Sy Smith Interview by Tom Paul

Where do brains, beauty, incredible musicianship and a savvy knowledge of business get you? To a place most Indie artists would love to be if they work hard and focus their energy on all the gifts they are blessed with. Sy Smith has toured singing backups for many big name artists (Whitney Houston, Eric Benet, Brandy), written songs and sang on many other records, television shows and film. She is currently singing backup vocals American Idol in the house band. She has also found the time to release her critically acclaimed new release "Conflict".

You can check out more on this amazing artist and hear some of her sound at these links http://www.sysmith.com/ or at www.myspace.com/sysmith

You can also purchase her new CD at this link http://www.soultracks.com/cd_of_the_month.htm which is the featured CD of the Month, which will be autographed by Sy Smith.

Sy Smith will be performing in Detroit on May 31st with Frank Mc Comb http://www.frankmccomb.info/ at City Theatre 8:30 show and cost is $29, please check out the flyer at the end of this interview.

I want to thank Chris Rizik at Soultracks.com for putting me in contact with Sy Smith's PR guy Matthew Daniel www.myspace.com/soulismspr to get the ball rolling with this interview. Good to know people are reading these interviews that I've posted.

Matthew Daniel is a great PR person to know if any artists are heading to the UK for a tour, he writes a wonderful blog on Indie Soul music, please check out at this link http://www.soulisms.wordpress.com/

TP: You are considered one of the pioneers of the Indie Soul movement before the phrase was ever coined. Now that you are releasing your new Solo project "Conflict", how do you view the growth of the Indie Soul movement over the years?

SS: I didn't realize that I am considered one of the pioneers of the Indie Soul movement!  When I started taking control of my music career, it was mainly out of necessity (the mother of invention).  I figured out that the only way the public would be able to hear my music was if I released it on my own.  Everything just blossomed from there.  I am proud of other recording artists/producers/musicians for taking their dreams into their own hands.  It makes me proud that together with the listening audience, we created a demand for a specific type of venue/format/style and then we supplied that demand.  We created a demand for CHOICE.  Thinking people like to have choices, they don't want to be spoon-fed.  I believe that the indie soul movement is a movement for thinking people.  The growth of the movement is directly related to the expansion of people's minds, and for that I am truly excited!  I'm always happy when more people are thinking instead of sleep-walking.  Ya know?  So I guess it's nice to know that some folks consider me to be amongst the leaders in that movement.

TP:  Tell me about your newest release "Conflict"? Did you produce this yourself? Co-Produce?

SS: I exec produced "Conflict".  I saw over all of my own recordings, wrote the lyrics to every tune (except the Minnie reprise), sometimes co-wrote music too, put together certain musicians for certain sessions, hand-picked tracks/producers that I wanted to work with... etc.  Even the photo shoot for the artwork, I spear-headed.  I typed all the liner notes, credits, and walked all of the materials into Discmakers for manufacturing.  It was SO MUCH WORK! And quite expensive.  But I think it will pay off.  I'm so happy with the finished project!  Conflict is my baby right now.  My favorite child!

TP: Do you find yourself working with specific group of musicians that you are comfortable with on your project? Or do you like to bring in different musicians that bring various elements to your sound?

SS: I treat every song differently.  So I choose the musicians depending on what I'm doing.  Also, there are times when I'll just have a sound in my head, but not a whole song per se.  So I'll call the musicians who fit the sound in my head AND who will compliment each other.  We'll go in the studio and just vibe on the description of what I'm feeling.  Then that feeling will evolve into a song.

TP: With you being such an in-demand backup singer for touring/television appearances, commercials and writing for film, how do you fit in time for your own art?

SS: I don't make time for my art.  My art makes time for me.  My art forces its way into my life, whether or not I summon it.  I write because I have to. I sing because I have to.  I make music because I must.  I'm like Bed-stuy.  I gotta do it or die.

TP: How long have you been singing backups on American Idol? What is the band schedule like when you tape American Idol? Do you have X rehearsal time during the week with the band working out the arrangements and then rehearse with the contestants? I guess what I'm saying is what is a typical day like schedule wise?

SS: I've been part of the live orchestra since Season 4.  American Idol didn't have live music prior to that.  Ooooh weeeee, the band schedule...  Well, it usually commences with us rehearsing the top 24 contestants' songs on Saturday and Sunday.  When we rehearse, the other two backing vocals and I isolate ourselves somewhere and learn the tunes/arrangements using both the charts provided and our ears (many times, vocal inflections and subtleties can't be charted, so we have to rely on our ears as much as anything).  Then we come together with the band and run the tunes before lunch.  After lunch, the contestants join the band and we run their tunes until each contestant is comfortable.  Usually 2-4 times.  Sometimes we make adjustments like changing the key, or alter the endings, etc.  Rickey Minor, our music director, is extremely good at helping the contestants feel comfortable as they are under so much stress.  Then on Monday we run the show for the top 12 males (or females) and then film it.  It airs on Tuesday.  Then Tuesday we run the show for the opposite gender's top 12 and tape the show.  It airs on Wednesday.  Then Thursday the results show goes live.  When we get down to the top 12 contestants, we rehearse the tunes on Monday, then the shows are live on Tuesday and Wednesday.  The days go anywhere from 8-10 hours.  Oh yeah, on Sundays when we get down to the top 12, we record full-length versions of the contestants' songs at Capitol Records recording studios.  

