your latest album, or I guess your second most-recent album now, circle, square, diamond and flag was featured on NPR. Was that your first experience on national radio?
Smiley: It was the first time for VOCO, but I’ve fortunately had a few exciting opportunities to be on NPR. It’s exciting to have that kind of distribution. A lot of music is so under the radar these days; it’s nice to have that flash into the bigger picture. That kind of exposure helps because otherwise you’re a bit like a foot soldier. It’s amazing to be out on tour, but it’s difficult, too.
Addison Independent: circle, square, diamond and flag seemed to heavily rely on the more Southern stream of influence. Is that the direction you’re heading in?
Smiley: We definitely featured a program with the Shaker music on that album, but it was always meant to be paired with our newest album, Small World, which will be mostly original music influenced by Eastern Europe. When I was writing it, I was especially influenced by Bela Bartok, a Hungarian composer, who not only composed classical music, but also collected it. He was what you’d call an ethnomusicologist. He went around collecting music from villages all over Eastern Europe. Like Bartok, we have a willingness for the avant-garde sensibility. We just enjoy what comes with the improvisation.
Addison Independent: Is that what you see yourself doing one day? Collecting folk music like Bartok?
Smiley: I want to do all of it. It’s lovely to be on tour and to have the company of the three other ladies, but I also love doing solo work, and I do envision myself collecting and learning from the masters, too.
Addison Independent: Thank you so much for speaking with me today. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Smiley: I guess I’d just like to honor my influencers who were right there in the Middlebury area. They really opened up the world to me, and it’s exciting to be able to come back and share what I’ve discovered.