When you first hear the vocal explorations of Moira Smiley, you might think she has a restless spirit. On her new album, Laughter Out of Tears, she moves between Appalachian roots music, Balkan polyphony, choral compositions, multi-voice original songwriting, and Scandinavian harmonies. But listen closer and you realize you’re hearing the work of a true musical polyglot.
Smiley takes her musical explorations seriously, and her new album is almost a travelogue mirroring her recent voyages as one of the most in-demand roots vocalists in the US. Recently returned from an international tour with the critically acclaimed tUnE-yArDs, she’s releasing her newest album and looking forward to more collaborations with artists like Solas, Tim O’Brien, Jayme Stone and more. It’s this spirit of collaboration and community that’s so strong in Laughter Out of Tears, from direct collaborations with her own group of vocalists, VOCO, to the innovative, viral community that Smiley calls "The Choir of You." Like a true traveler, Smiley knows that we journey to find other people, not other places.
Moira Smiley’s musical interests were first formed growing up on a small farm in Vermont. From an early age, she forged an eclectic relationship with music, listening to LPs of Appalachian banjo and Simon & Garfunkel, and rounding this out with weekly shape-note hymn sings with friends and family. “Music always meant escape into beauty,” she says, “it was a way to relate warmly and strongly with other people.” It became the language in which she thrived and communicated. Fast-forward to today and it’s clear that Smiley has become fluent in music. With her far-reaching knowledge of music traditions, Smiley has since sought to explore the overlap between polyphonic songwriting and improvisation within a communal setting of voices. In 2006 she founded VOCO and over the course of three albums Moira Smiley & VOCO have explored American and European folk music with ground-breaking improvisation and vocal harmony.
Laughter Out of Tears grapples with the grief of Smiley’s father’s passing by moving even deeper into her world of collaboration. Among the vocalists tapped to be part of VOCO on this album, Smiley was looking for other women who know the trials of the road. Women who draw their strength from the risk and unpredictable joy of live performance. She wanted to translate that kind of bravery to the songs on her album. She also wanted to expand the circle from her own network of fellow performers to her audiences. This became her viral project, The Choir of You (featured on five tracks on the album). “People could download the tracks from my website and add their own voice,” says Smiley. Putting all this submitted audio together became the highlight of her year and has helped frame the purpose of the album. And while Laughter Out of Tears continues to develop Moira Smiley & VOCO’s sound, combining polyphonic songwriting with European and Appalachian folk song, the songs this time around are far more personal, with Smiley’s original songs exploring her recent journey through the loss of her father. “It’s about moving out of sorrow into a place of joy, of laughter,” she says. “It feels more intimate. There’s much more of me at my most tender here.” And if there’s more of Smiley in this album, there’s more of her friends too, a glorious community of curious, restless musicians and artists, a true community.