Music

Fake Nice, Real Happy, Super Great: Calgary artist Samantha Savage Smith makes a confident and focussed return with her sensational third album

Don’t call it a sophomore slump. Call it a “turning point.”

Samantha Savage Smith does. An important one.

And while we’re at it, maybe call her new album, the extraordinarily wonderful, confident and bountiful third release Fake Nice a comeback. A welcome one.

On the eve of dropping her latest album, which she’ll celebrate with an April 23 Palomino show, the Calgary singer-songwriter, is in a very honest and engaged mood.

She’s happy.

And so she should be.

Fake Nice provides a welcome return by the chanteuse, who initially hit the radar with 2011’s debut stunner Tough Cookie (it remains a local classic), before following it up with 2015’s Fine Lines, which was a departure, less welcomed by fans and the masses, but still kept her momentum going, and produced some memorable moments.

“I can’t even listen to it,” she says with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Oh, god, it’s too fast. Why did we do this?’

She laughs again. “Coulda woulda shoulda.”

The laughs come easy for Smith these days. And the pride and ownership of what she’s about to release into the sonic kingdom is obvious and deserved.

She’s ready now, even though she wasn’t sure she ever would be again.

Why? And why did she derail that momentum and take a half-dozen-year hiatus?

“Where to even begin … Honestly, you probably noticed, I stepped back for quite some time, after the last release,” Smith says, noting she wasn’t even sure she would ever make another record.

“I honestly wasn’t feeling that stoked or into doing it any more. I really liked playing music, and I was happy to play in other people’s bands and do the thing, I enjoyed that.

“But I wasn’t mentally in a good place, and just to take on the role of a band leader/main frontperson just wasn’t in the cards for me.”

She pauses.

“I just, I just couldn’t do it. I felt like I didn’t have a creative bone in my body to write songs or express myself in a certain way, and I didn’t want to and I was happy to float along and figure out my own path, if you will.”

Smith says at that point she felt like she was just “phoning it in,” and likens music to “a job that seems cool, but you’re really not into it.”

She says she just wasn’t comfortable enough in being as vulnerable as artists need to be to truly make music that matters, makes a connection with their audience.

Part of what changed things — not something she wants to focus on, but one that’s important to mention — is that she was finally diagnosed with a mental-health issue, which allowed her to seek out the proper help, get the support she needed.

It was a relief for her, and a dam-breaker for her creative juices.

“I hadn’t written a song in two years — maybe just some guitar riffs,” she says.
“And two or three months after taking my new meds, I just started writing again … having a clearing of my head and having perspective, and it all started coming back to me.

“Then I started writing the record.”

She continues. “I’ve been able to understand and not only conceptualize, verbalize and feel comfortable just going for it, just knowing exactly what I want out of things.

“Before it was a foggy, blurry mess and I trusted wonderful people around me to bring ideas into fruition, whereas this time around, it was just clearcut to me, so I was able to execute it the way I wanted it to be.”

One more laugh. “So that’s what happened.”

Perhaps that’s why she is so jazzed about Fake Nice, that it is, unequivocally, unapologetically her vision. She points to the title, which she chose for the simple reason she thought it was funny.

Throughout the rest of the 11-song album, her hand on the wheel and her confidence in steering things becomes inarguably apparent — helped, she says, by the pandemic, which gave her more time to get things right. From the musical direction (little more electro, lot less folk and lo-fi experimental, very much pop), to her delivery (lord, those pipes), to the co-production (crisp, clear, suiting the many moods), to her myriad instrumental contributions, to the promo photos which feature Smith with one of her two adopted, rescue bunnies, Chester,  it is a Samantha Savage Smith record. Perhaps the first true one.

She says she was “insanely hands-on” for the making of Fake Nice, which was recorded in the basement studio of the house she shares with her partner and bandmate Chris Dadge (Lab Coast, Chad VanGaalen), and co-produced by the pair.

The songs are stellar and should leap the divide effortlessly between that debut, her second record and the time in-between.

It’s a spring surprise — from the wispy, coquettish, softened-Superchunk, self-titled opener, the jangly, shimmering pastoral pop of Quickly, the soaring track Sunset Rip (complete with an Oh Bondage! Up Yours! intro) to the Father John Misty vibe of Different, funky-as-fuck, Afrobeat trip-hop anthem ESGGallin, which is currently being reworked as a hip-hop/pop-vocal duet with friend and fellow local artist Tea Fannie (“She’s fucking badass. I love her”) and picture-perfect closer Siren, so dreamy and creamy you’ll want to spread it on everything.

(Bonus note: Check out the brief ’80s sax solo on In It to Win It. Perhaps for the soundtrack to Lethal Weapon 5?)

You understand why Smith is stoked, why she’s ready to throw herself back into the music biz, with lessons learned and new confidence discovered. Just the beginning of a comeback to a career that maybe needed a reset.

And gets one excited — fan and artist alike — for what comes next.

“I’m already ready to start the next record.” Another laugh. “Where the last record was, ‘Never again, ‘I feel very precise and ambitious, I guess you would say … 

“This is mine and I feel like I can really own it,” Smith says.

“This is me, this is so much me.”

(Photo courtesy Heather Saitz.)

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