By Scott Roos
For Kaleigh Skomorowski (aka the artist formerly known as Kayleigh Smith), these days it must feel like she’s living out the plot of a Hollywood movie. It’s been over ten years since her debut record A Little Something For Everyone was released. Skomorowski was young and full of hope, dreams and ambitions. In short the world was her oyster and she knew it. Personally, I’ve always said that being a musician is about reaching as many people as you can. If that means a lifetime of playing sweaty clubs and bars, if that is the absolute top of your game, then by all means fill your proverbial boots. If that means playing to packed stadiums on a nightly basis and never knowing what city you're in but also being astonishingly wealthy, then so be it. Others reach the masses by being producers, songwriters, roadies, sound techs… As people in the music business, we all reach people in our own way but we all “live the dream” and however that dream plays out is fine for the most part.
For Skomorowski that meant that her rockstar ambitions were put on hold shortly after that debut record. Her higher calling was evident the moment she got into her first music teaching gig. Skomorowski was a born music educator and she’s reached an abundance of people in the space of a decade and there’s been zero regrets. But, at the same time, speaking from my own personal experience as a music teacher myself, we still have that itch in the back of our minds at all times and the curiosity and desire to one day try to scratch it again. Music teachers have that “what if?” aspect of being a musician.
I’ve always thought and wondered out loud in my own way if personally I could have “been a contender”. I have asked myself If I could have “been somebody” and while I can’t speak for Skomorowski, I wonder out loud if she’s also had the same thoughts. Don’t get me wrong, Skomorowski has zero regrets as I’ve already plainly stated but with the recent release of her sophomore effort entitled Stay Wild, in some respects she’s gotten a bit of a do-over thanks to that pesky pandemic called Covid-19. It’s given her the chance to have reflective pause about how she started out and how far she’s come with her craft.
"When I first started writing as a kid I was doing just piano instrumental stuff. I had a piano teacher when I was really young that was really supportive of that. She was the accompanist in the church choir. So she taught me how to accompany and how to play chords off a lead sheet and stuff like that. But she was also really open to anything. So every little creative element I wanted to explore she was all for it. She really helped nurture some of that stuff," reminisces Skomorowski.
It’s awesome that Skomorowki, an educator herself, is able to pinpoint and zero in on the first teacher that made a difference in her musical journey. It’s also fascinating to postulate that this early piano teacher enabled Skomorowski, even that early on, to develop her own unique riff orientated style of playing the keys.
“My dad did RCM and he played in a few bands in high school and stuff like that but he found that the stuff that he really wanted to do with piano wasn't anything that RCM (Royal Conservatory of Music) gave him skills to do. So when my parents were looking at lessons for me, just from my dad's own personal experience, and my mom did RCM for a few years, so they were kind of anti-RCM right off the bat. They wanted something that would transfer into my adult life. There was an accompanist for the church choir that was offering lessons and my mom talked to her and said 'I would like my kids to be able to do that' as a sort of practical skill," explained Skomorowski.
Skomorowski, thanks to this piano teacher, ended up doing a few accompanying gigs with church, playing at weddings and various social events and in high school she even led the church youth choir on occasion. She admits she got her bug for music education working with choirs at a younger age.
Fast forward to 2021. It’s now been a few weeks since Stay Wild dropped. It’s an introspective record that features an artist that has lived enough of her life to have matured as an individual and as a songwriter. She wears her influences on her sleeve but, all in all, it’s her unique gift for writing hooky choruses and catchy memorable turns of phrase within her verses that really make Stay Wild that much more appealing.
"There's usually a reflective thought when I’m writing; an idea and an intention that way. Or an extreme emotion. Some sort of pent up bundled up emotion that makes me feel like 'there's a song here'. Either at that moment I'll sit down at the piano. Or sometimes I'll be driving and listening to other people's music and I'll think to myself 'I like that but I'll also counter with this'. Oftentimes I'll be driving and I'll pull over and get out my phone and turn on the voice memo and sing a line or something. Most times, I'll have time to sit at home and I'll write about what I'm thinking about or how I'm feeling," explains Skomorowski.
"The writing process is quite linear for me with a few exceptions. For the most part it's first line first verse is what I've got and usually a piano riff before that and then I just go start to finish, from top to bottom," continues Skomorowski.
