Is it O.K.?

Gabrielle Smith’s sprawling, seven-year path as Eskimeaux.

By Quinn Moreland

Gabby Smith is not exactly on vacation. But seated in the sun next to a roaring waterfall in the middle of upstate New York, she may as well be. In reality, the twenty-six year-old singer behind Eskimeaux is in the middle of an exhausting four-week tour. It’s mid-April now, and Gabby has been on the road since the end of March: first with Eskimeaux, who were on tour with the New York chiptune/indiepop trio Crying, and then straight into a run playing synth in Bellows, who are currently on the road with Sharpless. During the upstate New York bouts of both tours, Smith and her tour mates use drummer Felix Walworth’s grandmother’s cozy country house outside of Poughkeepsie as a home base, a place to play chess and make minestrone soup before driving off to the next show. We’re not so far away this afternoon, as the bands are recovering from last night’s homecoming show at Bard College, where Walworth and Bellows’ Oliver Kalb formally attended and Smith unofficially attended.

All photos by Stephanie Griffin.

The people who are gathered here today, Smith’s bandmates and friends, are all part of The Epoch, a Brooklyn-based art and music collective that emphasizes collaboration and communication. The group includes Told Slant, Florist, Small Wonder, Sharpless, Yours Are the Only Ears and Bellows; each of these bands have gained attention since 2014, but they have been friends for years. For nearly seven years, the tight-knit collective members have watched Eskimeaux grow from its modest beginning as an ambient experimental project to the four-piece pop outfit that it is today.

Smith’s first formal record, O.K., was released last week on Double Double Whammy. When we meet up, that date is still a ways off, but Smith is bubbling with excitement about it all. As she should be. Her journey to this point has been a whirlwind of sorts, years of bandmates and tiny beds and scattered homes that only made her stronger. “I think a lot of people who are finding out about Eskimeaux for the first time think of it as a new band more in the tradition of Frankie Cosmos,” says Smith’s partner and bandmate, Oliver Kalb of Bellows. “They don’t realize it has been around for seven years in a lot of different iterations.” After years of work on the project, Smith is finally having her moment in the spotlight.

The origins of Eskimeaux date back to 2007, when Smith was living in North Bergen, New Jersey. Growing up in Manhattan, Smith attended DIY shows in Brooklyn as a kid, but hadn’t been in a band of her own before. This was the first time she considered starting her own project, but she was shut down by her romantic partner at the time who said that if she started her own band, they would have to break up. They never made a band together and eventually did break up. Shortly after, Smith and poet and Epoch member Lago Lucia formed a band called LEGS, a self-described “bad combination of The Rolling Stones, Joy Division, and Blondie.” Smith and Lucia searched Craigslist for people to join their band and began recording. Around this time, Smith became introduced to many of her current Epoch mates, who were playing in their confetti-filled high school band, The Mighty Handful, an energetic rock group with a vibrant horn section. The highly theatrical group made Smith realize that “not every band sounds like the band I dated in high school and that you can do weirder stuff than be the Rolling Stones,” she recalls.

In 2008, Smith moved to Philadelphia to attend University of the Arts before eventually dropping out and returning home in early 2009. From here, Smith’s bio becomes tangled as she was constantly touring and moving, back to Philly, back to New York, and just generally drifting. As she traveled, Smith was a sponge, absorbing musical styles from the people and places she surrounded herself by.

One band whose sound and name were particularly inspiring was Philadelphia’s Brandon Can’t Dance. Smith credits Brandon’s production techniques as the inspiration behind the beginnings of Eskimeaux entirely. “He would record into the voice recorder on his P.C. and then trick it into making layered recordings and then loop it,” she says. “I learned you could make a ten second song and it was a song and that really formed the way I thought about music for a long time.”

She was also particularly struck by their name, and found the addition of those extra words to an otherwise plain name made it iconic. It made her rethink her own songwriting moniker, eventually creating the word Eskimeaux—a rather simple name in comparison, but one that comes from a very deep place.

