After making her name as a sweet-singing folk-rocker, Caroline Smith has put her band the Good Night Sleeps to bed and roused a sexy new R&B sound.
On the night she pulled off the artistic transformation so many musicians talk about but rarely achieve, Caroline Smith wore an unusually buoyant and bright-blond hairdo and electrifying, high-hemmed blue dress.
Smith, 25, now says she was finally showing her true colors at that Cedar Cultural Center gig in January. Goodbye sweet, cuddly indie-folk songbird. Hello sexy, glam R&B singer.
“My mom said, ‘Wear your hair big and keep your legs out,’ ” she recalled in an interview last week, a comment she repeated to the sold-out crowd in January. “She always says to me, ‘You have the best legs, Toots. Don’t hide ’em.’ ”
Ever since she played her first Twin Cities gigs at the 400 Bar as a teenager freshly transplanted from Detroit Lakes, Minn., Smith says she has been hiding a certain part of herself. It’s the part that pops out on her new album in the same wowing fashion as that blue dress.
“I didn’t grow up listening to indie-rock or other kinds of hip, weird music; I grew up listening to TLC, Beyoncé and other ’90s R&B — fun, a little bit cheesy, but good R&B,” said Smith, who’ll celebrate her new album, “Half About Being a Woman,” with a concert Friday night at First Avenue.
Recalling the early gigs she played as a high schooler at Zorbaz family restaurant and her mom’s old coffee shop in Detroit Lakes, Smith said, “The only reason I really started playing folk music was because my dad got me a guitar. Naturally, you start playing the most rudimentary D-C-G chords.”
“I sort of got pigeonholed in that, and was trying to be like Sufjan Stevens or whoever. That’s really not who I am at all.”
The tipping point came in January 2012, when she returned to Detroit Lakes and holed up with her band the Good Night Sleeps to make a new album. The sessions stalled. None of the songs were clicking except for one, “Child of Moving On” — the first to dabble heavily in R&B, and now the exclamation-point-like closing track on her new record.
“That one song felt so right,” Smith recalled, “it made all the others feel wrong.”
Jesse Schuster, Smith’s longtime bassist, remembered her calling him in tears shortly after the botched Detroit Lakes sessions from — of all places — Harlem in New York City.
“She was pretty upset and lost,” he recalled. “Things ended pretty tumultuously back here, so it was a confusing time.”
Smith had relatives living in New York and found an apartment in Harlem to sublet for a month while she was between crash pads in Minneapolis. It wasn’t meant to be a musical exercise, just a “getting far away to clear my head” experience, she said.
As you can imagine, the bubbly, slender, corn-fed blonde from Minnesota said she felt awkward venturing into music venues around Harlem. But she finally got up the gumption to go into a club one night (which she didn’t want to name), where she witnessed a few women joyously singing such ladies-night staples as Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” and Whitney Houston’s “Dance With Somebody.”
“It became this great female empowerment sort of thing,” she recalled with glee. “But it also became obvious the reason those women were up there singing was because it made them feel good about themselves, and it made everyone else feel good, too.”
That’s when the rest of the new songs started coming. “Feel-good” is a term that could apply to many of them, including “Magazine,” the playfully bouncy first single from “Half About Being a Woman.” Smith said it’s about eschewing the magazine-fed stereotypes of “trying to know and follow what men want us to do.” The video shows Smith and other women of varying shapes and sizes dancing around in underwear or bathing suits basically having a blast — more sweet than sexy. But it is damn sexy.
On the sensual side, Smith yearns for “healthy love” and warns, “I’m coming for you,” in the slower-swaying “All That I Know Is (I’m Your Baby).” And then there’s these provocative, blush-inducing lines in the album’s sultry title track: “Close the doors and take off my clothes / Lay me down on the bed / With your hand nestled under my neck.”
While it sounds like she’s singing about male love interests, Smith said the bulk of the songs were inspired by her female friends and their various situations.
“I’ve always paid attention to the advice, ‘Write what you know,’ ” she explained. “One of the things I think my girlfriends would say I’m good at is giving them advice on their love lives or talking freely about sexuality and women’s issues.”
She credits her openness to her mom, who she said “was the divorced woman with boyfriends people would talk about in our small town, and she didn’t care.” Caroline split her youth between Detroit Lakes and Columbus, Ohio, where her dad lives.
Listen further to the title track, and you’ll hear the sense of empowerment that her mom gave her: “Being a woman is half about being wrong,” Caroline sings. “The other half led me to be singing this song.”
Smith explains the song this way: “I’ve grown up enough to admit when I’m wrong. But I also now know when I’m right, and I’m not backing down.”
Laying the Sleeps to rest
Smith’s bandmates weren’t surprised to hear the sharp direction she took with her songwriting post-Harlem. But when it came to the question “What’s a white girl from Detroit Lakes, Minn., doing singing R&B music?” Schuster said, “It was sort of, ‘OK, show us what you got.’ ”
Smith opted to retire the band name Good Night Sleeps when it came time to make the new record — “I wanted to underline that this record is the real me, not an act,” she said — but Schuster was impressed enough with the new sound to stay around, as was drummer Arlen Peiffer. The two rhythm keepers also perform with Lucy Michelle & the Velvet Lapelles and Cloud Cult, respectively.
Then came some new faces. Jake Hanson, guitarist for everyone from the Pines and Haley Bonar to Solid Gold, was recruited not only to play on the record but also to produce it. During the recording sessions in December, Smith sang all the vocal parts, but for her coming-out gig in January, she enlisted a couple of steam-inducing backup singers to round out her sound on stage: Lizzo of the Chalice and Hannah von der Hoff of Sexcat.
“It wasn’t so much that I like having women up there with me on stage — although that is really wonderful — it’s that I like to have a huge vocal sound,” she said.
Alas, with her own “Lizzobangers” album due out next month and a chance to tour with Har Mar Superstar this fall, Lizzo had to bow out of the band. To replace her, Smith recruited a friend from New York, Ayo Awosika.
With the album release party on tap Friday at First Avenue and a subsequent tour, they were busy this week working on appropriately souled-out remakes of some of Caroline’s folkier old songs. They are also planning some surprises, including a cover song they didn’t want to reveal. Suffice it to say it’s nothing by Sufjan Stevens.
“I don’t think this record is one that’ll get reviewed by Pitchfork,” Smith said, “and I’m very OK with that.”