Interview recorded March 7, 2012
In a class all to herself, the electronically-soulful singer/songwriter/actress Sy Smith is back with her latest album, FAST AND CURIOUS. This talented lady has graced the stage alongside music icons like Whitney Houston, Sheila E., and Rickey Minor, not to mention also having sung background on American Idol. Akim Bryant caught up with Sy recently to discuss her overwhelming achievements, and what it’s like to be called the hardest working woman in underground soul music.
Akim: SoulMusic.com, Akim Bryant here, and today, for this particular installment, we have Emmy and two-time NAACP theater nominee, singer, song writer, and actress Sy Smith, who just released her fourth studio album, FAST AND CURIOUS, on her very own imprint, Psyko Records. She has also been called the hardest working woman in underground soul music. Welcome to SoulMusic.com, Sy.
Sy: Thank you. It’s really great to be talking with you today.
Akim: Yes, indeed. Let’s talk about you being the hardest working woman in underground soul.
Sy: Yeah. I’ve been called worse things than that. I’ll take that moniker. You know what it is? I just like to stay busy, and to do that, I try to have my hand in a lot of different pots; you know what I mean?
Sy: I really love what I do. I really love making music, and, for me, that means more than just being a recording artist. I love being part of other people’s bands. I love producing other people. I love writing for other people. So, yeah, you might see me with Shelia E one night, and a week later you might see me with Zo, doing a duo show. You might see me with Foreign Exchange a week after that. It’s what I love to do, you know?
Akim: Yeah, and it definitely shines through. So, yeah, I want to actually start to talk, before we get into the album officially--I want to talk about some of your resume. Basically, especially, in particular--which is a very timely moment, unfortunate at the same time though--you sang back-up for Whitney Houston, right?
Sy: Yeah, I did. That was one of my first gigs. I think it was my second gig; my first gig was Kenny Lattimore, and then, after Kenny, I got the Whitney gig. Yeah, her passing was untimely and extremely tragic for everybody, not just her family and daughter. There were so many people who loved her. I actually attended the funeral along with several former band mates, and we sang with BeBe Winans and Stevie Wonder. And the fellowship that was there at the funeral was, I think, just what the doctor ordered; you know what I mean? She brought together so many people, in so many different ways.
She taught me a lot. I know I learned a lot just being on that gig, being around her and all the other phenomenal musicians who were in the band at the time. Rickey Minor was the music director, and Paul Jackson Junior was on guitar, Kirk Whalum on Saxophone, and Herman Jackson on keys, and Bette Sussman also on keys. It was just an amazing group of people, but that was how she was. She was amazing--you know?
Akim: Yeah, we’ve heard so much, just since her passing, about her personality, about how friendly she was, and how she was always reaching out to other singers, to advise them, or even just to be friends with them. What was that experience like? Did you actually get a chance to talk to her one-on-one a lot?
Sy: I wouldn’t say a lot, but, you know, when we were on the road, she definitely--she wasn’t the kind of artist who just kind of stayed to herself in her room until the show. She would hang out; she would bring us all together for dinner, and we would still, like, go to a jam session, you know, that type of thing.
She was just amazing. And my first gig with her was live on HBO. It was Constitution Hall. I mean, it was like--I can’t describe the awe of being thrown into that type of situation. And I was really--I was a baby at the time--to go from zero to 60 in two seconds like that. That’s how it felt with her;that’s how she made me feel. She was on top of the game. She was so on top of the music; she was so on top of everything. She didn’t miss a beat. She heard everything. She would come over and help, you know, help us get it together vocally, if we were doing something, and she wanted to hear it a different way. She was just on top of it, man.
Akim: Yeah, me and a friend of mine--we actually … I don’t want to stretch out this Whitney conversation thing too far, but I think that it definitely deserves to be talked about, because a friend of mine and I were talking about just how much--a lot of people just classified her as a singer, and didn’t understand how commanding she was, especially when she was on stage with her band. All of the motioning, all of the everything was coming directly from Whitney.
Sy: Everything, yeah, but you know there is a lot of people … I think, in general, singers are undermined when it comes to being classified as musicians. She was definitely a master musician in that right. I think a lot of times vocalists … people just think that you wake up and you can sing. You don’t study nothing; you know what I mean? It’s years of listening and practicing, and it’s not just opening your mouth and some notes fall out.
Akim: Okay, it’s a skill. It’s definitely a skill.
Sy: Definitely a skill.
Akim: And you also got a chance to meet another one of your idols before he passed, the wonderful Michael Jackson.
