An Interview with Moira Smiley by Mairéid Sullivan

Moira Smiley, singer-composer, leads the ensemble, moira smiley & VOCO, travels the world as a soloist and creates new work for dance, theatre and film.

Her voice can be heard on a wide variety of media, including feature films, television (BBC, PBS), NPR, and on over 40 recordings. Her recent albums “blink,” “rua” and "circle, square, diamond & flag" feature spare, vocally driven collections of warped traditionals and new song. She has sung with leading ensembles and artists around the world, including Paul Hillier’s Theater of Voices, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, KITKA Vocal Ensemble and New World Symphony. Featured at Lincoln Center, UCLALive, Royal Festival Hall, and music festivals across the U.S. and Canada, Moira has received praise from Billboard to Gramophone.

While studying piano performance and Early Music at Indiana University, Moira was represented by IMGArtists Agency and toured extensively with her vocal group, VIDA. Praised for her musical depth and noted as a musical "shape-shifter," Moira premieres new art song, opera, and physical theater.

She also explores the depths of early American, Irish and Balkan traditional song. Moira is in high demand as a music director and vocal coach—giving master classes in vocal technique, traditional styles, physicality and improvisation. She composes for vocal ensembles around the world—her song “Stand in that River” is performed by thousands of choral ensembles and singers of all stripes.

The Interview

VOCOMairéid Sullivan: Can you trace your primary musical, intellectual and cultural, background influences for us?

Moira Smiley: A major influence for me was the New England Folk music revival – especially in traditional and social music. Other influences include classical piano studies & chamber music, an excitement about history, old buildings through a literary mother and architect father and early exposure to Slavic culture via Gorbachev’s Perestroika and the Childrens Arts Exchange.

Mairéid: Tell us how you came to develop your personal musical style.

Moira: It began at an early age as I wanderd around the rural Vermont landscape vocalising at the top of my lungs while riding my horse. It began to emerge from practicing the piano and cello dutifully and falling in love with E. European composers at age 11. I fell in love with local, young musicians who played beautiful Irish music and told me I should be singing it.

Mairéid: Who are or were your mentors? How and why do they inspire you?

Moira: One of my major mentors is Larry Gordon – founder of Northern Harmony (lover & do-er of passionate, modal, social music). Larry has booked tours for large groups of people all around the world for decades. His approach to music, travel and making a living is unfussy, visceral, vibrant and pioneering.

Another inspiration was the town of Bloomington & the IU School of Music: venerable, enormous institution of the highest order of classical music perched gingerly among a hot bed of community music, folklorists, improvisers and iconoclasts.

Mairéid: Do you have a sense of a personal “mission” to share?

VOCOMoira: I want to make music that utterly moves people. I want to inspire movers to think, and thinkers to move, express deepest sorrow & ecstatic joy in music making physicality in performance more important. I seek to become a clear "channel": I sing unusual powerful old songs to try to channel the power that has kept them passing through many generations My teaching will grow over the next ten years to finding the best way I know how to encourage, refine and bring to life people's singing & moving. I love to be surprised - musically, by mischief.

Mairéid: Tell us about your philosophy outlook and how that shapes your music and your personal lifestyle; where and how you like to live. For example, do you have your own “special” environment, the garden, a listening room, a special space set aside for retreat, where you can contemplate the muse, meditate, find your center, refresh your energy?

Moira: I don't have a separate space yet – I live in a hilly Los Angeles house. It feels like a tree-house, was built in the 1920s and is completely porous to the outdoors. I dream of having a house with a garden.

Mairéid: Have you developed a special method for achieving your deepest inspiration?

Moira: I love to write and physical training can take me to an inspirational place also.

Mairéid: What do you think is the primary responsibility or purpose of the artistic life?

Moira: I think the purpose of the artistic life is to move the hearts of people and to keep walking the edge of yourself.

VOCOMairéid: Share your favourite themes and selected passages from the traditional old songs and from the contemporary and original songs you play, (your own or by other writers/composers).

Moira: My favorite is Darkest Midnight (I changed the words, but the inspiration was in the music/text of this old Irish carol)

“The darkest midnight in December. The cold and snow lay on the ground
–and we, our thoughts, our souls remember, the clearer voice in stillness found
We offer up a silent motion, we stand amazed upon the ground.
We offer up a sweet devotion into the darkness that surrounds.”

Mairéid: What are some of your other interests, besides music; your intellectual pursuits and concerns, hobbies, sports, responsibilities, etc.?

Moira: I love studying physical theater and dance, continuing to follow the intricate history of music in culture, exploring new cities by walking their streets for many hours, studying language, running, riding horses and bikes, picking fruit from trees, swapping clothes, drawing ‘exquisite corpse’ at a dinner table.

Mairéid: What do you feel about live performance? In what measure do you feel vulnerable or confident on the stage? Does it take a few songs/pieces to warm up and get to know the audience? How do you prepare for the stage?

Moira: I have been training myself to become the clearest performer I can be since I was 11. I feel vulnerable that I won’t grasp the energy of that PARTICULAR group of people fast enough. I feel confident that I can jump into the music and it’ll hold me almost un-failingly. I write a new set list before the show to FEEL the place and the emotional state of myself ensemble-mates.

Mairéid: How do your travels influence your music?

VOCOMoira: I find I am very permeable, and I fall in love with places and crazy connective links. I am becoming so incredibly grateful for the net of understanding that music has created across the planet for me to roll gently upon.

Mairéid: Could you tell us a little about your future hopes and plans?

Moira: I hope to sing on “A Prairie Home Companion” this year! I want to find a business partner with whom I co-create the next 15 years of decisions that bring longevity, edginess, collaboration and renewal. (I have been utterly fortunate in finding the one I feel is my true-love, so he is always in my future picture!). I want to travel a lot in countries whose music I adore. I want to create work in other countries, and most of all, work with artists whom I deeply admire: Bobby McFerrin, Steve Reich, Evelyn Glennie, Kronos Quartet, Lena Willemark, Vasen.

Mairéid: What attracted you to Celtic music?

Moira: First, as a child, I was drawn to the young musicians who sang it and played it: their gentle groove, politically strong songs and humor. Then, after pulling away from Irish music in my teens, I found a scene of fine players in Bloomington and the melancholy-tinged modes of the tunes, the introverted fierceness of the songs became magnetic again. It was kitchen music – and the feeling of communal warmth was so soothing to my Music School – rigor and expectation. I began traveling to Ireland, and a new crop of cool bands seemed to be close at hand and making waves in the performance world.

Mairéid: What do you think is most relevant message for today from Celtic cultural history?

Moira: I urge people to keep playing with each other! Keep quietly innovating, keep it about the music. Don’t be afraid to play or sing alone, but always have ways to make music with others. Understand the power of intimate spaces to preserve beautiful art and culture.

Mairéid: Have you read any books on the history of the Celts. If so, which books have you enjoyed the most?

Moira: 'Last Nights Fun'. I absolutely love that book.

Mairéid: Do you have funny and insightful stories from “the road” to share?

Moira: So many! I look out into a sea of faces and see the open eyes of animals, seeking shelter and connection in the music – that’s what keeps me going.

Mairéid: Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to share your thoughts with us.


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