"2 Things Into 1," the penultimate track on the debut album by Christy Smith, who records as The Tender Fruit, seems at first an elegy. An acoustic guitar floats a solemn chord, and moans of bass pass by like low, gray clouds. "Brian, oh, Brian/ I swear that I ain't tryin'," Smith sings at the start, her voice gentle, calm and hesitant, "to shake your world or take out all the screws."
The song pauses for less than a second and recovers with a definitive touch of sweetness. Smith's voice is assured now, declaring rather than equivocating: "It's just that when I'm here and the grease is stuck in my hair/ I think I could fix anything with you." She coos her way into the chorus, bittersweet harmonies crisscrossing between sleigh bell and snare drum trots. The guitar solo—gnarled, aggressive, proud—sounds like a sudden exhortation of independence.
Smith wrote "2 Things Into 1" in the summer of 2008 on a ukulele; the guitar on which she'd been writing songs for the previous three years had been locked in a closet for six months. Instead of writing music, she funneled her energy into rebuilding an old dual-tank Ford F-150, working with the man of the song, Brian, to replace its crippled engine with the innards of another truck.
"The veil was lifted because I had written a song that wasn't about the shit I'd been writing about for two years," says the 33-year-old Smith, her round Southern accent always seasoned by a touch of sass. "That song was about working on a car and trying to avoid stuff that's the hard part of growing up: Figuring out how to connect yourself with another human being is really hard, and you have to do it almost."
Nearly two years before, she'd broken up with a boyfriend who was her chief musical collaborator; he'd moved out, moved on, and that boy, Justin Vernon, had gotten famous performing as Bon Iver. She could barely read a magazine or turn on her computer without another media outlet reminding her how their breakup had sent him into northern Wisconsin exile, where he made one of the decade's biggest singer-songwriter debuts, For Emma, Forever Ago. Eerily, back in Raleigh, she played drums on one of those songs, "Flume," and he played on some of her Tender Fruit songs, too, singing harmonies and adding guitars. But she was done with music, or so she thought. Smith's Flotsam & Krill—finally out now, after four years of fits and starts—is more than a companion piece to For Emma; rather, it's the other side of the same story and every bit as captivating.
"I felt silenced for a while," says Smith, pausing to gather her words at a picnic table just before midnight at the Carrboro bar Milltown. "At this point, I feel like Bon Iver's become legend now, and I'd be debunking some happy, warm story people want to believe. People want to believe Justin was hurt by this girl, who was a bitch. They want to believe this tragic, perfect, stoic figure stumbled off into the woods and came out with this album on this cloud. And in some ways, he did."
Smith and Vernon first connected within a mutual admiration society. Vernon's old band, DeYarmond Edison, had just moved to Raleigh from Wisconsin in 2005, and they were still looking for their first local gig. Vernon met Mickey D'Loughy, the drummer for Nola, Smith's restrained alt-country band. They worked together at The Rockford, a Raleigh restaurant that supported young musicians in town for more than a decade. Smith met everyone else in the band at a bar, and, eventually, they all swapped music. She offered up a disc of demos, and DeYarmond Edison offered their most recent album, Silent Signs.
"Justin had me come into his room and showed me Nola's first EP," remembers Phil Cook, now one-third of Megafaun but then one-fourth of DeYarmond Edison. "I guess whatever my expectations were of moving to North Carolina, hearing Christy sing 'Everything's the Same' made me excited about this time and place and this state."
Nola gave DeYarmond Edison their first Raleigh show in early fall of 2005. An article I wrote five months later for the Independent about DeYarmond Edison mentioned Vernon's new North Carolina girlfriend. That was Smith. They lived together for the better part of a year in a duplex in the woods off Raleigh's Wade Avenue. For months, they both felt the relationship ending—"He was always unsettled," she says—and started sharing their songs about the end with each other.
"It was living in a black-comedy musical. When he wrote 'Skinny Love,' we were on our couch in our underwear, eating Chinese food or whatever you do at home. He was like, 'I've got this song, and I think it might be one of the best songs I've ever written,'" she remembers. "He played it for me, and I was like, 'I know it's about me, but it's gold.' It's a song about him leaving me, but it's a beautiful song."
Smith doesn't sound bitter, and, four years later, she's not sitting around writing songs about the same breakup. These are simply the songs she had, and the exigencies of being a musician and life kept them hidden for so long. Band members came and went, as did relationships and friends. She doesn't see her failed relationship with Vernon as the opportunity cost of his popularity, and she doesn't resent that his songs about the breakup—and not hers—are the ones that have sold almost 300,000 copies in America since February 2008.
By now, she and Vernon have moved on. They talk sporadically, she says, and they've both been involved with other people since their split. Almost two years ago, she fell hard for someone, an energetic guy named Frank, and she grins big whenever she speaks of him, her brown eyes widening in the glow of the Carrboro streetlights.
"I really feel the things that I write about, to the point of being impractical," says Smith. "Having the music go somewhere is often not as important to me as feeling the things I'm writing about. "
Thing is, these songs go lots of places. Not unlike Vernon's own debut as Bon Iver, Flotsam & Krill is a surprisingly seasoned, artful and tempered album. Vernon produced three of the 10 tracks while he and Smith lived together; the rest were produced by his former bandmate, Phil Cook. But Smith's resilient, charming voice and her ability to fit it in unlikely places carry best here. Tracks such as the spare opener "Like All the Rest" and the determined trot "The Truth Is" depend more on the gestalt of atmosphere and simplicity than big events. The technical imperfections of "Would You Know Your Lover?"—buzzing guitar strings and vocals crackling with distortion—add grit to its romantic demands.
And for a record from what one might suppose is a sad singer-songwriter detailing a lost relationship, it often sounds like anything but: "Polar Bear" and "Get Out of the Car" are, lyrically, emotional torture. "My lover has broken my body/ Though he swears he never meant to do it," Smith sings on the former, treating a break-up song a little like an old-fashioned murder ballad. But it's a rollicking country ditty, instantly hummable and agreeable.
The record's only unaccompanied, completely sunken song is its five-minute closer, "The Chrysanthemums," a gripping look at the empty gestures—sex, come-ons, codependence—we all use to fight loneliness. Careful acoustic guitars double and rise behind Smith's high notes. "Last night, I held a half-dead boy," she broods. "I had to move his heavy arms to make them love."
It's the oldest song on the record, by far. Nola, Smith's band when she met Vernon, even tried to incorporate it into its set. It didn't work there; here, though, stacked for relief beside "2 Things Into 1," it's both the perfect anchor and origin. "Don't you tell me things will change for the better someday," Smith howls in the chorus.
Tonight, Smith talks about the past and smiles nostalgically; then she talks about new love, and her grin is irrepressible. No one needs to tell her things will change: She seems to know just fine.