But then the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer never ceases to break new barriers, which is why director Darren Aronofsky approached her for help with his song when they were serving as jurors at the Venice Film Festival.
“He gave me such a daunting task,” Smith admitted by phone from Rome, where she performed Saturday at the Vatican’s annual Christmas concert. “It had to be a bit of oral history, an Old Testament message, handed down from generations, and it had to serve Noah [Russell Crowe], it had to serve his step-daughter [played by Emma Watson], and it had to serve the end of the film. And for those babies, his grand-daughters, it’s the first song that they hear. So I really got to contemplate all of this in the writing of it. It was a challenge but when Darren told me about the film and what he was trying to do and deliver a very contemporary message in an Old Testament film, I really wanted to be a part of it. He had faith in me and I’m really grateful to him.”
Smith, who is not religious but was raised a Jehovah’s Witness, read “The Song of Solomon” to get a sense of language and rhythms. She was also struck by the pervasive longing, which impacted the writing of “Mercy Is” with long-time collaborator Lenny Kaye (she performs the song over the credits with Kronos Quartet). Most of all, she was pleased that “Mercy Is” became such a crucial component of the movie, helping to redeem the conflicted Noah, who’s convinced that God wants him to destroy the human race for its sins and start anew.
“We talked about the essential message of the Old Testament and what type of message would be handed down through the ages through a lullaby,” added Smith. “And I thought about Russell Crowe as Noah and the kind of man he is. What I was trying to get across in the song, though, is that man in biblical times had a direct memory of Eden and an oral history memory of God speaking to man of a paradise and a paradise lost. So this song is accessing the idea of this paradise, but not the idea that it’s lost but that it dwells within our memory and that the creator waits for us there and that we hope to return there. So this song is hopeful and that’s why it’s called ‘Mercy Is’ because Emma Watson’s character reminds Noah that he showed mercy to her babies and God showed that he was pleased.”
Smith continued, “It’s just like Abraham. Man is rewarded when he’s tested in the Bible. And forgiveness is one of the most beautiful things that we can give one another. It was a bold move for Darren to end that movie with a lullaby. Because it has such strong action, it very easily could’ve ended orchestrally — Beethovenesque, I suppose. But he chose to end it with this song. And I was very proud. I actually didn’t know he was going to do that. I thought my task was to write this song for Noah and then he asked me to sing it on the closing credits. I was very moved that he wanted to keep the integrity of the song — its strength and also its fragile nature — and not amp it up.”
Smith still enjoys performing and is thrilled that a younger generation is discovering the joys of vinyl. “I’m lucky: I do most of my work in Europe, truthfully, and it’s incredible how many young people come to our concerts. I look out and see thousands of kids under 25. They give you so much energy and I really feel a sense of communication. And I would never count myself as being a great singer but I have taken care of my voice and my voice is actually stronger than when I was younger.
“I like to see people happy and I think that I’m a natural performer,” said Smith, quite humbly, considering that she’s always provided a sense of spiritual strength and renewal throughout her acclaimed career.