Linda Smith and Stuart Moxham (Young Marble Giants) Interview Each Other

Two conversations for the price of one!

Linda Smith is a Baltimore-based artist, and a pioneer of bedroom pop and the home recording movement; Stuart Moxham is a UK-based artist, and formerly the guitarist and principal songwriter for the Welsh post-punk band Young Marble Giants.  Today, Captured Tracks is releasing the reissue of two of her records — 1995’s Nothing Else Matters and ‘96’s I So Liked Spring — the first single off of which was a cover of YMG’s “Salad Days.” So to celebrate, Linda and Stuart each conducted their own interviews with each other.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music


Linda Smith interviews Stuart Moxham

Linda Smith: I heard you read some of your poems on a recent radio show. You mentioned that your poems might become song lyrics at some point. What makes a poem different from song lyrics for you? What happens to the poem when you set it to music?

Stuart Moxham: Yes, I did; that was a first. I have read maybe one or two at gigs a few times. Really interesting question. I think it’s how it feels, when you get that first phrase, or even word. I guess I’m hard wired by now, but I get a sense of what it could become. I won’t apologize for the vagueness here — a state of vague excitement propels me to a pen, or whatever and it’s that very particular feeling which very often signals the unraveling of something I had no previous thoughts about. So I trust it and welcome it.

Technically, for myself, poetry is harder to rhyme — because there is a value in extreme brevity, because each word has to earn its place, and because the effect of stuff like alliteration, and the total freedom of form etc — which you don’t have half as much of when you’re writing to a melody. Lyrics are closer to doggerel in form — although hopefully just as affecting as verse. Basically it’s the interaction between the music and the meaning in the words. The music has to support and enhance the words.

We are creatures blessed with antennae to sense atmospheres and art is a means of creating atmospheres in the hearts and minds of those who are experiencing it, so good music always has atmosphere. And you can’t write that in sheet music. Setting a poem to music can either fail or work, depending on whether it lends itself to the strictures of (my) music.

Actually I’ve just done something for the first time — a musical acquaintance and Facebook friend suggested that I could write a song from a sentence I posted In a comment one time. I did manage to write a lyric and after a very long time, and much binding in the marsh, I have a song. That was a valuable lesson. The song has In turn inspired a theme for an album, which is another first as a way of working.

Linda: When did you retire from wage work and how has your daily routine changed? Is it easier to write songs now?

Stuart: Several years ago. I no longer have to drive a taxi to and from airports at stupid o’clock. So I live a pretty chilled life in a small and ancient rural town in Dorset, bordering Wiltshire and Somerset. I have a recording studio with a bed in it, and a tiny kitchen and a bathroom, in a 1960s block. I keep a pretty clear diary because writing needs spaciousness, it can happen anywhen, and it takes a lot of time — often many repeat sessions. So, I’m able to prioritize my creativity and yes, it is easier. I have previously written a song in my head; words, melodies and arrangements, all whilst delivering parcels around London all day, and remembered it when I finally got home to a guitar.

Linda: Do you read reviews of your music, past and present? (Some artists say they don’t!) If so, how do you react?

Stuart: I always do, and was very fortunate to have come to public attention in a critical lovefest, with Young Marble Giants. That was just unbelievable — massively encouraging. Of course, the media varies in quality and there is occasionally an element of laziness, wherein something completely untrue is pasted and copied ad infinitum, but I’m grateful to have any interest in what I do. Equally a good interview can result in some difficult observations — especially as most of my stuff is personal — but if they are accurate criticisms then that can progress things, like any criticism made and taken the right way. I often think that art can be a search for self understanding, a way of seeking/finding one’s place in the world.

Linda: What is the greatest challenge in making and releasing new music these days as opposed to pre-internet times? What is the best thing?

Stuart: The arrival of digital technology meant that everything was a lot quicker and the gear was vastly more resourceful, especially in the realm of creative editing. Then it went onto computer based systems and that’s where I stopped. I stayed with my hard disk system — no MIDI, either. Those things are too geeky for me. Consequently, I am far behind in the constantly accelerating world of DAW and that poses some problems when it comes to mixing from people’s stems.

Otherwise, releasing is simple — but it depends what you mean by releasing. Vinyl is regarded as the apogee. At the same time, the huge variety of digital platforms mean that sales of physical products are on a much smaller scale. Making money from music is therefore restricted for the vast majority of creators now, even more than it was in the bad old, good old days. The best thing is the ease, high quality, and endless resources of digital recording. (Although I do enjoy all the cables and hours spent editing and archiving!)

