She Won’t Break: An Interview with Alice Smith

Alice Smith is discussing “Break”, the song that opens each show of her three-week residency at Joe’s Pub in New York City. “Who is going to save you from yourself?” goes a line in the bridge. It’s a question that could be directed towards friends and lovers alike. At the moment, however, Smith’s target includes label executives whose seeming expertise guides recording careers: “Who is going to save you from yourself and your stupid decision?” Tinged with exasperation, her voice crescendos. “Where’d you get your job? Out of a crackerjack box?”

That conversation was two years ago when Alice Smith was signed to Epic Records. Two years later, she’s extricated herself from the “crackerjack” brigade of her former label and is planning the follow-up to For Lovers, Dreamers & Me (2006), the album that landed her atop critics’ lists and netted her a Grammy nomination in the Best Urban/Alternative category. Slated for a winter 2013 release, She is being funded by Smith’s fervent fan base via Kickstarter and without the meddlesome hands of a major record label.

In February 2010, though, anyone watching the New York-based singer-songwriter hold court at Joe’s Pub eagerly anticipated the following May, when Smith’s crop of new songs was tentatively scheduled to drop. Smith exhibited the malleability of her scale-defying voice — deep and resonant, ringing and full-bodied. Coupled with a commanding yet unassuming stage presence, she not only prompted quiet gasps from the crowd but also from those who later viewed her performance on YouTube, evidenced by comments like, “I love her soooo much. I CAN’T STAND IT”. During her residency at Joe’s Pub, Smith spoke with PopMatters and proved that the character in “Break” is far from fiction.

Long before Smith emerged from New York’s myriad music scenes, she anchored herself between Washington, D.C. and her grandmother’s farm in Augusta, Georgia. Amidst a backdrop of ’80s pop, she heard Nina Simone and classical music in equal measure, plus an array of formidable vocalists. “My mother used to play Nikki Giovanni records”, she recalls, “Patti LaBelle, Tina Turner, Angela Winbush, Anita Baker, those ladies. There was not a lot of jazz but my uncles produced and managed this gospel group in Augusta. They rehearsed in my grandmother’s basement. We would go on the road with them sometimes. I didn’t even think of it until this past year, ‘Oh yeah. I was on the road!’ I do remember thinking that if I wanted to sing like anybody, I would want to sing like the lady that was the lead singer. That’s when I was five up until ten or twelve. I just kind of always sang. All the kids always sang, so I never really thought about it.”

Despite her precocious talent, Smith didn’t seriously pursue a career in music until after attending Fordham University in New York during the late ’90s. “I was waiting tables”, she says. “I started school thinking I was going to do fashion marketing and I realized I didn’t know what I was talking about. At another point I thought I would be a professor. I really ended up liking school a lot, but I didn’t have any idea of what I was going to do. Even then, it wasn’t like, ‘Oh I want to sing.’ It only happened a little while after that, that I started to enjoy it and say this is actually for me.” Between a back-up stint with Greg Tate’s Moomtez and her collaboration with bassist Maximina Juson in Jolie Fuego, Smith explored the bounds of her talent and slowly stepped towards a solo career.

Signed by UK-based BBE Records, Smith released For Lovers, Dreamers & Me in 2006. Produced by Alex Elena, the album generated praise from high-profile outlets who noted Smith’s ease with a range of musical styles. Rolling Stone selected her as one of the ten “artists to watch”, while Jon Pareles of The New York Times heralded Smith “a vivid, unpredictable presence” and stated that the four songs she co-wrote were the album’s “most daring”. Indeed, unyielding rhythmic thrusts alternated with smoldering, sensually charged soul on “Gary’s Song”, “Love Endeavor” boasted a hypnotizing hook inside a dreamy groove, and the stirring, slightly brooding “Dream” showcased the dynamics of Smith’s voice, from understated to unrelenting. The latter was even featured in episodes of Entourage and The L Word, exposing Smith to a wider audience in addition to her appearances on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, and Jimmy Kimmel Live.

Released on Epic in the U.S., the album equipped the singer with a rock solid repertoire. In concerts, “Dream” unfailingly drew the loudest response, but audiences also savored Smith’s interpretation of Imani Coppola’s “Woodstock” (a key album track) and her cover of the Pretenders’ “Don’t Get Me Wrong”. By 2010, however, she was ready to invigorate the set list and shelve some of the more road-worn songs. “I’ve been singing that CD for at least three or four years on a pretty consistent basis”, she said at the time. “I played it a lot. Thinking about it now, I didn’t write half of those songs. I wonder if that made it feel even longer. I was just singing and singing and singing and they weren’t even all my songs. They weren’t all about me. I don’t know when I would actually get tired of singing these new songs. They’re just so much closer to my heart.”

