Born and raised around the Memphis music scene, upcoming folk singer Myla Smith has turned a classic American music genre into something unique. With sweet sounding vocals and heartwarming storytelling, Myla Smith is quickly becoming the new face of traditional American music.
Sonic Eclectic: How has growing up around Memphis shaped your musical style?
Myla Smith: Memphis is all about the blues. But as much as I love that music, I can’t sing blues! I have a much softer voice, and you have to have a smokey set of pipes to pull off blues convincingly. My style was shaped more by the old folk music that my dad would play on Memphis volunteer radio on Saturday mornings growing up in Shake Rag. That was the music I could sing.
SE: I understand you got your start on the Barney show. How did that help your career?
MS: I was auditioning for a children’s music project in Dallas, TX. I didn’t actually get the job but the producers told me to go down the hall and try for another studio that was looking for kids to sing on a new TV series they were producing. They asked me to sing 3 songs, and I only had 2 prepared, so I sang the song I had just heard on the radio, “Let’s Give ‘Em Something to Talk About” by Bonnie Raitt–much to my mother’s horror. Not exactly age-appropriate for a 10 year old, but the execs loved it and cast me. The show turned out to be “Barney and Friends” which had just been picked up by PBS. For the next several years I recorded nearly every weekend for Singleton Productions. When we weren’t recording for Barney, we filled in with projects for Concordia and other Christian Children’s music groups, including Great Songs For God’s Kids, which was nominated for a Dove Award. I met all the actors for the Barney show, including the voice of Barney and the guy in the dinosaur suit (spoiler alert: there are two Barneys!). The adults I worked with, our producer, engineer, and vocal coach, taught me how to have fun in the studio and still be professional. I loved working with them. I still joke (or half-joke) that I had my dream job when I was 10! Because there was a significant span of time and geography in between the children’s music I recorded and when I began writing and recording my own songs, I feel like they are completely separate eras of my life.
SE: What did you think/feel when you finished your first song, “Pin Up Girl”?
MS: I thought “I actually did it!” I had grown up writing poetry, but didn’t start trying to write songs until I learned to play the guitar. When I finally finished “Pin Up Girl” I had the same type of feeling of accomplishment that I had from completing a poem, but being able to use my musical talents made it much more rewarding. It took me years to gather the courage to play the song in public though. You’re always so afraid of what you’ve created being rejected.
SE: What was your greatest musical moment?
MS: I have been extremely fortunate this year with the remarkable reception for “White/Gold” (double EP I released Sept 2010). One of the songs off the album [“You Can’t Hold It”] was selected as a Top 10 Finalist in this year’s NSAI Song Contest sponsored by CMT. The album was also named Best of Memphis 2010, saying that it was the “most commerically viable recording to come out of Memphis this year”. I am tremendously proud of these honors. However, they do not supersede the joy I had from receiving an email from a girl in Israel telling me how much my music had meant to her…or a young woman who told me my album had inspired her to write a song for her husband for their anniversary…or the wife of a seminary student who shared how one of my songs had helped her through a difficult move to a new city. These are the real reasons that I write music.
SE: Do you have any recurring themes in the lyrics of your songs?
MS: I write a lot about what I refer to as “the contradictions of living”. Love, loss, joy, sorrow, hope, trying to fit in, unrealized expectations, etc. Life is a double-sided coin, and I feel like if you don’t talk about the bad times you can’t really appreciate the sweetness of the good times.
SE: What advice would you give aspiring singers and songwriters?
MS: Adopt the “dare to suck” approach to songwriting. Don’t let your fear of “what if this isn’t good enough?” stop you from doing something you love. Accept that not everything you write will be amazing, or even good! Don’t let this stop you from writing. The more you write, the more you will be able to fine-tune your craft. Also find an advocate who will encourage you and won’t let you be anything less than your best. Another thing, don’t engage in competition. Many young musicians (and unfortunately older ones too) spend a lot of fruitless time and energy “jockeying for position”. This is a trap! You are not competing with anyone but yourself. Try to be the best writer than you can be and strive to continually improve. Let the last thing you wrote be your measuring stick, not the resumes of other writers or performers. You will be so much happier and fulfilled in your art if you refuse to compete. I am still preaching this one to myself.