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It may not be terribly surprising to hear that the local musician performing regularly at the Trunk Space has a spacey, hip-hop/folk song about woodlice called "Grumpy Pill Bugs" on his new album. If anything, it sounds like just another night of lo-fi, indie-pop weirdness that downtown regulars have come to expect from the Trunk Space and its eccentric/enthusiast co-owner, JRC.
What is surprising is that the aforementioned artist has also co-authored a study on the little critters, which appeared in the (presumably prestigious) Journal of Insect Science under the title "Conglobation in the pill bug, Armadillidium vulgare, as a water conservation mechanism."
Such is the plethora of interests that makes up the life of Jacob Smigel: singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, recording artist, collector of found sounds and — oh, yeah — third-year medical school student at Midwestern University in Glendale.
"For me, they really have a lot of overlap, being an artist and being a scientist," Smigel says. "You have an interest in people and their lives. You want to create something new and share it with other people, make human connections. And they're short-lived, whether you see someone as a patient in the ER or you play a music show and they never forget that night."
Smigel has been releasing original music since his self-released 2003 debut, Animal Diseases. Since then, he has contributed songs to numerous compilations on such indie-centric labels as L.A.-based Not Not Fun Records and JRC's OneWordLong. However, the project that has earned him the most acclaim (and notoriety) thus far is Eavesdrop: A Wealth of Found Sound, a 2006 compilation of snippets from home-recorded cassettes, 8-tracks, and answering machine messages that Smigel had purchased at thrift stores throughout his native Las Vegas.
The sound clips on Eavesdrop — most of which were never intended for public consumption — run the gamut from hilarious to genuinely disturbing, but they are uniformly fascinating. Smigel hatched the idea for the project in 2002, shortly after buying a 10-cent thrift store cassette labeled "The Powers of Magnetism." Most of the cassette featured an Art Bell-style radio show devoted to said topic, but after the show ended, Smigel was surprised to find that the remainder of the cassette contained a "tape letter" from an elderly widow to her son.
"I was like, 'Whoa, this is, like, a really personal thing that I'm not supposed to be hearing,'" Smigel says. "It was like a distress signal, but I got it too late. It was, like, this 20-year-old message she's sending, and her son . . . I guess he just taped over it with Art Bell. Right then I realized: These are amazing. These are out there. I should find these."
Smigel is keenly aware of the questionable legality of such a project, but he says he has yet to hear from anyone featured on the compilation.
"The intent of the whole project was just to get people to think about the way we choose to remember the things that happen to us and enrich our lives," he says. "I'm not trying to poke fun at anybody. It's really sort of a celebration of a lost way that we used to remember the things that happen to us, put exclamation points on the moments in our life that we don't do anymore. That's part of the reason for taking photos on a trip. Not so much that you need to go back and look at them all the time, but it just says, 'I'm here. This is important.' Pressing the 'record' button is that."
Smigel's new release, Hope This Passes the Secretary . . ., is his first to combine his found-sound endeavors with his more traditional musical output. It's a collection of hard-to-find, previously released singles and compilation tracks spanning his seven-year career, and he hopes it will unite two distinct audiences.
"There's two fans," Smigel says. "There's people that like the found-sound album and have heard of it, and then people who know me just for doing music. I'd like to introduce those people to the other thing that I do, so this new CD is more about combining those. It has both on one CD, as opposed to them being exclusive."
It's also a comeback of sorts for Smigel. As he details in the exhaustive liner notes for Secretary, the rigors of med school forced him into a two-year hiatus from music while he concentrated on his studies. Now that he's into his third year, he's spending most of his time shadowing doctors on four- to six-week rotations, learning the various specializations of the medical world. The rotations are designed to help him decide which field to go into (he's leaning toward emergency medicine, having spent four years as an EMT in Las Vegas), but they also allow him quite a bit more free time than the textbook-intensive early years of med school. Smigel is unsure what role music will play in his life after graduation, but being a doctor would certainly seem like a much better backup plan than those of most aspiring musicians.
"I'm not in some la-la land where I think I'm going to be a second-year emergency medicine resident and night owl as a touring musician," Smigel says. "That's just not true. Music for me, it's diverse. I do found sound. That's something I can do without touring. I love that. Or other projects that are as yet unknown to me, whatever I sort of stumble into. In some way, I'd like to keep doing it, even if it's local. Even if I just keep writing songs and never record them, and display them live for people on occasion, that's enough for me. I've already done more with music than I ever thought I would."