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Eskimeaux’s Gabby Smith on the Unlimited Human Voice, the Importance of Failing and the Liquor Chocolates of NPR’s Bob Boilen | Listen Up!

eskimeauxImages by Manuela Insixiengmay

In a contemplative mood this summer, we’ve been reaching for OK by the New York City band Eskimeaux, an album that makes us believe again in the power of turn-of-the-millennium indie rock. We listen while we read Rookie Magazine and The Le Sigh, and think maybe it’s not a dead genre. Maybe instead it’s a not-broken, doesn’t-need-fixing staple.

We met with bandleader and sometimes solo performer Gabby Smith in an undisclosed greenhouse to talk about the weird ambient music she used to make, her upcoming video session for NPR and the value of tenacity in one’s artistic process.

eskimeauxpalm How do you feel about the sound of your own voice?

I started as a violinist, and then a very remedial guitar player. I’ve always based the project on the voice and the limitations that I haven’t found yet of the voice. I have gotten sidetracked learning how to play guitar and bass, and you can tell in my catalog when that was happening. There will be entire guitar pieces, or really synth heavy stuff. But I always come back to the voice. There was this interview with David Longstreth from the Dirty Projectors where he said, while there is instrumentation on his albums, he composes mostly with voice because he hasn’t found any limitations to it. And I totally agree with that. I definitely write for my range, because that part of it is limited.

When did you begin playing music and how did Eskimeaux form as a group?

I dropped out of high school and started playing music right away in 2006. I was in a really bad rock band that I’m not going to say the name of. It was me singing and my friend playing bass and two people from Craigslist. We broke up the band because it was bad. Then I started playing guitar, the bass player and I formed another band, and then I started recording by myself in 2007 and releasing stuff that winter and calling it Eskimeaux. Right before I moved to Philadelphia. It was a natural progression from playing with people to playing by myself and making weird ambient music.

Would you ever consider doing a version of “I Admit I’m Scared” that only loops the slow part at the beginning? Where the whole song stays that slow?

I mean, when I play it solo, I play it slow and soft like that. Except the loud moment, which is loud. But I play it slowly like that. I’m definitely playing it at a Tiny Desk concert at the end of this tour, on NPR. That’s planned.

That’s cool you’re doing an interview with NPR. I saw Bob Boilen Instagrammed that he likes your band. How does that happen? Your publicist? Bob’s just a random fan?

A combination. Bob Boilen came to this really raunchy house party that Bellows played [ed. note: another band Gabby plays with] in Washington D.C., and he was handing out these liquor chocolates and saying, Hi, I’m Bob Boilen. I was like yes, I don’t drink but I’ll take anything from you Bob Boilen. He said he loved our band that if we ever came back to D.C. we should do something. We didn’t hear from him for two years. Then recently he reached out to Bellows for Tiny Desk concert, and we did it, and then the Eskimeaux thing came from that. Also being on tour with Mitski and Elvis Depressedly has put us in a new light. I think that’s been an Eskimeaux staircase to NPR.

eskimeauxherschelShop: Herschel

Eskimeaux as a band has gone through many changes and was originally, as you say, a solo act. How has that changed your sound?

Everyone I work with changes my sound drastically. It used to be a gothic electronic band and has since evolved into a much less gothic rock band.

How has touring the country been? Are audiences different than the one’s you’re used to on the east coast?

It’s going great. This is Eskimeaux’s first tour, although I’ve been on tour for the past eight years. It’s the same playing on the east coast and on the west coast. Except back home, people know me. So I like being out west. People are psyched on me and it’s also an adventure.

What is the scene on the east coast like?

I think in the Tri-State area, the scene is all about six degrees of separation. You realize when you meet someone at a show, you probably know them, or you know their friend, or their friend’s band. I don’t know about scenes around the rest of the country. I dip my toes into them and then am like, Bye! I feel like maybe scenes everywhere else are a little more insular. But in New York the scene is very much tied into Philadelphia, Connecticut, even Boston

What are your favorite bands right now?

I’m really into all the bands I’m in. I’m in four. I’m really into Frankie Cosmos. And Girlpool. And I’m on tour with Mitski and Elvis Depressedly right now and it’s slaying my heart every day.

What advice would you give to other young musicians and artists?

Don’t ever stop making something even if it’s really weird and not what you thought it would be. It’s important to experiment. Even if it’s not the best thing you ever made. You may have to make a lot of things that are bad before you make something that is good.

Your songs seem based on personal experience. What is your process for writing a song?

They’re definitely based on personal experience. Most of my songs take place in a specific moment and not over the course of time. They focus on a reaction to one minute. Usually for songwriting, I find myself in transit, on the bus or the train, and I write a poem. And the poem either becomes a song or it doesn’t. That’s the fork in the road.

–Andrew Matson and Emma May