Artist Spotlight: Smile Machine

    Smile Machine is the project led by Jordyn Blakely, who’s long been an integral part of Brooklyn’s DIY scene, having played drums for bands like Stove, Night Manager, Butter the Children, Jackal Onasis, Maneka, and more recently, Bartees Strange. The band’s debut EP, Bye for Now – released earlier this month on Exploding in Sound – finds Blakely reintroducing her voice and carving out her own vision, influenced as much by Elliott Smith and the Microphones as Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine. The EP’s five songs are raw and lo-fi, simultaneously juxtaposing and oscillating between fuzzy, scorched guitars and dreamy, warm melodies. Yet opener ‘Bone to Pick’ is early proof that Blakely isn’t afraid to play outside of that familiar structure, her screaming vocals breaking through to the surface before gently floating back down. Her open-ended approach reflects the way she views the project as a whole: a space for collaboration as well as a product of circumstance. Though Blakely started recording the EP with Dan Francia before the pandemic, it inadvertently ended up becoming more of a solo endeavour – and though she cannot be certain of what the future holds for Smile Machine, at least for now, the emotional thrust of these songs is more than enough to cut through the noise.

    We caught up with Smile Machine’s Jordyn Blakely for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her musical journey, the origins of the project, her new EP, and more.

    Do you mind sharing some of your earliest memories of enjoying music?

    I’d always been into music, but I didn’t play a lot as a kid. My parents liked a lot of good music, a lot of ‘70s and ‘80s music. It’s funny when you’re a kid, you always want to reject what your parents listened to. Like, even though my parents really liked Prince and Madonna and Michael Jackson and Fleetwood Mac and stuff that’s really good, as a kid I always wanted to find something more aggressive-sounding. I think it was in middle school, I got into blink-182, Green Day, and a lot of emo and screamo.

    I played guitar a little bit, but I feel like drums just came easier to me. My little brother had a little kid drumset, and he’s like six years younger than me – his father, who is my stepdad, collected guitars and had the little kid drumset for him in the garage. So I would mess around on the drum kit a little bit, and I asked for a drum set for a few years and then got one for Christmas a year after that. I always felt like I didn’t start playing music until much later – I think I was around 14 or 15 when I started playing drums on a regular basis.

    When did you realize that music was a passion of yours, rather than an interest or a hobby?

    It sounds kind of sad, but honestly, when my stepdad passed away, I think that was – it felt very sudden. It was like my mom and my brother and I, and I was like 16 and my brother was kind of young, and it was just intense. I felt kind of isolated and I felt like drums was my only way to not have to think about it. Listening to music can be helpful for that, like if you’re listening to music and you’re in a dark place it helps you move out of that place or it can help you indulge and understand those feelings, which is I think why I was attracted to bands like Thursday and Taking Back Sunday. But with playing, it felt like I can be focused on this for hours and not have to think about reality right now. With drums especially, it’s really aggressive, it’s really loud, you can be angry. I don’t think women are always encouraged to express themselves in that way, like you’re not allowed to be angry, you’re not allowed to be upset. You just have to be easygoing and nice all the time. The kind of music I was interested in, but also drums, was a way to be like, “Yeah, I’m angry about this, and this is one way I can process it.”

    And also, that’s how I made a lot of friends. I moved a lot, so in high school I was, like, new and I didn’t know anyone there. Playing music was a great way to be like, we can connect over this thing, we can hang out together, we can have friends over and we can play music and get to know each other in that way.

    When did you start immersing yourself in the DIY scene in Brooklyn and found a sense of community there?

