Singer and composer Moira Smiley knows how to sing the body acoustic. Throughout her musical career, the "vocal shapeshifter" has sung and created for features films, BBC and PBS programs, NPR, and beyond. Blending traditional folk songs, original polyphony, and corporeal percussion, Smiley evokes a primal, deeply human experience when performing for crowds in kitchens, at Lincoln Center, TED events, and around the world. She has lent her vocal talents to a variety of musicians, touring with tUnE-yArDs, Solas, The Lomax Project, Billy Childs, and more.
Smiley debuts an original piece, “The Voice Is a Traveler,” at Savannah Music Festival. Accompanied by Seamus Egan, Kyle Sanna, Valentina Kvasova, Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle of Anna & Elizabeth, Ali Dineen, Jayme Stone, Joe Phillips, Sumaia Jackson, and Philip Mayer, Smiley will share her interpretation of songs from Eastern Europe, Appalachia, and shape-note traditions.
Smiley shares the bill with Anna & Elizabeth, who boast some of the most stellar old-time harmonies heard today. The duo is accompanied by percussion, pump organ, field recordings, film projections, and crankles (illustrated, hand-cranked scrolls that tell visual stories).
We spoke with Smiley about the timelessness and timeliness of her show’s theme, her new record, Unzip the Horizon, and using the body as an instrument.
How did you conceive “The Voice Is a Traveler?”
It’s grown out of collecting folk songs and finding songs around the world about migration, leaving home, or feeling like you don’t belong where you are. These amazing old folk songs were a big inspiration.
I’ve been writing a solo album that is also about why we cross borders, both in time and bringing the past into the present.
We’re in a time right now where refugees are moving around, and I feel like it’s timely to talk about the way the world sometimes displaces us. Songs are like companions in these times when we don’t feel totally at home. Songs can also be home. Those are the big inspirations: exile, not belonging, but also how songs bring us together and make us feel like we belong.
Funny how the show is so timely, using all this timeless folk music.
Sometimes these really plaintive old songs describe it best. They take us back to the elemental emotion that is about being human. We want to belong and to explore. The issues keep rising. How do we make a home for each other? How do we trust in the unknown?
How do you find home in music?
I think music reminds me that the best way for me to connect is by traveling to various places and trying to connect with audiences and other musicians. I feel like that’s my work in the world. I think music, for a lot of people, comforts you when you’re not sure where you are or who you are or what you want to do. It’s home in that way, too—emotional comfort.
You have a lot of collaborators for this program, too.
This is a special program...it’s a new collaboration with 11 other artists. The vision I spoke about with Rob Gibson, the director of the festival, was about my best adventures and the best music, the most alive music has been in my encounters with music and people offstage—in kitchens, after concerts, at parties. I really wanted to bring the sense of intimate moments into the show, as well as bigger moments with all 11 of us onstage to show our forces as collaborators. When music brings you together, how fun and powerful it can be!
We’re keeping the stage setup pretty simple...you could do this in a room or outside. I like that element. It’s really powerful, even when unplugged.
There’s original music, traditional music mixed together and told in a story. There will be visuals in the show that I’ve been creating with various archival footage and things I’ve shot.
You often use the body as a percussive instrument in your shows. Will we see that in “The Voice Is a Traveler?”
Yes—I love that the music itself can be done really without anything. All you need is just each other: hands and voices as instruments. Claps and stomps and a certain physicality runs through this show.
You also have a new album of original music, Unzip the Horizon, out this week.
Yes, I'm excited about it! It's exciting....it brings together people who have been very important to me and also straddles the original music and traditional music worlds.
It was a longer, juicier process of making music than I usually do. I had to pack more than I could have done in a live recording in the studio. This was the longer, solo process...I enjoyed that.
What have you learned about your own voice over your years of performing and teaching?
I’ve learned that there are cycles in the way that I look at my voice and how I feel like, at this point in my life, I understand that the voice is very powerful and very flexible. All of our voices, to a greater or lesser degree...we have many voices inside us, many colors. There’s a cycle of feeling quite outward and confident, and there’s a part of the cycle that’s really inward and maybe questioning things. I think the voice expresses that more than anything else—those ups and downs, the give and takes.