By Jenn Smith, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Thursday November 21, 2013

TYRINGHAM -- Last year, Robert Oakes and Katherine Smith, the folk-pop duo Oakes & Smith, were self-described "shy" people, who decided to run a social media fundraising campaign through to help make their dream -- their first full-length recording -- come true.

They’ve since been able to make that happen with help from a flock of new collaborators and friends, several of which were encountered serendipitously.

Their album, appropriately titled, "First Flight," was officially released Tuesday. On Saturday night, beginning at 8, the Tyringham couple will celebrate their accomplishment will a full-band performance at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox.

The Eagle catches up with Oakes, 39, and Smith, 26, to chat about taking leaps of faith, serenading a yoga class and how nature can be both a muse and a menace, particularly when trying to make album art in a field of goldenrod.

EAGLE: Let’s start with the new album. It was worked on with the support you gained from a fundraising campaign. Tell me about that process.

SMITH: The whole project took about two years. We started in Summer 2011. We used Kickstarter last year for a boost to finish the album, and we were able to meet our goal.

OAKES: When we put it out there, people really rallied for our Kickstarter campaign.

SMITH: As we got down to the final hours [of the campaign] it was like counting down on New Year’s Eve. When we met our goal it was like, ‘Yes, we did it!’

OAKES: We’re kind of shy people, so to put this thing out there like we did was a new idea to us. It’s been really nice to see how it’s been well-received.

SMITH: We count ourselves among the lucky.

EAGLE: Usually you perform as a duo, but the album’s recorded with a full band. How do you know when you’ve found the right bandmates? The process seems a lot like dating.

[Both laugh]

SMITH: It kind of is.

OAKES: We met Oz Fritz, who’s from California. He’s worked with Tom Waits and a lot of others. He’s friends with a band we’re friends with, HuDost, and one of their members, Jemal Wade Hines, introduced us.

SMITH: A mixing engineer can change your final sound to something you don’t like. It’s about finding the right chemistry. Oz helped us put the finishing touches on the final piece as we had hoped for.

OAKES: There’s sort of this unspoken energy there too, when you’re feeling out a mix of people. His approach brought spirit to our whole process.

SMITH: It is like building a friendship or a relationship -- When you see it, you know it.

EAGLE: I saw you guys play this past Sunday night at the Lion’s Den in Stockbridge. You really squeezed a lot of people onto that small stage to make a really full, multi-layered sound. Tell me about some of those folks onstage with you.

OAKES: We’ve been very fortunate to find people in the area like Zack Cross and Justin Hillman and Gregoire Pearce to perform with us, who also helped with recording the album. There are a lot of other people who have been involved too, like Justin Green, who played percussion with us. He’s also one of our biggest fans and supporters.

We’ve worked a lot with Justin Hillman, who also helped with editing and recording the album. There’s a real kinship about what we do, and it’s such an enjoyable experience to work with him.

SMITH: For our full-band recording, we had help from Conor Meehan on drums; Dan Fabricatore from Robert’s hometown in New Jersey play upright and electric bass; Stephen Chopek, Jason Loughlin; cello players like Melissa Hyman and Noah Hoffeld; Eric Martin, Ken Rosser and Sarah St. Denis.

OAKES: There’s been a lot of synchronicity with people coming into our lives at the right moment, like Zack Cross. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved piano, and so we thought to have a pianist for our album. It’s a funny story how we met Zack. It was at the Mount, where I work, and a colleague is dating him.

SMITH: At the time, I was looking for a jazz pianist to work with to do some solo gigs like weddings and such, and she suggested Zack.

OAKES: I would hang around while they were working and listen, and then it just made sense to have Zack come and play with us. The great thing about Zack is that he’s also a writer himself, so he really appreciated what we are trying to do as songwriters.

SMITH: It’s kind of that Berkshire magic that connects people—not to say it’s all been easy.


SMITH: Not always. Things change. Timing changes. Availability changes.

OAKES: You get off track when you don’t listen to your intuition.

SMITH: But just the feeling of being able to finish something of this magnitude that you’ve put your hearts and minds and wallets into is amazing.

EAGLE: Your lyrics speak a lot about love, growth, discovery, dreaming and journeys. Where does the material come from?

OAKES: Some of the material has been in my life for a long time; some songs I wrote almost 20 years ago, and they were written from an innocent place. Before I met Katherine, I was kind of in a dark place. When Katherine and I started working together, it was like a rebirth. It was like, ‘Oh my God, I love this, I want to make this kind of music again.’

Oh, and there’s a story I want to tell you.


OAKES: Yeah, we had just picked up our new CDs, the new album, in New Jersey, and then drove out to Ohio, a place called Loveland, to perform at the Jubilee Peace Fest. There, we were asked to play for a "Yoga for Love" class which was in this big room and you just saw people practicing with so much love and open-heartedness. Also everywhere we went we’d see the Ohio license plate, which is etched with the phrase "Birthplace of Aviation." Our album is called "First Flight," so that whole experience was kind of like giving a blessing to our recording.

EAGLE: Your album art, which you also produced yourselves, has symbols of wings on the front and this big open field on the back cover, which seems to kind of capture that spirit.

SMITH: Yes, the photo was taken in Tyringham.

OAKES: We were lucky enough to catch the color of the goldenrod at just the right time, which was great, once I stopped sneezing long enough to take a shot. [Both laugh]

SMITH: We’re very lucky to live and work in a place where you can feel like you’re part of something bigger.

OAKES: There’s always something more.

SMITH: But we’ve learned that when you’re starting out in pursuit of something, it’s about taking a leap of faith.

OAKES: And taking a chance on something you love. Love compels you to take that chance.