Linda: As someone who records at home, do you think that performing music live is a requirement in order to “promote” it? 

Stuart: Yes, indubitably. Be silly not to! Live performance is the other side of the coin from recording. As such it’s a hugely valuable thing, for all sorts of reasons: getting a reaction to new music from an audience (or to “old” music from an audience who don’t know it.) It’s great to undertake a what is, however minimally, a theatrical performance which is a mutual experience with an audience. You might get paid. You can sell recordings and by manning the merch table, get to meet your audience. All of this promotes by default.

Linda: Do you enjoy playing live?

Stuart: I used to. It’s much harder solo, but a good gig is still the greatest thing that isn’t recording!

Linda: Is pop/rock music as a “career” a young person’s game? Did you consider music your career?

Stuart: Much less so than used to be the case. Nobody can afford the rent these days, let alone have time to get into making music. It’s all being done by posh kids now, apparently. I love Nick Drake and they don’t come much posher, but somehow I doubt that there will be much to compare with the reality of the council estate popsters of yore. 

It never crossed my mind that I would make music. My first impulse was to be a novelist, when I was a voracious young reader, and I wish I’d done Fine Art — painting, probably, when I went to art college.

Linda: Have you self released music in the past or have you always worked with a label? What are the pros and cons of each in your experience? 

Stuart: I’ve done both; had a number of labels release stuff, including a couple of labels of my own. I had zero money to promote my own labels and apart from material originally put out by Rough Trade, I’ve only made money in the form of small advances from labels. The real money is in being the writer/composer when your material is used in film/TV/advertising, and played in lifts, shops, radio stations, etc.

Linda: Is music the greatest art form?

Stuart: Some of it is! (George Bernard Shaw said that 80% of anything is rubbish.)

Linda: Who are your favorite writers?

Stuart: Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Bruce Chatwin, Dylan Thomas, John Betjeman. I didn’t read any fiction for decades and now it’s mostly musical biographies. Martin Newell deserves an honorable mention, and not just for his lyrics and poetry. (He’s on Facebook.)

Linda: Were your parents supportive of your music?

Stuart: Hmmm…well it happened late. I was 20. Mum roadied a bit for YMG. Dad is a frustrated musician who nonetheless reached the top as an amateur singer, with the BBC Welsh Chorus, in Aled Jones’ time. But I’m sure he’s quietly proud.

Linda: What do think about the return of vinyl as a format for releasing music?

Stuart: I like it — if for nothing else, it involves ritual and there’s such a desperate lack of ritual in the “developed” world.

Stuart Moxham interviews Linda Smith

Stuart: Where were you born/raised and with whom?

Linda: I was born and raised in Baltimore, MD, with two parents and three sisters.

Stuart: I see we were born in the same year [1955] — what is your star sign and what do you think of astrology?

Linda: I am a Taurus and fit the usual description of a Taurus. We are stubborn, artistic types who think they know everything. 😉 I don’t follow astrology on a regular basis but will have a look at the daily predictions on occasion. Sometimes it’s accurate, sometimes it isn’t!

Stuart: What was your musical context growing up?

Linda: The earliest musical memories I have are of The Wizard of Oz as shown on TV every year and my mother’s record collection, which included musicals of the day (My Fair Lady, South Pacific, West Side Story) and Peter, Paul, and Mary albums. In 1964, everything changed when The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. For the first time, we felt like we had our own music. I remember my mother saying they wouldn’t last! Shortly after, I received a transistor radio, which remained glued to my ear throughout the 1960s. The first time I heard Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” and The Shangri-Las “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” my brain cells were altered forever.

Stuart: How were you at school?

Linda: I didn’t like school at all. It seemed like such an unnecessary imposition on my life. The only thing I recall being interested in was art class. Bad at math! In those days, no one went to day care or preschool, as only one parent usually worked outside the home. To suddenly be forced sit in a room all day with 20 to 30 other unknown kids and a strange adult who told everyone what to do was rather traumatic for a 6 year old. This discomfort only increased as I got older and continued when I started college. I didn’t finish college until much later when I was in my 50s.

Stuart: What were the first records you bought?

Linda: My parents always gave us the latest Beatles/Byrds/Monkees albums every year at Christmas but the first record I recall buying in a store myself was The Beatles “Ticket to Ride” single. The first album I remember buying in a shop was Sonny and Cher’s I Got You Babe. I clearly remember those two events as important childhood moments for some reason. 

Stuart: Have you done much traveling?

