Maryse Smith likes to take her time with things. Like, approximately three years.
"I'm a slow mover," she says, the faintest trace of a self-conscious grin creasing the corner of her mouth as she sips a late-afternoon beer at a bustling Burlington coffeehouse.
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Smith, 28, is discussing the creation of her new album, The Way It Is, released last week on new Burlington imprint Future Fields. That album, her third full-length, was recorded last summer at the Lincoln, Vt., home of multi-instrumentalist and composer Michael Chorney, with whom Smith has been collaborating for the past two years. It is a follow-up to her 2012 self-titled record, which was in turn a follow-up to her debut, Is Becomes Was, released in 2009.
As evidenced by the oddly consistent three-year gaps in her musical output, Smith is correct in her self-assessment. At the very least, you could say she works at a deliberate pace — that's also how she tends to speak, at least when asked about her music. But, as the adage goes, good things come to those who wait.
Is Becomes Was was a startling debut, perfect in its imperfections. It had a cozy, handmade quality whose faun-like clumsiness only made the record more endearing. Though it was the work of a very shy young songwriter still finding her voice, it offered tantalizing glimpses of Smith's endless promise. This was most notable in her uncommonly expressive vocal delivery and her clever and deceptively incisive, insightful wordplay. As its title implies, the record was a heart-wrenching rumination on the impermanence of both life and love.
Three years later, Maryse Smith revealed a far more confident voice — literally and figuratively. The self-titled sophomore record presented her backed by a full band and teeming with previously unseen swagger, almost as if she had a chip on her shoulder. And judging from some of the album's pointed takes on love gone bad, perhaps she did. Though elements of the shy, heartsick girl from Is Become Was remained, the record suggested Smith had come into her own.
Now, another three years later, Smith takes another profound step forward with The Way It Is. Her songwriting is more potent and quietly devastating, her voice more dynamic and expressive. And she had Chorney on hand to color her music with mysterious tones. Long regarded as one of the most unique and creative musicians in Vermont, his contributions — as well as those of bassist Rob Morse, marimbist Jane Boxall and guitarist Brett Lanier — generate textures and depth that make the album Smith's finest to date.
The Way It Is is beautiful. It is also sometimes sad. Smith is shy and sometimes introverted. But she is not a particularly down person, at least not any more than most people. She uses music to synthesize and process turmoil, most often after the fact.
"I've realized I'm not a depressed writer," she says. "I can write about something after, but when I'm in something, it's not productive."
Smith adds that her music is not necessarily always a window to her soul.
"A lot of what I write is just a snapshot of how I'm feeling at that second," she explains. "Songs are like little moments. They're reflections that might be true in that moment, but could equally be not true the next day."
She further notes that, though her writing can come off as confessional, she's not always writing about herself.
"Sometimes something can sound romantic, but it's really just a story," Smith says. "On the other hand, sometimes I might write something as though I'm talking to someone else, but it's really about my own shit.
"I do spend a lot of time in my head," she adds. "But I guess that's why I write songs."
The batch of songs on The Way It Is represents some of Smith's most affecting writing, touching on themes from grappling with adulthood ("Glory Bound") to losing love ("I Forgot") and then finding it again ("Hold Me"). Smith has always had a knack for gently exposing complicated emotions. But working with Chorney has helped reveal a deeper quality in her work.
"Sometimes when I hear a musician, there's just a resonance," says Chorney by phone from his home. "It's not necessarily all about the lyrics or the songwriting or the musical thing, it's a combination of all of those that resonates. And when it does, it's like, Oh, there's someone from my planet."
Chorney and Smith have been working together for about two years, since meeting at the Precipice music festival in Burlington. It's a natural union. Chorney's tactful style accentuates Smith's writing, not unlike the way David Rawlings distinctively shades the work of Gillian Welch. Perhaps the clearest example of this comes on the track "I Got a Job." Here, Chorney's acoustic slide guitar meanders around Smith's searching yarn about how the demands of a day job, though providing security, can interfere with the immediacy of a romantic relationship. It's both rustic and ethereal, which suits Smith's back-porch rocking-chair lyricism.
"He's a very thoughtful guitarist," says Smith of Chorney.
Contrasting with the lag between Smith's releases, the recording sessions for her new one took only a couple of days. It was by far the fastest she has ever worked in the studio. Most of the tracks were recorded live and feature minimal overdubs. And very few of the songs had established arrangements beforehand, which allowed the players room to explore.
"It was probably the most fun I've had recording," says Smith.
Indeed, the record feels immediate and spontaneous. That the reserved singer would thrive in such a situation may come as a surprise. But as The Way It Is reveals, Maryse Smith is more comfortable with herself than ever before.
"I've come to accept my shyness as part of who I am," she says. "I feel like a lot of people always talk. And that's just as bad."
Smith generally prefers to do her talking through her music, even if it takes her a while to do so. And as she's proven yet again with The Way It Is, when she does have something to say, the rest of us should listen.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Something in the Way"