Kids in the basement

Samantha Savage Smith’s sophomore album is the product of continual collaboration

“I feel like we’re having a bit of a band identity crisis.”

Samantha Savage Smith is describing her struggle to find a permanent lead guitarist — which she may have remedied by recruiting Fist City’s Evan Van Reekum — but the statement is worth unpacking.

It’s a crisp Sunday afternoon and the local performer is sitting across the couch in her Mount Pleasant home which she shares with her boyfriend and bandmate Chris Dadge and their band’s bassist Henry Hsieh. (The group’s rounded out by backup vocalist Emily Burrowes.)

The house doubles as a practice space and recording studio and it’s getting a lot of use — in addition to performing together in Smith’s project the three are members of Dadge’s long-running post-punk pop project Lab Coast. It’s also where he runs his reputable experimental cassette label Bug Incision among many other projects.

The house is also where Smith created the 10 songs that comprise the followup to her breakthrough 2011 album Tough Cookie .

Back then as a relatively unknown singer-songwriter Smith rose to prominence with Tough Cookie . The record was a minor hit drawing fan-bases in craft beer-sipping post-Christians granola-munching Market Collective regulars and local folk enthusiasts.

It also gained popularity with our city’s bohemian moms a fact that Smith is the first to admit. “A lot of moms like that first album” she says laughing. “Moms like it. Girls like it.”

Smith’s being reductive — it was certainly a more middle-of-the-road affair but Tough Cookie established her as a local talent to be reckoned with. Though she’s happy anyone was listening she’s felt a little misunderstood. “I’ve never considered myself a folk singer because my lyrics aren’t very folky and I don’t think that way.”

That was then and this is now. Smith wrote those songs when she was between the ages of 19 and 21 and while she still has an affinity for the album (“It’s fine” she tells me) she’s more or less done with it. “I don’t like playing it live anymore I’m bored of it.”

The new album doesn’t have a title just yet (“I was joking that I was going to make my second album a metal album and call it Moms Love This Shit ” she says) but those looking for a Tough Cookie 2: Tougher and Cookier will probably not find it in the new record. Instead the 10-song effort is at once subtler and more complex.

“The music I listen to has changed” she explains. “It’s been four or five years since that last one so it’s definitely going to be different.”

For one thing Smith has learned a lot from her experiences. In the Tough Cookie era she was just mesmerized to be in a studio. “I didn’t really know anyone or show anyone” she says of her early songs. “It just spiraled into being Lorrie (Matheson producer) hearing it eventually the demos. Even making the record was a whirlwind. It was like oh this is how it’s done cool.”

This time she has a clear goal of what she wants the album to sound like. “I definitely had more of a hand in the production of the songs. Lorrie me and Dadge all co-produced this record. It was fun because it seemed a little more clear to me what needed to happen.”

It also helped that the songs were planned and written with a full band setup in mind. “With the first one I was just like ‘whoa you put bass and drums on this too?’” she recalls. “I didn’t even think of having a band back then whereas now I’m writing it with the arrangement and the idea of having a band play it.”

A great deal of the album’s 10 songs were tracked in advance with Dadge and Smith recording demos before completing the songs in-studio with Hsieh and Burrowes. “That was cool with me and Dadge figuring it out” she recalls. “It’s fun drinking beer in the basement. We still do it. There’s songs that we’re doing now that are new and it’s nice to hear it sort of realized instead of waiting so long to go into the studio. And you also have more of a clear idea of what you want to sound like when you are doing it in a professional studio.”

“That’s the secret to the new album” Dadge says walking through the living room to grab a snack from the kitchen.

Another standout characteristic from LP2 is an abundance of busy thoughtful electric guitar parts far removed from the by-the-book leads on Tough Cookie ’s straightforward pop songs. “I do know that some of [the new songs] are harder for me to play” she says. “But it’s good. I think I’ve become a better guitar player in some ways. I’m not like [does Van Halen air guitar]. But just learning and playing in Lab Coast messing around with it it just got a little more complicated.”

Since joining Lab Coast in October 2012 she’s had to learn a deep constantly growing discography of short terse and weird pop songs. “It’s nice to just focus on guitar and just how I’m playing… and also learn a shitload of songs. They have so many songs because they’re so short.”

That experience is ushering Smith out of her own comfort zone. “When you’re just used to playing your own stuff all the time playing in another band is nice because it’s not like you at all” she says. “Even how a song is formed the formula is totally different. You just start to pick up on that kind of stuff.”

So what does a Samantha Savage Smith album sound like after she’s spent a year playing guitar in a noise-pop band and hanging out with the dude who throws Calgary’s best experimental free-jazz shows? Not as strange as you might expect.

“Did I lash out with all my angst?” Smith asks joking about her departure in sound. “Not really…. The fact is the songs are different. That’s the kind of songs I wanted to write then. This is the kind of songs I want to write now.”

Smartly Smith’s evolving sound has been captured with a heavy dose of subtlety. Even compared to Tough Cookie which was loud and upfront in its earnestness the new record was captured with enough distance to feel mysterious. The instrumentation is sparse with most songs built on the trio’s firm backbone of guitar bass and drums.

It’s far from an empty shell however — there are little treats if you look for them like the New Pornographers-esque piano accents in “Til We Are Found” the twee-leaning handclaps of “Fine Lines” or the horns that close out “Barely Lit.” The flourishes don’t beat you over the head but when you find them you’ll be enamoured.

Smith’s songwriting has also reached a new level of maturity. Whereas previous tracks worked as vehicles for her acrobatic vocal delivery the new songs stand on their own marked by their forward-thinking arrangements and carved-out identities.

Opener “It’s a Burn” takes a chilly guitar tone and weaves it into a complex pop song progressively switching rhythms and riffs between its verse and chorus; “Higher Than Above” is a regal anthem that stuns with its rolling guitars and haunting back-up vocals; “Habit Forming” is a confident mid-tempo composition that recalls the best moments of Sunday-afternoon indie-pop bands like the Innocence Mission. Each song is a strong stand-alone statement but it all fits into the album’s cool understated pop aesthetic.

It’s the sort of hushed well-crafted record that’d be perfect for repeat listens all winter but it’ll probably be a little while before it’s available for mass consumption. In fact the songs were only recently given proper titles. “It Makes No Difference” the album’s slow-burning centrepiece that ebbs and flows with woozy dynamics and harmonizing vocals was accidentally named after Sum 41’s suburban skate park fist-pumper.

“I don’t like naming songs” Smith admits. “I sat down for like two hours and we just made name options for each one…. I remembered that I sing ‘It Makes No Difference’ and I was like ‘Oh my God shit!’” Internally the band still refer to their songs by their working titles. On any given setlist you’ll find the tracks “Sum 41” “Pizza” and “Higher From a Bong.”

Then there’s the issue of finding someone to release the record. Tough Cookie was financed by Smith along with Matheson who relaunched his Western Famine imprint.

The album later ended up getting distribution through Toronto indie powerhouse Arts & Crafts and the two made their money back. She’s willing to self-release again if she has to but she’ll shop it around to different labels first.

That’s not to say she has delusional fantasies in mind. Since picking up her dad’s guitar as a preteen and making what she describes as “horrifying” demos she’s just been letting opportunities present themselves. Now she’d just like the opportunity to keep going.

“I would love to be able to tour a lot and work on different recordings” she says. “The only thing is time and managing to balance working a couple jobs…. The goal is to keep at it. It can be a little tough sometimes especially financially. I just want to keep playing not even my own stuff but in other bands too. I want to stay functioning in life and be able to make everything work without pulling my hair out.”