Are you tired yet?  LOL!

TP: How do you apply your degree in Psychology from Howard University into the lyrics you write? You must feel like you have a playground to work with lyrically with that knowledge stored in your mind?

SS: I don't know that I consciously apply my knowledge of psychology into my music or lyrics.   At least, not anymore than anyone else does.  We all use psychology in everything we do I'm sure, only difference is I know the terminology that goes along with it.  I do feel like I have a playground to work with lyrically though, but that's probably because I read ALL THE TIME.  I read so many books, it's pretty crazy.  If I have to fly somewhere and I don't have a book to read on the plane, I break my neck getting to a book store the night before the flight.  I was also a copy editor at Howard's newspaper, so I've become a bit of a grammarian too.  Ha ha!  Imagine that...

TP: How many instruments do you play besides your voice?

SS: I play piano.  That's pretty much it.

TP:  When was the last time you sat down to play classical piano for yourself? It must be a great relaxing escape when you find that time?

SS: I haven't done that in a long time.  I should though.  It would be easier if I had some of my old books to play from... Bach was one of my favorites to play, so if I could get my old Bach book, playing would be a nice escape for me.   My boyfriend plays classical piano and I enjoy listening to him from time to time.  He plays Debussy really well, kinda romantic right?

TP: When you are ready to produce one of your songs do you go into the studio with a set idea of the arrangement? Or do you let the flow of musicians take it to another place?

SS: Sometimes I have a specific arrangement in my head, but I don't get married to anything before I get into the studio.  I don't really sing out loud until I get to a microphone, so many times I write the songs in my head and don't hear them out loud until I get into a studio.  I just recently started demo-ing my own song ideas in Garageband, which is a very cool tool for working out songs.  But before that, I'd let a song stay in my head and wouldn't sing it for anybody until I got into the studio.  The studio is like a birthing place for the songs for me... The songs are in me until I get to the studio, but I won't really get to see how they'll turn out until I record them.  In the same way that people might know that they're having a boy or a girl, but they won't know what the kid looks like until it's born.  

TP:   I love the futuristic sound of your production, where do those inflections inspire from? Specific musicians? Specific Records that influenced you? Producers?

SS: I'm a noisemaker.  I like listening to noises too.  So I'm inspired by lots of things including music but also sounds in nature, sounds of the city, rhythms in everyday things like the coffee grinder, windshield wipers, cordless toothbrushes... haha!  Of course, I've been influenced by lots synth-based music (like some of the late 70s Stevie Wonder material), but I've always been tuned in to beat-driven stuff like The Art Of Noise, Portishead, and mostly all hip-hop of the 80s and early 90s.  I also love soulful house music, especially that out of Chicago, Detroit and Baltimore.  The more I answer the question, the more influences come to mind... Specific albums that have hit me particularly hard include Prince's "For You",  Take 6's first album (self-titled), Tribe's "People's Instinctive Travels..." and "Low End Theory", De La Soul's "3 Feet High & Rising" and "De La Soul Is Dead", Beastie Boys' "Licensed To Ill", Chaka Khan & Rufus' "Stomping At The Savoy", Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers "Best Of...", Rare Essence's "Live at Breeze's Metro Club", John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" and "My Favorite Things", Patrice Rushen's "Best Of..." Brainstorm's "Journey To The Light" - Oh my God!  So many to name!!  Ali Shaheed is one of my favorite producers (and one of my favorite people), I love DJ Premier and Pete Rock too.  Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis to me are the best production team ever to have walked the earth.  Rich Harrison is also a wonderfully-talented producer.  I also love the orchestral arrangements of Clare Fischer.  Jeez, I almost forgot to mention everything Michael Jackson has ever done.  I'm trippin'. 

TP: Name 3 artists that you'd like to go out on the road with that you have not toured with and why? What do they bring musically that excites you?

SS: I'd love to tour with Sting - he's amazing, constantly evolving, the perpetual student.  I'd love to tour with Prince because he's so damn funky!  Just when you think he can't get no funkier, he funks harder!  I love that!  Those two names come to mind immediately.  Hmmmm, let me think of a third one... I'd love to sing with Michael Jackson, but can he even sing anymore?  It seems like singing would be hard to do with all of your orifices damn-near sewn shut.  But in my dreams, I see Michael Jackson and a very small band, maybe drums, keys, guitar, bass, percussion... maybe even 3 horns and 3 BGVs (okay, that's not such a small band anymore) touring venues like House Of Blues, or 9:30 Club (in DC) and singing stuff from Off The Wall, Thriller, Destiny, Triumph, etc...  Wouldn't that be the bomb??

TP: What was the last few recordings you purchased? What made you want to buy those recordings?

