Q&A: Eskimeaux’s Gabrielle Smith On The Road To O.K. + “Broken Necks” (Stereogum Premiere)
I’m listening to Eskimeaux’s new album for what feels like the hundredth joyous time, sitting cross-legged in a café just a few blocks away from where I saw them play live for the first time a few months ago. I’ve just wrapped up my interview with Gabrielle Smith — Eskimeaux’s beating heart — and I’m trying to put the experience and her music into words before all inspiration escapes me. I always find it hardest to talk about the albums that I love the most, which is probably a bad habit to have in my line of work, but I’m always afraid of saying the wrong thing or describing a feeling in a weird way or, maybe to a certain extent, putting the emotions I feel while listening to a song into an exact, scientific language that couldn’t possibly live up to the actual experience.
I’m reminded of a line from “Alone At The Party,” or maybe it’s playing at that moment and I happen to stumble across it: “So I talk to you through my songs instead.” I guess it’s not really the line itself, but the general attitude of the song it comes from: carefree, understanding, marked with the realization that everyone’s really “alone at the party” and that we’re all just struggling to get by. So I guess that’s a good place to start. There’s a warmness, a sense of inclusiveness that exudes from everything that Eskimeaux does. They’re great at capturing the feeling that you’d never want to be anywhere else.
Maybe that’s an extension of their involvement with The Epoch, the Brooklyn-based collective that’s been responsible for so much great music over the past year. Well, not really involvement per se, more so that they are the actual Epoch. While Eskimeaux began as Smith’s solo project and went through a few different iterations between then and now, it’s finally solidified into a four-piece made up of Bellows’ Oliver Kalb, Told Slant’s Felix Walworth, Sharpless’ Jack Greenleaf, and, of course, Smith herself. And on O.K. — Eskimeaux’s masterpiece of a new album — this four-piece translates Smith’s long string of demos and scratchier tracks into glorious living color, pop songs big enough to fill a room or a stadium or the hearts of everyone they touch.
Take “Broken Necks,” a track that originally appeared in fractured demo form two years ago, and is now reimagined into a swelling, exuberant pop song about self-sacrifice and loving someone so much that it hurts and the inseparable bond between two people. “Whether friends or in love, there’s an indisputable beauty,” Smith sings with a comforting, calm resignation. “While you were breaking your neck trying to keep your head up, I was breaking my neck just to stick it out for you.” One of Eskimeaux’s many strengths is making you smile and feel like breaking down into tears within the same second, and that talent is on full display here. “Open up your hands and accept that this has ended,” and then, as the music drops and it feels as though your heart may fall out of your chest: “Nothing in this world is holier than friendship.”
Listen to “Broken Necks” and read our Q&A with Smith below.
STEREOGUM: I know Eskimeaux’s been through a bunch of different iterations, so let’s talk a little bit about the history of how it all started.
GABRIELLE SMITH: I started the Eskimeaux project when I was living in New Jersey for 6 months. It was my first time living outside of my parents’ house and I was living in a pretty professional, fully-functioning recording studio. I was, however, really depressed; I spent about 90% of the time watching Sea Lab 2020, House MD, and Home Movies. I had this dickhead boyfriend at the time, who was also my roommate, who broke up with me and accused me of not doing anything. And I was like, “I’ve been doing stuff … I wrote an album.” And he was like, “Really?” And I was like, “Yeah, I’ll show it to you tomorrow…” And then I went into my room and recorded an album. And that’s how Eskimeaux started, out of spite. My roommates had a pretty cool net-label and they released my album. I think I got just enough positive reinforcement to just keep doing it. But it was a really weird, experimental, ambient noise album. I just didn’t have any idea about songwriting at all. So I just made this drone-sounding album. Eventually, over time, I started collaborating with people and then it became a band (in about a billion different forms, from a solo act to a 7-piece folk band to an electronic duo to its final form, this four-piece rock outfit) several years later.
STEREOGUM: When you ended up putting together this new album, how did you decide that you were going to basically recreate the live band?
SMITH: I wrote a whole bunch of demos when Oliver and I lived in Chicago for a while a couple of years ago. I had a job for a couple of months and then, when we had one more more left of living there, I was just like, fuck this, and quit my job and did a song-a-day project. So I did all of these and then I sent it to Jack, and when we moved back to New York, he moved back shortly after when he graduated from college. And he was just like, “You should do real versions of these songs rather than just making these demo albums.” And then I started recording the polished versions, and he came in and did the rest of the magic for us.