As Smith explained in a Tumblr post recently, she was adopted. “The only information I have about my birth family or bloodline is that my birth father is Tlingit eskimo,” she wrote, prompted by Internet speculation that her band name might be culturally appropriative. “The Tlingit tribe in Alaska considers the designation ‘eskimo’ to be inoffensive and neutral, even preferable to imprecise terms like Inuit (the Tlingit are not Inuit). I chose this moniker as a teenager, in a time when I felt like I had been denied an identity — my Tlingit heritage was the only thing I could hold onto about my cultural history that was real.”

She continued: “As a person who had very limited information about where I came from, this was a very powerful idea. The name Eskimeaux is in no way appropriative — I do not seek to utilize or contrive an anglo-fied or whitewashed version of the Tlingit culture. I don’t mystify the Tlingit culture in my imagination. The name is personal to me and I don’t condone non-eskimo people using the term ignorantly… Eskimeaux is basically me: it’s an empowered persona that has brought me warmth and fulfillment in times of isolation and confusion about my origins.”

The name also provided an alias to hide behind, an important factor for the budding musician. “It wasn’t that I felt disconnected from my own name but it felt too personal or too dorky to be ‘Gabby Smith and This Is My Freaky Ambient Music That Doesn’t Have Any Structure,’” she jokes. “It was too raw, so it was sort of a beard to hide behind.”

A lot of people who are finding out about Eskimeaux for the first time think of it as a new band more in the tradition of Frankie Cosmos. They don’t realize it has been around for seven years in a lot of different iterations.

The early Eskimeaux recordings adopted this technique as Smith experimented with musical typing, heavy reverb and delay, and copious layers of sound. Traces of this period are captured on the 2008 album iglu songs, on which Smith’s wispy voice is set against violin, guitar, synth, and an unknown amount of electronic devices. In a way, the early albums sound like Kría Brekkan, the Icelandic singer, formerly of múm.

Around 2011, Smith began living upstate in Kalb’s dorm room at Bard College; the two began making music together with Smith singing and playing violin on the long-forgotten Bellows record I Floated Up To Heaven. Kalb booked an Eskimeaux set at Bard but when Smith was too freaked out to play solo, Kalb and Walworth joined her and performed an impromptu rock set. The three decided to play in each other’s projects more regularly, as well as form a band called Gary with Lucia. Gary was an avenue to practice and preview early versions of their individual songs, like Told Slant’s heartbreaking “In San Francisco.”

Soon after moving upstate, Smith released 2011’s Two Mountains, an airy and sublime collection of songs. Afterwards, however, she reached a creative stalemate. The release of a 2012 self-titled album helped convey the image that Smith was actively writing new songs, but in reality, all those songs except “Curses” were recycled from earlier releases. The reality was that Smith had only written two new songs in two years.

A turning point arrived in the form of Greta Kline, aka Frankie Cosmos. The occasion was a Small Wonder/Told Slant/Aaron Maine solo show at Bard’s small basement venue, The Root Cellar. As Smith recalls, “She thought I was talking to her over and over and was like, ‘Why do you keep calling my name?’” Greta eventually realized that Gabby was actually referring to her dog, a freaky grinning mutt named Frankie. The two quickly hit it off, although Smith had no idea that Kline was already a good twenty-five albums into her prolific bandcamp collection. “I just thought she was awesome and didn’t even know she made music,” recalls Smith. “When we moved to Chicago I saw a shared post on Aaron Maine’s Facebook and it was her first review, for Love Rind. I assumed she probably had made her first album and then I found her bandcamp…”

Smith and Kalb had moved to Chicago in early 2012. Kalb had just graduated from Bard and the two were not looking forward to moving back home to live in their parents’ homes. But uninteresting jobs and a tiny, illegal sublease featuring a brand new puppy did not exactly sell Chicago. Inspired by Kline’s productivity and frustrated by her own writer’s block, Smith quit her job and embarked on a song-a-day project. The month-long experiment produced three songs that now appear on O.K., “Everything You Love,” “I Admit I’m Scared” and “Broken Necks”. It was essentially the beginning of Eskimeaux’s current iteration, Smith’s initial move away from her earlier, more experimental recordings.

