Moira Smiley comes home for roots revival

BRISTOL — Since she was 12-years-old, Moira Smiley has been recording people singing and speaking. “I’ve always been more of a listener than a speaker,” she said in an interview last month. It’s part of her mission as an artist: “to broadcast the notion that the human voice is vastly flexible and sensitive. And if we pay attention, we can understand each other on a deeper level.”
As a kid growing up in New Haven, Smiley (daughter of Susan and the late Jerry Smiley) remembers singing old shape-note songs and American folk hymns with her parents. “Folk music has been in my veins for a long time,” she said. 
As an elementary student, Smiley took piano lessons from Diana Fanning and cello from Dieuwke Davydov ? two beloved local instructors who also perform together as a duo. When she graduated from Rice High School, Smiley moved out to the Midwest to pursue a piano performance degree at Indiana University School of Music. By 1998 she earned her degree in Early Music Vocal Performance. 
While at IU, Smiley fell in love with Bloomington, Ind., and stuck around for seven more years performing with her vocal quartet, VIDA. They toured together singing a cappella folk songs from Eastern Europe and various other vibrant harmony traditions. 
In 2005, she headed to California where she recorded a solo CD, “Rua,” (it means “red” in Gaelic) of Irish, Appalachian and her own songs. That kicked off her songwriting and arranging career with Moira Smiley & VOCO ? a group of four female voices, cello, banjo, percussive movement and accordion. VOCO has recorded four albums: “Blink” (2006), “Circle, Square, Diamond & Flag” (2008), “Small Worlds” (2009) and “Laughter Out of Tears” (2014).
Smiley was also drawn to California to deepen her explorations of Eastern European vocal music with the KITKA ensemble. KITKA’s rigorous touring and recordings combine traditional songs and ground-breaking new works. Smiley did a song-study trip through Bulgaria, Serbia and Croatia in 2012, where she studied Irish Sean Nós (old-style) singing, Appalachian ballad and dance-song; she also began site-specific theater.
Like most musicians “making it” in Los Angeles, Smiley had more than one iron in the fire ? she calls it “patch-working.” In addition to her work these days with VOCO, she also plays and sings with Jayme Stone, Solas and Tune-Yards. It’s all rooted in folk music.
“Folk music ended up feeling like home over and over,” Smiley said, “though classical music felt like home too.”
She said she loves Béla Bartók, Debussy and Shostakovich equally to Fats Waller and early American shape-note singing. In fact, Bartók’s short pieces for piano inspires her ongoing project “Bartók Sings” ? re-imagining Bartók’s piano miniatures for voices and strings.
Smiley was recently the soprano soloist in Stravinsky’s “Les Noces,” one of eight singers for Stockhausen’s “Stimmung,” playing the role of Sorceress in Purcell’s 1690 opera “Dido & Aeneas,” and performing a variety of art song collaborations around the world. She also taught a semester at University of Birmingham (UK), and sang and recorded with the acclaimed Theater of Voices, Fretwork Consort of Viols, The Dufay Collective, and Sinfonye. In 2002, she won the Barbara Thornton Memorial Scholarship for Medieval Music, given by the Sequentia Ensemble, and recorded Disc Three of the Complete Hildegard Works with Sinfonye (Celestial Harmonies).
How’s that for accomplished?
But that is not what keeps Smiley going. She’s inspired by the communal aspect of folk music, that and conservation. Which is what brought Smiley and Jamey Stone together for the Folklife Project. Well, that, and Smiley sang at Stone’s wedding 10 years ago.
“It’s about listening to others and remembering,” she said. “The lyrics and melodies are from extraordinary singers and players that Alan Lomax and other folklorists recorded… Most of the musicians were never professionals; to me they’re artists of sound.”
Performing these songs with Stone’s project is an honor for Smiley. “I guess in a way it’s a feeling that the outpouring of human creativity is unstoppable,” she said. “I feel connected to the past in a soulful way.”
Smiley is excited to come home for this Sunday’s concert at the WalkOver Concert Room in Bristol. Together with Joe Philips, Sumaia Jackson and Jayme Stone, Smiley said listeners will hear “music with a sense of history and adventure!”
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