Oakes & Smith

Robert Oakes and Katherine Smith, better known as the art folk duo Oakes & Smith, first came together in 2007 when Smith assisted Oakes with his full-length record, Heart Broken Open. Happily, it ended up being more than a one-time collaboration, as the two were not only able to work together rather effortlessly, but they found they truly brought the best out of one another. Robert recalls it well: “Working with Kate really drew me out. She inspired me to get out there again and get back in touch with that magic of the moment, and this has brought me so much joy.”

Oakes Smith5DTJ7TLo43UeY-YdcTj3_3wTQ9EzLg_pOsIPLNK2lBkCurrently calling Tyringham, Massachusetts home, Oakes & Smith have developed quite the fan base, successfully funding their latest record through a Kickstarter campaign; the debut full-length album for the twosome, titled First Flight. The two told us all about it – they said, “Whereas our 2011 release, The School Session EP, was a hushed four-song, mostly live recording with guitar, piano and our two voices, First Flight is a fully produced, full-length album that features a backing band and a bigger, more polished sound. There are some quiet, meditative moments, for sure, but there are also some up-tempo tunes with very lively arrangements…Threaded through the album are themes of love and leap-taking, dreaming and wonder, connection with nature and spirit and hope for the future.” Click to www.oakesandsmith.net to sample some tunes off of First Flight and keep an eye out for a show in your area as Oakes & Smith hit the road in support. There’s still much more to get into, so read on for all the answers to the XXQs below.

XXQs: Oakes & Smith

PensEyeView.com (PEV): How would you describe your sound and what do you feel makes you stand out over others in your genre?

Oakes & Smith (OS): Soulful. Peaceful. Harmonious. Lyrical. The foundation of our act is the love and connection between us, as well as the connection we feel to nature and to spirit. It’s about looking for union. We try to express that in the closeness of our harmonies and the gentle longing in many of the lyrics. It’s also about a return to innocence and simplicity. We try to express that through organic, pure acoustic sounds and by letting our voices, melody and message shine through.

PEV: Calling Tyringham, MA (Western Massachusetts) home, what kind of music were you two into growing up? Do you remember your first concert?

Robert Oakes (RO): We live in Western Massachusetts now, but we are both transplants. I am originally from New Jersey, and though I grew up during the days of 80s pop, hair metal, and then 90s grunge, I listened to a lot of 60s- and 70s-era rock and prog. My favorites were The Who, Genesis, Yes, Jethro Tull, The Moody Blues, Rush, Queen, King Crimson. I also loved artists like Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Joe Jackson, David Bowie, Van Morrison, Paul Simon, Cat Stevens, as well as traditional music from Ireland and the UK.  The first big concert I remember going to was David Bowie’s Glass Spider Tour in 1987 with Squeeze as the opening act.

Katherine Smith (KS): I grew up in Northeastern Connecticut, which is known as “the Quiet Corner” of the state. My first loves were musical theater, classic rock and jazz vocalists. I could be found in my room most afternoons or evenings listening to the voices of Mandy Patinkin, Angela Lansbury, Donna McKechnie, Colm Wilkinson, Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Roberta Flack and many more. My first concert was Nora Jones during the time when she was touring her first album Come Away With Me.

PEV: What was it like trying to break into the music scene in your hometown, when you first started out as a band? What was your first show like together as a band?

OS: We’re fortunate to live in an area (the Berkshires) where there is a huge support system for fledgling artistic ventures. Many artists of various kinds live and work here, and it’s a very nurturing place for creative work. When we were first starting out, we would play our songs for friends at weekly music and art shares that we hosted at our apartment, and we were given lots of love and positive feedback. This encouraged us to keep at it. We then started making some small public appearances as a duo, including at a performance workshop led by singer/songwriter Joy Askew in New York City, which really helped grow our confidence in our act. Following this, we booked our first full show at a coffeehouse called Victoria Station in Putnam, Connecticut and invited lots of friends and family. We were a bit nervous at first; this was the first time we were really putting ourselves out there as an act doing a full show. But before long, we got into the groove and people really loved the music we were playing. We felt so uplifted and so excited to continue.

PEV: What can fans expect from a live Oakes & Smith show?

OS: We aim to give our audiences a pure and authentic experience – it’s us onstage, singing our songs and sharing our love.

PEV: What is the first thing that comes to mind when you step on stage?

RO: I say a little prayer to invite a guiding presence.

Oakes Smith4GYIY-qy_07JajXPVJJMzb-zwvyK8Os7dLbjBxjqTpsKS: I try not to over-think it. I open up and take in the moment.

PEV: How has playing in Oakes & Smith different from working with other artists or projects in the past?

RO: As a writer, I can sometimes become a bit too internal and cut off. But when I play live, I can tap into a powerful pulse and feel those amazing moments of mutual connection. When Kate came into my life, I was spending most of my time writing and recording songs but not venturing out to play live all that much. Working with Kate really drew me out. She inspired me to get out there again and get back in touch with that magic of the moment, and this has brought me so much joy.

KS: In the past, I performed other people’s music. In Oakes & Smith, I am one of the writers. I am able to pour myself completely into what we do. It makes me feel like I’m able to come from a very real place when I perform, because it’s very personal. And this makes me feel like I’m in the process of fulfilling my life’s path.

PEV: What is the underlying inspiration for your music? Where do you get your best ideas for songs?

OS: Now and then, little moments of meaning or clarity come through. We get those brief chances to see into the soul of things. Whenever that happens, we try to say something about it in a song using language and sounds that evoke some of the qualities of this experience. Dreams and memories are big sources of inspiration, as are others’ music, writings or artwork. Time spent meditating or walking in the woods or standing by the ocean can be very fruitful. Often, in those quiet moments of reflection, melodies or phrases will come. Sometimes, though, ideas come at less convenient or romantic moments. And it can be hard to scribble down notes in the car or the shower.

