Micah Blue Smaldone’s epiphany came in 2002. “I decided to be my own man,” says the Portland, Maine, singer-songwriter. “Things were happening in my life, and I just kind of withdrew.”
And what were these “things”? “Emotional struggles people go through in their 20s,” answers the musician, who will turn 31 this summer. “I struggled with depression and various degrees of tragedy.”
Over the last seven years, Smaldone seems to have triumphed over the turmoil. The onetime political punk rocker has transformed into a respected rootsy indie-folk artist. His spare, dusky, meditative songs almost mystically straddle traditional British folk and modern Americana. Fans of Bon Iver, Will Oldham and Iron & Wine would have no problem immersing themselves in his third and latest CD, 2008’s “The Red River.”
Smaldone wrote most of “Red River’s” seven songs after a long tour of Europe in the fall of 2007. “In retrospect, they are about the Balkans and Eastern Europe, my favorite part of the world,” he says. “It is a place of such urgent climate and extremes of humanity. There’s extreme beauty, extreme generosity, extreme brutality and violence and remnants of a genocide that happened in my lifetime. It was being among men in their 30s who killed other men in their 30s.”
Though Smaldone is specific about what inspired his latest collection, the lyrics to the songs are far less explicit. Take, for example, the haunting “A Guest,” full of unsettling dining-related images that musically recalls Fairport Convention-era Richard Thompson and “Southern Man”-era Neil Young. “It’s about being a traveler and being met with extremes - raw generosity and raw alienation. It’s not about a specific evening or anything, but being forced to confront your own shortcomings as a human and accepting others.”
The mournful, equally compelling “Pale Light” is suffused with striking images of beauty and devastation, and Smaldone’s voice conveys aching sadness. “That was specifically written about standing on a bridge in Bosnia that had been destroyed in the war and re-erected around 2000,” Smaldone says. “It’s a symbolic bridge between Eastern and Western worlds. I was standing there looking at all these severe cinder-block buildings riddled with bullet holes and people living their lives with great faith and perseverance.”
On “A Derelict,” Smaldone uses imagery inspired by his home state - “giant seas of wicked tongues,” “skies heaving blackened lungs,” “inky brine” - pelting the listener like a cold hard rain as a cello cuts through like a harbor horn. “It has a similar kind of energy to my punk days,” he says “It’s about someone who unknowingly uses people as vessels and throws them aside.”
Smaldone was born in the upstate New York town of Plattsburg and moved to Kennebunkport, Maine, in 1983, when he was 5. “My dad was in the windmill business. He built Bergey windmills when U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was funding that sort of thing,” says Smaldone. “My folks were real down to earth. My mother was a visual artist.”
He grew up “a loner child. I spent a lot of time in the woods. I hung out there. We had beautiful property, with all sorts of trails and rich wildlife.”
His interest in music surfaced when he hit puberty. “I started playing the guitar,” he says. “I got into punk rock - the Dead Kennedys, Ramones.”
At the end of high school he and some friends formed a band, The Pinkerton Thugs, which lasted from 1995 to 1999 and recorded a few singles and two full-length albums. “We were part of the thriving punk-rock scene,” Smaldone says. “It was a special time, a vital movement in New England.”
Smaldone describes The Pinkerton Thugs’ music as “Clash-inspired street punk with political lyrics, but also with a strain of folk music. We were into Woody Guthrie and Dylan. It was grassroots, simple powerful lyrics, very pro-union. A lot of songs were about labor issues.”
Smaldone then went through a rockabilly phase with a band called The Racketeers, then moved on to pop-punk group The Shods. He also toured with a few punk bands.
Smaldone then became “infatuated with pre-war blues. My friends turned me on to the big players of the 1920s and ‘30s - Mississippi John Hurt, Charlie Patton, Lonnie Johnson, Blind Blake - and they really struck me hard. The energy, the rawness spoke clearly to me.
“I started playing on my own, trying to emulate these guys. I re-learned the guitar and started playing on the street.”
In 2003, Smaldone released his debut CD, “Some Sweet Day.” “It was a very period-correct country-blues record,” he says. “I was emulating my heroes and trying to find a place in all that.”
“Hither and Thither” followed in 2005. “It was a bit less authentic and little more focused on songwriting,” he says. “I was broadening my outlook, finding my own voice. ... It came out in the midst in the wars in Middle East and was my attempt at coming to terms the political climate, the harshness of that time in America.”
Smaldone has written a few new songs since “The Red River’s” release, but he is not yet ready to play them live. In fact, he hasn’t even titled them. “Titles are always an afterthought,” he says.