Former GPA students staying busy on musical and humanitarian fronts

 
(August 23, 2015)

Musicians, artists and other creative luminaries, including Thom York, Patti Smith, Bill McKibben, Flea, Rebecca Foon and Dhani Harrison, are planning to gather in Paris, France, on Dec. 4 and 5 to perform as the culmination of “Pathway to Paris,” a special year-plus long initiative designed to raise awareness about climate change. The event will coincide with the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which is scheduled to take place Nov. 30 through Dec. 11, also in Paris.

Among the artists performing in December and one of the chief architects of the event is Jesse Paris Smith, who is Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Patti Smith’s daughter and who also at one time plied the hallways and classrooms as a student of The Grosse Pointe Academy along with her older brother, Jackson.

Jesse and Jackson Smith attended the Academy while living in nearby St. Clair Shores with their mother, Patti, and father, the late MC5 musician Fred “Sonic” Smith. A year or so after Fred Smith’s untimely death in 1994 due to heart failure, Patti and her family moved back to New York City, where Patti still lives and where her two kids split much of their time with Detroit.

According to Jesse Smith, the Pathway to Paris initiative, which was founded in September of 2014, has been bringing together musicians/artists/poets/writers with scientists/climate experts/politicians/activists in a dialogue about climate change leading up to the UN conference (Cop21) in Paris.

“We want to highlight the opportunity the conference brings to establish an ambitious, legally binding global climate agreement,” Smith said. “Our main partner is 350.org, which is a leading climate-action organization founded by Bill Mckibben, and all of our events serve as fundraisers for 350. Our final events, which will serve as fundraisers for 350, are in Paris on December 4 and 5, the first weekend of the UN conference.”

Jesse’s brother, Jackson, a versatile musician, lives in the Detroit area and spends much of his musical “chops” with the band, the Orbitsuns, a honky-tonk, rock and roll band based in southeast Michigan. He started playing in Detroit with Brit-pop band Fletcher Pratt, and since then he’s played locally with Back in Spades, The Paybacks, jazz singer Linda Blanke and the Skeemin’ No Goods on occasion.

Jackson notably accompanied his mother on her goosebump-inducing rendition of the song “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” at the “Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating The Music Of ‘Inside Llewyn Davis'” concert held a couple of years ago at Manhattan’s Town Hall. He’s also toured with Elton John, Leon Russell, Greg Allman and several other artists.

Jackson has appeared on many records, which range from local bands like the Dead Bodies and the Farwells all the way to larger national acts like the Electric Six and Wanda Jackson as well as a Steve Earle record. In addition, Jackson appeared a few years ago on a Jeff Bridges record.

Jesse Paris Smith is a composer and multi-instrumentalist who has performed globally in many configurations, collaborating with other musicians and artists, including Soundwalk Collective, Tenzin Choegyal, Tree Laboratory, Shyam Nepali, along with her mother and brother. She also performs in a band called Belle Ghoul, which includes Smith and five other Detroit musicians, and has performed with Esquire, Kenny Tudrick and Skinny Wrists. Her compositions have been commissioned for films, commercials, art installations, audiobooks and live film score performances. She is a graduate of the Sound and Music Institute of New York City.

Now 28, Jesse is passionate about her work as a musician, but it’s her work with climate change and Pathway to Paris that really gets her energized. That was made abundantly clear after she agreed to be interviewed for this article by The Grosse Pointe Academy, which, by the way, also was clearly influential in her young life.

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The Grosse Pointe Academy: First of all, Jesse, even though you were fairly young when you moved to New York and left GPA, what are some of your specific memories of the school? 

Jesse Paris Smith: I loved attending GPA so much, and of all the memories of my life, the ones of being there are some of the most dear to me. While I was only a student at the school for four years total, what I learned and experienced there created such an important foundation for the years that followed, and so many things I learned have stayed with me, and have probably influenced me in ways I’m not even aware of. This includes what I learned in the classroom, interacting with the other students, and just being in those incredible buildings, and on the grounds of the school.

I still have dreams about that place, and can remember every room there so clearly just as it was back then. I remember all of my teachers and hundreds of experiences. I remember the games we played and songs we learned at the Early School, staying behind after hours to get extra lessons in tying my shoes, being introduced to clay and painting. I remember so many songs we learned with Mrs. Chrisner, and can still recite the 50 states in alphabetical order. I remember the taxidermy animals in the science classroom and going on nature excursions on the school grounds with Mr. Fultz. Field Day!! Recess! The school store. Ordering books from the Scholastic book orders. Watching School House Rock. Uniforms. Picture Day. Using a computer for the first time, learning how to type, and playing Oregon Trail. Mrs. Vitolins teaching us to count to 100 in French, how to sing the days of the week in a song, and learning about special French holidays and celebrations. All of the teachers I had were so creative. They incorporated traditional educational modalities with their own unique brands of teaching, methods that made things fun, but also left us with long-lasting knowledge. I loved the lunch room and spending time with the other kids. The chaotic moments of taking off our snow covered boots and snow pants in the downstairs locker room. The special and fun ways we celebrated holidays there. Coming to school in Halloween costumes and exchanging Valentine’s Day cards. The Christmas program!!

