Moira Smiley


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About

Moira Smiley is a Singer / Composer who creates and performs new work for voices. A musical polyglot, and vocal shape-shifter, her voice – and composing - are heard on feature films, BBC & PBS television programs, NPR, and on more than 60 albums. She accompanies herself with banjo, accordion, ...

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Contact

Publicist
Ron Kadish
812-339-1195 X 202

Current News

  • 02/20/201803/30/2018

Scary, Tender Instrument: Moira Smiley Finds the Raw Power of the Voice to Unzip the Horizon

New album featuring members of tune-yards, Rising Appalachia, Solas

In a leafy yard at midsummer, in a small hamlet in northwestern Ukraine, the elder singer turned to California-based vocalist and composer, Moira Smiley. “She spoke through a translator,” Smiley recalls. “She said that singing will negotiate directly with the ancestors and with forces beyond our control. The way she saw it, there was a proper respect for our place in the great timeline, and raw, true voices...

Press

  • 21CM, Interview, 02/08/2018, RE/CREATE: MOIRA SMILEY ON EMULATING BARTÓK Text
  • Wandering Educators, Album review, 10/17/2017, Geography of Hope: Music of Immigration and Refugees Text
  • Paradigms, Interview, 10/15/2017, Moira Smiley – Musician, Composer, Humanitarian, Volunteer Text
  • Folk Alley/WKSU, Video premiere, 10/13/2017, Video Premiere: Moira Smiley, "Refugee" Text
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News

03/30/2018, Album Release, "Unzip the Horizon"
02/20/201803/30/2018, Scary, Tender Instrument: Moira Smiley Finds the Raw Power of the Voice to Unzip the Horizon
Release
03/30/2018
Release
03/30/2018
Release Format
Album
Release Type
Digital & Physical
Release Title
Unzip the Horizon
My song, REFUGEE is about feeling bereft and misunderstood. We are all much closer to being refugees than we want to imagine. Realizing this may remind us of our humanity - especially those of us who have relatively plenty. MORE» More»

New album featuring members of tune-yards, Rising Appalachia, Solas

In a leafy yard at midsummer, in a small hamlet in northwestern Ukraine, the elder singer turned to California-based vocalist and composer, Moira Smiley. “She spoke through a translator,” Smiley recalls. “She said that singing will negotiate directly with the ancestors and with forces beyond our control. The way she saw it, there was a proper respect for our place in the great timeline, and raw, true voices can change the events of the future through song.”

That moment, chronicled in her new song “Bellow,” shifted something in Smiley, bringing her not only into closer contact with things past, but toward a surprising and powerful future. Moving out of her comfort zone, Smiley began singing with tune-yards’ Merrill Garbus, exploring Laura Nyro’s music with multi-grammy winner Billy Childs, and touring internationally with Irish-American supergroup, Solas.

Unzip the Horizon (release: March 30, 2018) unfurls the work this discovery generated, a set of original songs and traditional arrangements enriched by guests including Garbus, British folk troublemaker Sam Lee, Seamus Egan of Solas, banjo innovator Jayme Stone, Leah & Chloe of Rising Appalachia, Darrell Scott of Band of Joy, and avant-folk duo Anna and Elizabeth. Building on a world of creaks and whispers, sighs and half-hummed melodies, Smiley jumps into new territory that straddles Americana, indie rock, and folk.  She captures the essence of our human journey together with a voice that refuses to falter, even in the toughest moments.

“I found more to my voice when I left the isolation of my own ideas and survival instincts, and bumped up more against my culture’s limited ideas of what a female voice should sound like, and sing about,” Smiley says. From that conversation in Ukraine through finishing the album, I knew I would encourage my original songs to embrace my ‘scary’, wild, dissonance-loving voice because it made the songs--and me--feel tender, personal and true.” 

{full story below}

“The voice can be a scary, tender instrument, not just sweet and pretty,” muses Smiley. “I’ve long embraced that when singing certain traditional folk songs, but I longed to pull it into my original music,” Smiley reflects. “Partly because of this, I went from leading a vocal group in my little corner of the music world to performing intensively in others’ projects. As each project demanded the utmost of my voice and my ability to listen, it was necessary to break self-imposed limits.”

Smiley bursts through these limits in multiple ways on Unzip the Horizon.  Her emotive range and engagement with traditional styles (the newly minted Celtic-leaning folk tale of “Wiseman” and the shiver-inducing Appalachian ballad-style “Dressed in Yellow”) is built on years of exploration and training.

The tracks contain subtle hints of Smiley’s training in early music and classical piano, which blossomed into a successful early career of performing and recording the vocal tapestries of Arvo Pärt, Hildegard von Bingen, Stockhausen, Purcell, Louis Andreasson, and Handel with the likes of Paul Hillier, Stevie Wishart, and other leading lights in new and early art music. At the same time, Moira explored the polyphony of Eastern Europe’s striking female singing traditions that she’d been exposed to as a child. As the head of groups VIDA and VOCO, she and her fellow singers dove into this material, eventually performing in prestigious venues like Lincoln Center, touring the US and Europe, and recording a series of albums. Her fascination with this music took her on several study trips to Eastern Europe, including that fateful midsummer trip to Ukraine, guided by powerhouse Ukrainian singer/composer, Mariana Sadovska.