PEV: Thinking back to when you first started out, do you ever look back on your career and think about your earlier days and how you’ve arrived where you are today?

RO: I do retrace my steps and remember things I felt or experienced along the way. It’s one of the ways I find inspiration and it’s a way to take account of growth and change. Interestingly, since starting to play with Kate, I’ve felt inspired to pull out tunes I wrote many years ago, when I was just starting out as a singer/songwriter. It’s been so grounding to do this, to remember my roots and feel again some of the same things that moved me back then.

KS: Coming from a performance background mainly rooted in theater and choral groups, I never imagined myself being confident enough to sing and perform material that I helped compose and arrange. When I reflect on my past experience, my past self never had the slightest inkling that I would meet a musical partner and that we would embark on this adventure together.  I see the formation of Oakes & Smith as the beginning of my career in music.

PEV: What’s one thing we’d be surprised to hear about the members of Oakes & Smith?

RO: I was obsessed with the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons when I was growing up. Many, many teenage nights were spent exploring imaginary dungeons and killing orcs and trolls with a roll of the dice.

KS: I hate movies and videos where things jump out at you unexpectedly – that’s the worst feeling. I try to stay away from slasher films.

PEV: Tell us about your release, First Flight. What can fans expect from this work?

OS: Whereas our 2011 release, The School Session EP, was a hushed four-song, mostly live recording with guitar, piano and our two voices, First Flight is a fully produced, full-length album that features a backing band and a bigger, more polished sound. There are some quiet, meditative moments, for sure, but there are also some up-tempo tunes with very lively arrangements. It features 10 of our songs and two traditional tunes – “Factory Girl” and “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” and performances by some excellent musicians, all beautifully mixed by engineer Oz Fritz. Threaded through the album are themes of love and leap-taking, dreaming and wonder, connection with nature and spirit and hope for the future.

PEV: What is the feeling you get after a song is complete, and you can sit back and listen to it for the first time?

RO: It can actually make me feel pretty emotional. Anytime I start to work on something, I’m taking a leap of faith and putting my trust in a very mysterious process. Until something is seen all the way through to completion, the whole thing feels precarious and fragile. So, when it does finally come together and I can see it, I often get this wave of relief and reassurance in my faith that can really get me choked up. At the same time, I also usually get this feeling that there’s still more I could have said or some other way I could have said it.  I guess this is the drive that keeps me wanting to write.

KS: Whenever a piece of artwork that I have made or have helped make has reached a point of completion, I first feel relieved that the tension in trying to bring forth what I see in my mind’s eye has finally made it to the other side for others to experience. Listening to one of our songs for the first time is exciting. I often get overwhelmed, thinking, “Hey, we just made something that was never there before.”

PEV: What is the feeling you get after a song is complete and you can sit back and listen to it being played the way you envisioned?

RO: When others can join me in performing or hearing a song I wrote and we can have a shared experience through that, it’s like no other feeling. It makes me feel such a deep sense of connection.

KS: I feel a lot of things at once, mostly pride and curiosity about how others will receive and experience the work.

PEV: With all your traveling, is there one area you wish you could travel around and play that you have not yet?

OS: We would love to take our music to Europe and have the experience of traveling through the different countries there, sharing our music, meeting people and seeing new places.

PEV: How have all your friends and family reacted to your career?  What’s it like when you get to play in your hometown?

OS: Our friends and family have been very supportive. We ran a campaign on Kickstarter to raise the money we needed to finish First Flight, and many family members and friends came out in support of the project. Robert’s high school class even created a Facebook page to help garner support for the campaign, which was so moving. Just recently, we played at the Pomfret School in Pomfret, Connecticut, where Kate performed many times in school productions. It was a beautiful experience to present this new work of ours on that same stage where Kate learned so much about performing. And to have so many family members and friends there to cheer us on was very heartwarming.

PEV: What can we find each of you doing in your spare time, aside from playing/writing music?

RO: I work on writing, editing and design projects and love to dabble in video production. I also love to read and take hikes with my Alaskan Malamute, Finn.

KS: Visual art is another one of my first loves, besides music. I also enjoy reading, hiking, entertaining friends and spending time with family.

PEV: Name one present and past artist or group that would be your dream collaboration. Why?

RO: Peter Gabriel. I love his flair for theatricality, his sensitivity to the inner experience of the artist, and his commitment to bringing deep soul and emotion to pop music. He’s been a real guiding light for me.

KS: I have, in recent years, become very moved by the music and interviews that I have seen of Joni Mitchell. I think that she is a mystic artist, someone who is very close to her soul and the pulse of the universe. I think she channels something very beautiful through her lyrics and performance, and I would love to learn from her.

PEV: Is there an up and coming band or artist you think we should all be looking out for now?

OS: Many people already know about the band HuDost. They’ve been out touring and recording together for more than a decade now. But for those who don’t know them, we definitely encourage people to check out their music. Jemal and Moksha have been good friends to us and are very inspiring in their commitment to their work and in the beautiful music they create.

PEV: If playing music wasn’t your life (or life’s goal), what do you think each of you would be doing for a career?

RO: I would write books and teach. Or I would be a filmmaker.

KS: I would most likely teach or become an art therapist. I want to do something with my life that helps people and inspires them to lead their lives fully.

PEV: So, what is next for Oakes & Smith?

OS: We’re now booking shows for 2014 and working to get the word out about First Flight. We want to bring this music out into the world and reach as many people as possible.

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