Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
Singer-songwriter Alice Smith has been gaining attention for her vocal range and genre-defying music. Her first album in 2006 won her a major record label and Grammy nomination. But she chafed under that label and put out her second album, “She,” with an independent recording company. We speak with the D.C. native about her new album and coming into her own as a musician.
- Alice Smith Singer and songwriter; Her latest album is "She"
“Fake Is The New Real” from the album “For Lovers, Dreamers & Me”
“Far Away, Hey Yeah” live at Joe’s Pub in New York City
“She” from the album “She”
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast it's Your Turn. You can offer your opinion on this week's Supreme Court decisions or anything else in the news, Recent editions of this broadcast or anything else on your mind. Then it'll be Your Turn.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, she's got a, well, common name but an uncommon voice. This singer and songwriter has a four-octave range. Her first album earned her a Grammy nomination and a major recording contract. How would you categorize her music? That's the kind of question she just hates. Do not put this musician in a box. For her second album, she left her big record label and went independent. Joining us to discuss, and maybe perhaps sing a song or two from that album, is Alice Smith, singer and songwriter. Her latest album is titled "She." Alice Smith, thank you for joining us.
MS. ALICE SMITHThanks for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio and accompanying Alice Smith is Tom Lubay (sp?) on guitar. Tom, thank you very much for joining us.
MR. TOM LUBAYYou're welcome. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIAlice, you were signed by a major record label after your debut album in 2006. And you were nominated for a Grammy in 2008. What was that like?
SMITHIt was cool.
NNAMDIThat's what I thought. As you can tell, she is very understated. Your new album is out now. We can talk a little bit about how that came about, but first can we hear a little bit from that album? Can you (unintelligible) ?
NNAMDIWhat are you going to do?
SMITHWhat were we going to do?
SMITHOh, we're going to do "Ocean." It's called "Ocean."
NNAMDIAlice Smith, "Ocean."
NNAMDIAlice Smith performing "Ocean" from her latest album called "She." She joins us in studio. She's a singer and songwriter. Joining her on guitar is Tom Lubay. If you have comments or questions for Alice Smith, give us a call at 800-433-8850 or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIAlice Smith, you have been described as having a four-octave range. And when I heard that, it reminded me of a singer that I used to listen to during the 1950s. And your driver Paul Smith, who is also your father remembered the name of the singer. And so I'd like you to give a listen to Peruvian-born singer Yma Sumac.
NNAMDIWhat does having a four-octave range allow singers like you and Yma Sumac to do musically?
SMITHOh, I don't know. I guess maybe more of what I hear I can do.
NNAMDIIt allows you to kind of go wherever you want to go, doesn't it?
NNAMDIThat's what I hear from you. I go wherever I want to go. It's been seven years since your first album. You describe this new album "She" as your freedom album. Why is that?
SMITHBecause I started writing it right after I got free from the major label.
NNAMDIYeah, you slipped and gave us the name of the major label that you got free from. But you decided to leave that major record label because of artistic differences. What was their approach that made it different from the approach that you wanted?
SMITHHum, what was different? Well, I don't think they really got what I do. And I'm not the best person to explain it so maybe that's--
NNAMDIOh, you explain it by doing it.
SMITHYeah, I just do it.
NNAMDIBut I know that major labels, you're surrounded by all kinds of people who want to manage you, in a way, by committee. Was that one of the problems?
SMITHWell, that is a big -- yes, that is hard. When you -- I mean, you know, I guess creativity is kind of like a solitary thing, you know. It's you -- if it's you, it's you, you know. And it's hard to change that into now -- oh now there's 15 people that have to approve essentially what you've done. And they may or may not have any real knowledge of what you do or...
NNAMDIFifteen people that you didn't ask to collaborate with.
SMITHYes, yes, yes.
NNAMDIThey also apparently wanted you to be able to categorize your music. Why did they seem to think that was important to have you...
SMITHI think that probably major labels -- you know, they're good for what they're good -- you know, they know how to do what they know how to do. And if you fit into that then you're good, as far as, you know, being supported. And I think that if they could get me to fit into that -- you know, they see you, they like what you do. The way that they can work it is to understand it. So they want to make it a little more understandable for themselves so that they can really push for you, I guess.
NNAMDIBut it was difficult to categorize Alice Smith because, as she says, she wanted her freedom. And when your voice can range across four octaves the way hers does, then I guess in a lot of way you need your freedom.
NNAMDIBut I'll let our listeners decide for themselves what kind of music it is that you sing. Can we hear another song?
NNAMDIWhat're you going to do?
SMITHOh goodness. That's what you think now.
NNAMDIAlice Smith performing the single "She" from her latest album also called "She." Accompanying her on guitar is Tom Lubay. This new album is interesting, not just for the music but also in terms of how you produced it. Last August you launched a kick starter campaign. Why did you decide to go that route?
SMITHYou know, I never heard of it and I needed some kick starting.
NNAMDI(unintelligible) yes. (laugh)
SMITHSo I figured, you know, I thought I'd try it.
NNAMDIAnd it worked out.
SMITHAnd it worked out.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that a campaign -- the kick starter campaign like the one you launched in which people -- you've started to try to raise $15,000. People donated $1, they got a virtual high five.
NNAMDIFor $100 you got a personalized Tweet, free digital copy of the album. But a campaign like that is all or nothing.
NNAMDIIf you had not met your goal you get zero dollars.
NNAMDIHow'd you end up doing?
SMITHWe got more.