    I always wanted to live in New York my whole life. My older brother, who did the music video with me, has lived in Brooklyn for over 20 years. And whenever I would come to visit him, I always felt like, “I want to live here, I just love how people look and how everyone dresses so weird and there’s music here.” So I moved to New York in 2010, right after college, and it took a while for me to really meet people. I lived in South Brooklyn and I didn’t really know anybody here – I had like one or two friends and then my brother in New York. I found bands on Craigslist a lot, I would just look on Craigslist and try to play with everybody, any kind of music. I joined this band called Life Size Maps that I met on Craigslist, and we played with bands like Night Manager and Total Slacker. I would fill in a lot for people, just if someone needed a drummer – I can learn stuff quickly and I liked a lot of different kinds of music, so I just wanted to play this as many people as I could. I always think how lucky I am in a way, because there are so many different communities in New York, but not everyone has to accept you into it. And I feel like people are really accepting, and I just felt like I finally found what I was looking for. I always just wanted to move here and meet people who liked music as much as me and who wanted to play music all the time, and I’m just really happy that I found that.

    Did you know at the time that you would want to pursue a solo project at some point? What prompted you to do that, and why did it feel like the right time?

    Honestly, I always just considered myself as someone who played drums. Writing music intimidated me, I think, because I felt like it’s so vulnerable, like, “I don’t know what I want to say, I’m not good at it, I don’t want to be the front person in the band and have all that responsibility. I just like being able to show up and play drums.” But I also in college had a band called Michael Jordn and Greg, it was me and two other people, and we were really into bands like The Bad Plus, the Microphones, Quasi. And sometimes they would ask me to sing the melody of the song and write words for it, so that was kind of my first time doing that. And then eventually, when I was playing with Jackal Onassis, I didn’t really write. It was Alex [Molini] who wrote the songs, but sometimes she would ask me to write lyrics or a melody. And then in Stove, Steve [Hartlett] often had me record vocals, just doubling his part. But it was like, someone always had to ask me to do it. I felt like I needed someone to validate, which is kind of why I started trying to do it more on my own with this music.

    There was a Stove tour that we did with Mannequin Pussy in 2016. It was one of the craziest tours most of us have been on – we’re just in this really big van for like nine people, and it was in the summertime and there’s no AC and we’re in like Florida and Georgia. It was really fun though. When we got home from that tour, I was just really broke and I couldn’t really go out. So I got home from that tour, most of my friends were out of town for some reason that weekend and I was just feeling really – I’m kind of stuck at home, but I don’t have any money, I can’t really buy any food, I don’t really know what to do with myself. And I was playing guitar just because I was bored, and like, just wrote a song. I don’t even know how it happened. So I recorded it with Stove and then we used it for Stove and that made me feel more empowered, because most of time if I ever had an idea I’d be too shy to really show it to anybody.

    I kept trying to put out more ideas, and it wasn’t until Stove took a hiatus – any songs that I was writing I just would use for that band, so I just figured I’ll just keep trying to write, and it wasn’t until I started recording that I was like, “Maybe this could be a real band.” I didn’t have any big plans, and even when I was putting out the EP, Dan [Goldin] from Exploding in Sound was like, “What do you want to do with this, how far do you want to go with it?” I was like, “It doesn’t matter, I just want to prove to myself that I can finish it. I want them to be out in the world.”

    One of my favorite songs on the record is ‘Pretty Today’, which you’ve said is about figuring out your sense of identity in relation to your environment. Could you talk more about what was on your mind while you were making it?

    The imagery in the song is inspired by this cat that my old roommate and I got. When she was a kitten, we were so excited and we just wanted to pet her all the time. You know how it is, you just feel like you want to smother your pet because they’re so cute, and that’s not really her personality. She likes to have her space, so I had to learn how to really just let her do her thing. And there’s another thing she does where like, when you go to pet her, she’ll take her paws and put them around your hand, but she holds them so tightly. So it just made me think of how sometimes when you’re holding your pet and kissing them, you think like, “I’m just giving you love,” but to them it’s like, “Get the fuck away from me.” [laughs] So it just made me think about how in many relationships with other people I might have, you know, not been empathetic to their point of view. Or like, family can be really overbearing sometimes, where there’s not a lot of boundaries. I don’t know if anyone else can relate, but sometimes your family expects you to be a certain kind of person, and if you have your own way of doing things or your own emotions that are different, they take it personally or it’s seen as wrong. It’s kind of a long story, but it just made me start thinking about that – you put expectations on people to be what you want them to be, but that’s not really who they are, and that’s not real love.

