Singer/songwriter/producer/ and all around Jane-of-all trades, Sy Smith has created an impressive and diverse resume while establishing herself as a mainstay in the underground soul music scene. Some may know her for providing backing vocals for the late Whitney Houston, Chaka Khan and Usher on tour; The Ricky Minor Band on American Idol; contributing her voice to the THQ video games Saints Row and Saints Row 2; while others will know her for her recent work with The Foreign Exchange, Zo! as well as her latest album, Fast and Curious.
Described by her "musical brother" and collaborator Zo! as a "perfectionist", Sy and her sound are ever evolving, constantly moving forward. Sy took some time out of her busy schedule to speak with The Washington Informer to discuss her musical influences, reality television and her upcoming tour with Zo!
Washington Informer: Singer, songwriter, producer. If you could only do one, which one would you choose?
Sy Smith: Aww man, don't do that to me, that's hard. That's a horrible question. Oh God [laughs].
Washington Informer: The question are supposed to be hard, they're supposed to make you think.
Sy Smith: That's a really hard one...It's really hard to separate the three of those things though because even if I'm signing, chances are I'm making extra stuff on the side, which means I'm still writing.
Washington Informer: And more than likely you're singing a song that you wrote?
Sy Smith: Right, or, or arranging or producing my own vocals, like, on the spot. It's a rare day if I ever perform the song the same way twice.
Washington Informer: Okay. So all the above?
Sy Smith: Yeah, yeah.
Washington Informer: Ok, that's a safe answer.
Sy Smith: [Laughs]
Washington Informer: Who are some of your musical influences?
Sy Smith: I'm from out here (Washington, DC) so definitely the sound that Chuck Brown is responsible for creating in this area. I was really influenced by Michael Jackson's vocal arrangements and stuff like that. And then any band that had lots of horn players, I was really in to. I kinda always pictured myself, vocally, as sort of sounding like a horn, the trumpet especially [laughs]. So I was really into bands horns; Earth, Wind, and Fire, old Cameo, Commodores, Bar-Kays and stuff like that. And you know, like back in the day how the Go-Go bands had big horn sections too.
Washington Informer: While you were at Howard University, you played in an all girl Go-Go band. Did you ever play with Chuck?
Sy Smith: No I never played with Chuck. I played in a band with Sweet Cherie who played with Chuck. It was an all girl band back in the day called Royalty. Way back in the day, I played keys (keyboard) and sang.
Washington Informer: Are you originally from this area (DC)?
Sy Smith: I was born in New York and I was raised here.
Washington Informer: Two cities with very rich musical histories. How did the different areas influence you musically?
Sy Smith: Oh that's a good question. I was extremely influenced by hip hop and hip hop culture. I was really into Run DMC, Beastie Boys, De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, Tribe Called Quest and that whole Native Tongues crew you know? The way I write tends to be more rhythmic the way a rapper might write, you know what I mean?
I'm really in to like Busta Rhymes, Brand Nubians and all that. I think I was influenced by that sound that came out of New York, to answer your question. A piece of my heart stays in New York and is always going to be a part of the city, you know? Musically I've always been into the live sound, which is what we do here in DC, you know? Everybody would see a band, you know all the kids, all of us growing up, that's what we did. Or even at our little dances in high school, you know, we'd have the local band that played at the high school played at the dance before the DJ, you know what I mean?
Washington Informer: Yeah, and more than likely the band went to the school.
Sy Smith: Right, exactly, exactly. I've always been into the live element; you'll never catch me doing a track date [laughs]. I think that's one of the huge influences of growing up here in DC.
Washington Informer: Are you still singing backup on American Idol?
Sy Smith: No.
Washington Informer: Okay, but you were on there for six seasons right?
Sy Smith: Yeah.
Washington Informer: How was that experience for you?
Sy Smith: It was very cool, it's a lot of work, it definitely makes you keep up your chops, you have to be quick on your feet, and you have to be a quick study for that show. It's not something that everybody can do or everybody's cut out to do. Ricky Minor, the music director when I was there, he runs a tight ship. His crew is always people that he really trusts. I was working with some great musicians on that show, and a lot of us had worked together prior to that show. A lot of us were with Whitney Houston's band with Ricky or just other situations like the Essence Awards, Lady of Soul Awards or the NAACP Awards, stuff like that. But it was really a good experience. And hey it was a union job; shout out to the union [laughs].
Washington Informer: [Laughs] There's American Idol, X Factor, The Voice, and now Duets. Do you think we've got to the point where there are too many vocal talent shows? Are we over-saturated?
Sy Smith: Are there too many? Oh there's Sunday's Best, right?
Washington Informer: I forgot about that one.
Sy Smith: Yeah, I love that one. Personally, and this is just my own personal taste, I don't really watch those shows I can't, I just don't really like them that much [laughs] but it might be a thing too where like when I get in the car I don't necessarily turn on the radio to listen to music, I make music so much that I don't necessarily wanna be educated by it all the time. The one thing about some of the reality shows, the vocal competition shows, I've always found it strange when somebody who's judging the vocal show can't really sing at all. [Laughs] I always thought that to be a strange element with some of the shows. I think it's very interesting though, when the judges are actually singers and can articulate what it is that they are looking for in a competitor or whatever. I think those shows have way more credibility than the ones where it's just a judge whose famous for whatever reason he's famous for. You wouldn't have like a non-dancer judge judging a dance competition would you?
