Mindy Smith smiled a guilty smile -- you get the sense it's the only kind she feels she's entitled to -- as the singer and songwriter listened to the final chord slowly fade out on "Highs and Lows," the first single from her fourth album, "Stupid Love," that was released Tuesday on Vanguard Records.
She sat on the couch in a well-equipped converted garage recording studio, a few feet away from Ian Fitchuk and Justin Loucks, who co-produced the album with her. The two men were stationed near the studio's control board during a mixing session on a cold and cloudy day early in the spring, playing recordings they'd been working on together for the previous four months for an outsider for the first time.
"It's a fun, happy song," Smith, 37, said in a tone half-apologetic, half-surprised. "I don't know what I was thinking when I wrote that. Must have been a good meds day." A relieved laugh escapes her lips.
It's understandable that Smith is a little perplexed at how upbeat she sounds in many parts of her new collection. She collected some exceptionally glowing reviews for her 2004 debut album, "One Moment More," largely for the disarming honesty of how she plumbed beauty from the depths of life's darker moments.
It made her a torchbearer for the walking wounded, one who could provide solace and, perhaps, healing to others who have weathered losses like her own, notably her mother's death from cancer when Smith was a teenager.
After a couple of intensive years of touring, she returned to the recording studio for 2006's "Long Island Shores," another powerful expression of her skills as a writer and a vocalist. Dolly Parton called Smith's recording of Parton's classic "Jolene" her favorite, including her own. Vince Gill is another admirer of her music, lending his multiple-Grammy-winning voice to her new album.
But even though Smith was proud of "Long Island Shores," she came out of the studio nearly drained of musical passion and lacking the energy to go on another promotional tour.
Kevin Welk, president of Vanguard's parent company, the Welk Music Group, noted the commercial letdown of "Long Island Shores," saying, "We didn't have all our ducks in a row . . . and I think we rushed her into the second record. So when we put it out, frankly I don't think she was ready to take it on like she is today. It's hard work."
Her debut has sold more than 200,000 copies, but "Long Island Shores" tallied only about a quarter of that number.
Back in the groove
It's taken nearly three years for the Long Island native to get to the brighter place she's in now -- she also recorded a Christmas album, "My Holiday," during the interim, in part to help pull her out of the doldrums.
But now she sounds almost cheery as she prepares to put out a new record and get back on the road to tour again. She'll drop in to sing on Saturday's edition of CBS-TV's "The Early Show" and is slated for an appearance on "A Prairie Home Companion" that will air Sept. 5 and 6.
"Can you tell we had a good time?" she asked her visitor. "I feel like it bleeds through in the production. There were only good vibes, we didn't have any fights."
Even though Smith is signed to the esteemed folk-country label Vanguard and recorded "Stupid Love" near the heart of where most hit country records are made, the new album sounds little like anything played on country radio, except perhaps for some of Keith Urban and Taylor Swift's edgier tracks. Her music has Swift's heart-on-sleeve appeal applied to more mature aspects of life and love that could easily connect with the older siblings or parents of the pop-country teen princess' fans.
New music pops
Smith, Fitchuk and Loucks have outfitted her songs with looped rhythm tracks that are by turn dreamily evocative and powerfully propulsive. Some tracks include steel guitar and banjo, but others are built on synths, jagged orchestral backing or classic wall-of-sound grandeur.
The result is a stronger pop sound, often sounding less like Smith's alt-folk and country peers such as Kasey Chambers than with indie rockers such as Evanescence's Amy Lee or Sixpence None the Richer's Leigh Nash. Paste magazine's website is streaming the album as part of release-week activities.
"I don't have a home as far as a genre," she said, "and that's fine with me."
The album opens with "What Went Wrong," a summation of the frustrations and disappointments in the last three years.
"A lot of things broke my heart at the same time," said Smith, who has lived in Tennessee since she and her pastor father moved there in 1991 after her mother died. "That song was kind of about that. . . .
"I had some health problems, I've been doing this [album], and I bought a house. I broke my arm," she said. "I just had to rearrange my approach to life a little bit."
Her appearance is now less waif-like, her attitude a bit less guarded and more outwardly joyful than a few years ago.
"The transition has been two years of me just regenerating, I guess -- rebuilding my system," she said, comfortably dressed in a black knit dress, black tights and white boots. Her gently wavy brown hair frames her large, dark, doe-like eyes and a delicately etched face.
"Mindy is a fragile soul," Welk said, "and when you run a label, it's important to understand the temperament of an artist. With Mindy, it never crossed my mind to say maybe we shouldn't continue. . . . You know if you give her time, the gems are going to come out."
The turning point came late last fall, when a couple of songwriting pals, Kate York and Betsy Roo, invited her over to help finish "Bad Guy," a song they were working on.
"Something just clicked back on," Smith said about that experience. "I got excited and couldn't wait to get started, so much so that when I called my label and said, 'Hey, I'm going to make another record,' they didn't know how promptly I was going to start this record. Right after the holidays. I'd been idle a couple of years, then I felt like I'm ready to go. That was uncharacteristic for me."
It was on "Bad Guy" that she first worked in the studio with Loucks and Fitchuk, who have been producing more indie rock acts than country performers and helped her move in a new direction musically, which also bolstered her outlook.
"It was great to see the process from the beginning, to see how you fell in love with singing again," Loucks said to Smith as they continued listening to mixes of the new songs.
For Smith, the prospect of transformation, another theme that crops up frequently in her songwriting, is something she's ready to embrace.
"I feel like I'm having to start over again," she said. "For me, this record is a great way to do that. . . . It's a natural progression, I guess."