This virtuoso vocalist inhabits every aspect of what the art of being a vocalist represents, from growing up studying horn lines to emulate them with her voice to her hypnotically perplexing vocal arrangements and use of self-controlled effect pedals, she embodies the exact definition of art with each note she sings. With many nominations and notable collaborations under her belt with artists like Chris Botti, producers like Mark de Clive-Lowe, and more recently Zo! (from The Foreign Exchange), she has increasing kept people watching and with her fourth record coming out in March, Fast and Curious, her further exploration into a more intensified electro-soul sound will have everyone in Syberspace ready for the next party on the moon.
Since this is something that just happened, the loss of the great Whitney Houston, I wanted to ask how your experience was working with Whitney?
I was in Nashville and had just finished sound check when I found out. Zo! said to me, “Did Whitney die?” My phone started going bananas but I had a show to do. It was hard to talk let alone sing when your grieving, so I had to just try to do the job I was there to do. My heart immediately went out to Whitney’s daughter, Bobbi Kristina, mainly because in the audience that night was my mother. Everyone is thinking about this great loss for the music world, but this is someones personal loss, the loss of their mother and she was definitely a mother first and foremost. My heart and prayers went out to Bobbi Kristina, Whitney’s mom, Bobby and her brother Gary.
The experience singing with Whitney was unbelievable. I was a kid, I was like 23. My first gig with her was live at Constitution Hall on HBO. It was my first major gig with anybody let alone Whitney Houston. The amount of pressure was crazy. Back then, we weren’t singing to tracks or recording ourselves and singing on top of that, or singing on top of backgrounds that were already running from the protools set up or anything like that, everything you heard was live. That was us; us being me, Sharlotte Gibson and Pattie Howard. I can’t stop looking at the clips from that show. It was such a special night and for everyone that shared the stage with Whitney that night. This performance was the beginning of my relationship with Rickey Minor who was the music director for Whitney at the time. I went on to do a lot of phenomenal things with Ricky after that night and still work with him from time to time.
Whitney had a song off the My Love is Your Love album called, “I Learn from the Best,” and that is how I felt when I sang with her, I felt like I was learning from the best. She was the best there ever was, some would say top 5 or top 10 but she did things that nobody thought a female singer could do, a black female singer could do, an R&B singer could do, a church singer could do, she crossed every boundary, every line and broke the ceiling every time someone tried to put one there. Even on a night that wasn’t so stellar where her voice maybe wasn’t at it’s best, she still made me cry. Every time. That is the kind of connection she had, her voice was connected to something bigger then herself. She was anointed. It’s definitely been a touch few days but I am blessed to have those wonderful memories to fall back, cherish and hold close to my heart.
Thank you for sharing that with us Sy. She will definitely be missed and loved by many.
Can you talk about where you grew up, growing up singing, and what influenced you to start singing?
I was born in New York but grew up in D.C., the surrounding DMV (“The District, Maryland and Virginia”) metropolitan area and was most definitely influenced by the whole Go-Go scene in D.C. You can hardly be a musician in D.C. and not be influenced by Go-Go. It’s D.C.’s own thing and every area in D.C. had a Go-Go band that you played with in your high school.
When I was young I started playing piano and in high school playing in a Go-Go band. I didn’t really start singing until later. Most people start singing when they are like 3, but for me, it didn’t happen until much later, around 5th or 6th grade. I was singing in the PG’s County’ Honors Choir, my music teacher in school at the time could tell that I had a gift, she thought I was really good at hearing and could harmonize really well. I feel I listened to music differently than the other kids in my class and she recognized that. So, I went on to do that whole choir scene, which is more of a classical upbringing than singing in church. It was really hard for me to sing in church, I did sometimes, but it was really hard. I was so intimidated by the singers in church, I usually sat back watched and listened. I also competed in classical vocal competitions rather contemporary vocal competitions and solo and ensemble. Myself and a few other girls would get together and put together a chamber piece and compete with those sort of arrangements. That’s what I was into at the time. I also listened to a whole lot of different types of music, but I didn’t listen to a whole lot of singers. Strangely enough, I didn’t grow up singing a lot of Whitney Houston, I knew about it and knew it was there, you could barely avoid hearing someone like Whitney on the radio, but I was definitely more of a B-girl and definitely more into hip-hop and I think that shaped my writing by being more of a rhythmic singer more than anything else. I was also really influenced by horn players. I listened to a lot of horn players and a lot of bands that had horns like your Cameo’s, Earth Wind and Fire, your Barclays and anybody else that had a lot of horns in their bands, that’s what I was into and that’s what I tried to emulate with my voice.
