A love story forged through music
Theirs is a modern Berkshire-made love story with a self-made folk-pop soundtrack.
Robert Oakes, 37, and Katherine Smith, 25, met about five years ago when Smith was about to move to the Berkshires.
He hails from New Jersey, not far from Manhattan. She comes from northeastern Connecticut. Both have musical families.
Oakes primarily plays stringed instruments (guitar, bass), dabbles in flutes, drums and sings. Smith harmonizes and will launch a bigger effort to play the fretted dulcimer after she finishes art school at Bard College at Simon's Rock in Great Barrington.
The couple met online through sharing their musical interests. Upon meeting in person, they found they had more than just songs in common.
Nowadays, they make their home in a rustic, woodland barn loft in Tyringham with a big dog named Finn. There, among Oakes' collection of instruments and Smith's paintings, they write music and collaborate with other local musicians to make recordings.
Here, they talk about living, musing and making music together, and how they have no plans of stopping.
EAGLE: So, how did you get together?
OAKES: The Berkshires did it.
SMITH: When I knew I was coming to live and work up here, I started networking online so I'd have a sort of group of people in place. I connected with Robert and I really liked his songwriting, so we began conversations online and it became a friendship. Then we met in person and began seeing each other regularly.
OAKES: I was working on an album at the time and wanted some visual stuff for it, like cover art and video. Not only does Kate have this beautiful voice but she's a really gifted painter and artist (she created the band's logo).
I remember one time we were sitting in the Lion's Den at the Red Lion Inn and talking about a concept for a video. The next thing I knew we were storyboarding. I think it started on napkins and ended up in a sketchbook. [Both laugh.]
SMITH: We were drawn together primarily because we understood each other's artistic vision, and we're lucky that we also found love. We're only beginning to scratch the surface.
EAGLE: When did you branch out into creating original material?
SMITH: It wasn't until I met Robert that I realized I had messages that I wanted to convey. I wanted to take some poetry I had written and other ideas I had to make into songs we could perform together.
OAKES: For me, music is a way to express. First and foremost it's about writing. The music that's meant the most to me is when the writer has a personal stake.
EAGLE: When did you really start performing and making music together as Oakes & Smith?
OAKES: At first I wasn't thinking we'd be a singing/writing duo, but in 2010, I seriously starting thinking, "Hey, this could work as an act, the two of us together."
SMITH: So summer 2010 became about trying it for real. We'd try and play out as much as we could, using gigs as a test. That summer we played street corners, cafés, pubs, festivals.
OAKES: We'd go back and forth switching voice parts and trying different things with vocals and an acoustic guitar.
EAGLE: What happened in the fall that year?
OAKES: The real emphasis then became doing a recording and looking for other musicians to play with.
We found Justin Hillman (guitar and other strings), Zack Cross (pi ano), Conor Meehan (drums), and Dan Fabrica- tore (upright bass).
During that time, we booked a few New York City gigs (Banjo Jim's, Rockwood, Arlene's Grocery), which was new for us.
The beginning of 2011, the focus became about us and a band, as well as us continuing to write new songs and arrangements. Eventually we picked 14 songs to start recording.
SMITH: We did the initial tracking for all 14 songs at Isokon Studio in Woodstock, N.Y., but we didn't finish.
OAKES: We realized what we started was ambitious. So in fall 2011, we decided to scale down and pick a core of music and started polishing that with the help of a new producer, Jason Loughlin. He's a former bandmate of mine from Brooklyn. We decided that doing an EP, a short recording, was something that we could use to really make an impact.
EAGLE: For the record, you eventually produced a four-song "live-in-studio" EP, featuring original songs performed by Justin Hillman, Zack Cross and yourselves. Where did that happen?
OAKES: It was recorded by my friend, Tim Peck, who has a recording class at the Pomfret School in Connec ticut. The idea was to be the band the kids are recording. So we partnered with them and they did a great job. (Some recording was also done at Hillman's Micro Studio in Richmond.)
SMITH: This is our first album together, and though Robert has his work, this is my first album. We're finding our sound more. Personally, I'm happy we're going toward a more organic sound, with plans to add strings like cello and violin and maybe even the dulcimer.
EAGLE: I think it's really interesting and cool, but you also used a newer and popular online service called Kickstarter this year to help support the project. Can you tell me more about that?
OAKES: We had a $6,000 goal to raise in a limited time (June 15 through July 31), and we reached our goal through our friends, family and fans. It was huge for us. My high school class created a fan page for us on Facebook. It was amazing to have people I haven't heard from in years supporting us.
The funding will help us finish the recording and also in planning to attend the Folk Alliance International Conference, which will take place in Toronto in February.
SMITH: It will help us get the word out about our music. Kickstarter is kind of great because it reminds me of the old live telethons. You have to be proactive in drumming up support.
OAKES: We learned from Alan Chartock. [Laughs.] The thing is [people] don't want to see you fail, so it's a great way to find support.
EAGLE: You both came from elsewhere, and clearly have a wide swath of support. Why do you keep doing what you do in the Berkshires?
OAKES: That's a good question, and I'm not being facetious. Here, you tend to be isolated, especially in places like Tyringham, but that's also part of what's wonderful about it. You can find the time to find the voice in your work, and there's a beautiful community here that feeds what we do.
SMITH: A lot of our sound comes from the feeling that we get here.
Last year we performed at the Made in The Berkshires showcase at The Colonial Theatre. That was a great experience. You felt it in the whole room.
OAKES: To get that kind of feedback, to have someone come up to you and say, ‘you know that line in the third verse of the fourth song, that's my life right there' -- that's powerful.
SMITH: Especially when you, as musicians, spend much of your time battling the noise of conversations in bars and the whir of coffee machines.
EAGLE: So, what's next?
SMITH: It will be really nice to have a full album, which we hope to have in hand for Toronto.
When we started, a lot of what we do is just kind of going for it. When people ask if we still want to do this we say yes, and sometimes we say hell yeah. [Laughs]
OAKES: It's about taking a leap of faith and the power of letting it guide you and seeing what can be created from that. Thursday September 13, 2012
About Oakes & Smith
Local base: Tyringham.
Upcoming gigs: Sept. 22 at 9 p.m., Lion's Den at Red Lion Inn, Stockbridge. Oct. 5, 7:30 p.m., Dewey Hall, Sheffield. Oct. 6, 7 p.m., Mocha Maya's with Justin Hillman, Shelburne Falls. Made in The Berkshires show date will also be that weekend in October; time to be announced.
For music, videos and more, visit www.oakesandsmith.net or via Facebook, YouTube, and Bandcamp.com.
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