Washington Informer: Yeah, that leads me to my next question. It seems, in my opinion, that those shows are more about the show and not the talent. How do you feel about that?
Sy Smith: I don't know, sometimes they'll say stuff like "so and so has grown so much..." but I don't really see growth in "so and so" and a person they didn't see "growth" in is a phenomenal singer. Is the show about growth or is it about who can sing the best? [laughs]. If it's about growth, they need to say that.
Washington Informer: Like you, I don't watch those shows. They seem more about the show and whatever drama they can create than the actual talent.
Sy Smith: You hit the nail on the head. At the end of the day, it's really just about the drama on the show, its entertainment, you know? As much as we call these shows reality shows, reality TV, competition TV or whatever; it's not really reality, its television. But for anybody who has been blessed by these shows I think that's a wonderful thing, and these shows put a lot of musicians to work, so good for them, that's always a good thing. I like the a cappella one, whatever that one is called (The Sing-Off). I mean, I don't watch it, but I've seen it. I saw Afro Blue on there a few times, that group from Howard (University), they're phenomenal. So I think it's good when people get to see some phenomenal talent.
Washington Informer: You've worked with a who's who in music. Who else do you want to work with? Who's left?
Sy Smith: [Laughs] Gosh, it's so many people. I would really like to work with Prince, I love him to death. I love Sting; I would love to work with Sting on something. I think those are two pretty lofty goals [laughs].
Washington Informer: Yeah. Those are two good names.
Sy Smith: It would be awesome to work with either of them.
Washington Informer: You seem to embrace your independence, controlling your music career. If the situation were ever right, would you ever sign with a major label again?
Sy Smith: If the situation was right, yeah. It's always about any situation being right for any decision I make. You know what I mean? I always try to make a decision that's gonna be the best for me, nobody else is gonna look out for you but you, you know?
Washington Informer: That's what my mother always told me.
Sy Smith: [Laughs]
Washington Informer: Your latest album, Fast and Curious, just came out. I know you're working that but what are you currently working on? What's coming up next for you?
Sy Smith: I'm really excited about the album, Fast and Curious; because it's a little bit of a departure from the things I've done previously. So I'm pushing that, I've got these upcoming shows with Zo! here at Blues Alley on June 13th. But just before that, I'll be back on the road with The Foreign Exchange, we're doing like six cities. After that I go back to Los Angeles, I'm opening up for Rahsaan Patterson at the Elway Theater in L.A., and then I have to run with Sheila E.
Washington Informer: Tell me a little bit about Zo! I know you guys do a joint show; and like you said you're going to be in DC on Wednesday, June 13. How did your collaboration with him come about?
Sy Smith: Before I started working with The Foreign Exchange, I was introduced to Zo!'s music by a fellow named Duane Powell. Duane worked at a record store in Chicago called Doctor Wax; he's huge fan, lover and promoter of music and put me on to Zo! and I really loved his music. I came back in the store maybe a year later and Duane called Zo! on the phone, he's like "I'm gonna put Zo! on the phone with you right now". This is like 2000, we talked and that was cool, and then we met in person in 2008 when I was out here doing the concert for my album that had just come out "Conflict" at Bohemian Caverns. We met in person, he came to the show and I told him I'd really like to work with him someday you know, and he was like "Yeah cool" blah blah blah. I think he started working with The Foreign Exchange not too long after that. In 2010 I got a call from Foreign Exchange about going on the road with them; we just started working together a lot. I did something for Just Visiting Too and Just Visiting Three, and his album SunStorm. It's just been a really cool collaboration. And you know when Foreign Exchange took a break, we decided to kind of go on tour just the two of us and do a duo show. He plays keyboards and I play synch bass and I sing all the tunes. We have a drummer and guitar player to round out the quartet. We played about twelve cities; including London, Paris, Los Angeles and New York. He's like my musical brother; it's so much fun working with him.
Washington Informer: So now I'm going give you the opportunity to hand out late passes to all the people who have never seen you and Zo! live.
Sy Smith: [Laughs]
Washington Informer: Please tell them what they're missing.
Sy Smith: Oh my gosh, it's so much fun; it's a very musical set. We do songs from both of our catalogs. Zo! is like a young Quincy Jones, if people don't have his albums they really should pick them up. They can get the Just Visiting series for free, those are free downloads. But you know they should get the ones they have to pay for too, there are some good songs on there [laughs]. It's a loose set but it's very high energy, even the ballads that we might do are intense but in a fun way. We're both off the cuff, jokes get told, things get said, and people get heckled, not too much. People might get teased lightly but it's fun. It feels like a backyard cookout but instead of serving barbecue, we're serving up funk and grooves.
Sy Smith & Zo! – Blues Alley / Wednesday, June 13, 2012 / WDC