Michael Jackson was a huge influence. I really like arranging background vocals and I just love Michael’s background vocals, especially on his later projects, not Michael the kid, but Michael from “Can’t Help It,” Thriller, and Off the Wall albums. But yeah, I definitely tried to sound like a horn player when I sang, and it was such a coincidence that I toured a few years with Chris Botti, because that’s exactly what I tried to be. I tried to play the clarinet for a few years but wasn’t very good at it, but that is one of my favorite sounding instruments in the orchestra, probably my ultimate favorite. I just love horns, any kind of horn.
The video where you are performing with Botti and the Boston Symphony Orchestra along with Mark Whitfield is incredible, can you talk about that performance and furthermore, how it was touring with Botti?
Man, I loved that tour, I had so much fun. As with any tour, I really love being a part of the band, I think vocally that shows. I don’t think I approach singing like most singers because I don’t separate myself from whatever the other musicians are doing. I consider myself to be an instrument, just like the drummer or piano player, I am always listening to what’s going on around me and on that particular tour there was so much ear candy: Billy Kilson on drums, Billy Childs or Peter Martin on Keys, all of these giants on one stage together, including my cousin Mark Whitfield on guitar, and all of us coming together to provide this very sort of lush backdrop for Chris’s playing which really lends itself for that kind of thing. I learned so much on that gig. I ended up doing something with Chris that no other singer had done with him before, singing in my whistle tone and hitting notes higher than the trumpet could go [laughs], it was a lot of fun and I think I kind of pushed him a little bit just as much as he might of pushed me which is always a good thing when collaborating.
Do you consider jazz music to be an influence on your vocal style at all?
To be honest, my introduction to jazz was through the godfather of Go-Go and that was Chuck Brown. He covered so many jazz songs and I think any kid in the ’80s growing up in D.C. was heavily introduced to jazz through Chuck Brown. He did song’s like “Moody’s Mood for Love” and “Harlem’s Nocturne,” before I would go to the record store and buy a Duke Ellington record, I was buying Chuck Brown. My mom played a lot of Nina Simone and Coltrane around the house but when I got older I really started checking out Ella Fitzgerald and really loving Ella, can’t get enough Ella in my life [laughs]. I don’t know if my singing or my voice has been inspired by them in anyway, because I listen to myself and I don’t think I sound like the people I love, like I really love Chaka Khan’s singing for that matter and I don’t sound anything like Chaka, but I love how singers like Ella and Chaka sound. I think I still sound like a child [laughs]. I think my voice has matured definitely but still has the same tomber I had when I was 10.
Were there any records that you studied a lot ?
Going back to my love for clarinet, I also listened to a lot of big band jazz records, definitely Duke Ellington. The way I arrange vocals, that definitely tends to be similar or influenced by horn parts that I would hear. Earth Wind & Fire, I could not get enough of them and their horn parts. Those were definitely records that I studied closely.
Can you remember other records that you sang to growing up?
I remember Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things,” listening to that a lot but strangely enough, I didn’t really sing out loud unless I was performing or in choir rehearsal or something like that. I didn’t walk around the house singing, I would just kind of take it in, listen, you might catch me mumbling something. And I’m still not the kind of singer that walks around the house singing, a lot of my understanding and comprehension of singing like the horn players that I listened to, that comprehension was very mental, it was a very heady way of learning music, I mean, to listen to something and not repeat it, listen to it over and over and over and over but not repeat it vocally, I think that was a huge contributor, even to this day, to how I approach singing. I just listen over, over and over, then when it’s time to sing, Bam. I think that’s the reason why I don’t sound like a lot of people that I loved, because I’m not singing with them or to their music.
Let’s talk more about your voice and the art of your vocal instrument. I saw a few clips where you use effect pedals, can you talk about that and what inspired you to start using effect pedals?
