Rummaging through a file drawer, Linda Smith stumbled upon a few of her old cassettes. It was 2011, and she had stopped making music a decade earlier, reckoning she’d taken it as far as it could go. The tapes were artifacts of another time.
But the songs — with their slinking melodies, simple chords, pop rhythms — were timeless. People who enjoyed Smith’s tapes in the ‘80s and ‘90s would occasionally reach out to her, wanting to hear her music again. “There wasn’t any way for me to really do that, because I didn’t have physical copies of most of it, and I didn’t really want to invest in that at that point,” Smith said. So she made a website and put the music online as MP3s.
And now, writers and listeners are crediting Smith as a progenitor of the bedroom pop genre as labels release the Baltimorean’s music digitally, on vinyl, and even on cassette (a format that is either having a popular resurgence or never fully went away, depending on who you ask). A formerly shelved album from one of Smith’s early bands dropped Friday, but the artist and musician is looking toward the future, too: After a roughly 20-year hiatus, she’s gotten back into creating new songs.
The scattered discovery of Smith’s music was foretold in the 1990s, in the heyday of lo-fi alternative music such as Pavement and Daniel Johnston, riot grrrl bands like Bratmobile, Bikini Kill and Slant 6, and after the height of independent home-recorded tape trading. In 1995, Elisabeth Vincentelli wrote about Smith in Puncture magazine: “In the kind of ironic cultural twist that should no longer surprise us, even while lo-fi home recording has become fashionable (and bankable), one of its foremost practitioners remains obscure.”
“I still don’t really understand it,” the 68-year-old Smith laughs, trying to explain the various networks that led to her reemergence. Basically: old fans encountered her MP3s online (on a now defunct website), and new fans came along with them, thanks to music bloggers, a couple of French DJs and a few guys who run indie labels.
Her first tape release in years was 2014′s “All the Stars That Never Were,” a compilation of 17 songs spanning 1987 to 2001 — her time as a recording artist — on the tiny lo-fi label Juniper Tree Songs. “I So Liked Spring,” a song from that tape, made its way into sets of the French DJ Sundae and Julien Dechery, who in 2016 released a mix of “forgotten fables by more or less neverknowns” on Melbourne’s Efficient Space. Michael Kucyk, who ran that label, also worked placing music in film and television and got Smith’s song onto the short-lived series “Forever,” starring Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen, which gave Smith her first real big paycheck from her music.
Even with that attention, Smith says she “had no intention of making music again.” But Matthew Gray, of Juniper Tree Songs, got back in touch to shop her music around to other labels. Smith landed with Brooklyn-based indie label Captured Tracks, which put out her first vinyl release, “Till Another Time: 1988-1996,” in the spring of 2021. Her home-recorded, introspective, sing-along-able songs, with lyrics that outline ordinary intimacies and fleeting observations, continued to resonate.
On Friday, the label Dot Matrix Recordings, an imprint of Sundazed Music, put out “So Long Before Now,” a previously unreleased album by The Woods, a band Smith formed in the mid-1980s with fellow Baltimorean Peggy Bitzer and New Yorkers Brian Bendlin and Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer. (The vinyl version is available for preorder, shipping out later this month.) The Woods released just one single before on a friend’s small label, Justine, which accompanied a batch of other singles by different groups. (Reviewing the 1985 batch in the Village Voice, R.J. Smith gave The Woods the highest praise, calling their single “the tops.”)
The Woods album release is a full-circle moment for Smith: She bought her first four-track recorder, a Fostex X-15, while playing guitar and writing songs with the band, hoping the machine would help her show her bandmates what kind of music she really wanted to make.
At the time, Smith had moved from Baltimore to New York, and The Woods were mostly rehearsing and attempting to book shows, none of them sure how exactly to break into the scene. Over the next couple of years, they played at a few spots, including Maxwell’s and CBGB. The latter gig, Smith recalls with a laugh, “didn’t go real well,” and the band broke up soon after.
Although Smith had played in other bands — including The Symptoms, and Ceramic Madonna Head in Baltimore — she “never connected” with performing live: too much pre-show rigmarole and nerves, not enough reward. “I knew I wasn’t a rock star,” Smith says. “But I still wanted to make music.”