Little Dragon.  Love the way her voice sounds, love the songs and the subjects.  I also bought "Stevie Wonder presents Syreeta" - my voice has been compared to her so much that I needed to hear a full album and see what the fuss was about.  I like the way her voice makes me feel and I like that particular album a lot.  I also recently purchased Mitch Hedberg's "Mitch Hedberg Together".  He was a really funny, extremely talented comedian who died before his time.  If you like comedy, I highly recommend getting this from iTunes or wherever you can find it!

TP: Are you working on any new projects outside of your own work that you can tell us about?

SS: Mark Whitfield (jazz guitarist and happens to be my cousin) has a Stevie tribute project that I worked on, it's really nice!  I have another CD that's in my head at the moment, it'll probably be coming to fruition before the end of the year.  I won't say much about it, but I will tell you that it might be categorized as jazz.  MIGHT be.

TP:  With your busy schedule, when you do find time to write new material? Do you have a production team that you work with? Or do you prefer to work with various people?

SS: I don't really force songs.  When they come to me, I write 'em down.  Kinda like I said earlier, art finds time for me.  If a song comes to me though, I like to record it almost immediately.  I don't like sitting on ideas at all!

TP: How hands on are you the music business end of your own projects? Do you have your own label? Are you doing the PR, Marketing, arranging the Street Teams, setting up the shows? Or do you have a management/label team that assists with these duties?

SS: I'm so hands-on, it makes no sense at all!  LOL!   I handle almost everything that needs to be handled.  I also have my good friend Pattie Howard who handles my booking, stage and production management, and general organization.  I've also forged a new distribution deal with MDI Distribution, so my products will be more accessible and in most retail stores.  (For Japan, Daryl Cura at Mahasa Music is the distributor).  For that I'm truly grateful because it was becoming a pain in the neck packing boxes with CDs and going to the post office every other day!  Ha ha!  I did get to know some of the postal employees very well though, so now I can jump the line and act like I was there earlier... hee hee!  (Maybe I shouldn't have told you that...)

When it comes to shows, I pretty much conceptualize the set myself.  Sometimes it's agonizing, because unlike most major artists who do the same show until they release a new record, I like to change up every show.  It's only fair to the folks who come out, because nobody really wants to see the exact same set twice.  So I'll jot (or type) set list ideas and gradually come up with a set I'm happy with.  I'll e-mail the set to my music director or my band  (in L.A. I don't have a set music director but in DC I have Dre King as my MD).  Then the band comes together for one or two rehearsals.  We tighten up material that we already know and then we spend more time on new tunes.  We'll run the show one or two times and the next day or so, we hit.  On stage, I'm still not married to the set list and will often add to or delete from the set list.  Even when we shot my live DVD "Worship At The Temple", I think I skipped a song on the set list... I'm kind of notorious for doing that.

As for a street team, I don't have one that I know of... Maybe someone reading this will start one in his/her city.  Matthew Daniel www.myspace.com/soulismspr is doing publicity for me in the UK and beyond.  He's a soul music enthusiast in every way!  My mom handles fan club from her home in Tennessee.  She's the best!

TP: Name some Indie artists in any genre that really move you live when you've heard them perform?

SS: I love Omar live (is he an indie artist?).  I absolutely love hearing Stokely of Mint Condition!  I like going to Eric Roberson's shows when I can.  His songs read so well live.  There's a band in L.A. called the Boogaloo Assassins, kind of a cuban-mambo type band.  I like hearing them play a lot.  I like hearing Tortured Soul live.  I like going to hear the Oz Noy Trio, it's a jazz group sort of, but I like them so much that I had to mention it.

TP: What artists, records or live concerts helped shape the sound of Sy Smith today?

SS: Can I copy and paste my answer from number 10?  LOL!  I'm very much influenced by all things Michael.  I love Prince and most sounds that came out of Minneapolis during those days.  I'm a b-girl at heart, maybe I was a rapper in another life time or a break dancer.  I'm very much influenced by the golden era of hip-hop.  I love the intensity of Nina Simone and The Last Poets.  I also like big band and the light-hearted nature of some early Duke Ellington, Count Basie.  I love the timbre of the clarinet.  I love bands with prominent horn sections like Earth, Wind & Fire.  Never realized how much I'm influenced by Minnie Ripperton until recently when I started playing around with my whistle tone... But when I listen to her placements and her interpretation, I'm definitely inspired.  I'm very much influenced by all of the aforementioned things.    I also like sunflowers and pretty smiles.

TP: Thanks for your time and when is your next show and where?

SS: My next show is May 31 in Detroit.  The line-up is me and Frank McComb.  I've attached a flyer with all the info...  Please let the readers know they can find my music at http://www.cdbaby.com/ and my DVD at http://www.filmbaby.com/.  My websites are http://www.sysmith.com/ and www.myspace.com/sysmith.  Thanks!  Sy

 
Featured Album - Will Downing - "Romantique, Part 1"
Featured Album - The Soul Rebels - "Poetry In Motion"
Album of the Month - Plunky & Oneness - "Afroclectic"
Choice Cut - Chris Jasper - "For The Love of You"

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