"Shyness is nice, and shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you'd like to."
So sings Janice Whaley on her ambitious new six-disc box set. Those immortal words were, of course, written by Morrissey for the Smiths' "Ask," one of the 71 songs found on Whaley's a cappella tribute set, The Smiths Project. But they can also be applied to the 35-year-old singer, who out of nowhere has emerged as one of the Bay Area's unique and intriguing artists.
"I've always been timid about letting people hear my voice," Whaley says. "Maybe I just hold it too dear, too personal, and I can't take it if someone doesn't like it. So I always kept my voice to myself."
All that changed on Jan. 1, 2010, when Whaley started recording the entire Smiths discography using only her voice and posting the results on thesmithsproject.blogspot.com. Whaley had sung in bands before, even moving with friends from Joshua Tree to San Francisco in 1995 with the intention of making it big. But this was an entirely different beast, inspired by more than just pie-in-the-sky dreams of fame. In 2007, after the birth of her son, Whaley moved to San Jose — an experience she found isolating and discombobulating. Just as she was recovering from its effects in the spring of 2009, two close friends died only weeks apart. With Whaley's own mortality staring her in the face, she decided to resume the musical pursuits that had been set aside when she got too busy with school, work, and being a mom.
"I realized at these funerals everyone is clinging to whatever they have left of these people, and I was thinking, 'What do I want to leave behind?'" Whaley says. "I could hear in my head people saying, 'I know she was a singer, I wish she had done more.' And for me that was it: I knew I had to change that."
The Smiths Project started out humbly enough, with Whaley planning to record single-vocal versions in her bedroom closet and tackle each of the Manchester band's U.S. albums in order. She considered other seminal alt-rock favorites like Depeche Mode, Radiohead, and the Cure, but picked the Smiths simply because of her love of the songs and the fact that 71 compositions seemed like a reasonable number to handle over the course of the year. But only a few songs in, she realized something needed to change: Whaley was already getting bored with the results, and some negative feedback on the popular Moz fanatics hangout Morrissey-solo.com confirmed that it was time to step things up. Her boyfriend suggested that she should pursue the layered arrangements that she'd previously dabbled in, and Whaley naively agreed. Little did she know that she was about to embark on a journey that would completely alter her year and, for the time being, her entire life.
Whaley's version of "Reel Around the Fountain," the first song on the Smiths' first album, took up eight tracks on the Pro Tools recording software she'd received for Christmas. Soon she'd bumped that up to 15 or 20, and eventually Whaley was employing between 30 to 50 tracks per song. She didn't just want to sing Morrissey's words — she wanted to mimic the sounds she was hearing, including guitar, bass, drums, strings, and even the curious samples. She'd start by recording a few tracks while listening to the original song, then would continue to build upon her own parts, letting all the new layers take the music in unexpected directions. There was a lot of trial and error, and nothing was ever written out.
"[Smiths guitarist] Johnny Marr's recording style is very similar to mine, where he records many, many layers of guitars, but it doesn't sound like a million layers," Whaley says. "I was starting to pay attention to each and every layer and each little tiny thing that he did, and I found lots of melodies that I had never noticed before. I also really had fun trying to do a lot of the same recording techniques that they did. I felt like I was able to get a little closer to what it must have been like for them to record these things, and get into their heads a little bit."
The results are impressive, and not just because the creator is an amateur who had to plan her recording schedule around a family, noisy trucks barreling down her street, and a day job that took her to San Francisco every other week. (The silver lining of getting laid off last November was that she used the extra time to reach her goal of finishing the project before the end of the year.) The gorgeous recordings, given a feminine touch and featuring more heavy breathing and beat-boxing than has ever been associated with Morrissey and Marr, reimagine the Smiths in such a way that die-hard fans — who aren't known for being an accommodating bunch when it comes to fiddling with the band's genius — started writing Whaley to tell her that they were appreciating the songs in a whole new way.
One of those people was Thomas Lennon, the comedic actor from The State and Reno 911!. That's his whistle in "I Keep Mine Hidden."
"Oh my gosh, Lieutenant Dangle!" Whaley says with a laugh. "He was the first person to Tweet about me, and literally in one day my blog went from getting 30 hits a day to getting 3,000. He invited me over to his house and we did a jam session — I put those songs on the blog as well. We've become friends."
About 1,300 recording hours later, the story could have ended quite happily right there on the blog, with the nice comments, all the songs streaming, and links to digital downloads on Bandcamp. But Whaley's fans demanded more, asking about a physical release. Without a job, Whaley turned to fundraising site Kickstarter to drum up financial support, hoping for $3,500 to create a simple six-disc jewel case. When the funding period ended on March 1, she'd raised $18,700 from 261 backers — including some from Iraq, Australia, and England — including Tears for Fears' Curt Smith, who donated $500 to get Whaley to perform a song of his he eventually sang over. With the extra money, Whaley has been able to turn The Smiths Project into a souped-up box set with all of the trimmings. When they're back from the manufacturer in late April, she'll be selling them at record stores as well as on the blog. Fans should keep an eye out for an announcement about a meet-and-greet that Whaley intends to have at a San Francisco coffeehouse or bar.
Given all the good fortune that's come out of the project, it's tempting to imagine that there may be more around the corner. So what would Whaley do if her box set inspired the guys to bury the hatchet and put the band back together?
"Then I will wear the crown," she says like a true Smiths fan, "and maybe even call myself the queen."