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Caroline Smith cites TLC and Notorious B.I.G. as two of her inspirations -- surprising, since the petite powerhouse strums her guitar like a young, skinny, jeans-wearing Joni Mitchell and sings in a voice reminiscent of quavery Billie Holiday with a hint of wistful, folksy Feist. It's a pretty great voice, actually, good enough to draw the ringing praises of music bloggers, local radio stations and iTunes reviewers alike and to captivate audiences from New York City to Fargo.
Smith, 20, started her music career as a teeny child; she was taught guitar by her father, began performing for the public at Zorbaz Pizza in her lakeside hometown of Detroit Lakes, Minn., opened a show for B.B. King and released a self-titled CD at 16. She moved to Minneapolis to start college at the University of Minnesota in 2006 and, to make a long story short, began a weekly residency at Cedar-Riverside's 400 Bar, like local star Mason Jennings before her.
From there, Smith collected a group of young men who became her band, the Good Night Sleeps. As she tells it, breathlessly rattling off the story:
"Tom Sullivan, the owner, helped a lot, and he introduced me to Arlen Peiffer, who is now my drummer. Alex Ramsey opened for me, and that's how I met him. We started playing music together, working some songs out, and a couple months later Jesse Schuster joined us as bassist."
For the affable Peiffer, who drums in Cloud Cult when he's not working with the Good Night Sleeps and whose voice-mail message says, "This is Arlen. Don't forget to smile!" it was Smith's voice that drew him to her. "I was just blown away," he said by phone from a sound check with Cloud Cult in Ohio.
Album recrafts solo songs
Smith and the boys hunkered down to record their debut album as a collective, "Backyard Tent Set," a sound described by Smith as "storybook folk with an indie twist. We think it's important that our recording sounds like our live show."
The album took many of Smith's solo songs and crafted them anew, with Peiffer's backing vocals, Ramsey's multitalented instrumentalism (from piano to banjo) and Schuster's bass working to shed new light on the material. They have toured twice in support of the album, spending a few weeks here and there on the road and crashing on couches and floors.
Schuster, 21, who also plays with local act Lucy Michelle and the Velvet Lapelles, said of their musical process, "With Caroline it's not about playing so many notes. ... We really strive to play really tightly focused and together."
Smith writes the lyrics but brings chord changes and song ideas to her bandmates, who further develop the music.
With Schuster playing with Lucy Michelle and Peiffer in Cloud Cult, it seems it might be difficult to coordinate schedules. However, Caroline Smith and the Good Night Sleeps beg to differ.
"While I'm on tour with Lucy, I'm thinking about the next Caroline rehearsal," Schuster said. "I'm writing for one project while I'm on the road with another."
Smith added, "The fact that Lucy is willing to do that, it really reflects on the Minneapolis music scene."
When you ask Caroline and the Sleeps what the highlight of their time together has been, their answer is unanimous: It's their time together.
"We're really, really funny," Peiffer said.
"We are pretty good buds," agreed Schuster.
"We are like the geekiest band ever," said Smith. "We are best friends. ... Our drives are nine hours long and they fly by because we're laughing hysterically."
Because they spend so much time on the road, are there any "Almost Famous"-esque sing-alongs? Absolutely, said Smith. " 'Young Turks' by Rod Stewart is a favorite right now. We cover them because we get so excited."
A more obvious highlight of their career so far was playing at Minneapolis' premier rock venue, First Avenue. "I totally looked out from the stage and thought, 'When I was in high school, I used to sit in my bathroom and sing with my guitar and pretend I was on the main stage of First Avenue,' " said Smith. "I was totally transported back to that moment as soon as I started playing and I got all giddy."
Schuster said, "It's hard to deny that you're living your dream. You're doing exactly what you want to do."
Kara Nesvig is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.