April Smith's darker fascinations seem like the guts of unwritten Tom Waits songs -- such as the SS Morro Castle, a luxury liner that in 1934 burned and ran aground in Asbury Park, N.J., where it became a morbid tourist attraction. "It's a really wild story," she enthuses. Despite the title of her new album, Songs for a Sinking Ship, Smith and the Great Picture Show offer finger-snapping, often darkly humorous songs. Smith's voice is strong, engaging, effortless, whether she's burbling along atop four-on-the-floor beats and handclaps, ukulele and gang-vocal hooks, or crooning stormy, oldies-style torch songs. Last month, the Brooklyn band's verve won it a talent-show broadcast by NPR's A Prairie Home Companion -- and a much wider audience. Smith spoke with CP from the road, on a tour that stops at Club Café on Wed., June 2.
Congrats on the talent show. How was hanging out with Garrison Keillor?
Those bands that we played with were really great -- and they were all so nice, too. They said it really wasn't a competition -- that's what Garrison and everybody from NPR were all saying -- just coming together and playing different sounds and all that stuff. So it was cool, really cool. And hanging out with Garrison, he's such a character -- he's just a funny guy and super sweet.
Your affection for Tom Waits comes up frequently -- a guy who seems like he's always in character.
Oh yeah, absolutely. And it's really cool -- even his voice has different characters, I feel like. Sometimes he has that low growl, other times he has almost a sweeter, softer voice. I love the fact that he explores those characters with his voice.
Are you also kind of in character when you're doing these shows?
Every song is almost a different character. It depends a little bit on the show -- where we're playing, the audience we're playing to.
Do you see the difference between an entertainer and a musician, and where do you fall on that spectrum?
I'm definitely a mix of both, because one of the most important things to me is that the audience feels like they got their money's worth and then some. And that they're not just sitting here listing to the exact same sound as the CD. So I would say I'm half and half. I do write the music and the songs, so I do consider myself a writer and musician. But there's a huge part of our show that's very much performance.
Your album sounds surprisingly modern, with strong bass and drums. I imagine it was tempting to make an "old-timey" sound, but you didn't go for the caricature like many do.
Yeah -- that's due a lot to the fact that Dan Romer produced it. He didn't want to just re-create that old-timey sound, he wanted to put a modern spin on it. And we didn't want to do that either, because it's been done before. You want to make something that's timely, but also timeless.
In "Terrible Things," you sing about how you're a monster, and have done all these ... terrible things. Do they become less severe if you confess it in a song?
I'm a huge fan of the show Dexter, and I think that's where that song came from. I really love the [serial-killer] character because he's such a bad man, but you just love him and don't care that he's done all these things. To really portray that character as well as Michael C. Hall does it, where you love him.
In the world of your song, how does that happen?
You mean, how do you still like somebody who's doing all these terrible things?
Yeah, actually -- I really want to know the answer to this!
You're kinda saying it with a wink and a smile. "Hey, I've done all this really bad stuff ... but I'm really charming!" Really, that song is almost 100 percent from the eyes of somebody like Dexter, like that character. I guess everybody has a good side and a bad side, but it seems like the characters whose perspective I tend to write from, they have this kind of dichotomy about them.
April Smith and the Great Picture Show with Cry Fire. 10 p.m. Wed., June 2. Club Café, 56-58 S. 12th St., South Side. $7. 412-431-4950 or www.clubcafelive.com