Caroline Smith finds her voice

Caroline Smith and the artists formerly known as the Good Night Sleeps
Hillary Berg

Twelve months ago, Caroline Smith could tell it was time for a change. The 2011 recording sessions for Little Wind, her second album with backing ensemble the Good Night Sleeps, were mired in creative complications, and their efforts to work on a third quickly hit a roadblock. Confused and dispirited, Smith decided it was time to take action.

"I was reaching the end of my ropes," Smith recalls now, many months removed from the experience. With her big, curly blond hair pulled up in a bun and lips done up in bright red lipstick, she speaks of those difficult times with a seemingly ever-present smile. "Like, I can either walk away from the music business because it's not good for me right now, it isn't making me happy. Or I can reclaim it, and do what I want to do."

Reclaim it she did. In October, Smith set off for New York, where she rented an apartment by herself in East Harlem. She found a club in the West Village — "It's my little secret," she says with a laugh — and went there every night, soaking in the inspiration of the women she saw performing. Then she would hop the subway and return to her apartment, where she'd record in her makeshift kitchen studio with rented equipment.

The result of that month in Manhattan was about 20 songs, which were eventually whittled down to the nine that became Smith's third album, Half About Being a Woman. "[Bassist] Jesse [Schuster] jokes that this is the most punk-rock album he's ever made," Smith says of the new record, an inspired departure from her indie-folk roots into the world of neo-soul. "I just didn't care if it was cool or not. And as a result of not caring if it was cool or not, it feels so good."

There's a definite swagger to the songs on Woman, an album delivered with a healthy dose of sass. And it's all Smith's. Once they'd heard the new demos, her bandmates gave her complete creative control, even voluntarily dropping the Good Night Sleeps moniker from the band's name. To fill out Smith's new sound, Schuster contributes joyfully funky basslines, and Arlen Peiffer's drumming is tight-in-the-pocket.

"I was just trying to be someone that I wasn't," Smith admits now about her earlier records, without any sign of regret. Indeed, the role of the folk songstress never seemed like one that she wore comfortably, as quaint as her coming-of-age ballads could be. For a girl who grew up singing along to TLC and Mariah Carey, she simply couldn't keep herself reined in. "What am I?" she asks, rhetorically. "I gossip. I give my girlfriends advice. I worry about girlie shit."

Smith actually first started to make that breakthrough a couple of years ago, when she worked a cover of Aretha Franklin's "Drown in My Own Tears" into her live shows. Eventually, it prompted her to embrace the full-throated vocal style that her voice demands. "Learning that song and how good it felt to flex my muscles," she says, "it's like, that's what I have. There is a God, he gave me this voice. And using it felt really great." Even now, the memory brings a smile to Smith's face, one that you can hear in her voice. "I was so excited about writing a song like that, that made me feel that way, yet that was in my own words. How exciting would that be?"

For this record, Smith has taken on a whole new persona, one that's vulnerable but also confident and assertive. Even as she deals with relationships (which she does often here), there's no hesitation, no self-consciousness about making a man happy. But it's also more complex than mere pride. "I know some ladies like the idea of me breaking a man down," she sings on smoldering opener "Bloodstyle." "But the real ones, they just know." From there, Smith works and reworks that theme, with ladies who insist their men treat them right, and aren't afraid to tell them to buy them something nice.

This is an album about a woman being comfortable in her skin, and showing just what she can do. "I learned that it just doesn't need to be that complicated," she says about the recording sessions. She acknowledges that her producer, Jake Hanson, played a big role in helping her keep things simple, pushing her to stay faithful to her demos and to record all the backing vocals herself. "I was always second-guessing the whole thing," she admits. "One day I'd be like, 'This is awesome,' and the next day I'd wake up like, 'What am I doing?'"

But now, with the record finished and her reinvention all but complete, you'd never guess Smith ever had any reason to doubt herself. "A woman reaches an age and you just kind of drop it," she says. "You're like, 'Okay, so I'm not perfectly skinny, it's not a big deal. I don't get to look good in a swimsuit, but I get cool hair." She shrugs, catching herself bragging, and breaks into another one of her playful smiles. "I felt like me realizing that was something worth writing music about, and sharing with others."

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