Alice Smith speaks on her unconventional path to music with fashion veteran Bethann Hardison

The R&B singer on sound, spirit, and why it's never too late for Document's Fall/Winter 2013 issue.

Listen to Alice Smith croon her blend of jazz, blues and R&B, and you’d think she’d been doing it for ages. In reality, the 37-year-old only discovered she could sing after college. The ten or so years since have been a whirlwind, including a Grammy nomination, a newborn daughter and an already bygone major label record deal. She speaks about her musical journey with fashion veteran and journalist Bethann Hardison, who walked as a model in the seminal 1973 “Battle of Versailles” fashion show and founded Bethann Management Agency, which sought to add diversity to the fashion industry.

Bethann Hardison: When did you discover you could sing?

Alice Smith: I don’t know, I always sang, and I kind of figured out I was actually good and started to like how my voice sounded when I was 25 or something. I didn’t start singing semi-professionally or on a stage or anything until the end of college. And I didn’t start taking voice lessons until I was around 23. After a little while, I started to see what I was able to do and what it meant. It took a long time, but I freed up to actually enjoy the sound of my own voice.

Bethann: Was there always a desire to become an artist?

Alice: No, definitely not. I didn’t want to be a singer—I didn’t not want to, but it just never, never crossed my mind. It just kind of happened after college.

Bethann: Did your parents encourage you to pursue it?

Alice: No, my father always wanted me to have health insurance.

Bethann: Like all parents. No matter what you do, make sure you have health insurance!

Alice: That was his thing! And my mother always supported me in whatever I did as long as I did it well and took it seriously.

“The music industry is drowning in a lot of ways. that major label model is just not for everybody.”

Bethann: You have a very operatic kind of vocal cord that you express with many different ranges and registers. Who helps you to hone that?

Alice: My teacher’s name is Donna Newman. I went to class in the first place for stamina and technique, because I could always do things but couldn’t necessarily sustain them. I always think it was good that I didn’t really have any training until I already had my style and my voice. But she really helped me know what I was doing, so that I could do it when I wanted and not hurt myself in the process. You know how you hear about all these girls that sing, how they had to get some nodule taken o their cords? All that kind of stuff freaks me out, so that’s what she taught me how to avoid.

Bethann: That’s great. I always tell people to never stop practicing their craft. I think it’s the same thing with acting—you should always be studying. You never think, Well, I’ve already done 12 films… I know wonderful actors who never give up learning and challenging themselves.

Alice: Yeah, you have to sing all the time. It’s just like any other muscle.

Bethann: So, albums—name them, and your favorite one. Or is it the one you haven’t done yet?

Alice: My favorite one is definitely the one I haven’t done yet, that catapults me into my life. I do love this album that I just did because it feels like it is the one before the one, my freedom album, my growth album. It feels like the album that I made on the way into my consciousness, that helped me realize what I really want. I think the next album will be more of a statement. I haven’t been a person that sits down and says, ‘This is what I’m gonna make, this is what I want to say with this album,’ but I think I’m moving more in that direction.

Bethann: Why are you now professionally independent? I know you’ve tried being label-supported before.

Alice: Yeah, I was in Epic on Sony for four years. It was … a serious learning experience. Nothing much else came out of it, no album or anything. They’re just a corporation, and I think any time someone’s trying to make money o of art, it gets a little hairy. The music industry is drowning in a lot of ways. That major label model is just not for everybody, they know how to do one thing—whatever it is—and for me it was hard because they didn’t really know what to do with me. It was just a lot of heartache and ridiculous conversations and frustration and non- sense. It was a waste of time.

Bethann: When we look back, we have to say, Well, I learned something. But four years is a long time.

Alice: Yeah, and in the end that scared me because I was like, Did they ruin my whole career by taking me out for so long? Anyway, I finally got out of it and that was a big relief. I had my daughter and started really trying to pull it together after a year. I had music that I wanted to get out, so I tried a couple different avenues but they didn’t work. Then I found this label Thirty Tigers to put it out. I met the owner, David Macias, and he was just so straight and really believed in me and really wanted to be a part of it. We figured out how much it was going to cost us, and I did a Kickstarter to beef up my end of the deal, and we put it out. It’s been really great because now my partner is a person that I work with, who knows what they’re talking about. He knows what it actually takes to be an artist and to make music and to tour, which was a big problem for me at the major label. We don’t have any silly conversations, and I can trust him to give me the right information. It’s just a real partnership, and we work together really well. He believes in me and I trust him, and it’s really gratifying. I’m actually involved and learning the steps to get the music out from me to the world. I’m really appreciating that relationship, it’s a really nice change.

