Earlier this year, someone passed me a file of five demo tracks by Portland, Maine's Micah Blue Smaldone, a guitarist and singer with three folk records and a youth spent in New England punk rock. Three of those tracks were rugged instrumentals, Smaldone's fingers snapping his guitar strings into tunes that enveloped me, at least, like a wilderness.
I was surprised, then, when Smaldone's fourth album—The Red River, due on Immune Recordings in November—arrived only with seven vocal-based tracks, each offering a relatively clear narrative, theme and instruction. On those demos, Smaldone's voice had seemed a bit stiff. Just a few months later, though, it had become pliable, wrapping itself around the still-excellent playing with a comfort and ease that seemed impossible before. Indeed, it's that voice—sort of quiet, but just confident enough to make its words convincing—that's the star of "The Clearing," the three-minute paean to hope that takes spot two on The Red River. Like the music itself, Smaldone's lyrics are stylized and slightly formal, echoing the old-time traditions in which takes root. This peace parable seems like it's always been around, then, echoing in valleys and across fields. Songs about reconciliation have and will remain forever useful. We'll take them right now, for sure.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: How long has the song "The Clearing" been in the works?
MICAH BLUE SMALDONE: Wrote that one this winter ... if I remember correctly it all happened at once.
In this song, you mention the father of the protagonist and his paramour fighting for the land. Are they fighting against each other or with each other?
It's referring to all nations born of blood ...
I've assumed the latter, which gives the song a persistent redemptive approach, especially near the end: "To love is to resist/ the old embittered flow." Does that work with how you see "The Clearing"?
Yes! It's definitely a peaceful message! Love is the most powerful thing we have to offer, ain't it?
What's the inspiration for the song? Is it general, or is there a specific source?
Well, I wrote it (and most of the album) after traveling for a spell in the Balkans. Life and death seem to happen there in such extremes. I met some of the sweetest, most larger than life characters there, but then saw the most abject traces of atrocity.
What were the challenges of arranging this song? And who is playing on it? What were the challenges for recording this song?
Not too challenging on either front. My brother Tristan shredded on the violin, and my buddy Caleb shredded on the banjo.
What do you hope people walk away from this song with?
Well, at the very least something to whistle while they work! It's a real hopeful song, perhaps specially for anyone trying to come to terms with the wicked things we're all capable of.
Do you think this song relates in the least to the division politics that have been so heavy in America of late?
It certainly does. We are inheriting more violence than ever before, and the greatest challenge may be addressing our culpability beyond the political arena.
The demos for The Red River were half instrumental, but your vocals are at least close to the center of this record, despite your reputation (at least to me) as a guitarist. Were those other songs just incomplete, or did you eventually arrive at material you felt was better together?
Well, The Red River proper is a more focused effort I guess, definitely themed. It all came together at once really, and I felt like there wasn't much room for guitar meanderings. There were things I really wanted to speak about and the words came most naturally. Plus I wanted to fit it all into an LP!
What have you learned as a songwriter and bandleader since Hither & Thither, and how do you think those lessons are expressed on The Red River?
I've learned to sing a little softer and play it a little cooler!
Micah Blue Smaldone opens for Death Vessel then plays in that band at Local 506 Tuesday, Sept. 16. Tickets for the 9:30 p.m. show are $10.