Interview: Oakes and Smith


(Randy Radic contributed to this interview)

From Massachusetts come the folk duo of Oakes and Smith. The duo's latest EP is called Between the Earth and the Sky, a wonderful selection of folk tunes reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel. Vocal responsibilities rest on Katherine Smith, while her partner, Robert, provides instrumentation and delightful harmony backup.

The duo was kind enough to participate in an interview and answer my questions.

What is the most trouble you've ever gotten into?

Katherine: I can't say that I have been in any sort of trouble that
would be deemed exciting, but in speaking about my personality, ever
since I was a little kid, I have taken risks. I have been known to climb
up trees and tall fire escapes and venture out on my own. So far though,
I've managed to keep myself out of too much mischief.

Robert: I tend to keep out of trouble and live pretty quietly. I guess
the only real trouble I've ever gotten into is whenever I have found
myself living in-authentically in some way, like staying too long in a
wrong situation or not keeping up with my writing or my music. It's at
times like that when I have felt like I was losing myself and going kind
of numb.

What are the five things you can't live without?

Katherine: Music, lovingly prepared food, good books, laughing with
loved ones, and time spent getting in touch with the Earth. All of these
things keep me feeling alive.

Robert: Air. Food. Water. Sleep. Love.

What's your favorite song to belt out in the car or the shower?

Katherine: It changes depending on what I am listening to on high
rotation at the time. Right now it's "Moments of Pleasure" by Kate Bush.

Robert: If I had to pick an all-time favorite, it would probably be by
Peter Gabriel. Maybe "Secret World" or "Red Rain."

What kind of guitar do you play? And why?

Robert: I play a Martin DM. It's a very simple, basic guitar, but it has
a nice feel and big resonance when strummed. I bought it about 15 years
ago after owning an Ovation, which I never really felt comfortable with.
It always felt kind of stiff and inorganic, with its plastic rounded
back and heavy varnish. I wanted to get back to basics and get a guitar
that felt more natural and comfortable in my hands and against my body.

What musicians influenced you the most?

Katherine: As a teenager I listened to lot of the musical theater
greats, but as an adult, I have turned to Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Kate
Bush, Loreena McKennitt, Sarah McLachlan, and Lisa Gerrard for vocal

Robert: As a kid, I listened to a lot of classic rock bands like The Who
and Led Zeppelin and artists like Joe Jackson, Phil Collins, David
Bowie, and Elvis Costello. Then, I became obsessed with progressive
rock, especially Genesis, Yes, Jethro Tull, Rush, The Moody Blues, and
Pink Floyd. After that, some of my favorites were Peter Gabriel, Peter
Murphy, Van Morrison, Kate Bush, The Sundays, Cat Stevens, Paul Simon,
and Jon Anderson. More recently, I've liked Daniel Lanois, The Frames
and Glen Hansard, Colin Hay, Iron and Wine, and Bon Iver, and I've been
delving into the music of Anthony Phillips, who was a founding member of

In my review of your EP, I described your musical style as folk and
folk/pop. How would you describe it?

Katherine: We usually describe what we do as folk or art-folk. Having
many different influences coming through our music makes it hard to find
a genre that touches on exactly what our final sound is, but due to the
close harmonies and lyric-driven acoustic style of our music, folk seems
like an appropriate description.

Robert: I think the main reason we have used folk to describe our music
is that neither one of us has a special pedigree or a certain kind of
musical training. Rather, we use what comes naturally, drawing from our
instincts and intuition to make our own music. And I think, at its
heart, that's what folk music has always been about. I also think we
share a kinship with new-age music because of our spiritual themes and
meditative quality.

Why folk music rather than alternative rock or some other style?

Oakes and Smith: When we decided to begin playing, a folk style (two
voices in close harmony with an acoustic guitar) was the sound that
formed naturally. It fit the songwriting and what was happening vocally
between us.

Where do you find inspiration for your songs?

Katherine: From everyday living, nature, poetry, books, meditation,
visual art, people and the stories they tell us; we are finding new
inspirations all the time.

Robert: Songs can come from different places. Sometimes it's a moment, a
memory, or something I notice that seems heavy with special meaning. It
could be the way the light comes in, something someone says, or
something I read. When I notice something like that, I write it out to
try to see it, and in the process, sometimes a song will come through.
Some songs, like 'Never Let the Light Die' or 'Presence,' are a way for me
to respond to and process something that happens to me. I also get a lot
of inspiration by taking walks outside, traveling, reading, and
listening to music.

What is your songwriting process? Does the music come first and then
the lyrics?

Oakes and Smith: There is no one process for songwriting. We will often
have moments where one of us has a melody or lyrical phrase percolating
and will bring it to the other for further development. We have had the
happy coincidence, a few times, where we are working on fragments of a
song separately, only to bring them to each other and have them fit and
become a complete piece. Other times, inspiration will strike (often at
inconvenient times) spontaneously: in the middle of the night, driving a
car, showering. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to those moments
except simply, a song is coming through -- NOW. We happily write those
down relatively quickly. We have also simply sat and worked through
songs, drawing them out intentionally with a certain message in mind. We
will spend a longer time deliberating over those together.

Will you be doing another similar album in the future? Or do you think
you might try a different genre?

Oakes and Smith: There are always new songs and collections forming, even
during the completion of one project to the next, so I think it's safe
to say that we will begin to record again in the near future. We are
constantly collaborating with new musicians and evolving as a duo, so
it's hard to say what genre we will fall into from project to project.

Was Between the Earth and the Sky well-received by the critics? By

Oakes and Smith: Yes, so far we have received warm praise for Between
the Earth and the Sky
from critics and listeners alike.

Will you be touring in the near future? If so, where?

Oakes and Smith: We are working now on booking performances beyond our
home-turf, The Berkshires in Western Massachusetts, where we perform
regularly. As these come together, we will list them on our website.

It's presumptuous to ask at this point, but are there any new songs on
the drawing board? If so, when do you plan to go back into the studio?
Will you be doing a full album in the future?

Oakes and Smith: We actually have many songs that are part of our live
show that we have yet to record. We certainly hope to get into the
studio soon to begin recording some of these, though we have nothing
specific planned yet. We are also working on a collection of songs that
tell a story, and we hope one day not only to record this collection,
but to perform it live as a kind of theatrical piece.

The vocal harmonies on your EP are extraordinary. How do you achieve and
maintain such a level of excellence?

Oakes and Smith: Thank you! The core of our sound is the natural
chemistry that exists between our two voices. Honestly, we are just very
fortunate that our voices blend as well as they do. Beyond that, we are
also very intentional about how we listen to one another and anticipate
each other's movements. It's a kind of meditation we do that involves
listening as much as it involves producing sound. With this particular
EP, we were also blessed to have been joined by another singing couple,
Jemal Wade Hines and Moksha Sommer. They, too, have their own special
chemistry, and then, when we combined all of our voices together,
something really wonderful happened.

Have any major labels expressed an interest in your music?

Oakes and Smith: Not yet.

The production values on your EP were superb. Who produced the EP?

Oakes and Smith: Thank you! We co-produced the EP with Jemal Wade Hines
of the Sufi folk/rock ensemble HuDost.