Being in conversation with Sukie Smith is always an engaging experience.

Southend-On-Sea born but for many years London-based Smith has always pushed herself hard creatively, stretching into herself to reach new perimeters, and looking deeply into her subconscious to see what she can unravel from there.

A trained actress who has worked in film with Mike Leigh and Nicolas Roeg and extensively in theatre, Smith has fronted her band Madam for over a decade. Madam’s debut album ‘In Case of Emergency’ came out in 2008, and she followed this in 2011 with a second album, ‘Gone Before Morning’. Both were dark, melancholic, often self-knowing albums, primarily about relationships on the slide and in turmoil, but a third album, ‘Back to the Sea’, released in 2016 after a five year absence, broke new ground. Inspired primarily by her father’s sudden death and also the passing of an early boyfriend and various other friends, it was similarly brooding and semi-orchestral in tone, but concluded on a note of soaring triumph with Smith thankful for the positive influence these people had had on her own life and looking optimistically to the future.

Smith began a video project, her aim to work with a different director, filmmaker or animator to create a film for each of the eleven tracks on 'Back to the Sea'. Shortly after she played her launch gig for ‘Back to the Sea’ in September of that year, followed by a headline gig, her fourth appearance with us the next month at a Pennyblackmusic Bands’ Night, the project, and any further promotional dates for the album, were put on hold when Smith found herself suddenly in intensive care.

The end of 2018 finds her in much better health and with a renewed sense of energy and purpose.

“I have had a shot of bravery in the arm and sense of urgency after surviving my unexpected health curve ball,” she tells Pennyblackmusic. “So, there is some fearlessness and determination to make things happen motivating me now.”

She is working with producer Nick Trepka (Emmy The Great, Saint Leonard’s Horses, Boy George) in his London studio on new Madam material, and is also helping out with new alternative rock super group Piroshka by providing backing vocals at their gigs. Piroshka, which consists of Lush vocalist Miki Berenyi, former Moose guitarist KJ ‘Moose’ McKillop, Modern English bassist Mick Conroy and ex-Elastica drummer Justin Welch, will release their debut album ‘Brickbat’ in February, and Smith will be touring the UK with them in March and April.

About her hospitalisation and recuperation which took about a year, she says simply, “I think we can draw a veil over this very traumatic time enough to say I would not be here without the expertise and cleverness of strangers and the outrageous kindness of my friends. One human so very, very unexpectedly came to my rescue and without being over dramatic saved my life…all such things will be explored in the new songs probably…”

The video project has been regenerated with each of its eleven tracks having now found a director. When Sukie Smith got in touch with Pennyblackmusic to ask if we would like to premiere the video for one of its tracks ‘Murder Park’ which she had filmed earlier this year in Los Angeles with the filmmaking team of Louise Salter and Rya Khilstedt, we immediately agreed.

The video of ‘Murder Park ’is filmed in sublime shades of hazy brown, and at four minutes is shorter than the eight minute album version. Three girls wander each on their own through parkland. The wind and bushes rustle behind them as if there is something unseen there. A swing rolls back and forth although there is no one on it, and Smith, a ghostly presence dressed in black, flits in and out of shot and serves ultimately as a Greek chorus, proving that there is nothing to fear.

We have interviewed Smith four times before and twice about 'Back to the Sea', always by phone. She offered to write something for us about the film, but when a few questions by email led to some more questions we found ourselves, without either side having planned it, participating in a fifth interview.

PB: How did you wind up making the video for ‘Murder Park’ in Los Angeles?

SS: I went to L.A. in January for several reasons…my very good friend Devon Dickson (who shot ‘When I Met You’ ) was there…and I wanted to work with him again for a track from 'Back to the Sea', called ‘Night Watch’ which is set in L.A. My long term musical collaborator Adam Franklin was also there mixing his new Swervedriver album( he is in the ‘Night Watch’ video now)...also I wanted to meet with the Laboratory Arts Collective team to talk about an exhibition for John Lee Bird that they had been thinking about.

We arranged an exhibition for John, which I was part of later in the year in July, and we shot my part of ‘Murder Park’ then. John’s exhibition was at the impressive Pacific Design Centre and involved improvised sound pieces with Jamie from Xui Xui, members of Guns N’ Roses, Devo and me. I also made some soundscapes and improvised spoken word in response to the event, and performed songs from ‘Back to the Sea’ which John had apparently listened to relentlessly while he was making the work he was showing.

PB: How you became involved with the 'maverick' filmmaking team of Louise Salter and Rya Khilstedt?

