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Songs in the key of Lisa: Yeardley Smith on her favorite Simpsons musical numbers

From "Union Strike Folk Song" to a duet with Lady Gaga, The Simpsons' Yeardley Smith shares her favorite musical moments from the show
Yeardley Smith at the 25th annual EMA Awards in 2015 
Yeardley Smith at the 25th annual EMA Awards in 2015 
Photo: Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images
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After 32 seasons and 706 episodes, The Simpsons may have lost some of its charm for fans, but for Yeardley Smith, there’s still great potential and delight in being part of Matt Groening’s long-running animated sitcom. Smith voices Lisa Simpson, the beyond-precocious 8-year-old who’s often been seen as the heart or conscience of show. The Emmy winner has starred in films like As Good As It Gets and TV shows like The Mindy Project and Mad Men, but she’s still happy to be known as the voice of Lisa, whom she describes as “a remarkable, beautiful, lovable, multifaceted, complicated, perfectly imperfect little girl.” The fictional second grader’s actually taught Smith a lot about resilience: “For as many things as [the writers] give Lisa at the beginning of an episode, 22 minutes later, they’ve taken it away. [Laughs.] That that girl’s able to get out of bed ever again after 32 seasons is kind of a miracle.”

Smith’s voice is one of the most recognizable in pop culture, and she’s been lending her talents to the true-crime podcast, Small Town Dicks, which she’s hosted for four years. But she never thought singing would become such a big part of her Simpsons gig, and she certainly never dreamed of duetting with performers like Lady Gaga, Emily Blunt, and Benedict Cumberbatch. Though Smith tells The A.V. Club the many musical moments create “a lot of anxiety” for herself (and “tremendous joy” for the writers who come up with them), she was eager to share her top seven musical numbers from The Simpsons.

The A.V. Club: Music is obviously a key part of Lisa’s character, which is why she’s had these big numbers we’re about to discuss. But was music a big part of your life before you signed on to the show?

Yeardley Smith: I took piano when I was a kid and quit after three or four years. When I knew I wanted to be an actress, I took singing lessons. But once I moved to New York, I would go on these musical auditions and I was so out of my depth with people who had these extraordinarily powerful voices. I had really good pitch, but I couldn’t compete in that arena, so I stopped auditioning for Broadway musicals, because I clearly couldn’t cut it there. So I don’t know where anybody got the idea that I could really sing. I have a good ear, but I don’t really read music. This is me [normal voice] and this is Lisa Simpson up here [character voice]. So to sing as Lisa, I kind of have to squeeze my throat a little bit, which is completely the opposite of what you should do to sing. I think people’s perception of Lisa voice is that it’s very high, but I’m really more of an alto, or a second soprano at least. And so, very often, the top of the range of the song is like, “I can’t get up there, because I can’t do it. It’s just impossible. Could you drop that a third, or can we do some sort of modulation?” But still, they have Lisa sing a lot. They get tremendous joy out of it. I get a lot of anxiety.

“Union Strike Folk Song” (from “Last Exit To Springfield,” season four, episode 17)

YS: I remember the conviction in the lyrics and in Lisa, so even if the notes aren’t perfect, I think it goes a long way towards selling a song. In this case, the song was actually pretty much in my range. It bears mentioning that even if it’s slightly out of my range, they very graciously allow me to slip out of Lisa Simpson a tiny bit, so that I can hit the notes. Like in “God Bless The Child,” on The Simpsons Sing The Blues, there’s no fucking way I could’ve hit the top of that song as Lisa Simpson. I had to drop in some of Yeardley in order to belt that out, because it physically couldn’t happen.

But the “Union Strike Folk Song” was a pretty perfect fit. I love that she was out there by herself. I love that it’s sort of an old school way to stake your protest. And I was so surprised—I’m still surprised—that it’s a fan favorite. I’ve had a lot of correspondence on Twitter and stuff about that song and people remembering it fondly.

“Second Grade Blues” (from “Moaning Lisa,” season one, episode six)

AVC: What’s great about this song is the way it combines these lyrics, which are very much written from the perspective of an 8-year-old, with jazz, which is a genre of music that feels very grown-up.

YS: It was the perfect combination. They hit those lyrics on the head. Anytime Lisa gets to lament what a pain-in-the-ass Bart is, is always hilarious for me, and I think Nancy [Cartwright, who voices Bart] enjoys it as well. To your point, it’s a very different song if you don’t give it that bluesy cadence, if the notes don’t reflect that style of music. As is, it’s this great, sophisticated, charming mixture of this child who’s an old soul, singing about the things that turn her day upside down. I loved it. I remember, I was like, “Oh, this is so special. This is so magical.” Again, the lyrics fit so well, and it tells the story so perfectly, that if the notes aren’t exactly perfect, nobody cares, because it’s a really good story, and you’re listening as much to the story as you are to the musicality of it.

AVC: This song actually led to a studio album. Has there been talk of any follow-ups?

