Five Questions with Mecca Normal’s Jean Smith

Voice of the Activist

April, 14, 2009, by Karen

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Sometimes rock stars get laid off too. Jean Smith, half of the legendary Vancouver duo Mecca Normal, found that out recently when she was let go from her job at a clothing store. As it turned out, the job loss coincided with the 25th anniversary of her band, so she and partner David Lester decided it was time to hit the road, this time with an art exhibit, lecture and performance event called “How Art & Music Can Change the World.” They’ll be in Durham this Saturday at Duo Fest, an event celebrating two-piece rock bands hosted by locals Beloved Binge. Before embarking on the tour, Smith answered five questions for us.

1. You’re about to embark on your 25th anniversary tour, which will include music as well as a lecture series, “How art & music can change the world”. At the end of this tour, what would make you say to yourself, “This tour was a total success.”
It is already a total success—in advance of it happening. Organizing it, bringing ideas and work methods together and making the thing viable is the biggest part of the endeavor. The shows, happy travels, the people we interact with are all very important to us, but I think our project is primarily based on how David and I administrate our intentions. To live life in the moment takes preparation and subsequent analysis. These activities are both separate and the same thing. My now is comprised of the past and the future as well as this exact moment.

2. If you could go back and talk to the 1984 Jean Smith, who was just starting out, what would you tell yourself?
I was 24 in 1984. I’d been out of my parents’ house—supporting myself—for six years. By 24 I’d left a marriage, traveled in a van for six months in Europe, co-owned a 37’ wood sailboat and been on a two month trip to India alone. Back then it was more common to get on with adult life sooner. Now people live in their parents’ homes to save money to purchase consumer goods and to have services provided by their parents. If I could go back and talk to a twenty-four-year-old me, I would encourage her to stop drinking, to figure out why she drank and accelerate the process of becoming happy. I waited until I was 40 to quit drinking. I regret that.

3. You mention on your tour blog that you, like many Americans, and I
assume, Canadians too, have been laid off. How can laid off workers
most effectively use this sudden free time to bring about social

I encourage people to not succumb to fear which can lead to depression and a sort emotional of paralysis. Maintaining and inventing methods of being that include creativity, healthy living and community—as opposed to negative behaviors and isolation—are enactments of social change—rising to the challenge of surviving these times. At this juncture—with recent optimism surrounding new leadership and chaos in the economy—there is a necessity as cultural and political activists to find new voices. For a long time opposition has been our expression. Now it seems like what arises from the decline of financial structures and lifestyles many thought of as stable, will be defined by complacency unless there is a sense that people want to re-structure rather than cobble back together the house of cards that capitalism proved to be. As soon as the government used socialist methods to prop up capitalism, capitalism was over. What now? Capitalism is only a concept—one that didn’t work—based in everyone being entitled to take possession of goods and services and then refuse to pay for them. That’s called greed and fucking stupidity. Capitalism is not intrinsically hinged to democracy. As a species we will evolve beyond electoral politics and take more responsibility for our ways of being, encouraging creative communities and reciprocal relationships.

4. Personally, it seems to me that, now that Obama has been elected,
many folks who were very politically active a few months ago have sort
of shut down, as if they believe their work is done. Do you agree with
me here, or am I totally off-base? And if you agree, how can these
folks be re-inspired to remain active?

That is one of the things we address in our lecture. Typically the voice of the activist—political and cultural—is a voice in opposition. How do we find a way to define and present ideas for progressive social change when we are essentially not in opposition? Why is the voice against easier to find? Someone said to me the other day that the vote for Obama was really a vote against Bush.
I think that creative partnerships are a viable way to remain inspired—there is be a built-in sense of accountability. Doing things differently is actually how change happens. Academic and author Howard Zinn has talked about how our individual actions multiply to create significant change. As Mecca Normal, on tour, we are in a position where we get to see a lot of community-based activity—DIY all-ages projects, bike repair in non-commercial spaces, art collectives—all these entities play a role in the larger framework of change. There is a strong underground culture that flourishes in this complexity of connections. Start a meaningful collaboration with the intention of maintaining it, pushing it and allowing it to inspire you.
The other day I had an eyelash in my eye. Couldn’t see it. Next morning the eyelash had worked its way to the corner of my eye. I don’t believe in god. Our bodies do amazing things in terms of maintenance. Our bodies want to be healthy and strong—as we all head towards death. I don’t know how we evolve, but we do. We want our friends and family to be happy—we need to extend that desire and include people we don’t know. Overall, I find people to be available to engage, generous and helpful. There is a lot to be developed and achieved during these times. Hierarchies and oppression, capitalism and poverty, are constructs intended to create wealth for a minority. That isn’t what we need. I object to injustice. People as individuals are mostly inclined toward doing good for others.