SS: Louise and I have known each other for a very long time. We were actresses, part of the same agency and would meet at castings and became friends in the face of supposed competition for parts…She and her husband Nigel Daly established the Laboratory Arts Collective which is a beautiful quarterly art magazine and forum for events and happenings that they dazzle L.A. with. Louise and her directing partner Rya Khilstedt approached me and offered to shoot a film for a track on the album…they loved ‘Murder Park’, so that’s what happened.

PB: Was the film conceived and made quickly? You must have only been in L.A.
for a set period.

SS: The song is in some ways very straightforward and full of imagery, so we discussed atmosphere and a development of the song’s narrative in the film in January when I was first in L.A. this year.

They sent through their ideas, and, as the visual part of this project is much more open than the actual recording process, it is joyous to see how directors and artists explore and develop the narrative of the song. Louise and Rya had a definite vision of the world the song exists in, so it is not illustrative as such but a response to it.

PB: What is the significance to you of the final shot in which the three young actresses in the film come together for the first time and you see them staring off into the distance?

SS: I think it’s exactly that, the shared experience of time moving forward and even though the song is about death/a funeral/an ending it is not to be afeared of...

There was talk of a sense of foreboding that proves to be unfounded. My character is more about experience, I think…understanding of what is to come, facing it with courage and fearlessness, which are not the same thing!

It was strange how the weather in L.A. suited the film’s two shoots. The young girls were shot in beautiful summer haze, and my filming days were during the gloom that descends in L.A. throughout the month of June and creates a darker, still hazy, but more mysterious atmosphere...

PB: You say that “there is some fearlessness and determination to make things happen motivating me now.” Yet you have always seemed fearless. Your whole career with Madam has been about taking risks, exploring often personally difficult issues, and not taking the easy option when you can do something more demanding but also more creative. You have done exactly the same with your acting career. What’s changed?

SS: I guess I don’t see this as fearless or see any options, difficult or not. It feels more like an utter essential existence. I really can't envision any other way to live, but what’s changed is a lack of shyness. It is very important to me that people hear and respond to this outpouring now. It always was, but I can say that out loud now...

PB: When you have had a health scare you can become very conscious that time is not so much running out but is limited. You won’t always have the option to do things. Is that part of this renewed fearlessness?

SS: Fuck, yeah…intensive care, a year’s recovery lying down and mostly relying on the kindness of friends…fuck, fuck, fuck that…out of the traps...

PB: Where did this previous shyness come from? Was it fear of being misinterpreted?

SS: I think somewhere inside me I have a big doubt that anyone would give two fucks about what I have to say...I grew up in a smallish town where my contemporaries got on a commuter train and worked in the city until they had heart attacks or families. There was no expectation that you could make art or music. This wasn't true of my immediate family but a reality of a life dedicated to creativity was still a bit out there…

PB: How much of this need to speak out now comes from becoming older, having experienced more, and just having more to say than you were, say, 21?

SS: None, I had plenty to say then and now. My near death experience, however, encourages a speak out!

PB: You say “death” and “ending” are not “to be afeared of.” For many people these are both terrifying. You have faced up to death head on in ‘Back to the Sea’ and now also personally. Why have you come to that opinion?

SS: Well, of course, it’s fucking terrifying, but if you are able to then you may as well enjoy the ride...I guess death is only brutal when it happens to someone else….the loss and trying to make sense of living once someone has been exited is so utterly mangling …I keep thinking I have to celebrate my father, for example, by having the bravest life I can…as an acknowledgement of his care and sacrifice to make mine and my sisters’ lives as good as possible...same with my friends who have died in accidents or by their own to keep going for them…articulate the complex and make a sound...

PB: All these people you have collaborated on with the videos will have their own take on the songs. Has your own opinion on the songs on ‘Back to the Sea’ changed as a result, and in particular ‘Murder Park’. It is probably the darkest track on the album being about your father's funeral, yet the video ends on this note of hope.

SS: They haven't changed my opinion of the songs. I know their complexities and the basis for them in real life, but it is a massive privilege and very intriguing to have someone interpret and explore an aspect of a song visually and to see/hear the song from the way they choose to work with it.

I was reading an interview with Nick Cave and he was talking about the idea his songs have a predictive quality to them, that somehow just writing them will make it happen. I think with my songs that I do go back and read the lyric and discover some hope in them which I didn’t acknowledge when I first wrote them maybe…or I can at least interpret an understanding of the situation/event that I had written about intuitively and that maybe I have come to properly understand cognitively…instinctive knowledge becoming founded in reality, and with ‘Murder Park’ maybe the idea of fearlessness in the face of an inevitable ending…

PB: The late Robert Fisher from the Willard Grant Conspiracy said that he always tried to keep his songs just open enough so that people could put their own stamp and interpretation to them. ‘Back to the Sea’ was largely written as a response to your father’s sudden death. How would you feel about people interpreting it differently, putting their own experiences on it?