NNAMDIYou got more than the $15,000 that you had. So it was a successful campaign.
SMITHVery successful. Very enlightening, very good.
NNAMDIA lot of artists now going to kick starter. Let's go to the telephones. By the way, the number's 800-433-8850 if you'd like to have a word or question for Alice Smith. Here is Carolyn in Tysons Corner, Va. Carolyn, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CAROLYNHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. Hi, Alice. I see you -- years ago you opened for Citizen Cope in Baltimore and that was the first I'd ever -- first time I'd ever heard of you. And you handed out little sample CDs when you were there and you had a follower right then and there.
SMITHOh, thank you.
CAROLYNI just loved you when you were there and I have followed you ever since. So I'm so glad to hear you're on Kojo's show.
SMITHOh, thank you so much.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Carolyn.
NNAMDIAnd I'm sure she gets a lot of that but she can also use some more.
SMITHYeah, that was nice. She just called to say hi.
NNAMDIYes, indeed. Thank you Carolyn. It's my understanding that you now record with Rainwater Recordings. Tell us about that label.
SMITHThat label is Clarence Greenwood's label of Citizen Cope. And, yeah, we recorded the album together. That was before -- well, actually before and after the kick starter thing. So that was -- yeah, that was it.
NNAMDIYou like recording for this label.
SMITHI love recording for Rainwater, yes.
NNAMDIThere's personal stuff involved but I am not going to even go there.
SMITHThank you. (laugh)
NNAMDIIn the past few years you've lived in New York, Hawaii, L.A. But you're also local to this region. Talk a little bit about your D.C. roots.
SMITHI'm from here. I grew up here.
NNAMDIThat's why she has a driver here.
SMITHYes, that's right. I have -- yes, he's always available. No, he's not always available.
SMITHAnyway -- thanks Daddy. I grew up here on Capitol Hill and went up through high school here. A lot of -- most of my family's around here.
NNAMDIThen Brooklyn, Fordham.
SMITHThen Fordham at Lincoln Center and then -- yeah, and then Brooklyn after that.
NNAMDIOne of your favorite places to write your music, it's my understanding, is an island in Hawaii. How'd you end up there?
SMITHIt's one of those places I think when I was little that I was like, ooh, Hawaii. And I never went. And about six year -- five or six years ago we went for the first time. And I just love -- I just love it there, you know. I mean, what's not to love? I just happened to be able to go and so that's been great.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that you didn't always want to be a musician. The aforementioned Paul said you used to walk around the house singing into a hairbrush, singing all the time. But at what point did you decide that you wanted to become a professional musician? How did that happen?
SMITHA couple years ago. I did not -- you know, it just -- it started probably in college. And I just kind of fell into it. And, I don't know, it just happened that way.
NNAMDIIt is what it is. We got a Tweet from Erica who said, "I heard Alice Smith in Baltimore too and still have that little CD."
NNAMDII wonder what's a little CD as opposed to a large CD.
SMITHI know. Well, it's probably about five songs.
NNAMDIOh, that's why it's a little CD.
NNAMDIErica says she loves it. Here is Michelle in Rockville, Md. Michelle, your turn.
MICHELLEI just discovered you like three weeks ago.
MICHELLEAnd I just got to say that the album is so amazing, I can't stop listening to it. It's so refreshing and just not like any other album that I've heard in I know ten years.
SMITHI'm losing her. My headphones...
NNAMDIBut she can still hear you a little bit, Michelle.
MICHELLEI'm sorry. I was saying that the album is amazing. Can you hear me now?
NNAMDINo, she can't hear you but I can translate. Michelle says that she thinks the album is amazing.
SMITHI heard that she loves the album -- is amazing, okay. Thank you. I worked really hard on it.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Michelle.
SMITHThank you for calling.
NNAMDIYou've got a number of upcoming gigs around the country but where can people hear you in our area?
SMITHI'll probably -- oh, oh, right. The 31st I'll be -- I'm going to be bad at this but I'm going to tell you that the 31st...
NNAMDIWell, allow me to say it then. She'll be at Wolf Trap on July 31st….
SMITHThank you so much.
NNAMDI...opening for Sojo which is a reggae band from Arlington. She'll also be at the Essex -- Essence Music Festival. That's in New Orleans on July 7. But July 31 she will be here at Wolf Trap.
SMITHYes. Please come.
NNAMDISee, I do the talking, she does the singing.
SMITHThank you. I'm so glad you understand the situation.
NNAMDII have to tell you everything. Can we go out with one last song?
NNAMDIWhat'll it be?
SMITHIt'll be "Another Love."
NNAMDIAlice Smith, "Another Love."
NNAMDIAlice Smith, singer and songwriter. Her latest album is titled "She." I also have to thank you because you brought back to our studios today our former producer Terri Cross-Davis who never comes to visit us. But when she heard you were coming here today, she showed up with her driver, her husband Ace. Thanks to the other driver, Paul Smith and thanks to Tom Lubay on guitar.
NNAMDITom, thank you so much for joining us. Yes, indeed. And most of all, thanks to you, Alice Smith...
SMITHSure. Thank you...
NNAMDI...for joining us in studio.
SMITH...for having me.
NNAMDIAlice Smith. Her latest album, it's titled "She." We're going to take a short break. When we come back it's Your Turn. If you'd like to talk about this week's Supreme Court decisions, President Obama's trip to Africa, the condition and memory of Nelson Mandela or anything else on your mind, call now, 800-433-8850. Send us a Tweet at kojoshow or email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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