Culture

Raccoons, bitches, and positive vibrations: A conversation with cosmic funk diva Sy Smith

by Winston "Stone" Ford

Sy Smith is constantly on the move these days, spreading her funky soul sound across the music world. Indulge yourselves, as The Couch Sessions steal a few moments with the eccentric songstress.

Who are your influences?

Michael Jackson! Chaka Khan, Earth, Wind & Fire and any band with a prominent horn section (old Cameo for instance), Chuck Brown, Patrice Rushen, [and] Claude Debussy.

What was your musical childhood like?

I was a late bloomer in terms of singing. But I was very much into my piano studies and had to beg for piano lessons when I was about 6, then later had to beg for a piano! I loved listening to music on the radio then figuring out how to play it by ear and my mother thought I was a genius for that. But I also taught myself how to read music before I started in private instruction because we had these music books that came with this cheesy organ I had. I also paid lots of attention in my school music class (at Naylor Road Private School in S.E.). Something about music theory resonated with me. It was like a secret spy language. I loved it! I started singing later after a music teacher in 5th grade recommended that I audition for PG Honor's Chorus. I did that for the next 5 or 6 years as well as lots of school choir stuff (chamber, women's, gospel, concert, any choir you can think of, I was in it!). I also participated in classical vocal competitions. I didn't start singing more contemporary music until I finished high school.

Tell us about your days in the DC go-go scene.

After I finished high school, I got a call to audition for this band called Royalty (I don't remember how or who it was that I connected with in that organization because it was so long ago). Anyway, I went to this rehearsal studio in Seabrook and auditioned on keys for this all-girl band. I remember the keyboard player was so off-the-chain (her name was Cleo). I was thinking “what could they possibly want with me?” But they took me in and I soaked up everything those girls had to offer. Each girl in that group was so talented (I don't remember everyone's names, but Mia on lead vox, Erica on bass, Cleo on keys, Shauney on drums with whom I'm still in touch, there are a couple of other girls but I can't remember their names)! I studied the lead singers and Cleo and really just took a back seat (singing back-ups and playing additional keys). Almost everything I do now on stage has its basis in what I learned with Royalty.

Who or what inspires you to write?

It's funny, I've been writing longer than I've been singing. I seriously started writing poetry and songs and tidbits as soon as I learned how to write. So my inspirations are many things. I draw inspiration from really random things sometimes, like watching a little kid help an old lady with her groceries or seeing a pack of raccoons coming out of the storm drain (eww!). Anything can inspire me. Musically, if I sit at the keyboard (usually my Fender Rhodes) and start playing something, even my chords sound kind of random, but then a melody will come to me with words and it all comes together. I think I like to find patterns or correlations in seemingly random things.

How did you get your start in music?

In professional music, my first road gig was with Kenny Lattimore, an awesome awesome singer and beautiful person. His tour was perfect for me because all of the musicians treated me like a little sister and made sure that I learned the ropes. After Kenny's gig, it seemed that more opportunities came to the table for me and I just stayed in Los Angeles and made things happen.

What was it like when you first moved to L.A.? Why did you leave D.C.? How did you first make a living there?

I moved to L.A. to do a tiny musical at a theatre downtown. I moved out here on a whim, seriously! I saw the director of this play at this huge open call audition for Motown at the Rhythms Nightclub in Landover and he asked me if I could leave the next week. I quit my job and was outta there! After the play was done, I started temping because that's all I knew. But I started meeting lot of other musicians and they told me about auditions for tours and gigs; that's how I got into the “scene” and started working in music. I also did “casuals” (bar mitzvahs, wedding receptions, etc.) which was steady work for me. I learned a lot about performing in that line of work.

Tell us about your go-go show in L.A.? Why did you decide to do it? How was the music received?

Wow, Go-Go Live @ Temple Bar! Hee hee, I still get the giggles at the mere mention of it. For the longest time, I've been wanting to do an event like this in L.A. but I wasn't sure where to start. I just waited until an opportunity or an idea blossomed in my head. Finally about two months ago I thought to myself “Do it this summer!” So I called up the Temple Bar and told them the idea. Carlos, one of the managers, gave me the OK and I proceeded to put my band together and get promotions started. My band was to have some of the usual suspects who normally play with me (Cassandra O'Neil on keys, Agape Jerry on guitar, Stephen Bruner on bass, Chante Carmel on BGV) but I needed to be sure the drummer and percussionist were on-point. So I reached out to drummer Gorden Campbell who went to Howard while I was there and my good friend Big Tone who is also from D.C. Big Tone can play so many instruments but he volunteered to play percussion which although I had never heard him play, I completely trusted and knew he was the man I needed for that job! I also added three horns, Isaac Smith (who is a brilliant trombonist and arranger), Josef Leimberg on trumpet and Kamasi Washington on sax. I had a lot of anxiety about doing this show because it was so unheard-of in L.A. and everyone kept saying, “You're crazy, Sy.” But when it all went down, the response was ridiculous!!! Now everyone is telling me that I need to do it at least once a month! I'm like, “Y'all are crazy.”

