GRACE AND CANDOR: Shelby Smoak shares his life in prose and song


Shelby Smoak (center) talks about his memoir and songwriting ahead of his show, opening for Team Player, on September 6 at Satellite.
Courtesy photo

To call Shelby Smoak’s life story “compelling” would be inadequate. The memoirist and songwriter fronts an indie-rock outfit Bleeder, which will open for Team Player at Satellite on the 6. But in 1990, as an 18-year-old preparing to start his freshman year at UNCW, Smoak’s parents told him he had contracted HIV when he was just 10.

Smoak was born with hemophilia, which means he lacks a plasma protein that allows his blood to clot properly. The condition requires frequent blood transfusions. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than 10,000 hemophilia patients (including Smoak) contracted HIV from blood transfusions during the first 10 years of the epidemic. Since the HIV virus was highly stigmatized, Smoak’s parents waited to tell him—when they were required to by North Carolina law.

“My [18th] birthday fell four days after my high-school graduation,” Smoak recalls. “I went to my doctor’s appointment because I had been accepted to UNCW and I was beginning a new chapter in my life.”

Yet, he received life-changing news: He was HIV positive.

Shelby Smoak talks about his music and book, ‘Bleeder.’
Photo by Lindsay Goats

His 2013 memoir “Bleeder” (Michigan State University Press) chronicles his struggles with both hemophilia and HIV. It also dives deep into the stigma and shame of being HIV-positive in the ‘80s and ‘90s. (Smoak will be on WUNC radio’s “The State of Things” earlier in the day Friday to talk about his work, as well as advocacy with The Coalition for Hemophilia B—

Talking to Smoak and reading about his life is humbling—not because of what happened to him but because he tells his story without any anger or despondency. It’s hard to read and not head-scream, That’s so fucked up!

Smoak’s candor comes after years of living with the bad cards dealt to him. As a teenager, he recalls writing about being one of the few in his hemophilia community who didn’t have HIV—or so he thought.

Growing up in Albemarle, NC, he spent summers at hemophilia camps, which ended when people started dying. One of those who passed was a close friend of Smoak’s, who lived near Charlotte. Smoak says it changed his perspective:

“When he died, it was an awakening. I think that was the first time I thought maybe I wasn’t as safe as I imagined myself to be.”

Still, it took Smoak years to write his memoir. Between pursuing writing conferences and his PhD, he started to cobble together fictional short stories and bits of novels he now realizes were really displaced versions of his book. “It took me a long time to embrace it as its own story and to be raw and revealing,” he says.

Smoak was a songwriter before turning to fiction and essays. He toyed around with playing in bands in high school, but he started his first official band, Emily’s Porch, in Wilmington with his UNCW suitemates. Though he’d always tried to keep his passions separate, he admits writing a memoir has informed his songwriting more than he ever expected. “Music has always been catharsis for me,” he says. “When I added lyrical content . . . it was kind of an ‘aha’ moment.”

Smoak released Bleeder’s self-titled debut in 2017, recorded with Don Zientara at Inner Ear Studio. “The thing with music is it’s so immediate; it doesn’t really require you to disappear into it,” he explains. “‘Bleeder,’ the memoir, was probably a nine-year endeavor. Maybe that’s my process. I’m not a fast writer.”

Rounding out Bleeder’s lineup are Abner Jara (drums) and Jan Paul Jakubowski (guitar). The band released a video for “Running” last week as part of its ongoing “The Singles Series.” The beginnings of “Running” came in 2016 when Emmer was facing knee replacement surgery due to hemophilia. The song represents how things can change dramatically in an instant and Smoak’s recovery.

“[The title is] ironic because I wasn’t running on crutches,” Smoak quips. “It was a metaphor for imagining if you just get picked up by the wind and carried away, something grand would come up and you’d get embraced.”

The difference between telling a story in a memoir and telling it in a song is the former calls for raw visuals and specifics to put readers into a scene. According to Smoak, it’s a writing style that doesn’t work in songwriting.

“You want to be vague and metaphorical,” he notes, “and let a listener carry a song into their space or whatever place they want to drift into. If I am too restrictive in scene-setting or too direct in what I was saying, it just wouldn’t work. It took me a long time to figure that out as a songwriter.”


September 6, 10 p.m.
Satellite, 120 Greenfield St.
Admission: Free

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