Exclusive Interview With Shawnee Smith – You don’t know me, but I know you. I want to play a game. Here’s what happens if you lose. A device strategically placed inside of your monitor will leap out at you and sever your vocal cords if you don’t read this interview all the way through. Think of it as my insurance policy that every word I write gets read. There is only one key to deactivate the device in your monitor. It’s in the stomach of the dead body behind you. Look around the reader. Know that I’m not lying. Better hurry up. Live or die, make your choice. OK, OK, I’ll stop. Hey, I never said I was a serious journalist.
Thank god for people like Shawnee Smith, who make my job very easy. She is a warm, genuine, down-to-earth old soul who calls you personally to tell you she is running late for an interview. Starting in the business as a child, there isn’t much she hasn’t done.
Best known for her work in the SAW movies, this talented actress was twice-nominated for the young artist award for her work in the 1985 TV-movie CRIME OF INNOCENCE and in 1985 for THE BLOB. This year she added a producer credit to her resume with 30 DAYS OF NIGHT: DUST TO DUST, a project in which she also stars. There are many topics to discuss with Shawnee but SMITH & PYLE was the topic of choice during our discussion.
SMITH & PYLE are Shawnee and actress Missi Pyle (GALAXY QUEST, HEROES) respectively. Their rousing country rock/ folk album IT’S OK TO BE HAPPY is creating quite a buzz since its recent release and has been embraced by the horror community Shawnee is so popular with. This isn’t her first parley into the music business, however; she fronted the rock band Fydolla Ho, with whom she toured America and the United Kingdom.
The wonderful Shawnee, who is busy working on the VH1 reality show SCREAM QUEENS where she shares judging duties with James Gunn (SLITHER), was gracious enough to chat with me about her new album, what drives her creatively and long walks with Jigsaw.
Exclusive Interview With Shawnee Smith
HOH: IT’S OK TO BE HAPPY was released July 29th. How did you and Missi discover you wanted to make music together?
SHAWNEE SMITH: We met doing a TV-pilot last year. Missi was on another show and they couldn’t cast this role and Jhoni Marchinko, from WILL AND GRACE, created the show and she kept disagreeing with the network and the studio people and she was like, “What am I gonna do Shawnee?” and Missi was on another show, THE WEDDING BELLES, that got canceled and she was like ‘Oh I found my girl, Missi Pyle, her show just got canceled we’re bringing her over!’ We were ready to go, so excited.
I knew who Missi was, I had met her before and thought she was really cool and she was very talented. We just really hit it off and during that week of filming, we went to the Coachella Music Festival, got a feather up our rears, and decided to do like a 24-hour mission. We got stuck in traffic and had a lot of time to talk and she shared with me that one of her life’s dreams was to be in a rock band.
I’ve had a few rock bands and was like ‘Really? are you sure?’ and she went on and on and on and finally, I said. “Alright, I’m going to be in a band with you just so you can see that, you know, you should have a different dream” (laughs)
Here we are a year later, with this inspired, beautiful and fun record, having the time of our lives. All the stars aligned, it is such an incredible experience. It has got its own mission, you know? This incredibly talented tribe of musicians came together. I called [Music Producer and Musician] Chris Goss who is a friend of mine and said: “Hey, are you ready to make a white trash record?”
HOH: (laughs) Yeah, Chris has produced everyone from QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE to STONE TEMPLE PILOTS.
SHAWNEE SMITH: Yeah! He’s booked two years in advance but he said he had a 4 to 5-week window coming up in a couple of weeks and said he would love nothing more than go to the recording studio up there in Joshua Tree and would love nothing more than to make this record. So, within two weeks, we hadn’t even written a song yet. I had a bunch of songs that I had written a year or two before that.
Jerry Cantrell [ALICE IN CHAINS], who plays on the record, took me through the old country records and I was totally re-inspired musically and wrote a whole slew of country songs, well my version of country songs. But I didn’t have anything to really do with them so they were just kind of sitting there.