Things are always a work in progress for Skomorowski. She has a hard time cutting pieces out of her songs. She sometimes has to make some hard choices but the end result always makes the entire act or process of writing all the more worthwhile.
"Lots of my songs go on far too long. I have to cut a verse or maybe take a part of one verse and part of another verse. Sometimes I have to stick them together if there's things I wanna keep. Lots of stuff that I write I just never feel like I've said what I wanna say so often I'll have a song that has three or four verses in it and then I'll go to record or play live and that’s when the cuts have to be made. Playing it for myself and having five verses is fine because I'm getting my own stuff out into the universe but when it's like 'okay I'd like to play this for someone else or I'd like to record this’ that’s when I have to get straight to the point,'" says Skomorowski.
Stay Wild, in short, is a brilliantly emotional record, with top notch musicianship front to back and beautifully layered arrangements that wash over you like a warm summer breeze. The record is a journey. You’re given a snap shot into the personal life of the person that created it. You feel the joys, struggles, hardships in terms of Skomorowski as a wife, mother, educator, friend, sister… It’s also worth noting that much of the overall feel is thanks to producer Joel Rohs of Tri Sonic Sound in Prince Albert who himself is a former student of Skomorowski at Ecole St. Mary High School.
“Relationship wise, he (Rohs) came into my music class with a lot of prior knowledge and skill as a lot of (keen) kids do. I'm a five or six chord guitar player. I live off a capo and that's about where my skill lies. But I have lots of students that come into my class with the kind of musical background (that Rohs had) so it turns into much more of a collaborative effort right from the get go. So we always had that kind of a relationship. Other than the fact that he was a teenager and needed to be told how it was a few times when it came to being an adult when it came to following through on responsibilities and those kinds of things that teenagers often deal with. But musically we were always in that kind of partnership relationship to begin. So yeah when it came to falling into that that was kind of a natural partnership there," relates Skomorowski of Joel Rohs the student.
As a producer, Rohs has become known for bringing out the best in the musicians he works with. In the fall of 2020, for instance, he worked with Lily Plain roots/folk artist Wade Fehr. The result was the astonishingly bluesy and eclectic Of Ghosts and Graveyards. With Skomorowski’s Stay Wild he had the same hands on style with the arrangements but the end result was a much bigger, fuller record than the more stripped down, intimate record that Fehr did. Both great records in their own right, Rohs now has proven he can work with a variety of musicians.
"When it came to production, I came in with the tunes and we did the scratch tracks and when we talked about feel and kind of the ideas we had for the tunes I pulled up some reference tracks and there's some stuff that he would pull out of it so there wasn't a whole lot of give and take there. We were both pretty aligned on that and Joel knows my music pretty well,” explained Skomorowski of her relationship with Rohs the producer.
From what I’ve understood after chatting with both Fehr and Skomorowski, Rohs is far from a task master but he also knows exactly what he wants and usually those wishes, if carried out in tandem with the artist, make for a better product in post production than they would have when said artist first arrived with the tunes in their infancy.
“He knew my first record so when it came to the sound that we were going for he was well versed in what that would look like. So where he gave most help with me was arrangement - not having everything always sound the same and that was my concern and if those decisions were based on me I feel like every song would sound the same. So he added a lot of input on that sort of thing. Adding the guitar parts, things like that made a big difference," said Skomorowski.
The end result is that Stay Wild was able to capture Skomorowski at the top of her game. She’s a markedly different artist than her debut record but at the same she's retained a lot of the aspects of her craft that made her great to begin. There’s a uniqueness to how Skomorowski writes melodies and also how she approached the piano and people all across northern Saskatchewan should be taking notice. It’s a great feel good story. Musician returns to the fold, writes an album and kicks ass and gains a newfound appreciation and respect from a wide cross section of people. It’s almost a Mr. Holland’s Opus style ending for an educator that has had a trying year trying to negotiate a teaching environment that has been extremely challenging to say the least. With Stay Wild, Skomorowski has let us all know that she is still here. She’s still as current and refreshing as she ever was. It’s not necessarily the “happy ending” and it’s not the “beginning” either. Let’s call this triumph of the human spirit the coda and, for now, embrace the music of an artist that has worked her ass off and deserves credit where credit is due.
*pictures by Scott Roos