Tuesday 25 June 2013

Sy Smith: Psyko Social

Written by Imran Mirza

The rejuvenated soul movement from the mid-1990s has spawned many incarnations and branding, from neo-soul, to nu-soul, to electro-soul and even right the way round to retro-soul.  It has spawned countless artists, some with major-label backing and some through independents, who have varied from one-hit wonders, some who solidified themselves as icons in between five and twelve year hiatuses, and some who plugged away mercilessly in a bid to achieve wider recognition.

In the last thirteen years, Sy Smith has seen many come and many go.  With a catalogue that includes four studio albums, two EPs, one greatest hits compilation and a live DVD, as an independent artist, Sy Smith’s name has become synonymous with an unrivalled work ethic based on an adoration for her craft.  It’s actually so unrivalled that it’s a miracle we’ve been able to track her down [so it’s only apt that we shout out Chadd Hardy – one of our favourite people in the world for helping put this together].  We catch Sy just as she’s jetting off to France to tour with Johnny Hallyday overseas, one of several tours she has lined up over the next few months, within a year which has also included recorded studio collaborations with Chris Dave and Zo! on their respective projects.

Collaborations with Sy are key and an indication of how in-demand she actually is.  Aside from guesting on projects with the aforementioned Chris Dave and Zo!, Sy Smith has leant her intrinsically delectable vocals to projects by Ronny Jordan, Me’Shell Ndegeocello, Eric Roberson, Sheila E and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, among countless others.  Taking the spirit of collaboration even further, ‘Fast and Curious’, in 2012, saw Smith collaborate with famed New Zealand broken beat and nu-soul producer and musician, Mark de Clive-Lowe, for their first full-length release together in a massively well-received project which continues to demonstrate Smith’s resourcefulness and versatility as an artist.

Hers is an unfathomable and prolific résumé.  One this article could never truly do justice to and one that shines as a beacon for independent soul artists.  Over the next thirteen years, many more artists will come and many will go, but Sy Smith will continue to stand tall.

'Psykosoul' came out in 2000. You've had such an incredible journey since that time - how were the next 13 years mapped out in your head at that time?
Actually, ‘Psykosoul’ was never properly released by Hollywood Records.  Only the single ‘Gladly’ was released in 2000. But Hollywood released a slew of advanced copies of the album which is what got the buzz started.  I have had a most incredible journey since then, but I never thought to map out a plan of action.  I was just going with the flow.  And when Hollywood decided to drop their entire ‘urban’ division from their roster, I sort of took pause to figure out my next step.  I had started performing on a regular basis in Los Angeles with my band, DeezNutz and decided to release an EP in 2001.  The EP was called ‘One Like Me’ and that was actually my very first proper release.  This EP was so well received that I figured, ‘hey, I can do this without a label!’.  And so I did.  Mind you, there weren't as many social networks, and the internet wasn't as widely accessible as it is today, but I used every avenue I could to promote my shows, my music, etc.  I mailed postcards, I made phone calls, I put flyers on cars, I hung out in bars and waited for folks to get drunk enough to spend some money on a chick they'd never heard of! Ha ha!  But it was all part of understanding that I was my own product.  So I had to let my business acumen set in.  I embraced that part of myself full on!  To clarify your initial statement regarding ‘Psykosoul’ though, I bootlegged that album that I did for Hollywood Records and released it in 2007 with a couple more tunes on it. That was ‘Psykosoul +’. 

'Fast and Curious', with Mark de Clive-Lowe, seems to have taken your music to the next plateau – are you happy with how the record has been received?
I am quite pleased.  I realized this album was a departure from my previous works sonically and musically, but what's the fun in doing something that you know works every single time? I gain no satisfaction from formulaic work, that's not art to me.  And at the end of the day, I am an artist. I like to push my own envelope and ‘Fast and Curious’ did that for me. MdCL was a joy to work with too, he's a phenomenon!

Having worked on American Idol [Sy appeared as one of the show’s backing singers], what are your thoughts on vocal talent shows like that and X Factor? Do you think they set unrealistic expectations for artists, or that they're good for the industry?
Do those shows set unrealistic expectations for artists?  I don't know.  Seems to me, folks just want a chance to be seen and heard and for some, vocal competition shows are one way of achieving that goal.  But let's be honest, everyone who sings isn't necessarily an artist.  I'm just sayin...

The most recent song I heard from you is the contribution to Chris Dave's mixtape (Chris Dave & The Drumhedz Mixtape) with 'Slim and Juicy'. It's such a unique song – how did the concept for it come together?
Well, Chris sent me a slew of tracks and as soon as I heard this one, I nearly fell out of my desk chair!  It was so refreshingly strange!  And to me, it sounded like two different things happening simultaneously, almost like a track with a split personality.  So thought about myself in this regard, about how I often operate like this... on stage I am a completely different monster than I am walking around the crib when I'm doing day-to-day stuff.  I felt like giving a name to my own two personalities and the first two names that came to me were Slim and Juicy.  And I just started sort of mumbling the phrase, "they live in my head, they run around scared, they wait for the paper come in contact with the lead..." and everything else just fell into place because the story is so completely autobiographical.

Wikipedia states you were going to be a part of Michael Jackson's O2 residency. There are so many clips on YouTube of musical tributes you've made to his music – were you ever able to meet him?
Don't believe everything you see on Wikipedia. Does it really say that? I did meet him though. And that was awesome.

Are there currently any plans for a new album, and what direction would that likely take?
At this very moment, I'm on tour with the legendary French rock & roll star, Johnny Hallyday.  In fact, I'm answering these questions via my iPad on a train from Libourne to Paris!  It's so lovely here by the way! I also have a couple tunes on Zo!'s latest release, ‘ManMade’ so after I wrap this tour with Johnny, I'll hit the road again with Zo!  Zo! and I might also have a little something brewing later this year.  I'm also touring with jazz trumpeter Chris Botti so it'll be a miracle if I can find time to zone out and record a full-length project.  But hey, I believe in miracles. 

How do you feel about the 'electro' tag you're labelled with regarding your brand of R&B/soul?
I don't mind so much because I understand the purpose of labels and categories.  Labels are insisted upon by people who feel uncomfortable with freedom.  The freedom for things to simply exist.

The list of collaborations you chalked up is endless – are there any that stand out as being particularly notable from a fan perspective?
I'm a huge fan of Meshell Ndegeocello. My love for her and her craft is undying.  I love Sheila E too! That's my sister, for real. And I'm a fan of the entire Foreign Exchange collective. Phonte, Nicolay, Zo! Jeanne Jolly, Chris Boerner... and all the musicians in that outfit. They inspire me to no end! I just love love love working with them! Goodness, when I think about it, I'm a fan of almost everyone that I work with! Almost... (side eye)... :-)

Who's left on your wish-list of people to collaborate with?
I wanna collab with Jesus! I sent Him some tracks and called him on the main line, but I guess He's busy.  I'm just being silly... I've got cabin fever from this train ride.  I'd love to collaborate with Prince and Trent Reznor (from Nine Inch Nails).

If you had to introduce a prospective new fan to your music, what song would you play first for them, and why?
Oooh, that's a tough question... perhaps I would play ‘Bruise’ from ‘The Syberspace Social’, because that song really speaks to the heart of who I am... and if someone is to become a fan, I'd want them to know what they're getting into.

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