Fed up with Chicago, Kalb and Smith returned to New York in May 2013. Walworth had also returned home to Brooklyn after graduating from Bard and became the band’s permanent drummer. Eskimeaux now had Kalb and Walworth as core members, but the band still lacked a bassist, a problem that was detrimental to the sound Smith desired. For a period of time, Kalb was playing two synths to cover the bass register, a “sorcerer of two electronics,” as he describes it. The problem was eventually solved by Jack Greenleaf of Sharpless, who moved into Smith’s studio on the condition that he would mix the Eskimeaux album. “When Jack moved in and started working with me it made a lot of sense for him to be in the band,” Smith says. “It was exciting for me to have a bassist who wasn’t just playing the root notes but was making up funky bass lines. Until that moment there has never been bass in Eskimeaux.”

The sound of this album is the most informed by the influence of the people directly surrounding me … It’s about finally feeling okay with not feeling okay.

With the band’s lineup cemented, they could concentrate on evolving their sound. By early 2014, the core members of The Epoch (Smith, Kalb, Walworth, Greenleaf, Henry Crawford, Emily Sprague, and Susannah Cutler) moved from their parents’ houses across the five boroughs to a house in Bed-Stuy lovingly referred to as Chicken House. The communal living space helped develop the collaborative style of creation that is a trademark of The Epoch, whose motto is, “We were grown together, and are growing still.” As the lines between bands blurred, the housemates helped each other explore new sounds and grow into a stronger team.

As Greenleaf explains, this style of collaboration was not always the case. “With all our first things we were really private and secretive. Now we’ve all gotten into this really awesome habit of bringing everyone in and asking for opinions and it’s made our music so much better.” For Smith in particular, her experience performing in other Epoch bands and Frankie Cosmos helped give her own project a more organic, collective feel. “Before the song-a-day project I used to arrange the whole thing and come to rehearsal with a finished product, but as I tried to do an exercise in being more prolific, I didn’t have the brain energy to really devote to fleshing out an entire piece,” Smith admits. “Instead, I now bring a puzzle piece to the table and have everybody make their own pieces to create their own thing.” Her bandmates began to bring parts of themselves into rehearsal, and creation became more of a natural dialogue with everyone working together to reach an end.

Perhaps most critically, the influence of Kalb, Walworth, and Greenleaf was a move from ambient to pop. As Kalb says, “The impulse with Eskimeaux was always to go full dark for a long time, and try to fuck up any poppy moment. When Felix and I joined the band we started taking it away from that and it became a bit lighter.” However, the movement towards pop not only reflects the influence of her bandmates. It reflects a change within Smith herself, an increase in self-confidence.

“When Gabby and I first started making music together in 2010, pop didn’t seem like an option,” says Kalb, who has watched the full progression of Eskimeaux. “It had to be difficult or dark to feel legitimate. The songwriting back then was so strong just like it is now, but now there is a willingness to reveal the song out of the noisiness or obliqueness of the production. As a young band, there’s a tendency to want to hide the song and not be totally responsible for the lyrics or music and fuck it up in different ways. It takes a lot of confidence to say, ‘here is the song and deal with that.’”

“The pretense that you are making music that might or ought to be accessible to a lot of people is already a really courageous thing to do and requires a lot of self-confidence. It’s something that has to be learned,” adds Walworth. “I think all of us have maybe started at more at first glance experimental places where we were, like Oliver said, hiding behind production techniques or more cryptic lyrics, anything we could do to remove ourselves from the finished product. But there’s more of a bravery and headstrong-ness in creating pop music that’s still freaky.”

All this history is essential to understanding how O.K. came to be. In mid-2014, Smith was casually approached by Double Double Whammy’s Dave Benton and Mike Caridi about making an album. The record may be seen as both a formal announcement of Eskimeaux’s transformation from gothic ice princess to cathartic dance party as well as Smith stepping into her own light.

A majority of the songs on O.K. appear on an earlier album, Igluenza, or were written during Smith’s second song-a-day project, this time with Kline, Small Wonder, Florist, and Japanese Breakfast. In their early states, songs like the booming “The Thunder Answered Back” are quiet solo ballads that still pack a punch, but the blow is much softer. Smith and Greenleaf worked together make these songs powerful pop songs, experimenting with top-40 tropes while retaining moments of ambience.

As a young band, there’s a tendency to want to hide the song and not be totally responsible for the lyrics or music and fuck it up in different ways. It takes a lot of confidence to say, ‘here is the song and deal with that.’