What was it like singing backup for Whitney Houston and working with fellow Washington native Me???shell Ndegeocello?

Singing for Whitney Houston was amazing. Funny thing is I was never a huge fan. I was a b-girl, solely into hip-hop during Whitney's reign as pop queen. I was only made aware of her awesome abilities when she came to rehearsal for the first time. Her presence alone is crazy! She has such a powerful aura! Then her voice… wow, she is truly connected to something higher than most people could ever understand. I think she is often short-changed. Working with Me'shell is also amazing but in a different way. In Whitney's situation, I was in awe of all the musicians in the band and learning so much from them. But in Me'shell's band, she was the teacher. She's like working with the Miles Davis of our generation. She's always taking chances and stretching herself. I love that. She's very good at creating a mood and setting the atmosphere. Playing with her is like going to a 4-year college and majoring in Funk.

Tell us about B!tchcraft.

B!tchcraft was a venue I started back in 2000. At the time, I hadn't performed that much in LA because it seemed like the clubs/venues didn't really get who I was and what I had to offer. I've always believed in creating your own venue because you can't wait around for someone else to provide one for you… especially if you're a ground-breaking, out-of-the-norm kind of artist. So I decided to put together a monthly showcase for women in the performing arts and I called it B!TCHCRAFT, mainly for shock value for the prudes but also for empowerment for those of us who don't mind being “THAT bitch”! The showcases were quite well-received and were held at Lucy Florence Coffee House in Leimert Park. My girl DJ Spark helped me out a lot with this event and we did this for a little over a year. After a while, my schedule just became way too hectic and we couldn't continue, but we do plan to get it started again very soon. So stay tuned in for that.

What is the Syberspace social? What was the inspiration for the album?

This album is so special to me for a few reasons. Although “Psykosoul” was leaked via advance copies into the marketplace, that LP never was released so “The Syberspace Social” is actually my first LP release. Also, I oversaw the whole thing from start to finish. The inspiration for this recording came from many places. I've been heavy into mix-tapes and such for a long time. I was buying these really cool CDs from the UK by Mastercuts which had names like the “The Bar Social” or “The Pool Social” and I loved how the cuts ranged from De La Soul to The Clash to Badly Drawn Boy to Talib Kweli. I wanted my CD to feel like that, except I wanted the theme to be cosmic and spacey, with that same feeling we all get in the virtual world of cyberspace. And instead of having 12 different artists, all the songs would be by me but coming from different aspects of my artistry. That's how I came up with the title, “The Syberspace Social.”

How did you get to work with producers Ali Shaheed, James Poyser, and Nicolay?

Ali Shaheed and I go way back like Peabo Bryson's hairline, LOL. We met when I was working on “Psykosoul”, producing “That Ring,” “Waiting…Contemplating,” and “What I Am.” We've remained friends and almost siblings ever since. James Poyser and I also go way back from the early Kenny Lattimore days (pre-Jill, pre-Bilal, pre-Lauryn). He's another big brother. I met Nicolay at BeatSociety in NYC last summer. He told me he was my biggest fan in Denmark. Standing at 6'7, I told him he was probably my biggest fan anywhere!

What are the top 10 tracks in your iPod or cds in your stereo right now?

There are so many things to love these days. I'm digging Esthero's latest joint. I love this guy Bilal Salaam from D.C., I have 3 of his songs and I play them all the time, “So What,” “No It Don't,” and “Ova.” I also love me some mixtapes. The latest one I've been playing is DJ Cuzzin B's “While You Were Sleeping Volume 2″. Also been checking out Gorillaz' “Demon Days” and Common's “Be.”

How would you describe your music?

Soul – with everything that soul encompasses.

What do you want people to draw from your music?

I want people to discover things about themselves that they may not have realized before through my music. My music is about self-exploration in a lot of ways.

What aspirations do you have for your music?

Aspirations? Hmmm, I really don't have aspirations for my music. I think my music will always travel the path it's been deemed to from the Most High. As for my career, I aspire to continue growing as an artist and hopefully to become more of a household name to those people who truly appreciate the arts. I don't aspire to become an icon of any sort. I just want to be known to the folks who really care about the arts. Hope that doesn't sound too elitist.

What???s the next move for Sy Smith?

Paris. Italy. I don't know. I have a few more shows this summer and I think some great things are going to happen for me in the fall. I pray that everyone keeps putting good energy out there for me! I need all the positive vibrations I can get.


  • http://www.thecouchsessions.com Miss Hipstah

    Great interview! She sounds like a very cool and down to earth musician.

    Plus her album is definitely one of the hottest things I've heard in a while.

  • http://thecouchsessions.com Stone

    Yes, Sy is very very cool.

    The Rebirth just shouted her out on the BBC. Homegirl is worldwide now!

  • http://www.myspace.com/bsalaam Bilal Salaam

    i love sy smith!!!