Linda: Not as much as I would like but I have visited cities in the Northeast, the West Coast, and Canada. It wasn’t until 2004 that I went overseas for the first time, to take art classes in Italy. More recently, I’ve been to the UK twice. There is still quite a lot to see. 

Stuart: How would you describe yourself in three words?

Linda: Currently: older, (a little) wiser, arthritic!

Stuart: Tell me about a happy place

Linda: There are several: the symphony, hotel rooms, art supply stores, and art museums.

Stuart: How did you get into making music?

Linda: In the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, I was inspired Patti Smith, The Raincoats, and Young Marble Giants (among others) to get myself “an electric guitar and take some time to learn how to play,” as The Byrds once sang. I took one week of lessons, got bored and dropped out but continued to learn a few chords on my own. I wrote a song and thought it was the greatest accomplishment in the world! Looking back on it now, I’m still surprised that I stuck with it because it wasn’t something that came as easily to me as painting and drawing did. I think that all the great music coming out at that time, though, just made me want to be in a band, too. It looked like such fun and a way to connect with other similarly minded souls.

Stuart: What has been your musical journey?

Linda: The journey started with being in a few bands for several years, then writing and recording my songs at home for around 13 years. This was followed by a period of 20 years where I did very little if any music at all. Since 2020, I have begun to release new music and to see rereleases of my old music. It is a very interesting place to be in my late 60s. Five years ago if someone had asked me whether I’d ever do music again I would have said “NO!” As far as I was concerned, it was over.

Stuart: How do you make your music — in terms of composition, song arrangements, musical arrangements, melody etc.

Linda: For me, the writing of a song is very much determined during the recording of it. I may think of a melody and a few words to begin with and then structure the song with a chord progression, adding more words to fill it out. (Writing words is the most laborious part of the process for me.) The whole song may not take shape until I’ve started recording various tracks. Usually, I’ll start a recording with a drum track, then add rhythm guitar, then keyboard, then bass. Vocals usually come last. Now that I can record digitally and use more tracks, I like to add layers of simple intermittent parts to create more atmosphere. I always think of the song as the recording and vice versa, not something separate from it. This has made it difficult to play the songs live because they become something totally detached from the recording. 

Stuart: What does music do for you and mean for you?

Linda: It is and always was a way of making a connection, however small. I never consciously thought about making hit records or making something that millions of people would want to hear. Recording songs was more like painting pictures, something done by one person. A relative few people heard my music back in pre-internet times but I was occasionally made aware that someone who I’d never met had stumbled across it and enjoyed it. That was usually enough to make me want to continue. These days things are somewhat different, of course, because of social media and the music being more available on streaming services. With the Captured Tracks reissues, there is a new audience of younger people just discovering it. They hear it within a different cultural and musical environment from the time in which it was created.

Stuart: How important has music been as a creative part of your life?

Linda: It was important for a long time, and then for a long time it wasn’t. It’s hard to explain why but I became interested in visual art. I’ve found that I don’t have the desire to do two different kinds of artistic pursuits at the same time. Now that I’ve gotten back into music, I’ve hardly done much art work!

Stuart: What has the ratio of playing live to writing and recording been for you?

Linda: I’ve always preferred recording to playing live. It results in a finished product, so to speak, and has a permanence that live performing doesn’t. It is a very different way of making and listening to music. I love to see a good live show but I am not a natural performer myself. I am working on playing songs live more, though, as I have received requests to do so recently and I no longer work a job. There is simply more time to practice now.

Stuart: What kind of work have you done outside of music?

Linda: Over the years, I’ve worked in advertising departments, grocery stores, and lastly, in the security department of an art museum. I never thought of my jobs as careers but only as means to pay the rent. I’m amazed when I look back and think of the years I spent at various work places and how little reward there was in doing so. I sometimes wish I’d just dumped the whole thing when I was younger and gone around the world.

Stuart: How do you feel about your music before and after it becomes public?

Linda: After I’ve just finished something, I usually feel the most confident about it and am anxious for others to hear it. Initial response can provide validation or throw one off a bit. I don’t think it’s unusual for artists to experience that; it’s part of the deal. I think being older and less sensitive helps, too. One shouldn’t be knocked off balance too much by either praise or criticism. Move on to the next thing!

Linda Smith made home recorded music from 1987 to 2001. It was released on cassette, vinyl, and CD by such labels as Harriet, Feel Good All Over, Slumberland, and her own Preference label. A reissue of two of her records — Nothing Else Matters and I So Liked Spring — is out now on Captured Tracks.