Eskimeaux is the project of Gabrielle Smith, backed by Oliver Kalb, Jack Greenleaf, and Felix Walworth. The band is part of the Epoch collective—a dynamic group of musicians who write and perform music together, constantly shifting their lineup to form different bands. Among these are Bellows, Sharpless, and Told Slant, all of which Smith contributes to in some way.
Eskimeaux’s “poetic bedroom pop” is expansive yet delicate, orchestral music backing (but never overwhelming) Smith’s ethereal voice. The group’s latest album, O.K., marks a shift in the band’s sound—away from the relatively dark, ambient style of their early work towards a cleaner, brighter pop sound. The shift serves to place more emphasis on Smith’s brilliant songwriting; without extra noise to distract listeners, the lyrics take center stage. This is where Eskimeaux’s strength lies—in lyrics that are both concise and heart-wrenching. On "Broken Necks," Smith cleanly sums up the dysfunctions and heartbreak of a relationship falling apart, singing “while you were breaking your neck trying to keep your head up / I was breaking my neck just to stick it out for you.” It's a richly visual album, with songs full of images of flight and the sea, along with more general reflections on fear, love, and relationships of all kind.
We sat down with Smith to talk about O.K., the evolution of Eskimeaux, and the meaning of pop.
Rare Candy: How did you start writing music?
Gabrielle Smith: When I was in high school I dated a guy who was a real jerk, and he had this band that I thought was really cool and energetic and kinetic. I was really inspired—I’d never thought about being a musician before. He told me I couldn’t start a band, that we’d have to break up because we’d be in direct competition. So we broke up, and afterwards I started a band with my best friend, which was really bad. Eskimeaux started a couple years later, when I moved out of my parents’ house for the first time and was high a lot. I would just be in my bedroom with a guitar, squeaking into a mic really quietly so my roommates wouldn't hear me.
RC: Since then Eskimeaux’s lineup has changed a lot—do you think the lineup affects the music, or does the music affect the lineup?
Smith: Usually whatever bands I’m listening to at the time—which is whatever bands I’m in at the time— shape how I’m thinking about music, and that also informs who I’m surrounded by at any given time. Hopefully Eskimeaux’s lineup won’t ever change again, because right now it’s the exact people I want to be making music with. I’m in their bands too, so it’s this nice conversation of all of us contributing our separate musical ideas to each other’s projects.
"I feel like rock is always a very male-driven genre, so if I were to claim that I’m a rock band, people would expect it to be riff-y and like… a man with a ham sandwich in his mouth or something."
RC: Can you hear specific influences in your music from the other bands that you’re a part of?
Smith: A lot of my old writing was really influenced by this band I was in called Br’er—I was into making really dark, ambient music. At the time I liked to describe it as “nauseating,” because it would shift back and forth between your ears at a different rate than the beat. Then I stopped working with them and got really into Frankie Cosmos [in which Smith plays the keyboard]—so that sound has really influenced the stuff I do now. O.K. was recorded with Jack Greenleaf from Sharpless, and his fingerprints are all over the record. Also, these recordings are based on the live performances of these songs. Every song was a demo, and then I would bring it to the band and we processed it through our group filter, and then we recorded it. So O.K. sounds like these people all combined into one record.
RC: Beyond Epoch bands, are there other local bands that influence you?
Smith: I’m really inspired by Mitski—she’s so powerful and amazing, and I really work hard to quietly emulate her, or at least her attitude onstage. And Elaiza [Santos] from Crying and 100% is a genius whose voice I wish I had. I’m always really influenced by seeing other bands—like seeing Porches and LVL UP and Krill and Pile. I wish I had Rick [Maguire, of Pile]’s songwriting chops, he’s a genius too. I feel like I’m a sponge, but less like a sponge for sound—I just really try to emulate the power I feel when in other people’s music.
Often when I’m thinking about another band, I’ll write a song for that person. So often a lot of my songs are out of my singing range. Like “The Thunder Answered Back” was written for Elaiza. And “Folly” was written for Greta [Kline, of Frankie Cosmos].
RC: Do you ever tell them and send them the songs?
