I tell Eskimeaux’s Gabrielle Smith that I hope she won’t find my next statement creepy. She says the interview’s been going fine so far…, so I’m free to ask away. I admit to her that I can vividly recall the moment, the time of day, the position of the sun, even where I was on my lawn, with earbuds snugged in, when I first heard the Eskimeaux song “I Admit I’m Scared…”
Eskimeaux songs are emotionally tremulous like that; their evocative heft may be undermined by some of their minimalist constructions or even by Smith’s own delicate and dulcet voice, but when you hear ‘em, you don’t’ forget ‘em.
“Well, first of all, that’s not creepy at all,” Smith says, with gratitude. Her Brooklyn-based quartet, with Oliver Kalb on synth, Jack Greenleaf on bass and Felix Walworth on drums, are putting out their new EP Year of the Rabbit on Double Double Whammy on April 22. And while I’m referring, above, to a song from their 2014 breakout record O.K., it’s still an opportune time to ask her about her songwriting process and whether she has an audience of listeners in mind who could be comparably swooning to these songs of hers, what with their keen compassion for the natural turbulences of the human condition.
That’s a hell of a lot for one question, but Smith tackles it…
“Okay, this is hard to verbalize, so stick with me… I write songs as though they’re letters to myself. Often [writing songs] is a way of crystalizing a feeling, a happy feeling or an angry feeling, or just a feeling I’m not comfortable with, and then pushing away from my body and looking at it all objectively. I don’t feel like I can just let it sit inside of me, and I need to have a moment away from it and examine it.”
“So each song is a way of taking that feeling and learning from it, learning whether it’s something I want to push back inside myself…keep going with me on this metaphor…put back inside myself and know that it’s something that empowers me, or if it’s something that represents a fucked up time that I’m now glad to not be a part of any longer and can now remove it by writing a song about it.”
I’ve heard countless songwriters equate their music to therapy, but Smith makes it sound more like surgery.
“I feel lucky to be able to find out (through music) that the things that are important to me or the things that I go through are normal. And I also feel lucky that I’m able to verbalize it in a way that other people can relate to…simultaneously making somebody else feel like they’re not alone in whatever experience they’re having and can somehow relate to mine. So that I’m not alone in the experience, myself, because other people get me.”
So I don’t know if it’s that Smith gets us so well or if that we get her, but the Eskimeaux frontwoman seems to be a natural lyricist, and the band’s latest batches of songs, even on the lissome new EP, are plucking lots of heartstrings, both wistful and ecstatic.
Smith has been creating songs under the moniker of Eskimeaux since about 2007, back when it was an experimental solo trip. The name draws from Smith, who was adopted, having had little concrete information about her birth family other than knowing her father is Tlingit eskimo. (To clarify, this particular Alaskan tribe is not Inuit and considers “eskimo” to be an inoffensive term).
Smith started her first recordings during a brief stint in New Jersey, with a day’s worth of recordings cobbled together with its proof of her productivity serving mostly to spite an ex-boyfriend. But soon, some encouraging roommates released these ambient, noise-experimentations via their net-label, and things kinda started rolling from there.
Even then, after settling in Brooklyn, Eskimeaux has gone through several iterations, not just sound and style, but also personnel. Smith, of course, has been the constant. She admits that it certainly solidified when she started hanging out with Kalb and Walworth at Bard College, even if she was hesitant to embrace more of a guitar-rock format.
“I had a very closed mind, initially, and for a long time,” Smith said about her judgments about what the band would sound like and who the band would include. “I feel like the most important word to me was…or at least the way I wanted my music to come across as, was: nauseating! I mean in a transporting sort of way, like transporting you to another state, like motion sickness. I mean that in a healthy way, (laughs).”
Talk about motion sickness. Smith used to do lots of her songwriting, (lyrics, at least) while riding public transportation. You can see the scribbly-est handwriting if you peak at her notebooks, because of the bumps on the bus. But Smith said she sort of thrives in that kind of on-the-go turbulence.
Speaking of on-the-go, Smith not only fronts a band with Kalb, Greenleaf, and Walworth, but she also collaborates with those gents in a handful of other bands. While she balances tours with other bands like Bellows and Told Slant, she’s also finishing up her tenure as keyboardist for Frankie Cosmos. Eskimeaux, meanwhile, is hitting its highest gear of propulsion, in terms of business, that Smith can ever recall. And it all sprang from about 2015-onwards, since the release of O.K.
“I feel like even when I was younger and my life wasn’t as productively chaotic as it is, now, I would still create a lot of chaos or create a lot of transience in my life. I’ve always been, well, not ‘nomadic,’ but, I’ve always kept my fingers in many pies. And, so, yeah, a lot of my learning how to write songs was done while writing the bus from Philadelphia to New York, or on the subway, too.”
One key way Smith has found some order out of chaos was in co-founding an art collective in Brooklyn called the Epoch, which counts Frankie Cosmos and Eskimeaux under its banner, along with Told Slant (ft. Walworth, Kalb and Smith), and Bellows (again, ft. Walworth, Kalb and Smith). The Epoch became a way of “empowering each other and keeping in touch with each other;” a clubhouse of support, really, or something akin to a creative family.
The Epoch is very “overlappy…” as Smith put it; in the way each of the bands in it swap or share members. She makes it sound very rewarding and optimal for each individual artist involved, as well as their respective bands, and I cause her to laugh nervously when I suggest that “healthy” and “incestuous” aren’t usually used in the same sentence…but! But…
But it was Frankie Cosmos’ Greta Kline who served as one of the biggest motivators for Smith, when it comes to getting Eskimeaux going. “When I discovered [Frankie Cosmos] I asked myself: what am I doing with my life? This girl has 30 albums, and I’ve been sitting on [O.K.] for two years…” This is around 2013-2014, when Smith found herself in Chicago for a confounding three months. She decided not only to move back to Brooklyn but to take up a song-a-day project, banging out brilliant pop songs (and a handful of trippier, gothic ambient trips) and accelerated her way toward completing what became her breakout album.
Smith is still interested in creating that motion-sickness feeling with her weirder sides, even though the song you’ve streamed above is more inclined to indie-pop. Don’t read Smith as some guitar-loving sunshine pop wunderkind. She actually had a strong aversion to traditional rock formulas for years. That said, you can anticipate a variety when it comes to Eskimeaux, the breezy, blue-sky sunshine and the headier, shades-drawn, dark night of the soul expansions.
“I feel like there are two modes of Eskimeaux,” said Smith. “And, it’ll be interesting, because the demos I’ve been working on for the next record are back to that healthy nauseating vibe. More intense, ya know? Denser, darker-sounding…or at least some of them. And then others are very poppy and upbeat….
“So, it will be weird trying to make a cohesive record out of it, but whatever happens, I want to make sure to teach the band all of these songs by the time we get to the studio, have them all already arranged. That way, we can capture some of that fast, riffy, poppy-Eskimeaux and then the slower-gothic-Eskimeaux, and be able have the band gracefully marry each of those versions of the band.”
Sounds potentially chaotic. But, like, healthy chaos. That’s just Eskimeaux’s speed.