STEREOGUM: How did you go about rearranging these home demos that you had into fully-fleshed out pop songs?
SMITH: I used to come into band practice with a full vision and would say, like, “Felix, you need to do this,” and Felix would do a better version of whatever I said. And then I’d be like, “Oliver, I don’t know what chords I’m playing, so this is the song,” and he would figure it out. So we basically took that method… I brought the songs to the band and said, “This is what I want,” and then we brought them into Jack’s “studio” (my bedroom). It’s just sort of a conversation. I bring something in that’s a solo song, and then I sort of know that I don’t want it to be one way, but I don’t know how exactly I want it to be. And then it becomes a dialogue between me and the band. For this album, it just got all put together. The band version became the expanded version, and now we’re trying to recreate more of a representation of the recorded version.
STEREOGUM: Did you have any specific influences or inspirations while you were recording this album?
SMITH: I have spent the whole time I’ve been listening to music listening to Xiu Xiu and just being obsessed with Jamie Stewart. And listening to Gowns, who are so great, and Mount Eerie and Tegan And Sara. When our booking agent asked what support tours we’d love to go on, I said Tegan And Sara. I would cry. I’m obsessed with their new album. I love that song “Drove Me Wild.” After I heard that album, I took that song to Jack and was like, “Everything that we’ve done … We have to make it sound like this. This is the new barometer for what we’re doing.” Also, Taylor Swift. She’s amazing. 1989 is one of the only albums that I have on my phone right now.
STEREOGUM: Since all of these tracks were written over such a long period of time, how did you decide what was going to be on the album to make it a cohesive thing?
SMITH: We basically took the songs that we had translated into live songs — except for “Everything You Love,” which we just thought was too epic to leave out — and then the songs that didn’t make it were the ones that were less accessible lyrically, or just less catchy. We basically chose all of the pop songs for the record, and the rest were kind of obviously not as developed.
STEREOGUM: Do you think you’re going to stick with a full band, or do you think you’re gonna release some solo demos once in a while like you used to?
SMITH: I definitely still want to release the demo albums. I love the instant gratification that releasing demos gives me — I can just put stuff out there and see whether or not people think it’s good. That’s a great feeling, even when it isn’t received well, because it’s honest, final and you can be like, “Okay, that didn’t work,” and move on. On the other hand, there is certainly something to be said for the “real release.” It is a much longer, very different process, but in the end the albums that you work really hard on, both before and after they are finished, are the albums that define you as an artist in the public eye. I have a whole new album of demos, which I plan to just show to Dave and Mike [from Double Double Whammy] and if they think they’re good, then I’ll save them for a new, real album and figure them out with the band. If not, I’ll just release them as demos and try again.
STEREOGUM: Let’s talk a little bit about “Broken Necks” — how did that one come together?
SMITH: I wrote that song quite a while ago, before any of the aforementioned demos. There was a period in which I was wildly in love with someone who was (and still is) a wonderful, seriously talented person who was sick literally all the time. It was one thing after another with illnesses that were seriously overwhelming and that kept them bedridden for a long time and countless hospital visits. I wrote like a billion songs about feeling simultaneously in love and helpless to fix them. I think, in general, both of us were much more capable of expressing our feelings in the form of songs than face-to-face, so we would hang out together and then go home and send each other songs. In a way we had an ongoing, passive dialogue that was sometimes romantic and sometimes really hurtful to each other.
“Broken Necks” was kind of the final hurrah of that dialogue, my way of trying to break it off. Some of the lyrics are actually from a song that the other person wrote: “Nothing in this world is holier than friendship” — I was using them in an attempt to remind them of positive, hopeful feelings they had had within the negative stuff that was going on surrounding our relationship.
I was also using that song as a way to get out of the “gothic ice-princess” vibe I felt like I had shoved myself into with my older music. I had always felt really inspired by bands that could write “summer jams” or like, “bangers” but never felt like I could pull it off. That song has undergone A LOT of revisions, like years and years of trying to make it as much of a dancey, happy fun time as possible. I feel like that’s the only way to deliver a break up in song. Either that or really angrily.
[Album art by Susannah Cutler, press picture by Andrew Piccone.]