By Cody Drabble
Misner & Smith, the Davis-based folk duo, will take the stage tonight at the Davis Odd Fellows Hall as part of the venue’s “Thursday Live!” concert series.
Guitarist Sam Misner and bassist Megan Smith just celebrated their 10th anniversary playing music together; it’s a collaboration that dates back to their appearance in a production of Woody Guthrie’s American Song in 2004.
When Misner and Smith aren’t harmonizing on tour, they act in theater productions around California. Misner is wrapping up a six-week run of Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia trilogy at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley May 4 and fans of both can look forward to a four-day production of Woody Guthrie’s American Song in July at Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse.
Misner spoke with Page Burner about the band’s latest album, theater background, songwriting process, and origin story before their show tonight. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. and is free; the lodge is located at 415 2nd Street in Davis.
In your latest album Seven Hour Storm you experimented with expanding your duo to include guest musicians and new instruments. What changed?
Our previous albums had been the two of us only. We wanted to tease out things that always been in our heads, but we haven’t had the time or ability to get those elements into the music.
Also working with a producer and engineer was new to us. We self-produced our previous records. I think the music––and we as musicians––really grew. It definitely made us more aware of not setting limitations on ourselves in the beginning. In the future, as we’re both sitting down to tinker around with new songs, I think there’s less of a self-editor in our heads. Theres a lot more possibility in the music.
What does it mean playing local shows in Davis where you live?
Megan grew up here in Davis. When we first started, we were living in the Bay Area for about seven or eight years, and we came to Davis about four years ago.
We’re coming to Odd Fellows Hall as a trio tomorrow night. My friend, an excellent pedal steel and electric guitar player Joshn Lence, will join us. He’s a stupendous musician. It was at the 10 year anniversary show in San Francisco that Josh first joined us. His instrumentation adds a third voice, and that’s thrilling for us to hear elements from the new album reproduced with us live.
How do you divide songwriting duties?
I have written most of our songs––lyrics and music I come in with––but with the caveat that for so much of the arrangement of the songs and 100 percent of the harmonies, Megan is intimately involved in. She has such an amazing ear and voice for harmony and lead singing, that I leave that to her.
I’d say in the arrangement is where our collaboration shines.That’s absolutely a 50-50 venture. We’re aiming at one voice with two people singing. You can’t unravel them..
Misner & Smith have blogged a few “behind the song” stories on your website. Is it harder to get on stage and sing about your feelings or to blog about your song?
I guess I can always go back and edit the blog. I have time to think and craft it more.
The exciting thing about live performance is it’s a unique experience, only in that moment. Failure is always an option! But from that risk, the payoff is all the greater. Any time you’re baring your soul, singing about feelings you don’t express at any other time in your life, that’s definitely feels like pressure followed by a cathartic release. When the audience recognizes those feelings in themselves, and that’s what were going for, then it doesn’t feel like risk. It feels like a gift.
Any behind the songs stories from Seven Hour Storm to share with SN&R?
“Bird Street” is one song from the album that departs from what some people might expect from an acoustic duo––we definitely rock out with it live. In the studio we were able to flesh it out even more with drums and electric guitars, and my brother played electric 12-string guitar too.
For me, that song is a poem, and I discover more in it every time we sing it. It’s about the creative process and being an artist. The creative process can feel so thrilling at times and also so lonely and heartbreaking. That swing back and forth is one of the dynamics of being an artist and songwriter, one that alternates between elation and depression.
There is an actual Bird Street in the Mission District of San Francisco. It’s this little corner that technically doesn’t go all the way through, but I discovered it walking through the Mission when we were living in San Francisco. On a whim, I walked down it on a foggy day near a little community garden. There was a little bit of sun on that corner of a little street, and for some reason it sparked the beginnings of that song. We’re singing for two different people in the same song, telling their own stories that cross and meld.
You’re both actors as well as musicians. How do you balance your thespian time with your musical time? Does having two disciplines help the other grow?
The scheduling question, first, can be often very difficult because both music and theater book several months in advance, so we have to make tough decisions. If one of us is in a play, it’s full time, six days a week, and it puts music on the back burner during those times. But we can work on our new music in that spare time.
As much as we love the time in the studio, our favorite time is getting up in front of an audience and connecting in that way which is so immediate. There’s no lag time. It feels like an exchange. It’s about investigating what it means to be human, which is what both arts are delving into at their hearts.
Tell me about meeting on the summer Shakespeare circuit and how you both realized you would become music partners.
We met in 2002 at the California Shakespeare festival in Berkeley and Orinda. Two years later in 2004, we were cast in a musical play about Woody Guthrie called Woody Guthrie’s American Song in Nevada City. During that rehearsal process and a fateful radio appearance on KVMR, Megan and I were the only two cast members available to do this promo spot. We went in, worked a couple of songs from the play and one that I wrote. There was something about that day, and there was so much harmony in the play itself, and we kind of looked at each other and thought, ‘Wow, this is special.’
What are the challenges and rewards for crowdfunding to make an indie record?
The first challenge with crowdfunding was feeling okay about asking for money, getting over the fact of feeling uncomfortable asking people for money. We were thrilled to reach the goal, but the most rewarding part was to see the fan response.
It gave us this emotional boost to know we had all these people from far and wide, from people we see every day to people we haven’t seen in years, coming out of the woodwork to jump on board. On the days where it feels like ‘Is anyone listening?’ we try to remind ourselves of the people who helped us do this. It’s a wide web of people who love us and want to keep us moving forward with the music.
Any special moments from the Woody Guthrie American Song show that you look forward to revisiting in July?
There are so many, I could name 50. This is 10 years Megan and I have been making music together and 10 years since we did the Woody Guthrie show together the first time. To have this special run of shows coinciding with our 10-year anniversary for Misner & Smith is very special. It’s the show that launched us into this crazy journey we’ve been on for 10 years.