By Johanna Sommer
Chloe Smith just wants to have fun. Like the time when they laid on the ground while singing and threw potatoes and diapers at audience members, or serenaded their teacher with “White Christmas” before asking her to the prom. For Smith, value lies in absurdity.
The 21-year-old junior film student and Red Hook, New York, native, is the front person for Car Becomes Airplane, a band whose music plays a tug-of-war between restlessness and control, resulting in a beautiful tension. Their debut LP, “Baby’s First Album,” came out in July.
“There's so much serious art and everyone is just trying to go deeper and deeper and deeper and be deeper than everyone else, and that's impossible,” Smith said. “It can only be so deep, so I think there needs to be an even balance of fun art and not fun art.”
Smith came to Purchase by chance. It was the only school they applied to, and did so for film, because they thought out of film and music, film was their better bet (technically, they only have three weeks of guitar lessons up their sleeve). Three years later, Smith is grateful for their choice. They are now beginning to be turned off from film and continue to love music, something they do not think would be the case if it was required for their major.
When it comes to music, Smith has a wide range of references, from 50s pop and doo-wop like Neil Sedaka and The Del-Vikings, to 90s twee indie rock like Talulah Gosh and Heavenly, though Carrie Brownstein and the Guitar Hero 3 soundtrack are responsible for starting it all.
“First, I was watching ‘Portlandia’ and then I was like, ‘Oh my God, Carrie Brownstein is so sexy and hot, what else is she on about?’” Smith said. “And then I discovered Sleater-Kinney, and then I was like, I need to do that, I need to kick my legs and I need to jump around. So, I made my mom get me a guitar, and that’s what happened.”
In many ways, music is the catalyst for what Smith likes doing best: performing. Smith does improv and briefly considered stand-up, none of which is surprising after watching them on stage. They had their own televised morning show in high school called “Chloe Time,” which allowed Smith to showcase a structured stupidity to their school’s student body every other week for under 10 minutes.
Guinevere Thorn, a fellow musician bred out of the Red Hook DIY scene in the Mid-Hudson valley, has known Smith for around 10 years, meeting when the two started taking the same improv classes in middle school, and later when both participated in the Community Music Space that was in the same building.
“Everyone around the studio, like every time you would bring up Chloe, just like everyone knew that Chloe is very much destined for some sort of incredible-great-famous-awesome-thing,” she said.
Onstage, Smith immediately sets out to establish a relationship with the audience, telling jokes and utilizing call-and-response chants so as to make them relaxed. In turn, Smith displays a comfortability reminiscent of some of their punk heroes, letting their body think for itself, whether by lying on the ground while screaming, bending their torso backwards, or running into the audience.
“It feels like drugs because you get up there and you're going crazy and all of a sudden it's like you’re a cult leader,” Smith said. “Everyone just listens to you, it's shocking.”
Some of the most influential advice for Smith came from Ed Malone, a lecturer of acting at Purchase, whom Smith calls a genius. While they never had him as a teacher, hearing this phrase from him in passing has defined how they approach performing. He said, “If the audience trusts you, you can do anything you want.”
“And it's true,” Smith said. “As long as they have faith that you're going to walk them through the show, then they'll walk with you. And that’s cool.”
For instance, the first CBAP Stood appearance of this semester was really not one at all. Smith was the only band member that could show up, and instead of canceling like most would, Smith played their one solo song before having fellow film majors pretend to play the missing instruments, while the recorded backing tracks played over the Whitson’s speakers. It was ridiculous, unrealistic, and the lead guitar was a broom, yet it was pulled off with deftness and completely entertaining, as Smith still managed to crowd surf, despite there being no stage.
Cohen, a founding member of CBAP, did not realize Smith had an approach to performing until just recently, despite having played together for about five years. He was blown away that there was a thought process behind Smith’s movements, having assumed it was all instinct, a testament to Smith’s ease on stage.
