It’s the age-old dilemma facing musicians – sell out and record music that will sell records or create music that one wants to hear and which they find fascinating? It’s not an easy question because so many artists are trying to make this their career, doing something they love while earning a living.
For New York City’s The Bright Smoke, the brooding, indie-rock band composed of Mia Wilson and Quincy Ledbetter, they’ve set their sights on creating music that challenges not just the listener but themselves; music that is profound and rivets the deepest emotions in us. In the premiere of their new single, “City On An Island”, on Impose last Friday, Ledbetter told the magazine, “Let’s just make some great music that makes people feel something, you know? I hope this doesn’t sound pretentious, but I’m not in the business of making hits. I’m trying to make classic records that will resonate with people, and that’s only possible through honesty and freedom.”
For nearly six years, the duo have produced some of the most mesmerizing and honest, brooding indie music in the industry. Combining rock, folk, and blues, The Bright Smoke enticed us on their chilling debut LP, Late for War, and later in 2013 with the deep, dark emotions of Virginia, Et. Al.
“City On An Island”, the lead single from their forthcoming album Terrible Towns, represents the continuing evolution of Wilson and Ledbetter. There’s a familiarity in the track – the brooding pace and Wilson’s seductive voice. There is the vivid and poignant songwriting of Wilson, who further demonstrates why she’s a songwriter to be recognized with her personification of the events of New York City and her relationship to them. She takes the listener with her as she battles the feelings of entrapment and the pylons that line up in front of her, posing as obstructions to herself and her life goals.
“I’m trying to make classic records that will resonate with people, and that’s only possible through honesty and freedom.” – Quincy Ledbetter to Impose.
There is also something different and exciting about the track. Ledbetter’s guitar and arrangements are more intense and acute. Subtly providing the pace and the mood for the tumultuous relationship depicted in the song, Ledbetter patiently strums in the background before kicking in the reverb and closing the track with a stirring guitar solo, both of which perfectly capture the frenetic nature of New York City. It is a fitting end to a terrific track.
In some ways, it is an interesting track to be the lead one for Terrible Towns. However, like with anything Wilson and Ledbetter do, there is a calculus, a rationale, for why they decided to release “City On An Island”. As Wilson told me, “This single is the first song that I wrote for the album and the entire album is essentially a calendar of about a year that was, for lack of a better description, a year of pretty intense isolation. So, the album is a chronology, it’s a calendar.”
Yet, maybe more than any song they’ve recorded, the track exhibits the partnership of Wilson and Ledbetter, as each takes a starring role and where Wilson’s voice is complemented exquisitely by Ledbetter’s arrangements. While there is no exact science to their songwriting and musical approach, there is an undeniable chemistry. It is Wilson who finds the inspiration and paints the songs, but it is Ledbetter who provides the canvas to share them with the world. With “City On An Island”, they have created a stunning work of art, which makes the upcoming exhibit that is Terrible Towns an eagerly awaited and highly anticipated album. And if that’s the case, Wilson and Ledbetter would have done it their way.
Terrible Towns is due out in May. You can read the quick Q&A that Mia and Quincy so kindly agreed to do with me below regarding “City On An Island” and a little bit of the forthcoming album. Follow The Bright Smoke on their website, Facebook, and Twitter, and you can purchase their past efforts on Bandcamp or hear them on Soundcloud.
It seemed right to kick off the whole event of introducing listeners to the album with the track that started it all and set the tone for the rest of the process. – Mia Wilson on why leading with “City On An Island”.
THE QUICK Q&A WITH MIA WILSON AND QUINCY LEDBETTER
How did the track come about? Did it start with a melody, a chord, or was it the subject matter that came first?
Quincy: Our process is pretty free form, but it usually starts with a demo that Mia records. We then listen to a few of these demos in the studio, decide which song we want to tackle and we start experimenting with ways to build on the idea. With Terrible Towns we deliberately wanted to push ourselves creatively and not pull any punches. But, the writing process in the studio usually starts with Mia’s demos. Perhaps Mia can speak more to where the inspiration in those demos comes from.
Mia: “City on an Island” started with me tweaking all of the settings on a reverse delay to as high as they would go and letting a single Bmin chord drone for a while before moving on with the rest of the composition. The original demo of it was much, much slower and had a lot of ambient noise in the background, but it allowed for a lot of space to create the vocals.
Why choose “City on an Island” as the lead single, and how does it reflect the rest of the album? What does it say about you as a duo?
Mia: This single is the first song that I wrote for the album and the entire album is essentially a calendar of about a year that was, for lack of a better description, a year of pretty intense isolation. So, the album is a chronology, it’s a calendar. It seemed right to kick off the whole event of introducing listeners to the album with the track that started it all and set the tone for the rest of the process.
Quincy: We chose this track because it culminates the feeling of the rest of the album as far as production quality and subject matter. It’s a perfect track to show our past fans how much we’ve grown as artists and to show new fans what we’re made of.
Besides Quincy getting married, what has changed for The Bright Smoke since Late for War and Virginia Et Al, and how are these changes reflected in Terrible Towns?
Quincy: I had a chance to learn some new studio and production tricks that I utilized throughout this entire recording process, just ways to make the sound bigger and give our guitar tones a new character. Also, our approach was more fearless this time around. We started seeing the rumblings of an actual fan base that stretched beyond our friends and spouses. People are starting to listen, so we wanted to make things feel new with each project while still being true to who we are, of course. That’s a hard balance to maintain, but it’s what keeps this fun!
Mia: I think we’ve just started to feel braver in general, which has led to taking more risks in writing and producing and has shown up significantly in our live show. There’s also something that is built in creating three albums with someone, putting in hours of rehearsals and live shows, or driving across parts of the country at 2 am with a questionably awake driver after soul-crushing gigs to empty rooms. I guess you could either murder each other, stop playing music, or build some decent trust. Given that we seem to have done the latter, the biggest place that shows up on this new album is in really trusting the artistry of the other person. I knew that if I was like, “I’m really sorry dude, but I’m hearing organ and church bells on this track and here, I need you to play this mandolin,” Quincy would just be like, “Yup. On it.” Likewise, when he was screaming background vocals across the room into a mic and telling me they were going to eventually sound really atmospheric and serene, I would just believe him. We also do A LOT of trust falls.
Quincy is stated in Impose that he wants to be known for making “classic albums” and not hits. In one sentence, how would you describe this single? The forthcoming album?
Quincy: “City on an Island” and “Terrible Towns” are honest and they were made with the sole intent of contributing to an art form that we love. (I hope that doesn’t sound pretentious. I just really believe that we’ve made something people will enjoy and connect with.)
Mia: “City on an Island” is a grappling with my surroundings, not an homage. “Terrible Towns” is two middle fingers firmly up to a whole lot of people/places/things/animals/plants/minerals.
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