Smith: No, I never do... they definitely don’t know that. Except I told Greta I was trying to write a Frankie Cosmos song with “Folly.” Obviously I failed miserably—it’s a really cool song, but it’s not a Frankie Cosmos song at all.
RC: Because the Epoch bands share so many members, how do tours work?
Smith: Unfortunately all the bands go on hold when one band is on tour. That’s the saddest part about it. We all put one-hundred percent of our being into each tour, but that’s definitely the hardest part. Like recently we went on a Bellows tour, and I was dealing with a lot of PR for O.K., so I had to bring my computer and constantly be on it.
RC: The album is mostly remasterings and re-recordings of demos from 2013. How much of it is new?
Smith: There are two songs that aren’t on the internet at all—“Thanks” and “Sparrow.” The rest have been released in some form as a demo. That’s actually something I’ve been thinking about—when “Broken Necks” came out, someone posted about it on Tumblr saying “I already know this song... I hope there are new songs that come out on this album.” But I feel like the songs are different, especially because they’re in such a different context in their new forms. Not just in quality and instrumentation, but also I feel like the meaning has shifted a lot in certain songs. They feel really new to me.
RC: A lot of the album is in second person. Is that directed at one specific person, or a variety of them?
Smith: It’s a variety of people, including myself. Sometimes songs are written in a second person format because I’m trying to be objective about my own behavior. Sometimes they’re addressing Oliver, or one of our friends. In some songs the “you” is the french “vous” or Spanish “vosotros”: it’s addressed to multiple people.
RC: A lot of the songs on O.K. are more orchestral and upbeat than your older stuff—was that deliberate or organic?
Smith: I've been trying to move away from my “dark gothic ice queen” vibe from my old music, and I had this dream of making an album of “summer jams.” There’s this band I used to be in, called Power Animal. It’s one of the best bands I've ever heard, let alone had the pleasure of being a part of. I’ve always felt like their vibe was summer jams: their music is really real and sometimes really sad, but it’s always delivered in major chord format, with a four on the floor and a really groovy beat. I've always been really in awe of someone’s ability to do that, because I’ve never felt like I could—all my songs were brooding and slow. As I was moving away from that—when I started working with Jack—I knew I wanted O.K. to be like a power album, and also like a Tegan and Sara album. As for the orchestral aspect, I was raised playing violin. So my sensibilities music-wise are towards figuring out giant, orchestral things.
RC: What does pop mean to you, in contrast to rock, as a band that's shifting towards a more pop sound?
Smith: I feel like rock is always a very male-driven genre, so if I were to claim that I’m a rock band, people would expect it to be like riff-y and like… a man with a ham sandwich in his mouth or something.
I was just thinking about this today—someone asked me why my band description is “poetic bedroom pop,” and I was trying to explain that they’re carefully chosen words. “Poetic” is to indicate that the lyrics are really important—I think they’re the most important part of my music. I consider my songs to be poems with music attached. “Bedroom” is a disclaimer—it’s not pop, because even if it sounds really clean, it was made in a bedroom in our house with Jack’s computer. But then the “pop” indicates that it’s not folk music—it’s going to sound as clean and easy to digest as possible, so that it can support the lyrics and make them stand out like in a pop song.
RC:What’s in the future for Eskimeaux and Gabby Smith?
Smith: Tour, tour, tour, forever. At the end of this month there’s a Frankie Cosmos tour, then Eskimeaux right after, then right after that is a Bellows tour and then a short Eskimeaux tour out to Oberlin. Then another potential Frankie Cosmos tour for a month, and then a Told Slant tour. So we’re done in November. And we have to take our dog on most of them, which will be interesting.
RC: Last question: if you were exiled from civilization and could bring one musician, one book, and one record with you, what would they be?
Smith: For the one musician I would bring Oliver, who’s my partner. The one book would be War and Peace, because it’s so long and you have to make massive charts while reading it, so it would be entertaining for at least a month. For the one album I’d bring Medulla by Bjork, because I’ve never gotten tired of it. That album really influenced my development when I started making music—I was like “This is all voice? I don’t know how to play guitar. That’s so cool.”
O.K. was released May 12th through Double Double Whammy and can be purchased at Eskimeaux's Bandcamp. You can catch Eskimeaux May 15th at Shea Stadium, or July 17th at Palisades.