Sy: Yeah, man. oh, my gosh. He … now, that blew my mind. I didn’t even know how to … it was one of those things where, after I met him … I was still on the road with Chris Botti, and I had just left American Idol, like, literally, left the stage to run to this Michael Jackson audition. And then I had my luggage with me, and I had to get back in my truck and drive to LAX. So, my head was all over the place. I literally …
Ryan Seacrest was, like, “and the person going home tonight is” and I was like “Me! Peace, y’all!” and I ran off the stage and ran and auditioned for Michael Jackson, and it happened so fast, and he was so kind and loving, it was like--when I got in my truck and was heading for LAX, I just started crying. I was, like, “Oh my god! I just met Michael Jackson! What the hell? Why am I even in the car right now?! I shouldn’t be driving at a time like this!” I was intoxicated with happiness at that point. You know what I mean? It was amazing. He kissed me on both cheeks, and he was another one who was really on top of it. He heard every single note that I sang, and sang it right back to me, and was, like, “Wow! That was great!”
Akim: Wow. That is awesome.
Sy: It was awesome! Oh my God! God bless him.
Akim: Yes, indeed. We lost two of our greats, definitely. So, who are some of the other people who have influenced you over the years?
Sy: You know, it’s so weird, even though I’m a vocalist--I didn’t really listen to a lot of vocalists, in terms of wanting to emulate vocalists. I think I listen to more horn players and stuff like that. Because, I really didn’t consider myself a singer for a long time.
Sy: Yeah, so it was definitely more like bands that had horn sections, like Earth, Wind and Fire, the Commodores, and Arcata, and Cameo, when Cameo had a big horn section. I had an aunt who lived with my mom, and she was older than me by probably 20 years, but she was so cool to me. I used to dig into whatever records she was listening to, and I think I tried to sound like a horn player more than anything. That was more my shaping, vocally, even though I was totally into Chaka Khan and stuff like that.
I knew I didn’t have that kind of voice, and I wasn’t really singing, growing up. I didn’t really start singing until later, but I made noise; you know what I mean? I made noise all the time. I would make these little tapes where I was like a journalist and I’d be, like, “You’re listening to the W blah blah news, do da do da do.” That was kind of like the soundtrack of my life--the horn section--and also, you know, I was a child of Sesame Street and Electric Company and that kind of stuff. The music on those shows was really influential to me, as well. I think that those songs from, everybody remembers, [singing Electric Company song] “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10,” and those kinds of things definitely influenced me. I think I grew to write songs to tell stories in the same way that I heard songs on Sesame Street.
Akim: So, how did you get to the point where you felt you could branch out and actually do the singing thing, professionally?
Sy: That’s a really good question, Akim. Because, it was like, I studied psychology at Howard, and I never went to a school for the arts, and that kind of thing, but I did start singing classical music in middle school. I was a big part of the choir culture, the All State, and All County, and All Eastern, and All American, and that kind of thing. So, when I got to Howard, I sang in the University Chorale for one semester, or two semesters, maybe.
Then, I was, like, let me get back to psychology, because that’s really what I’m here for. But then I really missed making music, and I joined a group called In Time, and we were like a Manhattan Transfer meets Boys II Men. I think it was with In Time that I discovered that I really want to sing again.
Then my boy out at Howard--his name was Scotty Beats--he also passed away. Scotty was an engineer, a studio engineer, and he was, like, “Sy, you can sing. You should come to the studio and just lay some vocals.” And through him I ended up becoming the demo girl. Like, whenever somebody wrote a song, I would demo it.
Scotty kind of taught me everything I needed to know in the studio, and then, also, I’m leaving out--when I finished high school, I joined this all-girl go-go band, and I was playing keyboard and singing back up. Now, man, watching the front line girls in that band--we were called Royalty--Watching them, I was, like, “Man, I want to be like that.” So I think the bug kind of bit me in a few different ways: the classical bug, the studio bug, and then the more contemporary bug through the go-go band.
Akim: Okay, cool. So you just released your fourth studio album; you’ve also had a greatest hits album, a live CD, and this latest one is FAST AND CURIOUS.
Sy: That’s what it is. Yeah, man. FAST AND CURIOUS, I’m so excited about this record.
Akim: How did that title come about?
Sy: Well the title track, the first track on the album is called “The Fast and the Curious,” and I think that song, in so many ways, represents the album. The song is really about--I’m sorry, if you hear noises. I’m watering my flowers.--The song is about a young lady who kind of steals this guy’s heart, and how, you know, he just kind of has this downward spiral because of her. But it’s also about how you can get sucked into something and not even know it, and I think, that’s what I want this album to be. I wanted people to get sucked into it and not even realize how that happened. So the album title is based on that track. I just took out the articles. I was a copy editor at Howard; I should mention that. I used to write headlines and stuff for the newspaper, and it was always, like, take out those articles!