YS: No, not to my knowledge, but I do remember it as sort of a dream come true. I don’t know anybody who’s a performer who doesn’t dream of having at least one day as a rock star. I remember going into that studio and working with the producer. You have the best audio quality and microphones. You can hear yourself back in headphones. It was such an incredible dream come true. I probably worked on it for three or four days, the actual singing part, and it makes you feel like, “Oh, man, I can really sing. This is fantastic.” For all you know, they’re auto-tuning you as they play it back, but that’s okay. I’m all right with that. I’m trying to pass myself off as anything other than a yellow 8-year-old with four fingers.

Wow, that was fun! “God Bless The Child” kind of stressed me out—because again, it was a little out of my range—but I really loved singing “The Second Grade Blues.”

“Jazzman” (from “’Round Springfield,” season six, episode 22)

AVC: “Jazzman” is kind of a companion piece to “Second Grade Blues.” It’s also part of a very emotional episode, because we lose Bleeding Gums Murphy. What was that like for you?

YS: Oh, my God, awful. I mean, really, it was brutal. I thought, this was probably the closest thing Lisa had to a consistent friendship—somebody who really got her and stood in her corner and loved this thing that she loved so much, that we always joke that nobody else likes, which is jazz. When he died on the show, I just thought, “Wow.” It was ultimate blow of, “Let’s give Lisa something, and 22 minutes later, we’ll take it away.” I just thought, “Oh, how do you do that to my girl?” Because they had such a wonderful bond. They were these great soulmates. Even though they were different generations, they understood the same things. And he taught her so much, and he did it with such compassion and generosity. I was very sad about that.

“Everyone Is Horrid Except Me (And Possibly You)” (from “Panic On The Streets Of Springfield,” season 32, episode 19)

YS: Tim Long wrote that episode, and oh, he was all about it. He had studied so many Morrissey performances and interviews, and he was determined to nail it as closely as he possibly could. I just thought it was such a strong, brilliant, wonderful episode and one of the great things about being animated.

I didn’t get to sing with Benedict [Cumberbatch], because he was in London. They recorded him separately, but I did get to be directed over Zoom by Bret McKenzie. I was a huge fan of Flight Of the Conchords. He was so gracious and so kind. But I kept singing the harmony, and he’s like, “Okay, you’re singing the harmony.” [Laughs.] I was like, “Oh, God. Oh, shit. Okay, sing it again?” And so, he would have to sing it, and then I would repeat it, and then they would do the playback. And then I would sing the harmony. “You know what?,” he would say, “It’s kind of great. I don’t mind it.” I was like, “God, no, I really want to get it right for you.” I think I finally got one or two takes where I sang the melody. I don’t know why I kept singing the harmony, because again, I’m not innately musical that way. But the fact that he was just not fussed by it and he was like, “I love it. It’s fantastic,” was so fun. He’s everything that you want him to be. He was delighted by what was coming his way out of my mouth. He couldn’t have been lovelier. He did an extended remix of the song and it’s on Spotify, which is fantastic.

I didn’t know Benedict could sing. He recorded his bit ahead of me, so I had the great pleasure of listening to him, which is why maybe also I couldn’t concentrate, because I was like, “This is so great.” I was in a cloud, in a fog. But he was fantastic. When he was doing Quilloughby, he wanted the character to come from Manchester, and he was self-monitoring his accent. He’s truly one of the most talented actors we have in our generation.

“You Are Loved (Don’t Give Up)“ (from “Lisa The Drama Queen,” season 20, episode 9)

YS: It was such a great song to belt out. Again, they always pair me with these people who can really sing. Emily Blunt is Broadway-caliber. And Lady Gaga! I was like, [to the producers], “You guys, I hate you. You’re such assholes.” Both of those women sang their parts ahead of me singing my part. But still, I was not a particular fan of Josh Groban. I didn’t dislike him, I just didn’t really know his music very well. But oh, my God, how fun. What a wonderful, thrilling, just-let-it-all-hang-out moment. There was so much joy in singing that Josh Groban song. I loved how much they loved him. I loved that we actually named him. We didn’t do a parody, it actually was Josh Groban. It was such a charming episode.

I do love it when Lisa Simpson goes all out, and is such an 8-year-old. Again, back to “Moaning Lisa” and “Second Grade Blues,” where she is telling her truth as an 8-year-old. And I felt they really nailed it, from a little girl’s point of view. Why wouldn’t you go all over the neighborhood, belting out songs like that? Of course, you would. I thought that was great. Yeah, that was so fun.

AVC: And it does seem natural that Lisa would be a fan of Josh Groban—you know, somebody sensitive like that.

YS: One-hundred precent. His worldview feels empathetic and optimistic. I feel like he wears his heart on his sleeve and so does Lisa. So yes, you’re absolutely right, kind of a perfect fit.

“Maybe This Time” (from “Warrin’ Priests,” Part Two, season 31, episode 20)

AVC: This seems like a less intuitive pick for Lisa, but what a fun parody to work on. There are actually a lot of song parodies throughout the show. Do you prefer them to the original songs? 

