Brix Smith: 'This is the album I've wanted to make my whole life'
It is, she says, the record that she has wanted to make her “whole life”.
The split with The Extricated, whose ranks included Paul and Stephen Hanley, who she had also worked with during her days in Manchester legendary post-punk group The Fall, was, the 60-year-old Californian says, entirely amicable, but after three albums and dozens of gigs she felt that group had run their course.
“Also, Covid intervened,” she says. “Basically we did our last show the month before lockdown, so everybody was separated, and most of The Extricated have young children or families and day jobs, it was all a big kind of mess, it was impossible to rehearse.
“But saying that, I actually had at the last gig made up my mind that I wanted for myself do something fresh. It was never a discussion to end The Extricated, everything is completely amicable, it was just natural. But I, as a songwriter, really wanted to push myself.”
Determined to do something new, Smith hooked up with Martin ‘Youth’ Glover of Killing Joke, with the intention of writing songs for others. Using Facetime and file sharing, they passed ideas back and forth – “He would send me backing track files and I would write the lyrics and the topline melodies and all the harmonies and send them back, and we just kept working like that” – but by the third song they knew they were “on to something special”.
“In my mind, I thought it was for other people, but then (Youth) said, ‘This is your solo album, it’s time for you to do this, this is all about you’, and I thought, ‘You know what, it is time, it is all about me. I’m going to make the album I’ve always wanted to make without having to take on board anybody else’s opinions.’”
Smith, who while in The Fall co-wrote the likes of Cruiser’s Creek and Hit The North with her then-husband Mark E Smith, says she found Youth “the best” person to bounce ideas off. “I’ve been lucky enough to write with a few really extraordinary people, one of them being Mark E Smith, and sometimes there’s an OK chemistry – in The Extricated there’s a few of those songs that I’m very proud of, I worked very well with Jason Brown and Steve Trafford within that band, and Paul Hanley who wrote two songs – but it had been a long dry spell that I hadn’t connected so magically and so intuitively with somebody since Mark Smith,” she says. “Youth is incredible to work with and he’s an incredible producer, he’s super talented, and he really gets me. He made it all about me, not about him, which is so generous.
“I’m generous, I’m a collaborator, when you work with me I’m always trying to pull out the best bits of everybody else, at the sacrifice of myself it seems for many years. Finally with somebody having my back and really encouraging me to stand up and speak my truth both lyrically and singing it in a truthful way, he guided me so well and I’m so grateful.”
The sheer variety of songs on Valley of the Dolls has earned it comparisons with Blondie’s Parallel Lines – something that Smith is flattered by. “If I look objectively at Parallel Lines the great thing about that is that every single song is a winner, there isn’t once piece of filler on it...I don’t think it particularly is Blondie-influenced, there may be one or two references that bleed in here and there like on Say I’m Your Number One, but ideally that’s what you want to do with a record, you want to make every song an absolute killer no matter what type of song it is, so that’s what we did,” she says.
“For the first time in my life, in 40 years of making albums, I had all the time in the world to do it, zero financial pressure, zero record company pressure and zero any kind of band pressure, people having opinions. It was fantastic because I could really craft these songs without rushing into a studio and only having the money to record four days’ worth of material. I could spend all day in my bedroom recording vocal lines, harmony lines, lyrics until I had honed it until, for me, perfection. Nothing’s ever perfect but when you don’t cringe at something and when you like every bit...I can honesty say it’s the first record I’ve made where there is not one thing on that record that upsets me now, where I think I could do it better or change it. That’s the kind of artist I am, I’m always looking to get better, to grow as a human as well.
“And at this age, I felt so alive when I was making this record, even shut up. It was really interesting because making this record really got me through lockdown and saved me, and also showed me a different pace at which to work, which I very much enjoyed.”