    When I was making the video, I was able to dive deeper into that. I feel like this has only been discussed in recent years, but like, stuff with gender – I always felt like I never wanted to, like, wear a purse or wear makeup when I was a teenager because I was really into skateboarding and drums and guitar and punk rock. There wasn’t a lot of people around me who were women who were into that kind of stuff, and even getting like guitar magazines, it’s all men. Like, I would tell people I want to play drums and they would just look at me like, “You want to play drums? Really?” I think now it’s been more normalised, but growing up I always felt the struggle to be like, “You need to wear more makeup, you need to wear more dresses, you need to be more girly and more feminine.” And I always felt boxed into that. And in the video, it’s kind of represented in that way, like the makeup and the tea party – just having this etiquette where everyone’s looking over your shoulder, making sure you’re behaving in a certain way.

    Do you ever think about what you would say to your younger self from your current perspective?

    Yeah, I think about that a lot, because I think, you know, you still have that inner child in you and everything. I would probably tell my younger self to just not worry about what people think as much – and I think as women, especially, you’re trained to please other people and worry about what people think about you. I felt really self-conscious about my looks and like, developing, so I would always wear baggy clothes to try to hide my body because I felt sexualized. And I wish I could tell myself like, “People are gonna do and think whatever they will, and you should just do whatever makes you happy and comfortable. Just don’t worry so much, and try to figure out what you want instead of what everyone else around you wants.”

    Thank you for sharing that. Could you tell me about the idea behind the cover artwork?

    There’s this artist who I really like, her name is Shana Von Maurik, she does watercolours like this, where it’s like animals and flowers and butterflies. So I asked my friend Steve [Hartlett] to draw something because we’re close friends and he definitely empathises with a lot of the themes on the record and has always been really supportive of me trying to write songs. I asked him to draw something that was either a butterfly or a moth to kind of represent – I think that’s also where Bye for Now comes from too, even though I wasn’t as intentional about it, where it’s like, sometimes I just need to go away and figure out what I’m feeling, spend some time alone, process everything. Coming out of that relationship and having so much death in my family, like, sometimes it feels very… just trying to process who you want to be. I was also in my late 20s, and I feel like so much shit happens in your late 20s – you’re 25, 26 and you’re hanging out and then suddenly shit just gets really intense and real. Especially living in New York, there’s a lot of spaces to just be self-destructive. You can go out and drink all the time – you never really have to sit with your feelings. And so, a lot of me trying to write songs was just me sitting down and being like, “What would it be if I just tried to understand how I feel and work on it instead of smoke weed about it or go hang out with friends and drink and just forget, you know, escape?”

    So, the cover, I asked him to draw something with a butterfly or a moth to try to be an emblem of like, coming out of your cocoon, working on yourself, bettering yourself. But then I wanted it to be in a setting that was really beautiful, like trees or mountains or some kind of body of water. I think he did a perfect job, too, because with the butterfly flying towards the mountains and the water, there’s such a long way to go, so it’s sort of symbolic of like, it’s a never-ending journey to work on yourself and to get to know yourself, especially with so many social constructs and pressures to be a certain person. And then I watercoloured it, just because as a kid I always played with pastels or watercolour.

    Do you feel like this process has brought you any clarity in terms of how you see yourself as a person and an artist?

    Yeah. Going in – I have so many friends who are so amazing at writing songs, I just really felt like these really aren’t that great, like it’s not for anyone, it’s just sort of for me to do it and get better at it. And I feel like I got a lot better at guitar, which was really fun, just thinking about the leads and what I wanted them to sound. That was definitely challenging, especially with COVID, trying to finish everything on my own. But I’m really proud of myself for just doing it, because there’s a lot of times I just felt like, “I’m so sick of these songs, this doesn’t matter.” And I’m really happy that this is like a new way I have to express myself that I didn’t know that I had before. It wasn’t ever this thing, it was just like, “Oh, sometimes I’ll write songs and maybe Stove can play them.” And now it’s like, “I can have my own voice, and it’s cool.”

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length. 

    Smile Machine’s Bye for Now EP is out now via Exploding in Sound.

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