5. As a female musician, you have worked against sexism in music. Now
that you are approaching 50, are you encountering increased ageism

I sometimes feel invisible—that I’m supposed accept that what I have to say is not interesting or important because I’m older. When I was young and writing songs about sexism, I was angry and that got attention. Writing lyrics about being angry as an older person would be dismissed as boring—hey, who cares about older people? Even though I’m in excellent shape and I feel sexy, I get the impression that the world has agreed that I am no longer attractive. On the dating websites, men in my age group typically state a preference for women between twenty-five and one year younger than themselves, yet I am expected to go out with men at least ten years older. We’re conditioned to see older men as dignified and wise and older women are seen as useless. Done. I think it is one of the great secrets of life that it is possible to feel better when older. Of course “better” includes choices and luck.
I have recently been thinking about the concept of the earth being female. Mother nature. Mother earth. We don’t actually treat women very well. Would we have more success at saving the planet if we treated it more like a golden retriever?

Duo Fest will take place Saturday, April 18, at Bull City Headquarters in Durham. Here’s the full listing of duos scheduled to play:

3:00—Battle Rockets (Chapel Hill)
3:30—Sawteeth McTweedy (Durham)
4:00—Basalt (Greensboro)
4:30—Scientific Superstar (Durham)
5:00—Ottvovonbismark (Milford, PA / Wilmington, NC)
5:30—Phon (Raleigh)
6:00— Sequoya (Durham)
6:30—Victor Victor Band (Philadelphia)
7:00—Veg Dinner Break!! (Potluck-style)
8:00—Spacelab (Chapel Hill)
8:30—Saint Peter Pocket Veto (Winston-Salem)
9:00—All Your Science (Durham) and “Backpack Drumset” (Documentary on All Your Science)
9:45—Beloved Binge (Durham)
10:15—Mecca Normal (Vancouver,BC)
11:00—Veelee(Chapel Hill)
11:30—Curtains of Night (Chapel Hill)
12:00—Trophy Wife (DC)

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Music, Other posts by Karen.


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  • matt
    04/15 09:35 AM

    I have a question - for an event like this, how do bands find out about it/get chosen? I really want to know, because my duo would have sorely loved to have been playing Duo Fest.

    It seems to keep happening - I try to keep my ear to the ground, and talk to as many people as I can, network to the best of my ability with my friends and others - and yet big things like this slide right by me!

  • carrboro ninja
    04/15 10:52 AM

    Wow, Jean Smith is clearly one of the more enlightened among us. Very good column here, I’ll be thinking about #4 and #5 till Saturday, deep stuff. Once again, Karen Mann brings the new and pertinent to the forefront, nice work.

    I’m thoroughly convinced that Duo-Fest is going to be awesome. Scientific Superstar, Sequoya, and All Your Science I can personally vouch for, I can’t wait to see the rest of the line up for the first time.

    PS I did just write a review re; All Your Science, I highly recommend everyone check these folks out:

  • Eleni duo
    04/15 12:55 PM

    Thank you for this thoughtful exploration.  I totally agree about the invisibility of age issue—I was discussing this with a local woman over 70 who is very tech-savvy, but not heard due to the assumption she is not because of her age. 

    Matt, regarding duo-fest, just drop us a line around January next year.  Dave Cantwell co-organizes the festival and we both figure out the lineup—the site is:
    For now, come out and say hello Saturday!

  • Karen A. Mann
    04/15 01:14 PM

    Hey Eleni, I was just about to suggest the same thing to Matt. and I also agree with you and Jean about the invisibility issue, particularly when it comes to women. But I think anyone over the age of 40 will recognize the looks you get from 20-somethings who can’t believe someone so “old” still goes to shows!

  • matt
    04/15 02:14 PM

    Thanks Eleni & Karen. I actually know Dave, though I haven’t seen him for a good long time.

    I’m 50! Perhaps I’m just not paying attention to the looks I get at shows, I’ve raised obliviousness to an artform perhaps.  :)

  • Betsy
    04/16 11:01 AM

    Interesting interview but I have to cordially disagree with the point “Now people live in their parents’ homes to save money to purchase consumer goods and to have services provided by their parents.”

    Gens X, Y & Z don’t have the benefit of the post-war economy.  Times are a lot tougher for our generations financially than for the baby boomers who seem to have scooped up most of the wealth by many measures.

    It’s a different world now than the one this musician grew up in—job growth and income growth have been flat for almost two decades and a lot of present-day jobs don’t pay well or don’t have benefits of the kind that Baby Boomers took for granted 20 years ago.

    So, yes, some 20 & 30 somethings might be living with their folks (not too many that I know of though).  I don’t think it’s because of addiction to consumer goods and a cushy lifestyle.  On average, people under 20-45 are far more busted than people 45-60. 

    I personally feel it’s more than a bit ironic for a Baby Boomer to critique younger generations for being into “consumer goods.”

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  • carrboro ninja
    01/04 03:12 PM

    that’s dynamite mughmerm, n1.

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