This is a story I’ve been promising to tell for over a year. It’s a little bit weird, and it involves some stuff you’ve never heard of and some stuff you’re probably pretty familiar with. What was and what never would be. I’ll start at the end. If not for this woman’s actions, it’s highly unlikely that one of my favorite albums of the 1990s — She Hangs Brightly by Mazzy Star— would have ever been made. Or that Mazzy Star would have even existed in the first place.
Kendra Smith was a dream-pop/psychedelic rock musician who was active in the 1980s and into the 1990s. The Minnesota native attended the University of California-Davis where she formed the band The Dream Syndicate. That band recorded something like five albums and stayed active until the mid 1990s, but Smith left the band in 1984 to form Opal with David Roback. That band had a lot of promise, and they recorded one album in 1987. While they were in the UK touring that album, Smith angrily and inexplicably left the stage during one of their shows. The tour ended right then and there. Roback called his friend Hope Sandoval, who replaced Smith. They carried on as Opal for only a little while before changing the name to Mazzy Star.
After leaving Opal, Smith moved to a cabin in the woods of California. There was no electricity. She farmed food for her personal use and she raised donkeys. There was, apparently, a community of people who were doing the same thing out there. Unplugging from the world, living in the woods with donkeys and vegetables. As the fable goes, some of these anonymous people ended up playing on her album, which she emerged from the woods to make. One of the guitarists is a person using the name “Axis”, and one of the drummers is a person using the pseudonym “Lazlo Toth“. Whether those were actual studio musicians or her friends from the woods, I don’t know. It sure does make a better story if those are her forest-dwelling buddies.
Although she had been isolated to the woods, she mustn’t have been all that isolated. She had a way to arrange a contract with 4AD Records. She had a way to get to to the recording studio and a way to arrange all of the stuff for that. In 1995, her first and only solo record came out on that label. She did a couple of promotional appearances for the album and then disappeared back to her cabin. As far as I know, that was the last time anybody saw or heard from her. Nobody seems to know what’s happened to her since then. Is she still in the woods with her donkeys? Is she quietly carrying on with her life doing something else somewhere else in the “real” world? She’s definitely not making music for public consumption.
Five Ways of Disappearing is a frustrating record. At least three of the songs are utterly forgettable. At least four are outstanding. The rest are somewhere in between.
This is one of my favorites:
“Temporarily Lucy” by Kendra Smith
I love the pump organ on this song. She uses a lot of pump organ and harmonium on this album, and while I can’t tonally tell the difference, it says in the liner notes that she uses a pump organ on this song. Who needs synths when you’ve got a pump organ? It’s that pump organ and the “ba ba ba ba” in the chorus, and the clean guitar that reminds me a lot of early Stereolab.
You can buy Five Ways of Disappearing here.