Continuing the theme of collaboration, the marks of The Epoch are apparent on every song. They also invited guests, such as Mitski, to contribute to songs. “The sound of this album is the most informed by the influence of the people directly surrounding me,” says Smith. “That includes Oliver listening to the radio all the time and Jack showing me really cool J-pop bands and myself wanting certain parts to sound like Tegan and Sara or Taylor Swift. Then on the other hand, I am super influenced by Oliver’s recordings and wanting create a “Bellows moment” or have the song suck into itself to emulate Told Slant.”

The record opens with “Folly,” just the strumming of Smith’s guitar as her voice quietly calls out, “Folly / I was falling.” Her words stretch out as the rest of the band joins in, cautiously at first, before a push-and-pull of Walworth’s drumming speeding up and scaling back. According to Greenleaf, who produced the performed on the record, that push-and-pull is what making this record was all about. “I think I wanted to make it a mix of live and electronic sounds at the same time. It was all about doing midi programming that I’m really comfortable with and then recording live acoustic instruments that I’m not comfortable with,” he says. “On ‘Folly’ it keeps going back and forth between this modern electronic beat and Felix’s really wild organic drums.”

Then there are the moments that could be called trademark Epoch moments, in which every voice joins together in perfect harmony to belt out a particular piercing lyric before returning to a place of peace—like at the end of “I Admit I’m Scared”.

As production wrapped up and the record announcement drew near, it still lacked a name. Smith felt that since that album is more of a collection of demos that “got turned into better versions of themselves”, that it lacked a theme, or at least a theme that she could see objectively. Themes that immediately jump out to the listener, however, are of fear, vulnerability, safety, and the acceptance of all these emotions. On “I Admit I’m Scared,” Smith acknowledges a pent-up anxiety about taking up too much space in her partner’s life. The song refers to Smith and Kalb’s period in Chicago, where they moved from Kalb’s tiny bedroom at his parents’ Brooklyn home to an even more claustrophobic space across the country. At the time, writing the song was a way for Smith to reflect upon the couple’s increasingly stressful situation while simultaneously finding some sort of closure.

Small Wonder’s Henry Crawford encouraged Smith to use this acceptance as a title for the album. “I originally thought of the name O.K. because it’s Oliver’s initials. We moved to Bed-Stuy and I was feeling really personally freaked out being alone and was getting cat-called and harassed a lot when we first got there,” Smith explains. “I attached — for no reason because I was never going to use it — a pocket knife to my keychain. It was one I found in Oliver’s parents house and it had his initials on it. It made me feel stronger even though, as I said, I would never know what to do with a knife. It just made me feel more okay and strong.”

On the day that Kalb returned from tour, she wrote “That’s O.K.,” which is perhaps the epitome of the album. “It’s about finally feeling okay with not feeling okay,” Smith discloses. “We weren’t communicating properly because we hadn’t seen each other in a month but that needed to be okay with both of us so we could actually continue from where we left off. It felt like that was really the theme of the album.”

She is also adamant about crediting Elaiza Santos of Crying for the album name. Santos had recently changed her band name from Whatever, Dad to 100%. Santos was originally toying with the band name 100% OK. Smith was attracted to Santos’ concept that “To be 100% okay seems like you are about to say something really emphatic but brings it back to being grounded and comfortable with yourself.”

O.K. fully encapsulates all these feelings of acceptance and personal growth. During live performances of “Sparrow,” Smith raises her arms one by one as she enacts the line “from afar I saw two arms swing together, then apart.” It is here, with Smith’s eyes closed as she sings, arms raised in a V-shape as if she is blooming or about to take off, that she becomes fully iconic. It’s difficult to imagine Smith enacting this pose years earlier when hiding felt like more of a necessity to survival, but there are moments like this on O.K. that show how much she has grown.

As Bellows and Sharpless prepare to go play a show at a library in New Paltz, Smith appears to be feeling pretty okay. Smith remembers a conversation that she and Kalb had recently in which Kalb said that if Smith had heard O.K. five years ago she would have thought it was the worst shit ever. “Yeah, I would have thought it was so easy, or digestible,” she says. “Now I want it to be.”