Singer-songwriter April Smith puts her quirks to work
April Smith likes to tell the story about the first time she heard Tom Waits. She was about 8 years old, and when an aunt and uncle played the irascible singer-songwriter’s music, it fired up her imagination. She suddenly wanted to dress up as Waits, or as what she suspected he looked like based on his boogeyman voice: pipe, hat, glasses, and “two Junior Mints on my front teeth.’’
She got a kick out of that, still does. When Smith had a sleepover with her friends around that time, she debuted her Waits impersonation, which didn’t go over too well. (Never mind that her fellow preteens had no idea who Tom Waits was.)
“Everybody left the sleepover,’’ Smith says. “They said, ‘We have to go home. You’re weird.’ ’’
The Junior Mints are gone, but Smith is still weird and proudly so. The big difference is that her eccentricities are now the most magnetic part of her career as a singer-songwriter who’s determined not to be pigeonholed. Delivered in a brassy voice fit for both a bar and Broadway, her songs are a strange brew of swing music, 1950s vocalese, folk-rock, and dusty old jazz. And Smith is conducting her business affairs much like she makes music: on her own terms with no record label behind her.
Smith, who brings April Smith & the Great Picture Show to T.T. the Bear’s on Thursday, raised $13,000 in three months through online fan funding to finance her eclectic new album, “Songs for a Sinking Ship.’’ She has also licensed her music for TV shows (“Weeds’’) and commercials (Colgate).
When Smith and her band premiered at the Newport Folk Festival to an enthusiastic crowd last summer, Smith’s set careened from era to era, genre to genre. You had to wonder: How does someone market an artist like April Smith?
“I think that’s the reason why I’m not on a label,’’ she says from her home in Brooklyn. “It’s not that I dislike labels, but they just look at you and say, ‘OK, if I can’t put you in this category, then we can’t really do anything.’ Which is great for me because I’m doing a lot better without a label than I think I would with one.’’
Onstage Smith, who’s 34 (“but my managers always say, ‘Just tell everybody you’re 28’ ’’), is usually the eye of a storm as her bandmates flesh out her songs with a coterie of instruments: guitar, ukulele, violin, bass, drums, accordion, and whatever else suits the mood.
Smith’s retro sensibility is particularly pronounced on the band’s album, and she mines gold from one of the oldest characters in pop music: the pretty damsel who does the naughtiest things. Don’t be snookered when Smith bats her eyelashes — she’s inevitably plotting something sinister beneath that mascara. In the new video for her song “Terrible Things,’’ Smith plays a deranged ’50s housewife who sips her champagne while bodies pile up in her parlor.
“[The album] definitely has that old-school feel, but it’s got a modern spin on it,’’ she says. “It’s not like I wanted to go completely back in time, but I wanted to give a nod. And it’s got a sarcastic, cheeky feel to it, too. That’s me.’’
Smith has been like this since she can remember, first as the little sister tugging on her older siblings’ sleeves to get their attention.
“I’d be like, ‘Hey, guys, watch me do this!’’’ she says, adding that her brother and sister would then rate her performances. “They could be hard on me, but it wound up making me a performer.’’
It was also not uncommon for a young Smith to belt a chorus of “The sun’ll come out tomorrow!’’ when her mother took her on errands to the bank or the DMV: “My Mom was like, ‘We have to start going through the drive-through.’ ’’
Soon enough, her parents realized that genuine talent lurked beneath Smith’s showmanship. She remembers a fateful day when her father mistook her bedroom singing for something on the radio, only to be astonished by the truth.
“Everybody had always been like, go away, go away, go away,’’ she says. “If you send a kid away enough, and you leave them to their own devices, they’re going to either become a serial killer or develop a really interesting personality. Lucky for my parents, I turned into this. Or maybe you should ask them.’’
James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.