Feb 24 • 2M

A tale of two Phoenixes

how a produced song interacts with its imperfect origin story

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Jessica Smucker
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A drummer I worked with for many years told me it was always his personal challenge to stay “close to the source” when he played with me. Even when we were rocking out, he would consult my original solo demos for inspiration and direction. He was, by nature, a hard drummer, a banger with a punk-rock background, and a mismatch for me in all the obvious ways. But he understood and quickly adapted to the idea that when you’re playing support for an artist who is first and foremost a writer — a lyricist — you have to dig deep into the source material or you’ll miss the mark. You’ll overplay. You’ll be the bull in the china shop.

As I’ve become more established as a recording artist, I’ve gotten more comfortable letting my songs grow and evolve in unexpected directions. I know that some listeners will be more drawn to the songs in their fully produced form — full band arrangements with drums, bass, guitars, synths, and a buffet of other cameo instruments; vocal performances I spend many hours getting just right, down to the smallest nuance; final tracks that are recorded, mixed, and mastered in professional studios with first-rate equipment. But others prefer the stripped-down imperfection of just me, my piano, and a song. As for me, I like it both ways. And I think this is one of the few occasions in life when it really is possible to have my cake and eat it too. I think of my recording process as giving a makeover to something that was already beautiful. To some, the glitz and glitter spoils the beauty. To others, it’s the perfect finishing touch. 

Lately I’ve realized how gracefully the two sides of my process complement each other, and I’ve started leaning into the contrast instead of fighting it. I don’t want to be the kind of performer that gets on stage and replicates my recordings in front of an audience. I want to perform in a way that gives my audiences a more intimate human encounter with my songs. I want to give them access — the opportunity to go deeper, to burrow down beneath all the layers of perfection, to hear how a song sounds “close to the source.”

I can’t think of a more perfect example of this than my new single, “Phoenix.” The phoenix (the mythical bird) embodies paradox and constant transformation. It symbolizes dying, but also coming into life. It occupies the space between ash and fire, surrender and power, breath and decay. It wins at life by reinventing death.

Below is the official lyric video for “Phoenix”, and at the top of this page is the stripped-down solo version of the song I recorded in my tiny closet studio. I’d love to hear your comments about what you hear — whether that’s a preference for one over the other, something about the way one or both affects you, or whatever else is on your mind after listening.

Favorite “Phoenix” on your favorite streaming platform here