Lyrically, Valley of the Dolls finds Smith at her most open, as she was when writing her acclaimed memoir The Rise, The Fall, And The Rise. She admits she “had a habit in the past” of protecting herself in her lyrics – “I didn’t want people to see my vulnerabilities particularly, I didn’t want to share them, I didn’t think I needed to” – but Youth persuaded her to write in the first person. “He said, ‘You have to stand up and own it, you need to be more vulnerable’, but he not only pushed me, he gave me a safety net so I felt able to do it. Then I realised, you know what, who gives a flying F anyway? Everybody’s got problems, everybody’s got vulnerabilities. I am writing about both the beautiful happiness and bliss of my life and the horrendous pain and dark side of everything, that’s what makes me a well rounded human being just like everybody else, so be honest.
“I think if you’re honest as a writer, if you stand up and sing your honesty it resonates with people, and I think that’s what’s happening with this record. People are really resonating with the songs and the lyrics and finding a lot of universalities with their own life because I was so honest about mine – and in the book as well.”
The album, which was recorded at Youth’s studios in Wandsworth and Spain, includes guest appearances by two long-time friends of Smith’s, Susannah Hoffs and Siobhan Fahey. She says she has known Hoffs, former singer with The Bangles, since she was 13 years old (“Our moms are best friends”), and toured together in the US tour in the 1990s. “It was an acoustic tour, it was her, me and another guitarist, we did Bangles’ songs and some of her solo songs and some cover versions and I played bass and sang harmony, and that was fantastic,” she recollects. “I asked her if she would sing on (Valley of the Dolls) because weirdly maybe we have recorded together before but not on any of my records, so I thought, you know what I’m going to have two of my best girlfriends together on this record – Susannah Hoffs and Siobhan Fahey of Shakespear’s Sister – two women who have made a huge mark on the music industry and were in two of the most important female bands of all time. I thought that was a really big statement to have those two amazing friends on there backing me up.”
To tour the album, Smith has recruited an ‘all female super group’ that includes My Bloody Valentine duo Deb Googe (bass) and Jen Macro (keyboards/guitar) plus Lisa Lux (drums), while Smith herself promises to play “a lot more guitar”.
At the time we speak, it’s almost 40 years to the day since Smith first saw The Fall performing in Chicago – an event that would change her life. Within three months she and frontman Mark E Smith had married and were sharing a home in the Manchester suburb of Prestwich. To The Fall, she brought a West Coast pop sensibility over the course of nine albums before her final departure in 1996.
Looking back on her time in the band, she says: “Pretty much early on when I met Mark and he heard the songs I’d been writing, he extremely cleverly thought ‘Oh my God, that’s what we need in The Fall’. He just knew, like a great chef, how to mix up recipes...you have something and it’s maybe missing one ingredient or you take an ingredient and it turns into a multi-faceted taste, so he was like, ‘This is just what we need’. He knew and he identified it.
“Not in my wildest dreams did I think I was going to join The Fall when I came over here, I thought I was going to do what I’m doing now making this record. Of course I didn’t know Youth then, but I was aiming for this… Anyway Mark knew that what I had to bring could be a really good mixture in The Fall, and I was sensitive enough as a writer and a musician to not want to blast my ego over that band but merely to pick out some sunlight within the shadows, which is what I did.
“My obsession and my gift and my favourite as songwriter is to write hooks, basically what you call earworms, things thta are so infectious that you can hear them in the day and that actual riff or hook will wake you up out of your sleep at night or the next day you will wake up and it will be stuck in your head when you haven’t heard it for 24 hours. That to me is magic, and with The Fall it was very easy for me to do that because the simplest things would be just what they needed to take the kind of cacophonous maelstrom of hypnotic beats and darkness and just give it that tiny bit of sugar that it needed for a little bit of balance, and it made it more palatable for a lot of people that couldn’t penetrate The Fall.
“The Fall was a very intellectual band, very hard to penetrate for a lot of people and you wouldn’t know where to start in the first place and everyone sees something different, which is the beauty of it. I never wanted to take away from that, I wanted to enhance it, which I think is what I’ve done and I look back on my time being in that band and working with them with great pride.
“Pride comes before The Fall,” she chuckles.
Valley of the Dolls is out now. Brix Smith plays at Hebden Bridge Trades Club on Friday June 23. https://brixsmith.com/