Going to Chapel was very special to me, and I can still remember the feeling and smell in there so clearly. Driving to and from school every morning and afternoon on the bus with Mrs. Bartz. This is such an important memory. That was such a special experience like a secret society, and a whole other family. She treated us so well, and taught us so many important lessons. I loved waking up every morning and going on the bus with my brother, and meeting him back there after school. I have so many great memories of my brother at GPA. I have also been envious of him at times for going to GPA all the way through and being a real alum! Mrs. Kelly was my first grade teacher and was so dear to my whole family. When my dad passed away she came to the memorial service, and I remember that so clearly as a memory of learning that teachers were real people outside of the school environment.  I was in 2nd grade when my dad passed away, and when I came back to school, all of my classmates had made me a special card with their condolences written with pictures and signatures. It was so kind and innocent, and I wish I still had it. We moved to NYC a year or so after he passed away and a week before I turned 9 years old.

GPA: Did you live in the Grosse Pointes then, or was it always St. Clair Shores?

JPS: I was born in Detroit at St. John’s Hospital, and came home to a house in St. Clair Shores, and that is the only place I lived in Michigan at that time.

GPA: Can you talk about your work with Pathway to Paris and why you have become so involved with the climate-change issue?

JPS: I first became passionate about climate change when I was in high school in NYC. During and after high school, I volunteered and worked for many environmental organizations, and did a lot of grassroots activism. I had wanted to become a climate scientist, and devote my life to studying glaciers, and working towards finding real solutions for climate change. While I have ended up so far on a path more focused on music and the arts, I am still very passionate about this issue and wanting to find and create ways to connect the worlds of the arts and sciences, especially focused on the climate issue.

When the People’s Climate March took place in NYC in September 2014, I contacted a fellow musician friend who I knew was active in creating sustainable environments and finding effective solutions for environmental problems. We put together a concert very quickly, which also served as a fundraiser for 350.org, and the response was amazing. We were also so delighted to be able to have Bill McKibben speak at the beginning of our event, which was live streamed all over the world. We decided to continue with this concert platform, turning it into a full series leading up to the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris in December, hence the name, ‘Pathway to Paris.’ We’ve since partnered with Bill McKibben and 350.org, which has been a dream come true. We have a few more events leading up to our final concert in Paris, and will also attend the conference.

GPA: Is there a core group of musicians and artists who are as passionate as you are about this issue?

JPS: We have certainly met some incredible musicians, poets, artists, actors, speakers, activists, writers, etc., who are passionate, informed, and well spoken about the issue of climate change. We’ve also been happy to find people in our own circles who share this concern with us. And of course, there are others who have that fire in them, and view climate change as a definite problem, even though they might not necessarily be active in fighting it, or be well-versed in speaking about the science or politics of it. There is such a wide range, and no matter what level people are at with it, we are working to bring everyone together with the understanding that this is a global issue that concerns every person, every single day, and requires immediate action.

The issue of climate change is so massive, and can be extremely daunting, overwhelming, and even scary to think about, but Pathway to Paris has shown us that just two people working together can create something bigger than they ever dreamed. Even just that in itself is an encouraging lesson to remember.

GPA: Are you still adding artists to perform in Paris on December 4?

JPS: We are pleased with the response of performers and speakers wanting to take part, and are open to bringing in more artists if it feels like the right fit. It would be wonderful to have more cultures of the world represented on the stage, as this is a global issue that hopefully in December will unite all the nations to work together in establishing a legally binding agreement. So while we only have a limited time on the stage, ideally it would be amazing to have performers from other cultural backgrounds, representing many countries from all corners of the world. Climate change is a global problem that concerns us all, and music is a way to bridge the geographical borders and bring people closer together.

GPA: Can you talk about your involvement with Everest Awakening and how successful it has been in raising both awareness and money for victims and survivors of the Nepal earthquakes last spring?

JPS: The Himalayan region of the world is very special and dear to my heart. I was first introduced to Tibetan culture in Ann Arbor when my mom brought me to Jewel Heart and we met Gelek Rimpoche. It was shortly after my dad passed away, and I remember everyone at Jewel Heart being so kind, warm and welcoming to us. When we moved to NYC, my mom started to perform each year at the Tibet House U.S. annual benefit concert at Carnegie Hall, and I would always attend. When I was 16, I began performing at the concert, as well. For a few years now, I’ve been on the Associate Board at Tibet House, and also help to run a monthly event series at the Himalayan art museum here in NYC, called the Rubin Museum of Art. One of my closest friends and collaborators is a Tibetan singer and musician, and I have many other Tibetan and Nepalese friends and collaborators here in NYC, as well. So since I had been exposed to and interested in the Himalayan cultures for so long, I really wanted to visit that part of the world. In January, I went to Nepal, and it was definitely one of the most important experiences of my life. When the earthquake happened only a few months later, there was no question in my mind but to take immediate action in any way I knew how.