“Break” is one of those songs. Whether performing the song with a full band or stripped down with a guitarist, Smith has a visceral relationship to the lyrics. Standing before a crowd, her eyes narrow and her voice opens up. Her stance is strong and her tone is direct. “Don’t you take my love for granted”, she admonishes against an infectious backbeat. Her gaze could pierce even the most staunch adversary: she won’t break, but he will.

Though she might have made concessions on the first album, Smith mandated that whatever new songs she recorded must respect her musical vision. “I want it to be just a little more personal and straightforward”, she said in 2010. “I don’t want any producers to say, ‘We’re going to make it into la-di-da.’ On the last album, a lot of times people were saying the show just sounds totally different from the album. It became how could I make this album more like the show? It will be honest. It will be true to the music as opposed to some other bullshit — the ego of a producer or the ego of another writer or the system.”

The studio spawned one of the most gripping songs Smith has in her ever-growing catalog. If she yells “Fire” in a theater, don’t run. Stay and marvel at how the textures of her voice change in a heartbeat: quiet and quivering and then erupting with volcanic force. What transpires in her mind as the notes rush from the depths of her soul? “What the fuck were you thinking with this fucking song? You’re never going to be able to do this all the time”, she laughs. “The air goes through”, she explains about the mechanics behind the power. “That’s all it is. A lot of hot air!” The song itself exhibits Smith’s talent for storytelling. After the blazing vigor of the chorus, the music ebbs to a simmer where Smith sings, “Everybody’s going to be talking about this for 100 years from now. Everybody’s going to be talking ’bout how they burned the whole place down.” Bathed in red light, she tells a tale that’s as vivid as the spotlight on her face.

Though “Fire” isn’t based on any actual experience, the rich character study of “Martha” is. “Nobody wants to be your friend today girl, they’d rather walk away from you” is just one line that’s culled from Smith’s life. “It’s based on a lot of experiences”, she says. “You have friends and you love them and you see the value in them. They just keep getting themselves turned around. They just keep missing the point. How is it possible that you don’t see what you’re doing to yourself and how you’re alienating yourself from all of those that would be able to help you? She’s great, she’s your friend. You love her but nobody can be bothered. Everybody’s like, ‘Oh my God. I saw your friend. She cornered me and was talking all kinds of crazy shit.’ You want to help people because you love them and the thing that is stopping them from seeing it on their own is the same thing that is making them refuse to take it from you, the person they should trust and go to for help.”

Of course, there’s more to Smith’s concerts than dramatic portraits of ne’er-do-wells, both real and fabricated. Her medley of “Far Away” and “Hey Yeah” is one of the highlights of her show. The former has the transporting effect of a cool breeze on a steaming, sultry day, while the reggae-tinged “Hey Yeah” skips along languidly, allotting some room for Smith to improvise, climaxing in one of her full-throttled belts. “I like to try to have fun”, she says. “I can’t have too much fun. I might blow my throat out. I try to be loose. I’m trying to get the people in the audience to feel a little more comfortable. Somehow, I get the vibe that people think that it’s supposed to be mellow or very cerebral. They’re just staring. I’m always like, ‘Okay I know you’re trying to listen but if you could just let me know you’re out there having a good time… Enjoy the moment.'”

Fast-forward to August 2012 when Smith was one of two-dozen performers headlining Afro-Punk. The audience at Brooklyn’s annual festival of progressive music was anything but reserved when Smith took the stage. The one thing Smith shared with many of her co-performers like Janelle Monáe and TV on the Radio is that genre classifications are beside the point. A large part of her talent stems from satisfying many musical appetites without sacrificing her individuality as an artist. Smith regularly encounters “the inevitable question” — how do you describe your music? “I got to find out some way to describe it”, she said in 2010. “I still haven’t figured anything out. I feel like music is… either you like it or you don’t like it and you keep moving. It’s music. I don’t understand this need or obsession with all of these definitions and expectations.” Leading up to She, the one-off projects Smith’s completed since 2010 have reflected her mutability, from recording a cover of Cee Lo Green’s “Fool for You” to her duet with Aloe Blacc on “Baby” for Red Hot & Rio 2 (2011). Even “Fire” has retained its rock orientation on Swiss vocalist Stefanie Heinzmann’s recent recording for Universal in Germany.

The seven-year intermission between For Lovers, Dreamers & Me and She is nearly over. As of November 2012, Smith has exceeded her initial fund-raising goal of $15,000 on Kickstarter but is hoping to raise $40,000 in order to meet the projected early 2013 release date. In that time, Smith has seen major label presidents come and go, projects delayed and cancelled. She’s consistently sold venues out, even without a new record. She’s given birth to her first child and moved to the West Coast and back. All throughout, she’s reclaimed her artistic autonomy. To survive the maze of an industry whose rules keep changing requires an indomitable spirit. In life and onstage, Alice Smith embodies that. Like she says in the song, “I won’t break baby, I won’t.”