You know, I’m a gadget geek! I’m a little bit of a geek all the way around and yeah, I like using these effect pedals, you know, I don’t travel with a sound engineer, so if I am going from one spot to another spot, the engineer doesn’t know my show, he doesn’t know what songs require what, they can’t apply the proper effects to where I need them to be for each show. I can’t expect them to, so the pedals serve that function. They free me up from the dependence of the sound engineer. I can put delays where I want them, or reverb where I want it to be. And then, I really like the freedom to change my voice up on stage, or add an octave or throw in phaser sound. It allows me to lean in the direction of where my music tends to do which is a little more electronic. I think the pedals help me a lot in that respect and also set me apart from what I see other people doing and really, it just fits right into what I doing musically. Of course I have pedals, I’m a cyber chick [laughs]. It just makes so much sense for what I’m doing and I have a lot of fun using them.
Zo! and I have been doing a lot of shows recently, and I play synth bass as well as keys. So, I’m there with my synth bass, keyboard and pedals, working it out, this super-sonic, cyber-rific set up, it’s exciting.
Let’s talk about your new record coming out, I saw that Mark de Clive-Lowe produced the record, he definitely has more of a dance, electro/soul vibe to his music. How did that collaboration come to fruition?
I just loved working with Mark first and foremost. Mark is a jazz pianist and the progressions never get boring with him. The one thing I wanted to do was an album that sounded like and reflected the party that was going on in my head. I just felt this big party going on in my head, almost like Burning Man but not in the desert, a big party in the rainforest. And Mark, the way he crafts songs, it fit perfectly with that notion because the beginning of the song might start off one way but by the time the end comes around it’s a whole different song. It’s almost like part one and part two. Working with Mark was really cool because he definitely pushed my musical boundaries but also framed a lot of what I was already hearing and the album, entitled Fast and Curious, is man, it’s exactly what I wanted it to be. I think it’s the first time I’ve set out to do something and it’s exactly what I wanted.
You’ve collaborated with a slew of other notable producers as well ….
Yeah, I have 3 albums under my belt, Psykosoul was my first, Syberpace Social was my second and Conflict was third. Producer’s included Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Nicolay, James Poyser, Dre King , Ty Macklin, lots of different producers on those projects.
Who produced the “B Side Love Affair,” I really love that song.
Thank you, that would be Ty Macklin. It was really cool because originally the track was what you hear but then I did this thing while in the booth, I found a walkman somewhere, like physically opened it up and flipped the tape over and snapped it back shut in the mic and I sent that to Ty, and I told him I wanted him to do a second part of the song but sound completely different then the first half, like the remix version. He totally got the concept right off the bat and me knocked that joint right out the park. He killed it, props to him. He’s from Dallas, T.X. and I think he did “Apple Tree” for Erykah Badu back in the day, he did some stuff on her first album, he’s a name everyone should know because he is a real good brother and wonderful producer.
Let’s go back to your record, when is it coming out and what can we expect musically?
It’s coming out March 6th and it’s called Fast and Curious. I think the title is so perfect because that’s really what it is. It’s definitely a departure from some of the other things I’ve done in the past. I think at this point, I’ve really established who I am artistically, so I don’t think it’s that much of a departure where people won’t get it, but it’s definitely a party in the rain forest. It’s a bunch of half naked people gettin down in the middle of nowhere, kind of like the rain forest being on the moon [laughs]. It’s cool because I’m singing in a way on this album that I haven’t sung on other albums. I’m not holding back vocally, you never know what your voice will evolve into, like I don’t know what I will sound like 10 years from now, but I think because it’s been 4 years since I’ve done a studio project, I think my voice has evolved a little bit and you can definitely hear that. The writing, I’m very pleased with the writing. I think lyrically, I touch on some places that I haven’t touched on before and I’ve very proud of what I’ve done lyrically with this album. Mark de Clive-Lowe put his foot into these tracks man, it’s just bomb. I have one feature on the album and it’s with Rahsaan Patterson , we re-made Billy Ocean’s, kind of an obscure classic, called “Nights, Feel like Getting Down,” you know, no one other then me would expect me to do a Billy Ocean song [laughs], it’s such a groover and jammin’ tune, and Rahsaan killed it! The first single has Shelia E playing a percussion timbale solo but that’s not the same version that’s on the album but it will be the single version. I’m excited about it and can’t wait for everyone to hear it.
Any shows coming up in NYC?
My next New York show will be with Zo! on Thursday, May 3rd at Drom.
Check out Sy Smith Online
Interview by Meghan Stabile