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A Rock Star at Heart: An Interview with Blush Face

When she was three or four years old, Allie Smith used to climb on top of the table and belt out her favorite songs when they came on the radio. Her mom, a hospital nurse, occasionally brought her precocious daughter to work with her to provide entertainment for anyone seeking covers of Celine Dion and Annie. “I loved ‘It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,’ even though I didn’t know what it meant or why she was yelling so much,” Smith said. “I was into it and very dramatic about it.”

Smith was drawn to music at an early age, but she’s bided her time as a songwriter building up to the release of Blush Face‘s debut What Do You Want? on September 23rd.

What Do You Want? album artwork by Jered Fykes

Smith started playing music as a teenager when her grandpa passed down his acoustic guitar. But long before that she was writing songs about the trials and tribulations of growing up. “I’m not really sure which came first, but I remember songs I wrote about a lost cat, holidays and being in second grade.”

In spite of her performative nature, she was a fairly shy kid. Eventually Smith found the perfect avenue to share her music: filming herself and posting it on YouTube. Though she jokes about the fear of someone finding those videos today, she acknowledges them as an important part of her growth as a performer.

It wasn’t until she moved to Richmond for her freshman year at VCU that she decided to check out open mic nights. “I guess I gained more confidence after a fresh start in a new city.”

Around that time she met Trey Hall, a fellow VCU student, burgeoning songwriter and DIY concert host who now fronts Dharma Bombs. “We met at a house show I hosted in Carver. She performed a solo set that really captured the entire audience,” Hall said. “She was really shy back then. But once she started singing, I really felt that shyness melt away and a warmth spread throughout the room.”

Blush Face perform at Gallery5 by Joey Wharton

“That’s When I Realized I was a Rock Star in my Heart…”

After a few months performing at coffee shops and open mics, Smith started to make a name for herself locally. Though she had broken through her initial fears of live performance, something was still missing. “I felt I was kind of hiding in the music scene. I wanted to make things a little louder.” A friend gave her his old electric guitar, and then it all clicked. “That’s when I realized I was a rock star in my heart, and I always had been.”

Smith continued playing solo acoustic sets, but now had her sights were set on starting a band. She tried jamming with one drummer, but he was already spread between multiple bands so finding time to practice was tough.

Then on a fateful night in June 2016, Smith performed a solo set at The Camel followed by another singer songwriter, Drew Barnocky. Though they had not met before, Smith and Barnocky shared a mutual friend so they struck up a conversation. “We got to talking, and I asked if she had ever played with a drummer,” Barnocky said. “I could hear a unique rhythm in her playing that left the perfect space for drums.”

After searching for a space to jam, Barnocky set it up at a friend’s apartment. Smith and Barnocky linked up with Eric Godsey (The Wimps) on bass, and the first jam was set.

“Allie sent me some cell phone recordings, and that was the first chance I had to listen more attentively to her songwriting,” Barnocky said. “I loved her voice, clever lyrics and dynamic songwriting style.”

Switching from acoustic to electric guitar had already added volume and intensity to her songs that changed the way they felt with drums. But when her and Barnocky linked up, it was the first time she played with a drummer and immediately wanted to write more. “I’d never really been good at jamming with other people, but this really worked,” Smith said.

After only two practices, the duo, billed as Allie Smith, was booked as a last minute replacement for a show at Strange Matter on July 31st, 2016, with Big Baby and Sarah M.

“‘Sup Bass Players?”

From the beginning Smith and Barnocky felt that the most important part of their songs were the dynamic shifts and sense of space. “Orchestrated changes in intensity, volume and speed couldn’t be compromised by adding too many more instruments,” Barnocky said of their early approach to songwriting. As they continued to perform under Smith’s name, the duo set out to find a bass player who understood that approach to finish out the project as a trio.

Barnocky saved screenshots of their texts about adding a bass player and naming the band. “Heart Pocket was in the running, but then we started singing the Hot Pocket jingle to it so that one became very silly,” Smith said as she laughed. “We eventually chose Blush Face, and I’m glad we did! I like the sound of those words together.” 

Drew and Allie’s text message thread proposing band names

After deciding on a name, the next step was to find a bassist. “Allie did what she sometimes does when facing a challenging question – she asked Facebook,” Barnocky quipped. “You could fact check, but I recall her status update being something like, ‘Sup bass players?'”

Shortly thereafter Barnocky and Smith were introduced through a mutual friend to Chris Carreon, a veteran of the local music scene who played various instruments in Sundials and Atta Girl, and later Doll Baby, Large Margin and slew of other projects.

“For a while I wasn’t really sure what direction to go in,” Carreon said. “But Allie and Drew have always been open and supportive of what I would wrote. I’ve heard people say they hear influence from The Jesus Lizard and Unwound, which is very flattering, especially with a band like Blush Face where those influences could easily not blend well.”

