If Berklee College of Music is the formal training ground of America’s pop, jazz, and R&B darlings, The BRIT School (also known as London School of Performing Arts and Technology) is certainly the United Kingdom’s. Adele, Floetry, Jessie J, The Noisettes, Kate Nash, Kate Melua, Jamie Woon, Leona Lewis, Imogen Heap, Amy Winehouse, Lynden David Hall and now the young Shan Smile (the former Shanice Smith) are all alums. While musically the list is as varied and diverse as any Berklee alumni list, what is consistent about all of the listed is a strong appreciation for clean, accurate singing with a focus on distinctive phrasing. Among the most famous there is also more than a hint of jazz studies present in their musical approach coupled with an appreciation for gospel and the blues. In this ingénue’s summer soft introduction of fresh-faced acoustic material, Smile represents some of the best traditions of the music school that helped birthed her vibrant styling.
Currently a Middlesex University Music Business & Arts Management student, the 20 year-old singer/songwriter looks the part of the coffeehouse folk singer. With Bohemian clothes, thick, natural hair, dewy skin and clear-eyed optimism, there is a sweet quality to Shan Smile that beams through her second release, He Loves Me, giving it a feel-good lightness while tackling weighty themes (her first, 2011’s My Debut Album, is a wholesome, but under-produced affair). It is young and wholly believed, lacking much of the cynicism, profanity, and macabre tones that permeate so much contemporary youth music. Even the EP title, He Loves Me, is heavy with declarative belief.
That isn’t to say this a Pollyanna project of Lawrence Welk hokiness. Shan isn’t naïve about life and love, just hopeful about the human capacity to love right and change. The relationship dilemma of “should I leave or should I stay” weighs in the atmosphere “Love Obstruction (Pll),” a song as much about hearing one another as it is about sticking through the rough times. “Move On” speaks of the street and personal tribulations Smile observes today, but strikes an encouraging note when singing of progressing through fears and troubles. The two movements of “How Do You Do It” are ying and yang, one nearing rebuke in its frustrated questioning of the world’s happenings (“how do/is this your way to make a change?”), the other repeatedly answering with unwavering certainty (“we have to make a change”). When Smile asks you to fly with her on her quest to make that change on “Fly Away,” you’re packing bags before you know it. In this ability to inspire through acoustic songs about the personal and political, Smile is solidly following a long line of folk singers hoping to change a generation with just her voice, a guitar, and some heartfelt pleas.
While the setting is folk, Smile’s phrasing and vocal influences are more in line with the more famous of The BRIT School alums. Jazz inflections of a bygone era and the pristine gospel tinged runs are aligned with the work of Adele and Winehouse. Those imprints are most apparent in the EP’s standout track, a live performance of “Bite The Bullet,” a sassy sonic sister to the jazzy pop of Peggy Lee’s “Fever” and the PPP cover of Paul Simon’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover.” The spicier, more dynamic composition is better suited for Smile’s soulful style than the plaintive acoustic work, which can indistinctively blend without attentive listening.
Shan Smile has been gifted with a pure voice and highly trained by the best in Britain to deliver her simple messages of resilience and togetherness with a skilled technique. Her challenge now is to stand out in a crowd of similar acoustic soul café singers (ala India.Arie) of near equal talent, if less distinction. Partnering Smile with producers and arrangers who can further assist the burgeoning talent in discovering compelling and inventive ways to share her stories without overpowering production gimmickry that’s so common will be the test of Smile’s longevity in this game. Moved by her stirring penchant for optimism, I’ll say that progression is just a star-making album away for London’s next sensitive songbird. Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson