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Open Mic: For Misner & Smith, Gardening Helps Their Creativity Thrive

Apr 10, 2024

Open Mic: For Misner & Smith, Gardening Helps Their Creativity Thrive

(Editor’s Note: Open Mic is a BGS series with a simple premise – to remove all the filters between artist and audience and give musicians and creatives an Open Mic. With each installment, we’ll hold space for musicians to say whatever they’d like on any topic they like in any format that moves them most. It’s about facilitating real conversations and genuine insight with our roots music community.)

It’s been seven years since roots duo Misner & Smith began work on what would become their new album, All Is Song (out April 12). In that time, much has changed about the world. Yet through the simple act of tending a garden, Sam Misner and Megan Smith found inspiration in things that endure.

Grounding themselves in the balance of the Northern California ecosystem, both musicians say the last few years have brought a perspective shift that impacts their lives deeply – and that includes their acclaimed music. Becoming more connected to the land and the natural rhythm of things has freed their minds for creative pursuits, and according to them, it shows up in All Is Song everywhere: lyrically, sonically, and even in philosophic scope.

The duo used their Open Mic to talk about the under-appreciated similarities between gardening and growing a music career. And as a Master Gardener student at UC Davis (who also teaches others the deeply human activity of helping things thrive on the side), Smith recommend The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation to learn more about how easy it is to encourage your local habitat.

Sam Misner: For years now, the garden has been a way of being creative, but with no other motivation than observing and cultivating and watching things grow, and being attentive to all of it. There’s a certain kind of awareness and peace that comes from that, because it’s outside of your own self. You’re not trying to showcase anything you are doing. It’s your connection to plants. And Megan truly has been the kind of, I don’t know what you would call it–

Megan Smith: The crazy person?

Sam: [Laughs] Yeah, the crazy person. Her vision for our garden and just what she wants to do with plants has been centered a lot around benefiting pollinators and creating habitats.

Megan: Music and art and gardening, I think they can seem like extracurricular activities. We’re taught from a very young age like, “… and if you have some time, do a hobby like music or gardening.” But I firmly believe that what these things teach you more than anything is that everything you do matters. Every little thing you put into the world has incredible weight. And if you keep pushing towards something that will have a positive and lasting effect, even if it’s a small one, it matters in the grand scheme of things and it makes a difference. And I’m a firm believer of that.

We’ve been doing music for 20 years this month and it’s a hard thing to do. You don’t do that for that long without some degree of faith and understanding that however small an impact you’re making, it matters. And doing the garden the way we’ve done it, it’s a similar thing. We’ve been living in Davis for about 15 years now, and there was nothing here besides a weedy lawn. Over the years, bit by bit, we’ve transformed it into a wildlife garden. And the things that we’ve both seen arrive and make their home here, it’s fantastic. It’s so gratifying, and we feel so privileged and so lucky to have the space in order to be able to do that for our little corner of the world. I think the music is the same.

It’s like, “Hey, we planted milkweed and the monarchs showed up in our garden.” And “Hey, we wrote a song infused with hope and comfort, and people looking for hope and comfort are appreciating it.” That stuff really does have ripple effects out into the world. And I think it is a job, but it’s also something we really do deeply believe in. The garden is just an affirmation in that way.

Sam: There’s something cyclical about it, too. There’s a reminder that things are born, things have their lifespan and things die, but you also see how the things that die aid and help the continuation of the new life that comes. There’s a rejuvenation that happens that you’re kind of reminded of that you don’t always get that in the music business. Another thing about working outside is it gives a mind a chance to wander. It’s not thinking about all the things that we need to get done, and I’ve definitely had lyrics come to me – not fully formed in a song, but like, “Ooh, that’s a cool image,” and I’ll jot it down and it will maybe become part of a song down the road. It’s definitely a place of pausing in a way that gives the body some space. You can’t be in the garden and not be present.

Megan: I do some teaching about gardening here in Yolo County, and everybody asks, “What’s your main advice for somebody who’s a beginner gardener?” I say, “Just learn how to be an observer. Learn how to see things that aren’t obvious. Learn how to hear things that aren’t in your face.” I think our music is definitely influenced by that. We have a line in one of our older songs that’s like, “You may not hear the first time, you have to listen twice,” and it’s about layering different pieces on top of other pieces to make this thing that’s bigger than the sum of its parts. Each song is a story, but it’s also the layering of the arrangements, the harmonies, why we use the harmonies, where we use them. I think that’s very influenced by our experiences with the natural world.

When we first started doing the album, I had a long-time idea that I really wanted to introduce some natural sounds onto the album as sort of palette cleansers in between pieces. Because Sam’s our songwriter, and I am sort of an arranger – that’s my job with the duo. And my feeling was the songs themselves are so delightfully different. None of his songs sound the same, which I love. And so on the album, I wanted there to be few moments of peaceful procession between songs so that you could clear your head for a minute before you heard the next song. There are three interludes, one is a bird song recording of a Fox Sparrow my dad made, and then at the end of the album there’s also crickets, and if you listen in your headphones or earbuds or whatever, you can hear a distant siren. … It wasn’t that we set out to do it from the beginning, but the title of the album reflects on those natural sounds – even that siren. It’s all song. Everything we experience is, in a way, music.

Photo Credit: Giant Eye Photography

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Open Mic: For Misner & Smith, Gardening Helps Their Creativity Thrive
Open Mic: For Misner & Smith, Gardening Helps Their Creativity Thrive