Artist of the Week: Rachel Smyth

by isised | April 24, 2023

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m Roo and I primarily write music. I’m a music student and I focus a lot on composition and performance, which is mostly what I’m interested in. It’s strange to come to Oxford to do an academic course and then try to make my degree as practical as possible. I just really enjoy performing and making music and being with other musicians.

You’ve just come out with your EP. What’s your artistic process like? How do you go about writing your songs?

I’ve been writing songs since I was eleven. It sounds really pretentious, and I’m aware of how pretentious it sounds, but I almost dream songs. I will just stop randomly in the middle of my day and daydream an entire song. It normally comes to me in full (lyrics, melody, all at once), and it’s quite overwhelming. I try to capture as much of that in the recording process and remember everything that’s come to me at once.

But I’m trying to break away from [the dreaming] when I’m studying composition here, and to not rely on it to create songs. A song comes to me and it’s a mad panic to record it and make it sound like how I imagined it. Most of my EP consists of songs I wrote a long time ago and then revisited. I’ve developed a lot in producing my songs but I’m still not entirely confident so it’s a process I’m still working on. It’s cool to see how the song progresses with production tools.

My songs are all incredibly honest. Most of what I’ve written is directly drawn from my own experiences. I know when I’m not being honest with myself because I’m unable to write music. I didn’t write for most of last year, partly because I was busy but also because I couldn’t confront how I was feeling. It is really annoying because you want to produce art but when you’re not honest with yourself, the art you produce isn’t good.

You play with Dots Funk Odyssey. What’s your favourite place to play in Oxford?

Cheeky self-promo but we played at Jesus bar in Michaelmas. It was my first gig with DFO, and it was insane. The crowd went wild! It was such an intimate environment, but it really worked. We also played at Tap Social at the end of last term which was really cool.

I love singing as part of a band. We really egg each other on to do the craziest riff or who can sing the highest note. There’s a lot of friendly competition within DFO where we just want to be ridiculous. I think you can really see that in our performances. I think you don’t get that when it’s just me singing by myself because I tend to stick to what I know, but singing in a group is cool because it really pushes me.

What are you working on at the moment?

I went through everything I’ve written and tried to decide what I want to release. I wrote three songs over the vacation, which maybe we will see soon. [It] depends how much I hate them in a week’s time when I listen to them again! I think it’s very good to be critical. I’ve written lots and lots. Over lockdown, I wrote about a hundred songs which will probably never see the light of day, but it means what I put out there is the very best of what I can do and what people will connect with. But we’ll see. There’s a lot in the pipeline.

Who are your biggest and earliest influences, and why? 

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a huge musical crush on Jacob Collier. Very basic for a music student I know. I actually wrote about him in my personal statement which is now very embarrassing. And Hayley Williams. I went through a huge Paramore phase when I was thirteen and she’s never really gone away. Her voice is still in the back of my head when I’m writing. And the lovely Becca Stephens and Laura Mvula. Very, very inspired by them as well.

How was it producing your own EP? Was it a positive experience?

I’m very stubborn so I was like “I’m going to do this by myself, all by myself”. But I had to enlist some help for the mixing, so my friend Frankie helped me with that. As far as the production goes, it was all my own thoughts. Though I’m not 100% confident in producing yet, I normally know how I want a song to sound – it’s just whether I can execute that with my own instrumental playing abilities. I did have some help: my college son, Conrad, plays the bassoon in ‘Boiling the Frog’. My dad is on the saxophone. Basically, I went home and was like “I need a horn section”, and my dad volunteered and then we had a very short recording process. He was excellent actually. Shoutout to my dad! It was an amazing hour where he just laid down horn tracks for me because I didn’t bother to notate them. I just sang them to him and hoped he would pick them up, which he did. 

You also have lots of musical theatre experience. Is it an innate talent or does it take a lot of training?

I’ve done musical theatre since I was five and I’ve worked professionally since I was six. I was part of Big: the Musical when I was fourteen, which is considered quite old for a children’s chorus, but it was really cool to be part of a UK premiere. My first show was Evita when I was six, and I remember my mum being terrified that I would fidget onstage, or run off or do something crazy, but I was very well-behaved. So very good training. It made me tougher because I dealt with a lot of rejection just by being in that world. Now, when things don’t go my way, it doesn’t faze me as much. I see it more as redirection to what I’m supposed to be doing than a complete no. Rejection can be a blessing in disguise.

Music theatre was my first love. My mum raised me on classic Hollywood films, and I would love to write my own musical one day. That’s really where everything comes from. It’s how I learned to sing, how I learned to dance.

You received rave reviews as the leading lady, Lise, in An American in Paris at the Oxford Playhouse. Do you see yourself veering towards theatre or just singing as the career?

I want both. I want it all, I won’t lie. I am aware of how tricky musical theatre is as an industry and I don’t want to limit myself in terms of composing and writing. But I would kill to be onstage, I love it so much. And getting to act and sing all at once is an absolute dream. An American in Paris was such a dream and we’ve all said how special it felt to be a part of it. I feel really lucky to play that part. Best thing I’ve done so far. It was incredible. It’s lovely to be part of that theatre community because so much of my childhood was spent in the theatre so it was kind of like coming home.

Where can you see yourself going in the future? 

Ideally, I just release more music and people enjoy it and I get to spread that love. And hopefully, people like it. It would be cool to have a gig where people knew my lyrics. I think that’s the goal. I’ve had some friends pressuring me into A) forming my own band and B) doing my own gig so maybe in the very near future. I just want to continue doing this. The more practical I make my degree, the more I realise I want to be making music for the rest of my life.

Oxford is a really inspiring place to be. It took me a while to find my place here, especially musically. I didn’t do much in my first year. I kind of hid away. But I’ve met some really cool people who know their stuff, and are really good musicians. It’s cool to be with musicians who are as passionate as I am and work with them and make something really cool which I wouldn’t get in my hometown. I find it really inspiring but that’s only once I realised I could do it and gave myself permission to be that person. ∎

Photography by Coco Cottam.