The outpouring of help from fellow musicians, artists, activists, and people of all walks of life was amazing. Even though it was under such tragic circumstances, I also got to meet so many beautiful musicians, artists and activists who are now dear friends and collaborators. The money we raised through the music website and concerts was sent to trusted organizations and foundations of friends working on the ground there in Nepal and Tibet. It has been amazing to see this activism from other musician friends, as well, some of them working here in NYC, so far from their villages in Nepal, playing so many concerts and raising funds when they just wanted to be with their families so much. And of course I am so in awe of my friends who so quickly flew there to volunteer on the ground, and have continued to go back and forth, bringing funds, supplies, volunteering in schools, and rebuilding a better and stronger Nepal.

I hope that people continue to put their focus on that region of the planet, as it so fully represents so many extremes of life, and is such a beautiful land that continues to require our attention. The economic, political, environmental, and social problems were there before the earthquake, and remain today. And of course it is one of the most powerful and beautiful parts of the world, both the culture of the people and the landscape, and with the evolution of the world, this should be preserved and cherished.

GPA: How often do you tour or perform just as Jesse Paris Smith, the musician and artist? How often do you perform with your mother and/or Jackson? Any upcoming visits or performances in the Detroit area?

JPS: The amount of performing I do varies depending on the projects I’m focused on. Sometimes I go for a long while without being on a stage, and other times it feels like every week there is another show, but I have never performed or toured by myself as a solo artist. It’s been great to collaborate and perform with so many different musicians, artists, and poets over the years. My brother, mom, and I sometimes do small acoustic tours together in places like Italy, or in the Midwest, and that is nice to share with them. I also perform often with just my mom and me, which I really like, as we have more room to curate performances that include poetry, stories and different themes. Since 2008, I have been composing and recording music for film, which of course is very different from performing live, but is a challenging form of collaboration that I’ve learned a lot from.

In the future, I am really excited to focus more on writing, and finding more ways to use the tool and voice of music for a greater good. In 2013, I did a nine-month professional training on integrative tools of music and sound therapy, exploring the ways that music and sound effect us on all levels. Some of the things I learned there about the effects of music at an early age reminded me of GPA, since music was such a pivotal part of the knowledge that ended up solidifying in my mind the strongest. I loved how so many teachers there used music and song as a way to help us learn and remember facts—like the 50 states, the presidents, and the days of the week in French. There are endless ways that music is a beneficial tool, and it can’t be stressed enough that it is a universal language with the power to make great change, whether it is within one individual or the collective of many or all people.

GPA: Do you consider NYC home, and if so, in which one of the boroughs do you live?

JPS: I currently live between NYC and Detroit, so I am in Michigan a lot. I spent most of the summer in Michigan. In fact, the morning of my birthday, which was June 27, my friend and I ran a 5K race on Belle Isle in the rain! It was a charity run called ‘Race and Remember,’ for Hospice of Michigan. I wanted to do something special to start out my new year, and that seemed like the perfect thing to do. When I am in New York, I live in Manhattan, and when I’m in Detroit, I live in Indian Village. There are different reasons why each city feels more like home for me, but I am happy to alternate between the two, and travel to other places as well.

Michigan would probably feel more like the perfect home for me if I had a driver’s license, or if I wasn’t so used to 19 years of walking everywhere. Whenever I get to Michigan, whether it’s landing at an airport, or driving across the state line, I get a giant smile on my face. I think in a lot of cases, no matter where you end up living or become adapted to, or how many places in the world feel like home, the place where you were born and spent your earliest developing years has a special hold on your heart that you can never shake. I’m so proud to be from Michigan and I’m so grateful for spending my early childhood there and at GPA!

Editors notes:

Jesse Paris Smith’s website is: www.jesseparissmith.com

The donation page for Pathway to Paris is: https://www.crowdrise.com/pathwaytoparis

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About The Grosse Pointe Academy
The Grosse Pointe Academy is an independent, coeducational day school serving children age 2-1/2 through Grade 8. We foster an inclusive environment that respects all cultures and religious beliefs. We seek to remain faithful to our heritage as a former Academy of the Sacred Heart and to those who through their Catholic faith and perseverance sought to preserve and enhance the legacy of this past for generations. Incorporated as a non-profit institution, The Grosse Pointe Academy is directed by a Board of Trustees working together to serve the Southeastern Michigan community.