Words by Erin Christie
Photos by Ashley Gellman
In terms of Allston house shows, I never really know what to expect — it can typically go a handful of different ways, from a sweaty, glasses-totally-fogged rave scene or a Berklee populated “indie” wormhole. Regardless, I’ve definitely been to my fair share of gigs throughout my time living in Boston, and on one particular evening, I decided to tag along with some friends to see a band that they knew, but I didn’t. This time around, I didn't regret it.
Said band, Smile Machine, closed the four-band bill that night, opening their set with wailing, static-heavy chords and melodic riffery, accompanied by steady, falsetto-tinged lead vocals that glided above the chaos. Any definition of the word “fuzz” with regard to describing music is fairly ambiguous, but they fit perfectly into that specific niche, combining elements of contemporary shoegaze with dashes of grunge lo-fi bliss. As soon as they began playing, I felt an itching urge to learn more about them, and felt grateful that I had spontaneously decided to come along to the show that night.
Smile Machine is the solo project of prolific Brooklyn musician Jordyn Blakely, who has spent the better part of her career playing drums in a slew of other Brooklyn-based projects such as Stove, Bartees Strange, Maneka, Night Manager, Butter The Children, and Jackal Onasis. While becoming an established mainstay of her local music scene, Blakely released Bye For Now, her debut EP under the moniker Smile Machine, on July 16 via Exploding In Sound. I recently had the chance to chat with Jordan — who is touring with Bartees Strange at the moment — about all things Smile Machine over e-mail.
I want to start by asking about the origin of Smile Machine as a project — what encouraged you to start this new venture, and did you have a good idea of what you wanted to do (sound-wise/thematically) from the gate, or was it a process of trial-and-error, given how new everything still is? Playing guitar became something I did more regularly because I could play anytime I wanted, and it offered me some levity and variety from drums and playing other people's music. Having something to work on that was just mine and that didn't depend on others helped me become more independent and have something to do. When I would end up with a song, I would record and release it with Stove, and I realized how good it feels to express yourself in a different way. Putting out a collection of songs was a goal I set so I would push myself to write and finish more songs.
Speaking of newness, you released your debut EP, Bye For Now, not too long ago — going into writing, did you have any set intentions re: what you wanted to say, or did the material come about more organically, and maybe sporadically? Thinking about what to say can be the hardest part because it can either feel like there's too much you want to say all at once, or you can't get vulnerable enough with yourself to express what you need to when you finally get there. Whenever I had free time was when I worked on writing, so it took a long time to finish this handful of songs. The only intentions I had going in were to keep ideas that felt good to play and listen to and to write only what felt honest, even if it's scary to say out loud.
Jumping off that, do you feel as though there is a general thread that runs through the EP, or do the songs, more or less, exist separately, but together? Most of the material is related to how I feel or felt during a specific moment or situation. "Snail S(h)ell," "Shit Apple," and "Stars" were written during various phases of a relationship; "Snail" is the oldest, with "Stars" being about trying to let go of something but feeling stuck and getting frustrated with yourself. In a sense, each song is almost like a chapter from a larger story.
Do you think having a decent chunk of the writing/recording process take place during quarantine affected the outcome, even more than just shifting the way it had to be made in general? (As in, do you think the time period influenced your ideas and how they were executed?) Absolutely, and I'm pretty grateful it happened the way it did because I practiced guitar a lot during quarantine, exchanged drum and guitar lessons with a friend, practiced recording demos, and had a lot of time to do things over if I wanted. Earlier in 2020, Dan (Francia) and I recorded all the drums in one day, all of the bass in one day, then almost all of the guitars and vocals in two days. It can be great to work quickly because you can't overthink it and overdo it, but with the leads and vocals for "Bone To Pick" it was helpful to let the ideas sink in more and try different things.
So much happened and changed during last year, and I got better at knowing what I wanted, and was in a more confident place emotionally than when I wrote the songs, so I think it adds more dimension to have been able to include a more recent version of myself before putting it out. Not having a specific deadline or rush was a luxury in some way. I had a version of the solo in "Shit Apple" sitting around for a couple of months that I wasn't totally happy with, then redid it one day when I finally knew what I wanted to do with it.
Aside from Smile Machine, too, you have a pretty hefty roster of other acts you’ve been a part of/contributed to, from Stove to Jackal Onasis, and even Bartees Strange. Since Smile Machine is your own project, has it been important to you to establish your own voice, separately from your other works? And did it feel intimidating to be going into something that’s completely yours (though you did collaborate with a few friends on this debut EP)? Definitely. Part of the reason I wrote and recorded these songs was to create and figure out what my own voice even is, although I think the influence of Stove and Jackal Onasis certainly come through. Beyond music alone, the songs and EP are about establishing your own voice, figuring out who you are and who you want to be, and freeing yourself from the projections of people in your life and the world around you. Having something be 'my own' was and continues to be intimidating, especially calling all the shots and making decisions. I'm very used to writing with another person or being in a group dynamic that supports another person's music or ideas, so doing it alone and having all that space can be overwhelming. Sometimes, I get insecure or feel limited by my abilities as a songwriter or guitarist, whereas playing drums feels low pressure and, at times, automatic, like riding a bike. Songwriting can feel like you're riding a bike, but also skiing, and sometimes snowboarding all at once.
Regarding individual tracks off the EP, you’ve spoken about “Bone To Pick” as being a cathartic sort of track, as there’s a quite intense vocal outburst throughout, in addition to the content it touches on. When writing your own material, do you find it challenging to be more emotionally vulnerable, or is that something you’ve found easier with time? “Bone To Pick” is my favorite to play live because I don't have to sing in tune, and every time it is slightly different. Tracking and editing the vocal takes made that difficult since the placement of the words is sometimes improvisational. It feels good to play angrily and to scream. It embodies processing death — it's never complete; the feelings never go away, they just linger, and you can't quite put them anywhere, and they just stick with you. You don't really have much of a time or place to express your anger, so I created a few minutes where I can.
It always feels challenging to be emotionally vulnerable, but I'm not sure what other way to go about it. When I'm singing the songs, it can be difficult to project my voice because the lyrics make me feel exposed, but if they didn't, they probably wouldn't be much worth singing.
On another note, I really dig “Pretty Today,” as well — when writing this track, did you channel anything specifically that you’ve experienced, or is it more general? Thank you! This song is about being enmeshed or connected to another person and not having your own voice to be yourself. It's this feeling that you're trapped by that dynamic and the expectation to be a doll or an object for this other person — devoid of identity.
Do you have a personal favorite track of the five? Maybe "Shit Apple," because it feels the happiest to play even though the subject matter is not. Writing it felt liberating, like I was finally able to express so much I was repressing for so long. It's the first song I wrote completely outside of the context of Stove or Jackal Onasis, and it feels like it's truly just 'me.'
As a sort of close, what do you have lined up for the rest of the year re: the Smile Machine camp and just in general (like, do you have anything currently in the works)? I also know you’re on tour with Bartees right now, which is super cool! Touring with Bartees has been amazing, and now, I'm just trying to juggle that while keeping Smile Machine going. It takes a lot of space and time for me to build on an idea I like enough to keep. Smile Machine played lots of shows this summer because I knew how busy the next few months would be. I'm going to play solo sets when I can, or have people play with me when they can. There are a couple songs I wrote this and last year, yet I'm excited to see what will come next because I'm in a very different place emotionally and mentally than I was before 2020, as I'm sure many people are.
Keep up to date with Jordyn and Smile Machine!