After only a few practices together, the band played an acoustic show with Carreon on September 20th. He didn’t have an acoustic bass, so he played his parts on an acoustic guitar instead. Two weeks later they played their first official show as Blush Face at Good Day RVA House with Dollys, Wester Green and The Trinkets.

Blush Face on the back porch of Good Day RVA House by Evan Hoffman

“A Residency at Good Day RVA House…”

“As we started playing out, we were just excited to be in a band that was getting offered shows. We had a hard time saying no to anything,” Smith said.

While each venue show felt like a milestone for the group, much of their early growth in notoriety, cohesion and skill came from frequent house shows. “We used to joke that we had a residency at Good Day RVA House since we played there so often,” Smith said. “I know I’ve seen a lot of my favorite shows there, and it was a really great environment for Blush Face to get comfortable in front of a crowd.”

“The Good Day RVA folks were already friends of mine, and I had been going to house shows there from the beginning – so it all felt very comfortable,” Barnocky added. “The crowd always was high energy and really supportive.”

 

Good Day House also reintroduced the band to Evan Hoffman, a local musician, videographer and old acquaintance of the band. Smith and Hoffman originally met on the set of a historical tv series in Richmond years earlier, so when it came time for Blush Face’s first set they worked together to book the gig. After seeing them perform a handful of times, Hoffman felt a deeper connection to the music than other bands he books. “I really dug their sound as a trio, but I felt like I could add something to their music on guitar without changing the original vibe,” Hoffman said.

The trio talked it out, and they decided to jam with Hoffman. “I was nervous at first, because our trio thing was really good,” Smith said. “I had no idea what I would do if  I absolutely hated it (laughs). Luckily that wasn’t the case!”

Blush Face on tour with Doll Baby

Hoffman played with the band for the first time at The Camel during Clair Morgan‘s residency show in March 2017. Then the newly minted quartet embarked on their first out-of-town mini-tour with fellow Richmonders Doll Baby, traveling to Philadelphia and back. “I could’ve kept going. I see a bigger tour in our future for sure,” Smith said. “We just gotta get the folks with nine to fives to save up some sick days.”

After playing A Good Day in RVA IV Fest this year at Hardywood, the band almost took their Good Day RVA relationship full circle by booking their album release show there in June. It would have also been their last show with Carreon before he moved to Philadelphia in July. But shows at the house were shut down by the landlord two weeks prior to the planned date, so the group pushed back their release to this fall.

Blush Face at Virginia Moonwalker Studio with Tim Falen

“Existential Questions, Heartbreak and Sass…”

In the end of February before Hoffman officially joined the band, the trio went into Virginia Moonwalker Studio in Mechanicsville with engineers Russel Lacy and Tim Falen to record the nine songs that became their debut LP, What Do You Want?

In a one day marathon session, the trio recorded everything except vocals and Hoffman’s guitar parts, which were still being written at the time. “We would record a couple tracks, then take a break on the back porch and Chris would take some instant photos with his Star Wars themed film,” Smith recalled.

Instax photos of recording by Chris Carreon

When we recorded vocals the next day, Russel made some yummy risotto then we got creative adding more sounds.” Beyond their traditional guitar, bass, drums and vocals, Blush Face tracked xylophone, organ, tambourine, Omnichord (a “crucial ‘Citronella Cinderella’ sound” according to Smith), acoustic guitar and a flute solo by Chrissie Lozano (Piranha Rama, Fear of Music).

“After hearing the first mix of the record, I told the band: ‘I know I only played drums, but I am so proud of this,'” Barnocky said.

Of the songs that ended up on the album, it is about a 50-50 split between those written by Smith as a solo artist and those written with the band. “There are some weird old solo versions of ‘Magnolia’ and ‘Home Electric’ on my personal Soundcloud from a year or so ago. There’s something intimate about the quiet versions for sure. But I love yelling at certain parts with Blush Face.”

Their new single, “Love for a Ghost,” is “pretty much about not being able to see what’s right in front of you when you’re fixated on something else for whatever reason,” Smith said. “In this particular example, it’s a lingering love that keeps someone from starting a new relationship.”

“Even when I’ve known a relationship isn’t working well, I’ve always found a silly reason to make it something more meaningful than it is. This song is really me just melodically yelling about it (laughs).”

Most of the songs are about trying to figure out what you want and then going for it,” Smith said. “There’s some existential questions, heartbreak and sass.”

After completing the album earlier this summer, Blush Face hosts their release show at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery on September 23rd with Gull and Bad Magic.

When Smith and co step on stage, many in the audience will remember the shy songwriter from the coffee shop a short time ago and see a much different side of her as she confidently leads the band.

“My first times watching Allie perform solo were quiet with a very polite, hushed audience. But Blush Face totally fucking rocks,” Trey Hall said. “It is so wild to see her in her element and powerfully leading a great group of musicians. That shyness is gone now, and Allie just croons away.”