YS: I probably have more fun with the original songs. First of all, nobody’s comparing you to either Liza Minnelli or Kristin Chenoweth, like with song parodies. I love Kristin, so I was like, “All right, I’m going to learn it that way.” The most harrowing thing was in the first draft of that script, that song was the opener, and I had to sing it at the table. And our table reads, if you’ve ever been to one, it’s a huge conference table, and the writers sit all around one end, and the actors are sitting on the other end of the table. Then we have about 50 people who have been invited as guests to watch this table read. It’s really pretty extraordinary, because it’s the only time our showrunners are going to get a live reaction to the jokes and all that stuff.

So here I am, in front of, I don’t know, 50, 60 strangers, singing this song that’s so complicated, a capella. After the first stage direction is read, I’m like, “I hate you all. This is so mean. Oh, my God, you have to be kidding.” But your only alternative is to completely go for it. When I tell you I listened to that song 100 times, it’s no exaggeration. I was like, “I’m going to fucking nail this,” because that’s part of my job. But also, I would much rather give it everything I have and know that I have prepared as best as I possibly could—again, not being a musical person—and fail that way, as opposed to half-assing it and going, “Well, I didn’t really try either.” That’s just not my style. They loved it so much, I got applause. They were like, “Oh, my God, it’s so great. Yeardley sings. She sings so great.” I’m like, “No, I don’t. No. You guys, stop that. Stop it. Stop it.” And that song is, I don’t know, it covers an octave and a half, or something. I’m like, “People, help me out here, help me out here.” Oh, God.

AVC: But it’s great that you guys can all still find ways to challenge yourselves.

YS: Yes, yes. People actually ask me that a lot, if I get bored playing Lisa Simpson. Two things: One, as I said earlier, I genuinely love her and every time I get to play her it is like spending time with somebody that is a part of you, that you grew up with, that you never want to be in a world without. And two, every week, the words are different. So it doesn’t mean that obviously there aren’t days sometimes, just because happens in every job, where you’re like, “Today, I’d rather not go to work.” But the overarching feeling is, “Oh, goodie, I get to visit one of my favorite people ever.”

“Lisa Simpson Superstar” (from “Lisa Goes Gaga,” season 23, episode 22)

YS: I don’t think Lady Gaga came to the table read, but she did record with us and she was fantastic. She’s so beautiful, so humble, and so game. When we record an episode, we do every scene four times. If we still didn’t get it right, if the writer who is directing us is like, “Okay, now I want to go back and do some pickups of some specific lines.” if you’re not used to that process, it can make you feel like, “Oh, shit, I really stink at this.” But that’s not it. We do it four times because they want four options. And then if they didn’t get it, they just didn’t get it. It’s just part of the process. It’s not necessarily a reflection on you. Sometimes the writer has a very specific sound in their head for this particular line. I don’t know if somebody explained that ahead of time. We always brief our guests on the rare occasion that they come in and record with us. Nowadays, because of technology, you really can pick people up anywhere around the world, and it’s quite easy. But she came in, and we said, “This is the process, so just don’t freak out. All good.” And I got to stand next to her, and that was thrilling.

She brought her guitar and played the song. I did not sing at the time; I came back sometime later. Now it had all been scored, and I worked with our music director. Again, Lady Gaga had already recorded her part, and I didn’t know that. Chris Ledesma directs the actors when we sing, and he has perfect pitch. When I tell you I have good pitch, I’m still like, “Dude, listen to me. This is not my area of expertise. I may not get a quarter note higher or lower, just because it sounds not quite right to you. I’m not sure I can hear that. That’s like a dog, hearing the sound that humans can’t hear. I don’t know what to tell you.”

So he’s directing me, and then they’re like, “Okay, now let’s hear it back.” So then they start to play the song, and Lady Gaga starts to sing. I’m like, “What the fuck? Honestly? Really?” I sounded like I was chewing on metal parts and she is just this extraordinary singer. I just thought, “God, why do you guys keep doing this to me? Why do you do this?” But they couldn’t have been happier. They were like, “Oh, no, it’s so great. It’s great.” I was like, “Oh, I’m choking on humble pie here, people.” Not that I ever thought that I could keep up with Lady Gaga, but when you hear it side-by-side, you’re like, “Okay. All right, don’t quit your day job, Yeardley.”

AVC: Is there someone you would like to do a duet with?

YS: I love Kristin Chenoweth, but I don’t want to duet with her—I’d like her to come and sing on our show. She can do that. I just want to watch and listen. I remember being on a flight from New York just before the pandemic, and I watched two of those Pitch Perfect movies and loved them. I think any of those girls could come on and sing. Again, I’m happy, because I want to sit in the audience. You guys do your thing. I will just stay over here.

But if we’re having a non-singing guest, I really want The Rock to come on and strike up a friendship with Lisa Simpson. I just think that would be one of those really special episodes, much like when Lisa Simpson befriended Sideshow Bob for that one episode. Two such disparate people, who you would never think would find common ground, come together and find common ground, and it was magic. Kelsey Grammer actually came in and recorded with me on a separate recording day. He says he usually does this stuff separately, and it was brilliant. It was one of my favorite days of recording ever. So I just think we could get some real gold out of a friendship between Lisa and Dwayne Johnson. So put that in. Maybe he’ll read it and go, “I want to do that.”