On the night she pulled off the artistic transformation so many musicians talk about but rarely achieve, Caroline Smith wore an unusually buoyant and bright-blond hairdo and electrifying, high-hemmed blue dress.
Smith, 25, now says she was finally showing her true colors at that Cedar Cultural Center gig in January. Goodbye, sweet, cuddly indie-folk songbird. Hello, sexy, glam R&B singer.
“My mom said, ‘Wear your hair big and keep your legs out,’ ” she recalled in an interview last week, a comment she repeated to the sold-out crowd in January. “She always says to me, ‘You have the best legs, Toots. Don’t hide ’em.’ ”
Ever since she played her first Twin Cities gigs at the 400 Bar as a teenager freshly transplanted from Detroit Lakes, Minn., Smith says she has been hiding a certain part of herself. It’s the part that pops out on her new album in the same wowing fashion as that blue dress.
“I didn’t grow up listening to indie-rock or other kinds of hip, weird music; I grew up listening to TLC, Beyoncé and other ’90s R&B — fun, a little bit cheesy, but good R&B,” said Smith, who’ll celebrate her new album, “Half About Being a Woman,” with a concert Friday night at First Avenue.
Recalling the early gigs she played while still in high school at Zorbaz family restaurant and her mom’s old coffee shop in Detroit Lakes, Smith said, “The only reason I really started playing folk music was because my dad got me a guitar. Naturally, you start playing the most rudimentary D-C-G chords.”
“I sort of got pigeonholed in that, and was trying to be like Sufjan Stevens or whoever. That’s really not who I am at all.”
The tipping point came in January 2012, when she returned to Detroit Lakes and holed up with her band the Good Night Sleeps to make a new album. The sessions stalled. None of the songs were clicking except for one, “Child of Moving On” — the first to dabble heavily in R&B, and now the exclamation-point-like closing track on her new record.
“That one song felt so right,” Smith recalled, “it made all the others feel wrong.”
Jesse Schuster, Smith’s longtime bassist, remembered her calling him in tears shortly after the botched Detroit Lakes sessions from — of all places — Harlem in New York City.
“She was pretty upset and lost,” he recalled. “Things ended pretty tumultuously back here, so it was a confusing time.”
Smith had relatives living in New York and found an apartment in Harlem to sublet for a month while she was between crash pads in Minneapolis. It wasn’t meant to be a musical exercise, just a “getting far away to clear my head” experience, she said.
As you can imagine, the bubbly, slender, corn-fed blonde from Minnesota said she felt awkward venturing into music venues around Harlem. But she finally got up the gumption to go into a club one night (which she didn’t want to name), where she witnessed a few women joyously singing such ladies-night staples as Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” and Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me).”
“It became this great female empowerment sort of thing,” she recalled with glee. “But it also became obvious the reason those women were up there singing was because it made them feel good about themselves, and it made everyone else feel good, too.”
That’s when the rest of the new songs started coming. “Feel good” is a term that could apply to many of them, including “Magazine,” the playfully bouncy first single from “Half About Being a Woman.” Smith said it’s about eschewing the magazine-fed stereotypes of “trying to know and follow what men want us to do.” The video shows Smith and other women of varying shapes and sizes dancing around in underwear or bathing suits basically having a blast — more sweet than sexy. But it is damn sexy.