Unconventional fits Sy Smith’s music and style

LOS ANGELES-Sy Smith doesn’t want her creative juices to ever get stale. That’s probably the chief reason why her  musical sound defies conventionality. Smith’s music is anchored in futuristic soul. She can do the neo-soul thing. Throw in a dash of jazz, grab a pinch of R&B, find room for some electrosoul and chew on a bit of funk, and now you have the Sy Smith sound.

“I never want to be bored as an artist, as a creative person and in my career,” Smith said in an interview with News4usonline Editor Dennis J. Freeman. “I just never want to be bored. I  just want to continue to have an interesting life.  That’s what I want. I don’t want the fun to stop.”

In the four albums and 20 singles she has released, Smith’s musical showcase is all over the place. One moment she’s rocking the jazz scene with trumpet man Chris Botti  on The Look of Love and vibing with ace saxophonist Michael Lington on his hit Some Kinda Way. The next moment she’s joining forces with soul man Anthony Hamilton on the hot collaborative effort Bad on You.

Sy Smith is often referred to as the Underground Queen of R&B and Soul. Photo courtesy of Sy Smith

There’s no one particular category that you can try to fit Smith’s sound into. Her talent in the musical realm is too demanding to be boxed in. The one conclusion you can come away with from listening to the Underground Queen of R&B and Soul is that she can sing, no matter what musical genre she’s locked into.

All one would have to do is check out Smith’s credentials as a songbird and all-around musician to conclude she’s a verified badass in the music industry. She’s gone from singing backup for some of the biggest names in the business such as the late Whitney Houston, Eric Benet, Brandy, Usher, and Ginuwine to writing songs for Carlos Santana and Mya and working with revered percussionist Sheila E. and the E Family Band

Embracing the musical talent that have allowed her the opportunity to rub elbows and collaborate with these high-profile individuals have been somewhat of a surreal experience, Smith said.

“That is the strangest realization to ever think about yourself,” Smith said. “I’ve had to start sort of embracing that my talent must be better than I ever thought it was, to be able to walk in the same room as…I just saw Sheila (E) at Capital Jazz (Fest), and we were hugging and stuff. It’s been a pretty amazing ride. I’m just kinda of blessed. I cherish it. I know so many people who wish they could have the kind of career that I am having. I don’t take it for granted.”   

Sy Smith’s distinctive, five-octaves singing voice has been heard on collaborations with Chris Botti and Michael Lington. Photo courtesy of Mike Quain for Quain Photo

Perhaps the reason why Smith doesn’t take her gift for granted is that she never considered herself to a be a singer in the first place.  

“I’ve always been a noise-maker,” Smith said. “I didn’t consider myself a singer for a long time. I’ve always been a musician. I played piano from a very young age. When I started signing…most people who sing-they’ve been singing since they were like two, as soon as they could start talking, they’re singing. I wasn’t that girl. I made noises. I imitated things. I imitated horns. I imitated voices, talking voices. I was always recording myself, making noises, making up little songs. I didn’t really start going public with it until fifth grade, which is  late.  And the first choir I auditioned for I didn’t even make it into because I was so shy.”

Being shy isn’t something you can attach to Smith these days. When you sport a bodacious, Angela Davis-type afro as your signature style calling-card and run your own record label (Psyko! Incorporation) as Smith does, shrewd businesswoman would be the more suited title for the Howard University graduate.

Getting to know and appreciating who she is as an individual and as a creative being is simply a byproduct of what Smith saw in front of her growing up. Both of her parents attended historically black colleges. Instead of buying her daughter the traditional Barbie doll, Smith’s  mother would bring home black dolls for her to play with. The imagery of Diana Ross on television and otherwise, affirmed what black beauty was to Smith.

Sy Smith’s musical journey has included touring with the late, great Whitney Houston, Sheila E. and the E Family and writing songs for artists like Carlos Santana. Photo courtesy of Michael Quain for Quain Photo.

“(She had) a kind of beauty that is untouchable,” Smith said. “Not unachievable, but untouchable, and a presentation that is just undeniable. In an industry where there are characters presented of black women-there have always been these historical characters-there is a mammy character or these asexualized characters of black women, and she defied all of that.

“In the early 60’s, when she was being first put out there, that was something we didn’t see. Maybe, unless you go back to Lena Horne. But still there is a colorism thing there that we’d be remised if we didn’t mention that allowed Lena Horne to sort of achieve things. She was still a sister, there’s no doubt about it. [But] Diana Ross, it was like ‘wow.’ This is an actual brown girl.”  

To Smith, Ross is a lot more than just a beauty icon.        

“Diana Ross represents, to me, all of the things that black girls were told we could never be,” said Smith. “She just did it. And still is doing it. She’s just kind of royal to me, and her possession of herself and her femininity. She’s really powerful to me.”

Seeing this iconic role model she could adore as well as looking up to her mother has played out into Smith personally and as an artist. The sound of her music, from her rookie album Psykosoul to her last CD Fast and Curious, is reflective of that upbringing.

It also reveals the rich and layered vocal chops that makes Smith a wanted commodity in the music industry. The whistle-register soprano has toured with Botti for the greater part of a decade. American Idol nabbed her as a backup vocalist for the hit television show. Smith’s unmistakable voice, along with Rev. Al Green, is spotlighted on “The Way Love Goes, the theme song for Soul Food, a syndicated television series that originally aired on Showtime.   

Her resume and musical pedigree speak for themselves. She’s pretty hot stuff. But Smith takes her success in stride and said she’s just trying to be true to herself. That means defying barriers in style and sound. Her musical journey is a gateway to both social-consciousness and love. 

“My whole being is very much reflected in my music,” Smith said.

Right now Smith’s music trending more towards old school. In recent years, she has gravitated to the Minnie Riperton sound and embraced the scat wonderment of Ella Fitzgerald. Going from electrosoul to doing the jazz thing appears to be a natural evolving direction for Smith, who is producing her next project.     

“My new project is definitely leaning a little more jazz,” said Smith. “I only say that because a lot of live instrumentations…the texture feels a little more jazz than electronic. That being said, I think it’s the sort of natural progression of where I’ve come from to where I am now. I’ve always sort of had leanings that  were left to straight of R&B and left of pop, way left of pop, and I’m touring with a jazz trumpeter for the last ten years and now I’m doing these tributes to Ella Fitzgerald and all the iconic women of jazz. So I think it makes sense that my new stuff is definitely leaning that way. It’s sort of an evolution of a person.”  

Dennis J. Freeman
About Dennis J. Freeman 1107 Articles
Dennis covers the NFL (San Diego Chargers), NBA (Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers), Major League Baseball (Los Angeles Dodgers) and NCAA sports (USC, UCLA, Long Beach State). As a professional journalist, Dennis has also covered and written on topics such as civil rights, politics and social justice. Dennis is a graduate of Howard University.

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