"I'm not supposed to be buying anything," Mindy Smith admits during a stroll in Hudson, N.Y., last week.
Judging by the brief interruption in the telephone conversation and a short verbal exchange heard in the background, it's obvious that some level of commerce has occurred. But Smith isn't saying exactly what.
In a way, the mysterious transaction reflects her songcraft. During the course of the four albums that she has released in the past seven years, she has revealed herself as a deeply introspective songwriter who employs elements of folk, country, Christian, Americana and, more recently, pop to get her songs across. The stories within those songs are deeply personal, too.
"They are all my own experiences," she said. "I write to pour out what it is I'm experiencing at the time."
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But Smith, 38, knows how to respect boundaries. Her songs will often hint, even tease, at the details of a story. Yet there's always an element — a resolution, a reasoning, something — that is omitted to keep you guessing. Take What Went Wrong, the leadoff tune of her pop-oriented 2009 album Stupid Love. She gives you a checklist of remedies for a busted romance, from poring over old memories to pouring "another round." But in the end, nothing explains what went wrong.
"At some point, it just becomes evident that not everybody agrees with certain things other people do or what they have to go through in their lives. But sometimes it is also good just to have some privacy, you know? Sometimes you're just dodging people's expectations. I do my best to do that."
Such a juggling of expectations was emphasized on Smith's fine 2004 debut album, One Moment More. There was considerable anticipation for the album ahead of its release; the Long Island, N.Y., native/Nashville stylist already had grabbed Music City ears with a cover of the Dolly Parton classic Jolene. It was featured on the 2003 all-star Parton tribute record Just Because I'm a Woman.
But when One Moment More hit stores the following January, the single that created the biggest stir was a confessional called Come to Jesus. Naturally, Christian music stations thought they had a new star. Spiritual inspiration, though, is simply one of the many influences Smith draws on for her songs. She doesn't want to be labeled a Christian singer any more than she wants to be tagged a country or pop artist.
"My faith? Sure, it's an inspiration. But my thing is more about figuring out how to get to something that is just totally sucking, you know? That's what Come to Jesus was about. It dealt with a time in my life that was really about nothing but struggle and hard times."
A very different kind of struggle faces Smith, and legions of other artists, these days. And in this instance, she isn't about to hold anything back. It's the level of Internet piracy — meaning illegal downloading — that has devastated the music industry and has made it difficult to earn even a modest paycheck for recordings.
"There is just this sense of entitlement some people have when they think they should get your work for free. And they're adamant they get it for free. Now granted, I've kind of thrown in the towel with that issue because I can't begin to figure out how to make it work.
"The only way I can keep this thing going is through live performances. Luckily for me, I enjoy performing. Hey, I'm used to living hand-to-mouth anyway. So I'm surviving out here just fine."