While lessons from older traditional singers and from social music communities form the backbone of Smiley’s music, but her strongest drive is to improvise, compose, and re-imagine. This impulse took Smiley’s career on some intriguing twists and turns away from global folk music and toward experimental pop and other newer genres. “I learned a lot from opening myself up as a songwriter to more individualistic, rather than communal music genres, and to the slightly wider audience of some of the artists I recently toured with. I became more aware of my role as a woman in a male-dominated world. I just hadn’t been aware while I led female bands of singers like VIDA and VOCO,” she remarks. “A woman with a strong voice does have a chance to be heard, but the dominance of the ‘male gaze’ in our art commerce expects youth, beauty, and certain kind of sexuality from most of the strong female voices we legitimize. Meeting those expectations shouldn’t have to be the long game of being a creative force, for men or for women! The long game for me is cultivating the power and sensitivity of the voice, and writing for it.”

That power and sensitivity hit home when Smiley went to the Calais Jungle refugee camp in France as part of a project with Expressive Arts Refuge. “I woke to culture and language completely beyond my understanding, and also the simple power of humans making beauty together – from nothing,” she recalls. She distills this experience and finds its universal resonance on “Refugee,” a song that inspires compassion with an urgency reminiscent of Peter Gabriel’s brightest moments.

To bolster these resonances, the album’s sound blends poised instrumental performances with a delightfully messy, enigmatic set of incidental sounds that fade in and out. “I didn’t want a clean, voice-only space for these songs. I wanted the songs to bump up against other sounds,” Smiley says. “I realized that some of my favorite recordings, including tune-yards and field recordings, have the noisy world in the tracks. A track doesn’t have to be just a wall of music. You get to knock around in a world of surprises, not just in a pretty set of sounds.”

Smiley will celebrate Unzip the Horizon with a songbook and with an all-hands-on-deck party at the Savannah Music Festival on April 7, 2018 that will trace Smiley’s evolution as both a student of folk song and a composer. She describes the show: “A stark beginning: with one or two people on stage, projected images, an accordion, a bass, a banjo, me at the piano, a sense of spaciousness. It builds slowly through Appalachian, shape-note, and East European traditionals, and then takes flight into more original songs,” notes Smiley. “Then we’ll end in communal, original songs; clapping, stomping, singing, with “Bellow” as the finale.” Smiley will have ten collaborators with her, all proponents of both traditional folk and experimental, original music.

Experience and age transform a singer, giving both insight and a shifting instrument. Smiley found the expressive opportunities of her changing range and style dovetailed with the tales she longed to tell as a songwriter. “I’m letting my voice relax and deepen” Smiley reflects. “Where I was bright and pushing forward before, my voice takes more time to taste the words, let them affect me. I feel more in-relationship to the world when I sing now. There’s a depth and a vulnerability that can happen, that couldn’t before.”

Release
03/30/2018

10/13/2017, Single Release, "Refugee"
09/08/201710/13/2017, WHY ‘REFUGEE’
Release
10/13/2017
Release
10/13/2017
Release Format
Single
Release Type
Digital
Release Title
Refugee
My song, REFUGEE is about feeling bereft and misunderstood. We are all much closer to being refugees than we want to imagine. Realizing this may remind us of our humanity- especially those of us who have relatively plenty. Lately, ‘Refugee’ is the only song I feel like singing. MORE» More»

My world was blown open in summer 2016 while volunteering at Calais Jungle refugee camp in France. I woke to culture and language completely beyond my understanding, and also the simple power of humans making beauty together - from nothing. It’s an honor to be with people when they have a life-or-death need for ‘perspective’ - that perspective mostly gotten through tenacity, openness and wit. Through these people who had become refugees, I understood how deeply connected we billions of humans are, and how little we may know of each other.

I walked in fear for the first hours in the Calais Jungle - could I be chewed up by the sharp-eyed need and anger I’d heard about? Being with my EAR (Expressive Arts Refuge) team showed me how to invite trust - mostly through music - while guiding ourselves through conflict. We shared some time in the Jungle with The (London-based) Calais Sessions, who produced an incredible, award-winning album collaborating with refugee musicians. Their project – a combination of expert professional music recording, musical arranging and generous
camaraderie - affected me deeply. When this song, ‘REFUGEE’ came tumbling out of me, I knew I would reach out to them to be part of it. Similarly, it became clear that my old friends Leah and Chloe Smith, of Rising Appalachia were perfect, fierce voices to bring in.

My song, REFUGEE is about feeling bereft and misunderstood. We are all much closer to being refugees than we want to imagine. Realizing this may remind us of our humanity - especially those of us who have relatively plenty. Lately, ‘Refugee’ is the only song I feel like singing - mostly because of the raw, calling voice it asks of me, and its un-sentimental plea for compassion. I have some hope that a resolute song can touch our hearts and change us.

The video of REFUGEE came from hearing first-hand stories of unbelievable journeys. These were journeys across enormous distances and danger - mostly by walking and by boat – in many cases alone. It also came from watching young men and women grapple with belonging and self expression in the tense, dangerous limbo of the refugee camps. It also came from watching my new friends - who were left with so little - give everything - especially of their hearts. You hear about this, but to experience it first hand…changes everything that comes after.

This year, in the Greek Skaramagas Refugee Camp, I walked with greater confidence into sharing songs with Syrian, Kurdish, Afghani and Iraqi kids and meeting the musicians in the camp who were refugees also. I felt again how our little songs and lessons, hugs and even moments of disciplining slowly built a cautious trust in all of us - and a willingness to let wildness and joy peer through the anxiety and suffering.

Release
10/13/2017