When it’s time to chill this summer, check out the evocative messages in new releases from singer-songwriter Christy Jean.
By Bryan C. Reed
On the first day of the new year, Raleigh-based singer-songwriter Christy Jean Smith—performing under the name Christy Jean—released the first song of what she’d call The Winter Project—a collection of songs that offer resolve for the seasons that follow. She announced the first song on the Facebook page still associated with her old moniker, The Tender Fruit.
“Winter is a time for cozy blankets, hot chocolate, and tunes,” Smith wrote. “I’m gonna do my part to get us through this cold, dark season by releasing a new song on the first of January, February, and March.” Then she offered a link to a new Bandcamp page to stream the brand-new song “Own Your Sadness.”
I spent much of my listening time in January playing that song on repeat. True to her suggestion that the new songs might offer some comfort to listeners, “Own Your Sadness” felt like a balm.
It also felt like a departure for Smith. After fronting the country-leaning band Nola from 2004 through 2007, Smith took on the name “The Tender Fruit” for comparatively spare and more folk-leaning songs. In both acts, though, Smith commanded attention with an economical and evocative style of songwriting that perfectly complements a strong, expressive voice that cracks with raw emotion. She’s long been one of the city’s most compelling singers and songwriters. But “Own Your Sadness,” while not a full reversal of her past work, adds new angles to the singer’s catalog.
Joined by drummer and keyboardist James Phillips, who plays both in the kaleidoscopic folk-pop band Bombadil and in his own earnest, electronics-driven project Sumner James, Smith sheds the twangy trappings of her past work and embraces a more atmospheric tone, buoyed by Phillips’ shimmering, cloudy synthesizers.
Smith’s voice emerges from a gentle swell of keys with a pained but declaratory phasing of the song’s title.
The second verse finds Smith’s voice risen fully above the arrangement. “Own your sadness / Wear your shame,” she sings. As the verse ends, she arrives at the song’s crux: “I ain’t gonna save you / And I don’t want to talk about it.”
Later, she adds, “I can’t tell you everything’s gonna be alright.”
It feels meditative in its spartan imagery, and resilient in its building dynamic. What first seems like a simple lament quickly reveals itself to be directed at another, addressing the cost of emotional labor that comes from trying to be supportive to someone else’s sadness. There’s a whole story between the lines, and Smith’s resigned, resilient, and righteous speaker offers as much mantra-worthy motivation—“Own your sadness / Wear your shame”—as she does doubt and concern about her own ability to fix the problems—“I ain’t gonna save you.”
It’s telling, then, that The Winter Project’s February follow-up, “Caroline,” finds Smith more or less back in the folk arena, singing accompanied only by a single guitar and gentle harmonies. Still, her lyrics suggest more than they reveal, and her vivid imagery mingles the agrarian with the cosmic. “Out in the country beyond the light / There is a part of me that’s floating,” she sings. “She holds the moon up by her string.”
The titular Caroline is at once a “muddy bride,” a holder of secrets, a lunar puppeteer, and something of a sage. The song ends wide open with Caroline’s advice: “You know that you can’t hide from things you leave behind.”
Both the January and February songs offer an elliptical narrative that evokes the hard-fought battle it can be to get a clean slate. (The March song had not been released as of our April press deadline.) It’s fitting then that these songs mark a new chapter in Smith’s musical career—one that has spawned a small but steadfast following—as well as the start of a new year of releases. Unlike the typical resolution, though, these songs have real staying power.