Smith grew up listening to radio pop hits from The Beatles, Jackie DeShannon, Motown, and Dionne Warwick, and later encountered The Raincoats, Young Marble Giants and Patti Smith — artists whose music showed what it meant to sculpt your own sound with your own tools. In a 1989 interview with the music zine Writer’s Block, Smith explained The Raincoats’ influence on her: “They weren’t a ‘girl group’ or even an ‘all-girl band’ (though that’s OK!). They were women playing songs about things that mattered to them and which they had quite obviously made up themselves.”
It didn’t matter that Smith wasn’t classically trained in any instrument. Though she took a couple of lessons after first picking up an electric guitar around age 25, she lost interest in them and decided to learn through experience, forming bands with Baltimore artists through ads in the Baltimore City Paper.
Going solo with the four-track at age 32, Smith found her own ways to play the acoustic and electric guitars, keyboards and drum machines, collaging the tracks with her vocals onto the tape. Bendlin, her former Woods bandmate, helped produce her first album, “The Space Between the Buildings,” recorded on the Fostex four-track and released on her own label, Preference, in 1987. The storied Olympia-based label K Records helped distribute this and other early tapes of hers, released over the next few years — “Do You Know the Way...?” (1988), “Love Songs for Laughs” (1989) and “Put It in Writing” (1991). Magazines and fanzines such as Option and Sound Choice reviewed Smith’s tapes, exposing her to a wider network of artists also making music at home and curious listeners who liked (or didn’t mind) the DIY quality.
Smith stood out not just because she was a woman in a male-dominated scene, but also because of her post-punk/pop sounds in a sea of experimental noise and drone. Those first four tapes “sound like they were made from a place of quiet,” reads an intro to a 1993 interview with Smith in a zine called Curiosity in Stout Shoes.
Unlike playing live, Smith had complete control over her sound when she recorded at home, and figured out how to play most of the instruments herself, with friends occasionally making guest appearances. Buying the four-track in New York, she said in a 1991 interview with Popwatch, was “probably the most important move I’ve made. … For the first time my songs really seemed to belong to me.”
Through the ‘90s, Smith released more tapes and a CD or two, and briefly played with other acts such as The Silly Pillows, but she went on an indefinite hiatus from music around 2001. “I just lost interest because it just wasn’t going anywhere,” she says. “And I thought, well, maybe I’d like to go back to school and paint.” She finished up a bachelor’s degree at Towson University that she’d abandoned in the ‘70s and then went for a Master of Fine Arts at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
By 2020, Smith had been away from music, and fairly immersed in visual arts, for almost 20 years. She worked a day job as a security guard at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and made paintings and prints as she felt inclined. The pandemic rolled around and shut down the museum for a while, and Smith spent the better part of a year staying isolated because of her preexisting asthma. At home with lots of time, Smith found some old four-track practice recordings that sounded interesting, so she made digital versions and sent them to a friend, Nancy Andrews, who used to live in Baltimore and now resides in Maine. This was the start of a remote collaboration between the two artists, which culminated with their album “A Passing Cloud,” released earlier this year.
Smith retired from the BMA in 2021, and says she’s still adjusting to being in control of her own time. Along with The Woods album coming out, Captured Tracks is reissuing two of Smith’s earlier albums (“I So Liked Spring” and “Nothing Else Matters”) on vinyl next year, and she’s currently planning a winter U.K. tour with Andrews. She’s also contributing experimental reworkings of spiritual songs to a forthcoming cassette project initiated by Baltimore writer Rafael Alvarez. Smith recently collaborated with Bendlin, her friend and former bandmate, on a book that features her artwork and his writing and music, out this fall from a small press connected to Shrimper Records, which had released a cassette version of “I So Liked Spring” in 1996.
Throughout Smith’s life in music and art, her tools and technology have ranged from novel to obsolete to new again. The characteristically ephemeral forms of media — magazines, alt-weeklies, zines, blogs — that chronicle the culture degrade like tape, then get replaced. Still, Smith’s music sticks around through her relatively niche, dispersed and intergenerational audience.
Even with her recent strides, the whole song-and-dance of becoming more “known” doesn’t appeal much. Costs, hobnobbing, and other industry distractions all seem “ridiculous to me,” she says. But those things never kept her from making art and sharing it. “You can still make it because you like to make it.”
Rebekah Kirkman is a Baltimore-based writer covering arts and culture.