When established singers such as Anika Moa, Nesian Mystik and members of the Datsuns need help finding their voice, they call Caitlin Smith. Her spine-tingling backing vocals feature on albums by everyone from Ben Lummis to Concord Dawn. She's spent seven years gigging solidly, winning fans and critical praise and studiously avoiding making an album of original music. She says it was her students who inspired her to finally get cracking.
You talk about wanting to make "real music". What is "unreal music"? The manufacture of people who aren't necessarily working musicians, people who would otherwise be models or dancers, but who have been catapulted into the forefront of the music industry. A working musician is usually the one who does the session work, and all the members of the Caitlin Smith Group are working and highly acclaimed session musicians. We're the music that is behind the other people. So if you have, for example, a solo artist like Brooke Fraser, it would be part of our pack who are the people supporting her.
Does the success of musicians without much talent make you sad? I think everyone should be able to realise their dream, even if it means that person didn't really want to be a singer but they could hold a tune and there was a lot done in post-production and in fact what they really wanted to do was start their own line of clothing. I ask my students, "What's your end goal?" That usually sorts the wheat from the chaff. A real musician has a desire to become a better musician and there's no faking it, really.
Yet there's a lot of "manufactured music" doing really well. There are lots of people who can't tell the difference: the type of person who would follow the trend of, "Oh, this person looks good therefore I'm going to buy the CD." Or, "I'll get the CD and put posters up in my bedroom because I'm 12 years old." I don't think we'll be a poster band. I think we're for people who will respect the fact that we're all playing our own instruments live and respect the fact that we perform a lot live and therefore what you hear on the CD is very much what we deliver.
You released two jazz CDs with your last group, the Fondue Set, but your new CD, Aurere, is your first album of original music. Because I hadn't written a song for 12 years, I believed I didn't have it in me. A reviewer who was reviewing the last Fondue Set CD would have given it five out of five stars if I'd had some original songs on it. That was like a red rag to a bull. I thought, right, you want me to write some original songs, I'll write original songs, pal. I like the fact that, at 33, I'm releasing originals because I think that throws people. There are a lot of people out there who buy into the myth that every- thing has to happen at a really early age.
You describe Aurere as a one-take wonder. What do you mean? When we recorded it we were all in the same room, playing the song at the same time, and that was captured on tape, the actual moment of creation. There wasn't any cutting and pasting involved with that CD. Everything was in the moment.
Why doesn't that happen more often? The technology is a lot cheaper if you go digital. One hour of two-inch, 16-track tape, which is what I use, costs $900. The analogue has a warm sound to it. I don't know if it's just the blind-person thing [Smith has been legally blind since birth], but I very much hear the warmth in analogue. I guess you could say it's a connoisseur's choice, but that would be wanky.
Your list of students reads like a Who's Who of Kiwi music. Who is truly talented? I got the privilege recently of working with Lucid 3. They just wanted to do a couple of top-up lessons to work on the blend of voices. I have a great deal of respect for lead singer Victoria Girling-Butcher. I love her attitude towards her voice, which is, let's see what this little baby's capable of doing. It's not, how can I get other people to make me sound better, how can I get this machine to make me sound better, or how can I disguise my faults?
Is it hard teaching established singers to sing? Don't they get a bit tetchy? There are some people who see it as almost a humiliating thing, like there must be something wrong with them. If you're good at your craft, you want to improve yourself. If you're just frightened, you'll assume you can't change. Anybody can change, no matter how far gone they are. What I think everyone needs to do is think of what they absolutely want to sound like, what is the ideal sound they want to get from their voice. That's something I do as a goal-setting exercise when I start teaching anybody, regardless of whether they're already established.
You warmed up Courtney Love for the Big Day Out a few years ago. What was that like? I think it was only on doctor's orders that Courtney was doing what she had to do.
Is she someone who uses her voice well? She's quite screamy. That's the test: can you yell well? What struck me about her was her extensive range. She was an interesting person. I liked how she polarised the audience. A lot of women saw her as a mentor and a lot of men were repulsed.
You do your own publicity, are self-managed and, after a printing mistake on your album cover, you hand-assembled 1000 of your CDs. It was almost trance-inducing and it was so cool because every single one of those CDs went out there with a secret little prayer to find a good home, to please be loved by those people who listen to you, and understood, too.