There is an extraordinary woman in Baltimore passing unnoticed among us. A musician celebrated here and there around the world for eccentric songs written and recorded at her modest home off of York Road near Belvedere Square.
Her name is Linda Smith, a show biz brand so commonplace as to be anonymous, which suits her fine. Along with original artwork, her name graces limited edition LPs, compact discs and cassette tapes that often sell out within weeks of their release.
“I’m not someone who’s going to be known by sight. But people I’ve never met write to me. They’re all much younger but it’s very nice,” said the 66-year-old. “When you get to be my age it really doesn’t matter. You just do what you want to do.”
Celebrated as one of the “lo-fi” queens of extremely independent music, Smith’s early work has been described as “dream pop.” And though her voice is not “good” in the traditional sense — “I don’t see myself as a vocalist,” she said — it carries her meditative lyrics marvelously, creating poignant lullabies as though whispered at dusk.
This is the music that the novelist Carson McCullers might have made if her instrument was a keyboard instead of a typewriter.
“She’s an original and there’s a name for her music — unfashionable!,” said Shane Moritz, who worked with Smith at the Baltimore Museum of Art before her retirement last month after 16 years there as a security guard. “That’s the music that always endures.”
“Simple and Unpretentious”
In 2014, a tribute album of her songs — All the Stars that Never Were — was released by Juniper Tree Songs out of Long Beach, California. Like many of Smith’s releases, the music was released on cassette, which has followed vinyl as a cool comeback technology.
“Linda will bring in a batch of cassettes or CDs and some vinyl, it sells out and then she brings more,” said James Keith Ford, a cashier at Normals Books & Records in Waverly. “What I like about Linda’s music is that it’s very deliberate. The songs are direct and simple and unpretentious. She’s not a huge self-promoter.”
Smith’s view of the hard life in Crabtown — and her sense of being an outsider — was given voice years ago while staring out the window of the No. 20 bus between her parents’ home in West Hills and downtown, where she worked one of her many menial jobs. It was the late 1970s and Smith’s musical career was about to debut.
“I remember observing different neighborhoods and wondering how people lived, how everyone on the bus had a different life,” she said. At the time she was inspired by groups like the Raincoats and Young Marble Giants.
Her twice-a-day glimpse of the rougher parts of West Baltimore inspired her first song: “This is not a pretty part of town… I pass through and think however, that I would like to stay and stay, in this not pretty part of town.”
Under the spell of Patti Smith
Smith, who lived in Yale Heights as a kid, hasn’t called the westside home since attending Towson University out of high school to study painting. Aside from a brief stay in New York City in the ‘80s post-punk era, Baltimore has remained her home.
“I played the Marble Bar in the early 80s, my band (the Symptoms) opened for Boy Meets Girl,” she said of the fabled punk and New Wave club in the basement of the Congress Hotel at Franklin and Eutaw Streets.
Did she dress like a punk? “I was a bit more sensible than that,” she said.
By her Marble Bar days, Smith was well under the spell of Patti Smith — “I was transfixed…” — having watched the poet/rocker belt out GLORIA on Saturday Night Live in April of 1976.
Where did she buy Patti’s early LPs, Horses and Easter with the money she made as a downtown hot dog vendor ?
Korvette’s, at the low, low price of $4.99!
“The first record I bought with my own money when I was young was “Ticket to Ride,” she said. “By the early ’70s I’d lost interest in pop music; singer-songwriters like James Taylor were boring compared to the Beatles and Motown. Pop music was dead for me until I saw Patti on TV.”
Her retirement from her “day job” at the BMA (it was the night shift), has allowed Smith to work full time on her true vocation. Over the decades her music has swerved from ethereal pop to electronica and now often falls somewhere in between or way outside, depending on the moment of creation.
For the past 20 years or so, right up to March of last year when the pandemic slammed the door, Smith made little or no music and concentrated on painting. Her art adorns many of her album and CD covers. In 2006, she returned to Towson University and received her degree.
Then, as Covid forced her indoors, she returned to music. “I had all this time at home,” she said. “And started going through my treasure trove of old tapes and cassettes of people I’d worked with in the 1990s. I began digitizing them and putting them online.”
And the songs seeped into the cracks that surround the 21st century corporate music industry.
“People Have Stumbled on Me”
Pre-pandemic, her last release was Emily’s House in 2001, a work of quiet, lilting songs inspired by a visit Smith made to the poet Dickinson’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts. What emerged from her long Covid year was an electronic pastiche of techo and Eisenhower-era spoken word samples called, Untitled, 1 thru 10 Plus 1. Emily was recorded on tape while 1-10 Plus 1 is her first effort using digital software.
“Emily’s House is like figurative painting and Untitled is like abstract painting to me,” said Smith. “I used to be a figurative painter also but now paint more abstractly.”
Luigi Falagario of Bari, Italy pressed 100 vinyl copies of Untitled 1-10 Plus 1 on vinyl for his Almost Halloween Time Records label and is about to press more.
“Linda’s metamorphosis is evident,” he said, “but you can still recognize her hand.”
In between, Emily and Untitled came an anthology of her old work, Till Another Time: 1988-1996, released on vinyl earlier this year in a run of 1,200 by Captured Tracks of Brooklyn, N.Y. That disc led to much of the current underground buzz. In January, the label is set to put out another 500 LPs on white vinyl.
“People seem to have stumbled upon me over the years,” she said. “And now, after 20 years of not really doing anything [musically], you put out a little signal and somehow it comes back.”
Rafael Alvarez covered the blues for the Baltimore Sun in the 1980s. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org