Akim: Yeah, right. Well, I think it definitely works. I love the title, and I think, the title track, which is the first track on the album, helps to set the tone for what the rest of the album offers. I think that works out. Yeah.
Sy: Thank you, thank you.
Akim: What are some of your favorite songs on this album?
Sy: Oh, man. That is always a tough one to answer because they change all the time. They’re constantly in flux. I think right now I’m really into “Let the Rain Fall Down,” and I’m really into “The Fast and The Curious,” and “The Primacy Effect.” “The Primacy Effect,” I love because it’s probably the first time I’ve really used a psychological term in my music.
Akim: I don’t even know what that is. What is that?
Sy: Oh! The primacy effect is what happens when you learn something for the first time. So it never leaves you. Like, if you put your hand on a stove and it burns you, you’ll never ever forget that, because you know, after the first time, you’ll always remember stoves are hot, and that’s called the primacy effect. It’s the first time you learn something.
Or sometimes, you know, you hear a song, and you remember the first time you heard that song. Like, I remember the first time I heard “Cool Like That” by Invisible Planets. Like, that’s the primacy effect. And that song is completely about all the firsts, the firsts plural, that I experienced with my husband. Like, the first time we met, the first time we kissed, the first time we went out, blah blah blah.
Akim: Aw. How long have you been married?
Sy: A year and a half.
Akim: Nice. So still newlywed-ish.
Sy: Yeah, exactly. It’s still new.
Akim: That is awesome.
Sy: Thank you.
Akim: Any other songs? I know you have a duet with the incomparable Rahsaan Patterson.
Sy: I love that song. That is a Billy Ocean remake that both Rahsaan and I wanted to do. It was funny. He was here at my house and mentioned that he wanted to remake that song, and I was, like, I’d just gotten Mark De Clive-Lowe to do that track. I was, like, it’s too late; I’m already remaking that song, and he was, like--I think Rahsaan might have said, we should do it together or something, and then a couple of months later, I was in the studio recording it and I just sent out a tweet, like, “I wonder if @mynameis2long …”--that’s Rahsaan Patterson’s tag on twitter. “I wonder if @mynameis2long would come to the studio and sing with me,” and he tweeted me back and came through.
Akim: Wow. That same night?
Sy: Yeah. That same night.
Akim: Wow. That’s dope. It’s great to have an artist, especially like him, to support what you do and be willing to essentially drop whatever he’s doing at the moment to contribute to your album.
Sy: You know, it’s so cool because there’s way more love in the industry than people think--way more people looking out for each other, and you know, artists that do stuff and musicians that do stuff for each other just for love … way more than people think, you know? And it’s a community; It’s a sense of family that helps us all get to where we want to go; you know?
Akim: Yeah. Definitely. So there’s one other song that I wanted to talk about on the album, especially in relation to something that your press release mentioned, in terms of you. It said something about you vocally taking a bit more of a risk on this album, and I definitely heard it on the “Find My Way” track.
Sy: Oh, yeah, yeah. Huh. I know, I never sing up there.
Akim: I know. I was, like, “Wait. Where did that range come? Okay.”
Sy: I know, I never sing up there. It’s so funny. The track, when Mark sent me that track, I was, like, this song needs to be something that sounds like a flute, and that was my approach to writing that. I wanted it to feel like a flute. Again, here I am back to woodwind instruments, right? I think that’s why I wrote it in my higher register--You know--back to my classical roots. I was a soprano all in high school; I was a first soprano. I think, because I’m lazy, I never really sing up there. Even on Whitney’s gig, I was the soprano on that gig.
Akim: “Ain’t No Way,” the classic.
Sy: Yeah. Exactly, so I was, like, let me stop being lazy and write something up there.
Akim: I think it totally fits and you have the ability to go there, when there are so many artists who don’t.
Sy: Thank you. I appreciate that. I just try to write stuff that feels good and stuff that will feel good to do live and just feel good in my heart to sing. It would be really difficult to write something that didn’t feel good; you know what I mean?
Akim: Yeah, I get it. So how would you describe your sound overall?
Sy: Mmm … That’s a hard one, man. Let me see.
Akim: ‘Cause I’ve definitely heard you dip into so many different styles of music. Can you even pinpoint yourself down to a particular?
Sy: That, you know--I think my style is constantly in flux in the same way that whenever something is growing it changes over time; you know what I mean?