I sent them to Chris and him just kind of flipped out over them and said Missi and I should come down to the studio, next thing you know Missi and I start a record label! [URBAN PRAIRIE RECORDS] Chris pulled all of these musicians together and we wrote our first song behind Gram Parsons’ memorial at the Joshua Tree. We were making a record together and we hadn’t even sung together!
HOH: Once again, The stars aligning.
SHAWNEE SMITH: I’m telling you, every step of the way. It’s crazy! It’s like a tribe of sweethearts.
HOH: Do you have a track that is your favorite or is that like asking a parent which kid is their favorite?
SHAWNEE SMITH: Probably the most highly personal song for me on that record is FRUMPY FLANNEL and then FLOWER IN MY HAIR. One of my favorite lyrics though is from I WISH YOU WERE DEAD. (Starts singing) I know in the end you’re gonna wanna be my mother-fuckin’ friend…
HOH: (sings back, tries to anyway)..But right now I just wish you were dead. That is one of my favorite lyrics. It’s hard not to love that lyric actually.
SHAWNEE SMITH: I love that Missi Pyle, who had never been in a band, she had played some guitar performing on a sketch comedy thing, you know. But all through this process,life time she would have bouts, every once in a while of, ‘what the heck am I doing!’ Like the musicians are literally virtuoso rock musicians, I’ve had 3 bands and have written a lot of songs and she’s like ‘I do not belong here’.
Meanwhile, there is one of the only songs on the entire record that is 100 percent one songwriter and that is Missi Pyle. That song is I WISH YOU WERE DEAD and I think that is the biggest selling song from the album on iTunes so far (laughs) so I’m like, ‘Do you think you belong yet?’
HOH: I don’t know but to me that song feels like the Indigo Girls meet Alanis Morissette.
SHAWNEE SMITH: (laughs)..Maybe more Gilda Radner meets The Rolling Stones, I don’t know.
HOH: (laughs) Yeah, that is actually better.
SHAWNEE SMITH: Also, when we play that song live I play the drums so throw a little Tom Waits in there. I’m not a very good drummer; it just has that sideshow feel. We are just having a ball, we are having a BALL.
HOH: Well the music is fun, 100% desert rock
SHAWNEE SMITH: Absolutely, the way in which it was made is in the record. It translates and it is so exciting to us that people are getting it. It’s translating to people who listen to it and they come to the shows and every rehearsal we have is like a friggin’ Sunday church BBQ and a tailgate party after.
HOH: Have you had the experience of people singing your lyrics back to you?
SHAWNEE SMITH: Well, back to I WISH YOU WERE DEAD, one of our fans recorded himself…
SHAWNEE SMITH: (Laughs)…He was singing it and we put it up on YouTube. That IS the highest form of flattery. But hopefully that will start happening; the record just came out, so hopefully, that will start happening. The world now is so different; these days people know your songs before they come to the concerts. The universe is different and I am SO excited for that to start happening.
Now we are working on the SMITH AND PYLE show, some form of episodic TV, it depends on how we want to do it. We’re not sure how we want to do it yet. Maybe we do an actual episode where we go to a network; we’re just kind of exploring. We actually have a lot of footage that we are going to be putting on the SMITH & PYLE website real soon.
HOH: There are some great behind the scenes film of your Joshua Tree recordings on the URBAN PRAIRIE [Music label started by SMITH & PYLE] MySpace page.
SHAWNEE SMITH: Those are clips we put together for a 10-minute movie
HOH: Do you find that making music or songwriting is something that consumes you? Do you have periods where you need to write?
SHAWNEE SMITH: Yeah, definitely. Sometimes I will be inspired by one thought. I wrote a song a couple of months ago, I was walking by this beautiful tree and all of these honeybees were lying on the ground, dying. It just struck me, that it was such a beauty and such an honor, the sacrifice.
These bees just spend their whole lives working and then when they are done, they (starts to recite lyrics)…lay down to dielifetimeof work, so dignified… It just kind of took my breath away and I thought, you know, there’s a song in there. It’s not finished yet but I see these things a lot, like FLOWER IN MY HEAD or SUGAR. So, sometimes it’s an idea, sometimes it’s an intense phase or part of life that i’m going through. That’s how I work it out.