“I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but I feel like Chloe is a musical genius and every song they make is a great song,” Cohen said. “I can’t really think of a Chloe dud song where I’m like ‘Mmm, yeah you’re trying too hard, you're trying to be something else.’ It always gets stuck in my head after I get shown it.”
Smith illustrates their songwriting process as the sewing together of multiple parts, needle-and-threading fragments of punkish glee into a cohesive burst of energy about wanting to sleep with your teacher. They describe themselves as being “a big ball of whatever comes out,” feeling much more driven by interesting chord patterns and song structure than lyric writing.
Humor is a key element to Smith’s approach in all things, feeling like it has a real value in a world that often feels barren of any levity.
“I've chosen to take the fun art route because that's where people need to be the most right now,” Smith said. “There's an imbalance in the world, [and] rightfully so because there's so much shit going on. Sometimes you just need to separate yourself and be like, alright, it's still the world. It's still earth. There's still grass.”
Similarly, Smith’s films draw from absurdity and camp, citing influences that include “Pee Wee’s Playhouse” and “The Forbidden Zone,” as well as sketch comedy like “Portlandia” and early 2000s “SNL.” Themes of immaturity and sex, and the humor that both contain, pop up all over Smith’s work. On the single “In My Garden” they employ child-like coos that sound as if the Teletubbies were introduced to Richard Hell, and on “Teacher’s Pet, Pt. 2,” they sing, “Please lower my grade/ I wanna be with you next year, babe,” at once absurd and heartfelt.
“Chloe does so many things that wouldn’t be funny if literally anyone else did them,” said Thorn. “You know what I mean? They’re the kind of person that it’s funny because it’s Chloe, and Chloe is so great.”
Thorn listens to “Baby’s First Album” so much that its songs show up on her Tinder, saying that every time she matches with someone she has to put them on. This is because she is so excited that there are now legitimate recordings of CBAP songs, after having listened to rough demos of the band for years. It was for this same reason that Zak Vogel, another native of the Red Hook scene, produced the album as part of his senior production project at Purchase.
“[“Baby’s First Album”] was a passion project, because I knew all their songs and I was just like, ‘these need to exist, I need to be able to listen to them whenever I want to,’” he said.
While humor is the principle that rules Smith’s world, there are moments of sober sincerity as well, even if they are embarrassed by them. The last two songs on “Baby’s First Album” differ from the previous eight, plucking the reader out of mischief and into a space of tenderness.
On “Athena’s Song,” Smith displays an earnestness for the first time on the album, pleading when they sing the lines, “But when she smokes her cig/ My heart does a little jig, it/ Steps on my partner’s feet for you.” An ache is felt, and this time with more depth than jokingly sacrificing one’s life for their chemistry teacher.
“‘69 [Foot Plummet Into My Death and Yours]’ and ‘Athena’s Song,’ those are the songs I’m definitely more nervous about playing at shows, because I am worried about how people are going to perceive me,” Smith said. “Especially with ‘Athena’s Song,’ I try to avoid playing that song as much as possible, because that is the only time I start getting stage fright. If we are playing that song, I’m so scared. I’m shaking in my boots because it is serious. It is so sincere and so vulnerable, and I feel like a total nerd when I’m singing it.”
The fear that comes with this vulnerability is part of what Smith is reaching toward in CBAP’s future. While they aim to preserve elements of the first record, they also realize they are not in high school anymore, which was when nearly all of “Baby’s First Album” was written. They are maturing into being more purposeful in their songwriting.
“I’ve been feeling really stale with CBAP, so I need something to make me feel like I’m making progress again,” Smith said. “I’m definitely trying harder to write things that aren’t just me, like, shoving words out and shoving sounds out, I’m trying to think more, which I don’t usually do, which is a step.”
As much as they make it seem like they don't think, it is clear Smith has an innate understanding of songwriting and performing, one that they wish to continue fleshing out in the future. They say that as long as Cohen is available, CBAP will continue to live on after graduation, in all of its turbulent and paradoxical glory.