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Progressive Rock Interviews

Oakes and Smith

Interviewed by Gary Hill
Interview with Oakes and Smith from 2016
Can you catch the readers up on the history of your involvement in music – both individually and as a band?
Katherine Smith: When my siblings and I were young, my parents and a few of my aunts and uncles were in a music ensemble called “Mass Production,” a large choral-style singing group backed by a band. They sang in the northeastern part of Connecticut—where I grew-up—raising scholarship money for local high school students. From an early age, I can remember spending weekends at their rehearsals listening to them practice multiple part harmonies. When I was older, I participated in youth musical theater, and my high school had a strong choral program where I further developed my ear for harmony. During that time I also took private voice lessons. When Robert and I met, we initially bonded over our shared love of music and art. It wasn't long before we discovered that our voices blended well together, and the decision to write and arrange music and begin the duo followed shortly afterward. 
Robert Oakes: I grew up in a musical family, so music has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My grandmother was a self-taught piano player and singer, and my dad was a singer and drummer who played blues and jazz standards. When we were kids, my brother and I used to help him set up for his gigs. And when we got a little older, we started to play with him, my brother on drums and me on bass. In high school and college, my brother and I formed rock bands, usually power trios, covering tunes by artists like Jimi Hendrix, Joe Jackson, Tin Machine, The Who, and The Kinks, and often, we played some pretty obscure stuff like “Don't Make Waves” by Brand X. But from the time I was about eleven-years-old, I also wrote my own songs, and as time went on, performing and recording those tunes became my main musical interest. In college, I started recording and performing as a singer/songwriter. Actually, when I was making my first album, I left school for a while and used the remainder of my tuition money to help pay for the project. I guess you could say that making that album was so important to me then that I was willing to sacrifice everything else, including school. Over time, though, music became something I did while I also did other things. And there did come a time in my life when it started to fade into the background, as other occupations took center stage. Around the time I met Kate, though, I had been feeling the pull to music again. I had left some situations and cleared a space to let music become the focus of my life again. During that time, I wrote and recorded my 2009 solo album Heart Broken Open. Kate helped me with that project, contributing backup vocals and the album art. After this, it started to become clear to us that we needed to begin singing, recording, writing and performing together, and in 2010, the Oakes and Smith duo was born.
If you weren't involved in music what do you think you'd be doing?
Katherine Smith: Though I can't imagine life without it, I suppose if making music wasn't part of who I am, I can only imagine I would seek other ways to express myself, like making visual art or writing. 
Robert Oakes: Well, I do have another aspect to my life. Over the years, I have worked in publishing as a writer and editor, and most recently, I have started to teach English to sixth and ninth grade students.
Who would you see as your musical influences?
Katherine Smith: When I was younger, I listened to any cast recording of my favorite Broadway shows I could get my hands on. I also was listening to voices of Freddie Mercury, Robert Plant and Van Morrison. Through my later teenage years and through my twenties I have been influenced more by the voices of Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Kate Bush, Loreena McKennit, Sarah McLachlan and Sinead O'Connor. 

Robert Oakes: I have listened to a lot of different kinds of music over the years, and I do love to draw from all sorts of things. But if I had to name the biggest influences on my music, I would say artists and groups like Peter Gabriel, Genesis, Jon Anderson, Yes, The Moody Blues, Paul Simon, Van Morrison, Kate Bush, and The Sundays.

How did you link up with Jon Anderson, and how was your experience working with him.
Robert Oakes: When we were recording the song to which Jon eventually added vocal harmonies, Jemal mentioned that it sounded like a tune that would be perfect for his voice. As it happened, Jemal and his partner Moksha Sommer were working with Jon on a different project at that time. So, Jemal decided to send him the tune to see whether he might like to sing on it. Sure enough, Jon sent us back vocal harmonies that he had added, and we worked them into the final mix. As a long-time fan of both Yes and Jon's solo work, I was absolutely blown away the moment I first heard his unmistakably unique voice singing with us on one of our songs!
How do you feel about fans recording shows and trading them or posting them online?
Robert Oakes: One of the wonderful things about music is that it is a very social art form. When things are going well, there is a kind of feedback loop that develops between the musicians and the audience, among the musicians, and among the audience members. Gathered together under the same roof, these individuals create a kind of magic of the moment that can't really be experienced through a recording downloaded from the internet. So, I guess I would encourage fans to come out and be a part of that moment.
If you were a superhero, what music person would be your arch nemesis and why?
Katherine Smith: I suppose a musical nemesis for me would be anyone who would seek to use their music to manipulate people into valuing shallow and jaded lifestyles as what is cool or admirable. 

Robert Oakes: I would say my musical arch nemesis would be anyone who does not listen for depth of meaning and feeling, because it is only in listening for these things that we find them. We can't be passive.

MSJ: If you were to put together your ultimate band (a band you'd like to hear or catch live), who would be in it and why?
Katherine Smith: I'd love to see Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush perform together. I think their songwriting and theatrical flair would be a perfect match.

Robert Oakes: I would love to see a reunion of the original line-up of Genesis (and I would be sure to include Anthony Phillips). I have been a huge fan of that group for a long time, but I was born too late to see the original line-up play live.

If you were in charge of assembling a music festival and wanted it to be the ultimate one from your point of view who would be playing?
Robert Oakes: Genesis, Yes, Jethro Tull, The Moody Blues, Van Morrison, Cat Stevens, Kate Bush, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, Jon Anderson, Daniel Lanois, Peter Murphy, David Bowie, at least...
MSJ: What was the last CD you bought and/or what have you been listening to lately?
Katherine Smith: The Dreaming by Kate Bush

Robert Oakes: The last CD was Blackstar by David Bowie. Lately, I've been listening to a lot of instrumental recordings, spacey atmospheric stuff. The latest one is The Pearl by Brian Eno and Harold Budd. I've also been listening to Sheherazade by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

MSJ: Have you read any good books lately?
Katherine Smith: I am finishing Searching for Mercy Street by Linda Grey Sexton. It's her memoir about growing-up as the daughter of the poet Anne Sexton.  It is an excellent read.

Robert Oakes: Recently, I've been delving into the work of French writer Jean Giono, who is best known for The Man Who Planted Trees. The one I'm reading now is called The Serpent of Stars, which is filled with beautiful imagery and very musical language.

MSJ: Do you have a musical "guilty pleasure?"
Katherine Smith: I have been known to dance (badly) and sing loudly to ABBA. 

Robert Oakes: I may have done that, too.

What has been your biggest Spinal Tap moment?
Katherine Smith: There was one time when Robert and I were rushing to get him to a local gig. He had been asked to sit-in as a bassist one night, so he was bringing his enormous bass amp and speaker cabinet. We were on our way when we had to stop short behind another car. The huge bass amp rocked forward and then back and shattered the back window of our car. It was pouring rain outside, but we continued to the gig without a back windshield. After all, the show must go on.
If you could sit down to dinner with any three people, living or dead, for food and conversation, with whom would you be dining?
Katherine Smith: I would probably choose David Bowie, Freddie Mercury and Joni Mitchell 

Robert Oakes: Walt Whitman, J.R.R. Tolkien, Joseph Campbell

MSJ: What would be on the menu?

Katherine Smith: Hot tagines of Moroccan food and red wine

Robert Oakes: Indian. Definitely Indian.


MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2016  Volume 2 at
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