HOH: Who are the children we hear on the song THE SHOW?
SHAWNEE SMITH: Those are my kids! Verve and Jakson, I love you mama! That’s my daughter singing at the end of ANTHEM.
HOH: Awwww, that is so sweet.
SHAWNEE SMITH: I know, right? (Sounding very peaceful) Ahhh!
HOH: Yeah, It’s like, come here you!
SHAWNEE SMITH: (laughs) Yes, ahhh! It’s like a punch in my gut! Yeah, my kids, ah! I could just eat them up.
HOH: What has been the response from the fans at the conventions?
SHAWNEE SMITH: People love it! They are so horror centered but Missi came and we played, SMITH AND PYLE is like the party bus, you know? The party train. Or the party BOAT, It’s like wherever we go. It’s not me by myself or Missi by herself, it’s the combination of the two of us that sets off this trail of happy, partying folks. Whether it’s a band or people we meet at the conventions for the weekend, Saturday night there is this big gaggle of us going out and finding some bar or club, you know, just laughing, having a good time. It’s ok to be happy!
HOH: What upcoming shows or conventions can we see you at?
SHAWNEE SMITH: Going to Rue Morgue, August 22nd in Toronto. I’m doing the vh1 show [SCREAM QUEENS], focusing on the record and getting OUR show off the ground. There is also October Screamfest, in Orlando, I’ll be there.
HOH: Who shot the photo for the album cover? It is absolutely adorable.
SHAWNEE SMITH: A dear friend of mine, an incredibly talented photographer, Alison Dyer. I met her at the local Starbucks where I live. Missi and I were just waiting for our coffee, I saw her, and said, “Hello, do we know each other? I feel like we should know each other”. We exchanged numbers, she looks real rock-n- roll and, we knew a couple of the same musicians, and she said she took pictures.
She is a very well known photographer in the rock-n-roll world, dated Jerry Cantrell [who plays on the album] from ALICE IN CHAINS. I mean it’s this small circle. It’s wild! What would it be called, a vortex? Like this energy is just pulling people where they’re meant to be with SUCH a force. It’s wild, it’s a trip, it’s a TRIP. There’s some work involved but….
HOH: What is meant to be is exactly what will happen
SHAWNEE SMITH: Yeah! I really believe the force is with us, for whatever reason.(laughs)
HOH: Can I get off topic and ask you about working with Tobin Bell?
SHAWNEE SMITH: Absolutely
HOH: Is he intense to work with, methodical?
SHAWNEE SMITH: Yes, he is. Which is why SAW 3 was what it was.
SHAWNEE SMITH: We really lucked into working with each other because we both kind of have this vicious search for the truth. (Light laughter) It’s not even an option for either one of us to feel like a fraud up there [on screen] so we are willing to do whatever it takes to make it, try to give it some sense of reality, emotional reality. When they came to us with the script for SAW 3 it was like this apprentice, student thing. It sounds more cliche then anything but that’s not how it looks on screen.
Our rehearsals consisted of ‘well how have they [Jigsaw and Amanda] been spending their time since we last left them?’.
HOH: I’m so glad you took it in that direction because you really made it work. Such a tragic and perverse but almost beautiful relationship between your characters.
SHAWNEE SMITH: Yes, there are a lot of details that you never see on the screen because it’s palpable in the relationship between them. We would walk the streets of Toronto as a part of the rehearsal, we would just go for 3 hour walks, up at the cafe, have coffee, talk. Just walk and talk. We figured that’s what they did, they shared ideas, you know, worked at stuff and read. They were there for each other.
The first thing when you see Amanda in SAW 3 she’s walking in and it was written in the script like the cloaked figure, imposing, all bad ass but I’m like um, im going to come in with a bag of groceries, you know? They’re human beings, they gotta eat. We both looked for the humanity in it which was a challenge because they’re serial killers, though jigsaw actually doesn’t kill anybody himself. But, it was an absolute dream and a real challenge working with him, an honor.
HOH: Shawnee thank you so much, I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me.
SHAWNEE SMITH: I appreciate YOU taking the time.