SS: I utterly respected Robert Fisher and just listened in awe to his beautiful story songs and watched the audience be completely transported into his sonic world, so I completely see that his way was correct.

I, however, never consider how a song will be heard. I think it just has a right to exist as it pleases and I try and get out of the way of anything other than that…I think a song demands a certain sound and set of musicians to articulate it and my joyous job is to facilitate that...

I love it though that people hear things in the songs that mean something to is a connection!

PB: Are there are any more films from 'Back to the Sea' forthcoming?

SS: Yes, one for every track. I am working with artists, street artists, animators and director…there are four left, all of which are in production...I am excited to be working with Chris Shepherd on a script written for ‘No Ghost’ by Brock Norman Brock (‘Bronson’/The Marriage of Reason and Squalor’) and also with artist Danny Flynn who I am collaborating on two videos with, one of which was partly shot in Berlin last month.

PB: You will have enough footage at the end of this with these videos for some kind of long play project. Do you intend to house them together in some way?

SS: Yes, I do! I hope that the secrets to ‘Back to the Sea’ will become clear when the films are edited together...

PB: ‘Back to the Sea’ could be described as primarily being about “finding ways of establishing and continuing relationships with absent family and friends, people who for whatever reason are no longer there” Does that seem like a fair interpretation?

SS; Yes it utterly seems like a fair interpretation as well as being a spell of positivity! ‘Back to the Sea’ started out as an outpouring of confusion and pain, but recovered itself in the long process of its making and became a celebration of isolation and togetherness…two months after our wildly lovely album launch at the Moth Club I was in hospital and I unexpectedly didn't really see the light of day for about a year, so the songs are getting a new life with this video project.

PB: You are also working with PIroshka. What is your role with them?

SS: I am involved with Piroshka, along with Mew from Elastica as part of their touring/live set up. Their record is amazing and very rich sounding, so to be true to the songs live we help with all the extra keyboards/percussion and backing vocals…I have such huge respect for my band now, understanding the hours and HOURS of work it takes to embed a song written by someone else into your head!

PB: Did you know the members of Piroshka beforehand?

SS: We were rehearsing last night and working out how we knew each other initially…I think I met Moose through Brian O’Shaughnessy who runs Bark Studios.

Moose plays on some tracks on ‘In Case of Emergency’ and also on the soundtrack I wrote for the feature film ‘Hush Your Mouth’…I met Mick Conroy through Russell Yates (also of Moose) who was the radio plugger for my first album. Justin and Miki and I have been in the same circles in London and must have met each other at shows, but we only properly looked each other in the eye for the first time rehearsing for the Piroshka gigs. It’s funny being in London for a while…the possibilities of lives colliding but not doing so for years. An inevitability of an entwining always there...

PB: You’re now working with Nick Trepka in his studio on new Madam material. How did that collaboration come about?

SS: Nick and I have met a few times through different artists/musicians and I love his work…the collision of philosophy and sound we speak about in an effort to communicate about song which could potentially be a laughable parody is the opposite! Freedom to speak with no mockery is fucking rare...I was out seeing a band at the Shacklewell Arms earlier this year and Nick was there. We had a very intense six sentence exchange about sonic experimentation and atmosphere, and it was so unexpectedly easy to express what I meant that I got in touch with him a couple of days later and we have been working a completely new way for is properly lovely to be in a tiny studio and to make a huge sound.

PB: In what way is working with Nick “a completely new way”?

SS: I am collaborating in a way I have never done before, trusting a shared process. Previously I have always heard in my head exactly what I wanted to achieve before I arrived at a studio and then attempted to make that with varying degrees of success…I always thought this was my responsibility and I would be failing if I wasn't able to lead the project that way, but as part of the new freedom from fear…I have changed my ways!

What’s ironic is that after I decided to be a lot more open handed and experiment and create more spontaneously what is coming out of the studio is exactly what i always wanted the songs to sound like as broken and fragile and as monstrously huge as I know they should be...I think the time of solitude is over for me, as an artist at least...

PB: Is this work with Nick going to be a fourth Madam album?

SS: I am not sure what form this will take, if it’s an album, a sound piece connected to visuals, a series of singles. a performance based project…I don't know yet…this year I have been working with artists and sound makers here and in L.A., being much more free with song/spoken word performances…I expect that this new set of music will be more interdisciplinary than anything before…

PB: What direction do you see the lyrics as going in?

SS: Morphine hallucinations might feature. Ha! Ha!

PB: Does it have a provisional title yet?

SS: No title yet…titles appear when you are not looking for them...

PB: When do you hope to release material from it?

SS: This I can not say!

PB: Thank you.

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