Akim: It should, at least.
Sy: Yeah, there’s always that element of who I was at three years old, but as I grow and get older, everything is in flux. So, that being said, I’m still a noisemaker at heart. I just … I like putting sounds together, just making noise. I like imitating instruments, and I think, for that reason, vocally, I’m definitely more into melody than just flexing my voice. I think that a lot of the melodies and things that I write-- you can definitely hear that I played piano first, more than singing in church or anything like that.
Akim: And did you think--I know you dabbled, but you went to school for psychology, so did you have a completely different vision for what you would do professionally while you were in school?
Sy: I didn’t know. I thought I was going to be a clinical psychologist. I got a degree in psychology with a minor in music therapy, and at the time, Howard and Catholic and Trinity were the only colleges that had certified music therapy programs. So, I was thinking that I would be a clinical psychologist using music therapy as a tool to bring about behavioral changes. My mom was a retired psychotherapist; my father’s masters was in sociology, so it was kind of just in my blood. I think my junior year was when I started saying, I think I want to not go to grad school just yet. And even though I had taken the GRE and started looking at PhD programs in psyche all around the country, actually. I did really good in college. I did really good in school. Yeah, I graduated magna cum laude. I was getting mail from all kinds of colleges, like, come here and study. I think it was my junior year when I decided that I wanted to explore some other things in my life, and see what else I could do. I worked on Capitol Hill for about nine months for a lobbyist.
Sy: Yeah, right? And then I moved to California after I got a part in a play. I moved to L.A. and then was, like, man, yeah, performing. That’s what I want to do. So, I went back to D.C. and got my stuff, and drove back to California.
Akim: Did you, um, I know there’s a bit of a--like a big difference basically between the indie soul scene on the west coast versus the east coast. Did you have to make any adjustments, personally?
Sy: Well, there was no indie soul scene when I left D.C. There was no indie soul scene at all. Yeah, it was a long time ago. I’ve been in L.A. for 14 years, I think. But, yeah, there was nothing popping off back then. The only indie soul scene was go-go, and there was no indie soul scene in L.A. when I moved here, either. None of that stuff existed. I was, I think when I started doing, making records independently, I was kind of part of a pioneering group of people here making indie soul records. It was like Medusa, Tim Hill, and myself to start. I think we kind of started that scene.
Akim: Wow. Pioneers.
Sy: Yeah, there were no other--there were no really indie soul groups. I mean, there was indie hip-hop, but hip-hop has always sort of been that pioneering spirit.
Akim: So was it kind of like, basically, where you felt like you had an open lane to do whatever you wanted to do, or was it just more difficult trying to make people understand where you were going, musically?
Sy: It wasn’t difficult getting people to understand. It was difficult getting venues to understand. And so I couldn’t get booked anywhere unless I was going to pay a promoter to book me, and I wasn’t about to do that. So, I had to start my own sort of venue. I started this thing called Bitchcraft, which was a showcase I did once a month to feature women in the performing arts.
What was cool was, I didn’t just have singers, I had comedians, I had actresses do monologues, I had dancers presenting pieces that they had choreographed. My girl DJ Sparks--she would spin between each act, then at the end I would play like 40 minutes or so, and that was really the whole point, for me to have a place to play. But it really was cool because we featured a lot of really talented women, doing lots of different things. Not just singing, but we did have a lot of singers that came through, too, you know. Signed and unsigned, we had Macy Gray, we had an artist name Pru. It was really like a cool spirited event, you know?
Akim: Yeah, that’s dope. That’s dope.
Sy: Thank you.
Akim: You’re releasing, or you’ve released this fourth studio album FAST AND CURIOUS, on your own label, Psyko Records. So, why “Psyko”?
Sy: I know, right? It’s like all the psychology talk. Psyko was originally a company I had with my good friend Kobi Wu, so Psycho stood for the partnership of Sy and Kobi. But it was also a play, of course, on the whole psychological bit.
Akim: And you also have been nominated for an Emmy.
Sy: Yeah, that was exciting. That was for a tune that I wrote for a movie called “Dancing in September,” an HBO movie that starred Nicole Ari Parker and Isaiah Washington. I wrote the opening montage, the opening song to go with the montage that appeared at the opening of the film … wrote it specifically to that montage. I watched the montage and kind of made the words go with what you saw on the screen. I tried to do it in a way that wasn’t too corny, so it wouldn’t be like everything you saw wasn’t something that came out of my mouth, but … and there were a lot of parameters I had to work with like, the song--they wanted it to be a certain beats per minute, I don’t remember how many; they wanted it to be a minute and a half long and blah blah blah. Yeah, so there were some parameters, but we made it work.
