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When Music Finds Us a Home

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The critic John Berger expounds that language has the potential to encapsulate the totality of human experience—everything that has occurred and everything that may occur. It even allows space for the unspeakable. In this sense, one can say of language that it is potentially the only human home, the only dwelling place that cannot be hostile to man.

For Australians Meredith McHugh and Christian Best who comprise the band Smoke Bellow—along with American drummer and vocalist Jen Kirby from the Stranger Time People band—music is the language through which they migrated to Baltimore.

Each of Smoke Bellow’s albums presents a prominent soundscape, mapped with styles of post-punk, experimental, and kraut-rock. Every record sounds different from the one before it, and includes multiple collaborations. The music has a minimal and crystal timbre, as if being in a mist, yet reposeful. Spoken word immerses listeners into rhythm intertwined with melody; an intoxicating whisper like a warm light, sweet and belonging to Baltimore.

 

Moving from Australia to the United States is a vast “migration” on any level. Over the years, what impacts doyou think this change has brought you?

Meredith McHugh: We moved in 2010 for my postdoc at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In Baltimore, you are constantly confronted with the suffering of others, brutal systemic racism, and your role in this as a middle-class white person. In Australia it is easier to live without questioning your privilege or being tuned in to broader socio-political struggles. I had also never experienced the level of connection to community that we have here in Baltimore. I would say it has changed us musically, politically, and personally and even prompted total career changes. I now work as a social worker and Christian as a nurse.

Christian Best: I was in my twenties when I moved here and grew up a lot. Baltimore changed who I am fundamentally in many ways. It was a lot easier to become complacent in Australia, and I don’t want to say self-centered, but more inwardly-focused. I appreciate Baltimore because it takes you out of yourself daily in many ways. It keeps you honest, and things in perspective. Some call this “Peter Pan Land” because it’s easier to focus on art, community, and alternative means of family.

You returned to Australia in 2015, and then moved back to Baltimore in 2017. You once shared that you didn’t feel like you belonged in the Melbourne music scene. Why do you think that is?

MM: We played separately before moving to Baltimore. While back in Australia for two years as Smoke Bellow, we played some shows, but it felt like people were a little perplexed by our music. In Baltimore, people enjoy being challenged. They want to see something new. By contrast, my experience in Australia at times felt more limiting. To be popular at a given time you needed to play a specific style of music and if you didn’t fit into that—which my bands often did not—your music was valued less. That was my experience in my 20s. It may feel different now.

CB: Our visas expired, so we went back. To be fair, we weren’t really plugged into Australia’s music scene. We weren’t responding to that scene in any way except for maybe our own isolation. We called our last record ISOLATION 3000 because we wrote the songs there and felt very isolated there.

 

Does Baltimore bring you a sense of belonging? Musically, did Baltimore bring you any profound influence?

MM: Before we moved here, we had been playing in over- lapping scenes for a few years. When we met and moved to Baltimore we both felt very burnt-out on playing in Australia. As we started to see music in Baltimore, it really kicked us into gear to start writing. Some of the first shows we remember being blown away by were Ed Schrader’s Music Beat, Microkingdom, Thank You, The Art Department, and Romantic States. The other thing that feels particularly special about Baltimore is the level of mutual support within the music and arts community more broadly, including the continued deep involvement of musicians that have achieved great success such as Dan Deacon, Future Islands, and Beach House.

CB: I’m from Sydney, and it’s one of those vast, big cities that doesn’t really give a fuck if you’re there or not. I’m speaking about my experience. I’m sure that other people are having a lovely time now. I’d never experienced being in the scene in a smaller city where people care and encourage what you’re up to, even if it isn’t their thing. They still appreciate it on some level and would help you. That really struck me more than anything. Baltimore is a magical place to be.

The definition of “nostalgia” is different for everyone. As an immigrant, the meaning of nostalgia may be more substantial; it may be to find your own voice and self-iden- tity or to emigrate to another country but still cherish the memories of your hometown. What do you think your nostalgia is?

CB: There’s some Australian music I can’t bring myself to listen to because it makes me pine for a part of my childhood that doesn’t exist anymore. In Australia, a sense of working-class pride was instilled in me when I was a kid and I associate a lot of music with that time.

MM: Nostalgia is more space-based for me: the feeling of a specific kind of day, the environmental smells, the feel of the air. Summer in Brisbane, where I’m from, is a good example. I definitely hold nostalgia for Brisbane summer evenings, which are steamy and deafening with wildlife. There are spiders everywhere, and at night you’re walking along whacking in front of you so that you don’t walk into a spider web, which sounds horrific, but I weirdly have nostalgia for that.

You have added the spoken word to some of the songs on each album, turning language into a musical sound and creating a dreamlike vibe. Does language have any creative significance for you?

MM: I find the most challenging part of making music is writing lyrics… partly because it feels the most vulner- able. Sometimes there is storytelling, but a lot of the time, I am using words to recreate a feeling or abstract scene in my head.

CB: I wrote the spoken word for the first record. It was a story of when I drove with my father from Sydney to Darwin. It’s more surreal, and I don’t really stick to reality in that story. I’ve always been really interested in how something weirdly magical happens when you put music behind the spoken word. It gives it this incredible weight. And it’s different from listening to someone talking or reading you a story. It opens up the music.

 

After moving to a different country, has your way of thinking about language changed?

CB: We spend every waking moment together, and we’re both Australian and have relatively similar ways of speaking, even though we’re from different regions. However, I work as a nurse, so I’ve had to change how I speak dramatically at work. Otherwise, people either laugh at me or don’t understand me. Certainly, for our music, I try to avoid Americanisms in language. It wouldn’t feel honest to me.

Even though we’ve been here a long time and we some-what think like Baltimoreans now, it doesn’t necessarily mean we speak that way too. There are many different kinds of Baltimore. That’s the main reason I wanted to become a nurse. We’d been part of the art scene and heavily integrated into that, but that’s just one facet. It doesn’t, by a long shot, tell the whole story. I wanted to engage with the other parts we don’t have access to.

 

This story is from Issue 15: Migration, available here.

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