Singer-songwriter Caitlin Smith is one of the country's best known performers and has coached hundreds of singers, from Anika Moa to Nesian Mystik. Legally blind since birth, she has a masters in political science.
1.It's been 10 years since you released your first solo album, but your students have released dozens if not hundreds in that time. What's that about?
The tradition is to have a difficult second album and I guess I'm fitting with tradition. I'm not fulltime with my own artistry because I teach and I've had health issues with my voice and how it works so yeah, it's taken a while. My drive really is to help as many people as possible to find their own voice and write what they need to say, find the means to express themselves, which doesn't put me first. It puts me down the list. My second album was called Easier Said Than Done but after a while I thought that was cursing the project so I changed it to You Have Reached Your Destination. That was about seven years ago. So yeah, maybe not. But it should be out in a month or so.
2.How did you get into teaching?
I got asked to, really. It just happened. I used to help people who were singing for their weddings and things. Everyone needs, I believe, to find more creativity in their lives and there are huge health benefits to singing. Physical honesty is required which means you become aware of what you do within your body and how it feels. You're kinesthetically aware, you know where you're holding tension. I often say singing makes you physically honest and songwriting makes you emotionally honest. And I provide rehab for people who have been through institutional music degrees. People who have lost their heart-connection with music. I'm really anti the academisation of the arts.
3.How difficult has it been to make a living out of music?
It isn't difficult - it's an honour and a privilege. The struggles I wrestle with are nothing to do with music, they're entirely a consequence of my disorganisation, cripplingly low self-esteem and self-sabotage. I just need more discipline.
4.Describe your childhood
Very privileged. My father was a professor of English at Auckland University for over two decades and Ma is a fiercely bright and vivacious redheaded opera-singing English teacher. I'm the youngest child, so that always makes it easier. They mainstreamed me even though I'm legally blind. I had to wear glasses that made my already limited sight condition worse (5 per cent in one eye, 10 per cent in the other, total colour blindness and severe light-sensitivity). Being mainstreamed meant that I do all I can to appear "in control" and independent, when really, I'm desperate for connection and not coping in the slightest. Gotta laugh though. It can always be worse. In actual fact, these days, my sight's improving.
5.Was being mainstreamed, rather than going to a school for the blind, the right thing?
I think it was. I don't have anything to compare it to. I represent a very strange age. I was the first of the mainstreamed and it wasn't working. These days there are so many lobby groups and support and people know what they are entitled to. It's not what it used to be. You didn't have any of the special needs stuff and teachers weren't aware. One enduring memory was in primer one - because I hunch over books to see what I'm writing on the page - the teacher would whack me on the back with a ruler to get me to sit up straight. So I would, but I couldn't see anything. My memories are of being misunderstood. I was aware that I would go and play knucklebones in the library where it was dark with the other people who were outcasts and outliers. The Japanese exchange student and the little girl with an eating disorder and the one with warts up her arm. Anyone else who was different. We would come together and support each other. I could never complain about my childhood. It was great I received the support that I did.6.Do people always know you're legally blind?
Certainly not. Most people presume I'm a snob because I can't recognise or see faces. I find myself inadvertently being an ambassador for "blindness" - explaining that 90 per cent of blind people have some useful vision and only 10 per cent are "totals", but they wind up being treated as the archetype.
I should use a cane, but can get away with not using it. This does have pitfalls though ... literally! It's nice to have an outward indicator that you can't see. Less time spent explaining yourself.
7.What do you fear most?
I live in perpetual fear! Most, if not all my decisions are "fear" rather than love-based. I live with a feeling of being utterly and completely "wrong" and unable to organise myself into a better place. Fear creating tension, it then gets impossible for me to do the thing I love the most - sing. I fear being unlovable. Being alone. Missing all the opportunities that have been offered me but I'm too fearful to take. I have massive social phobias, compounded by shyness, limited vision and not drinking for over five years. I've been stalked by four different men and am hyper-vigilant as a consequence. Anxieties? You name it! I think everything really stems from a fear of not being good enough and not being brave enough to ask for help.
8.Why did you give up drinking?
I definitely believe I had a problem with alcohol and there were a few people around me who were having a problem themselves. I did it by way of example really, but it stuck.
Now I know there's no point to it. I was talking to a wonderful woman who said how interesting it is that we drink for joy, and kids don't drink and they have far more joy than we do. Easier Said Than Done is a song about alcohol:
"When I woke up in a stranger's bed / Bruises on my body and rocks inside my head / Laughing as I walk outside, crying in the sun / I got to change cause I'm / too ashamed of what I've become / But that's easier said than done."
9.What do you know about love?
I believe love to be THE most powerful force - life itself even. I like to substitute the word love whenever I hear, read or think of God or any of the prophets. I subscribe to the Course in Miracles philosophy that "Love is letting go of fear".10. You dress, always, to stand out: is that your intention?
Haha! I like to dress to express, rather than impress. I certainly don't do it to stand out, because as a blind person, I really don't want to get in the way or draw attention to myself. Remember: I can't see colour and I can't see people's looks of approval or disproval.
So no, I don't want to stand out - but I do want to be interesting and creative with the medium of "wardrobe".
I wouldn't have a clue about fashion either. Never have.
11.Would you change your career, if you could?
No. I've been given this assignment - teaching, writing, performing. I've just gotta woman-up, face the music and do the job.
12. What did you learn from your mother? And what would you never pass on?
That we are not put on this earth to criticise and judge. She had a fabulous saying that sees me through many of my more insecure patches. That is: "Never underestimate the insecurities of others, and never overestimate your position in other people's minds."
Amen to that.