Eric Walls was on guitar on that, and Eric Coombs was on bass, and Mark Sparks did the drum program, so a shout out to all of them for that. And, yeah, it got recognized. And it was cool man; I went to the Emmy’s.
Akim: Yeah, that’s big time right there.
Sy: Yeah, it was big time. I loved it. I was up against some big time people too, so I didn’t win nothing, but [laughing].
Akim: Yeah, but even to have the nomination, that’s dope.
Sy: Yeah, that was dope. That was dope.
Akim: Now after all you’ve been able to accomplish, so far, career wise, I guess, what has been, or maybe what still is your biggest challenge, moving forward?
Sy: Mmm. That’s a really good question. What is my biggest challenge moving forward? I think--I mean, honestly, I want to be at the point where I can stay home more, because I’m ready to do that, you know? I’m married; I want to have a family. I want to have kids. I want to have a dog. So my biggest challenge is to make a living in a way that I can stay home more. I think that’s my biggest challenge. It’s hard for a woman. Unless you’re a millionaire, it’s really hard to have a kid and be on the road and do all that kind of stuff. Shout out to all the mothers who do it, but I can’t imagine doing that.
Akim: It is a lot to have a family to care for and try to move around when you have so many demands from across the country, to maybe even around the world. It’s a lot.
Sy: Absolutely. It’s a lot. And even … I said it might be a little easier if you’re a millionaire, but even just being a mom is a tough business, and it’s a lot of work, but that’s something, I think that’s the biggest challenge for me. I want to be able to make music and stay home more.
Akim: Okay, all right. Well thank you Sy, for taking this opportunity to talk to us here at SoulMusic.com.
Sy: Thank you. It was fun talking with you.
Akim: Thanks. I enjoyed it, too. How can your fans keep up-to-date with you?
Sy: The easiest way would be at my website, www.SySmith.com. From there, you can hit my Facebook Page, my Twitter page, my CDBaby, Bandcamp, LastFM, all of that good stuff. But you know, hit me up on SySmith.com and I’ll probably write you back, because that’s how I am.
Akim: You have some shows coming up soon, right?
Sy: I have a … good grief, what do I have? May 3rd in New York with my man Zo. Zo and I do a duo show together. Zo is from the Foreign Exchange music family. So he plays keys, I play synth bass and I sing all the songs, and it’s a really fun show. So that’s going to be at Drom on the Lower East side--Drom on May 3rd. Then on May 5th, we’re at Apache Café in Atlanta--May 5th. And I think we may have some stuff before that, but off the top of my head, I don’t know. I go to sing tomorrow with Sheila E.
Akim: Yes. I forgot to talk about Sheila.
Sy: Yeah, Sheila--she played timbales on what’s going to be a single from the album “Personal Paradise.”-- The radio version she played on, so I’m really excited about that. Yeah, I can’t wait to release that. That’s going to be phase two of the push of the album.
Akim: Yeah, I just caught up, caught her episode of Unsung.
Sy: Oh, yeah, wasn’t that great?
Akim: That was good. I just love that series, period, because you learn so much.
Sy: That series is awesome. Oh, my gosh. TV-One is doing it for me with that series. It really is.
Akim: I love it, but yeah, it’s just great to still see her still doing what she loves to do, and just , especially doing the type of music that she loves to make.
Sy: She and the whole Escovedo family just are just a joy to work with, and we just came back from Indonesia two nights ago, and I think the Latin Jazz kind of thing that they do is so relevant and so funky. The kind of family that they are, they’re just dope. I love working with them. They make you feel like you’re an Escovedo. They call everybody in the band an Escovedo.
Akim: I love it.
Sy: I love it, too. Yeah, everybody’s family.
Akim: All right. Well, thanks again for this opportunity, and good luck with everything that you have going on, and, hopefully, I can check out that show here in New York.
Sy: Oh yeah! You’re in New York! Right. Yeah, you’ve got to come to that.
Akim: Okay, cool. All right.
Sy: All right. Thank you so much. It’s been great talking with you.
Akim: All right. Thanks, same here.
Sy: Okay, peace.
Akim: All right. Take care.
About the Writer
With nearly a decade of experience in programming content for Music Choice (24/7 music channels, cable-on-demand shows, website and cell), Akim Bryant has just begun to scratch the surface of journalism having already written for GIANT and The Source magazines as well as a number of start-up publications. This self-professed R&B junkie also has a strong knack for the art of interviewing. Be on the lookout for his semi-autobiographical debut novel coming out in 2012.