“[Record labels] know how to do one thing…And for me it was hard because they didn’t really know what to do with me.”

Bethann: You’re making me smile because it’s all a journey. You got time, it’s not like you’re gonna expire. It’s not like, Oh, this is old, this is 2013, we gotta throw this out. That’s not gonna happen. And you said something so well about the major labels not being meant for everyone, especially now, since music labels are not owned by the music business people any more but by corporations that bought into something. There’s nothing personal, they don’t know how to do it. They just know, “Y’all better get me my money back!”

Alice: Yeah, they don’t know how to do it and they don’t want to let you tell them how to do it either. But it’s not exactly brain surgery.

Bethann: Let’s talk Europe, Asia, Africa. They’re potential mar- kets. Do you aspire to have your music play in places worldwide like this?

Alice: Of course. I’ve played in London and Paris, but just like once or twice, not like a whole tour or anything. I don’t think it would be hard over there, it’s just that I have to do it.

Bethann: Describe your music.

Alice: My music is very honest. I love a good foundation like a beat, and then some strings or something pretty to layer on top. But I always have to have that rhythm going. I usually talk about relationships because I think they’re the most important and difficult part of existing on the planet Earth. Which means it’s a lot about love—not necessarily romantic love but friend love, all that stuff. I think it’s really good.

Bethann: Is being in a domestic relationship with another artist [Clarence Greenwood of Citizen Cope] helpful?

Alice: I’m not sure. I just know I’m in it and sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad and sometimes it’s really hard. It’s helpful because if I can stay conscious, I can see that it’s reflecting myself and mine. Maybe it would be better if I were with somebody who didn’t care for art, because I think the tense moments can get a little more intense when someone is more artistic or creative with their mind. But I think it’s good, I enjoy it. And there’s no competition.

Bethann: When you first came along as a singer, you got a lot of accolades and recognition. Rolling Stone said you were one of the top 10 artists to watch in 2006 and you were nominated for a Grammy award. Do you think sometimes that having been with a major label, these things come easier?

Alice: Almost all that press stuff I did was before I got on the label, so I don’t think it’s necessary. All the label can really do for you is support you with the money to push it. But that doesn’t matter if they’re not giving it up, which is what happened; they signed me and then they didn’t want to pay for anything.

Bethann: So they just took you off the market, pretty much.

Alice: They did, yeah. There was a little bit of press still going on toward the end, when I got to the label, but I had already made and packaged the album and did press when I was on another little independent label. Then I went to Sony and they locked me up for four years. I even made an album on Sony that they never put out.

Bethann: Name some of the artists that you really like or have been inspired by, regardless of size or style or popularity.

Alice: I love Beyoncé, I love Rihanna and I love Lady Gaga. I love those ladies. I really love Frank Ocean and Miguel. I really love Frank Ocean and Miguel. I love the Solange album, the little EP she did. Love it!

“I usually talk about relationships because I think they’re the most important and difficult part of existing on the planet Earth. Not necessarily romantic love but friend love, all that stuff.”

Bethann: Anybody from the past? Old school, anything like that?

Alice: Everything like that—that’s what I really listen to. Right now it’s Brazilian and world music, and Bill Evans and Caetano Veloso and Edith Piaf. Then I listen to the regular jazz people, you know, Dinah Washington, Thelonious Monk and Ella Fitzgerald. And a lot of ’80s. I like Sam Cooke a lot, and Nina Simone of course is my original. Growing up, Patti LaBelle was my favorite.

Bethann: She can belt.

Alice: Yeah, she’s a monster.

Bethann: I used to love listening to a girl named Esthero, you know who she is?

Alice: Oh my god, I love her! I probably had her CD six times because I played it so much I would lose it and have to buy another. Seriously, I love that album. I love that girl.

Bethann: That’s another one who fell right between the cracks. Labels don’t know what to do with them. The last of the Mohicans were really Je Ayero and Jordan Harris, heads of Virgin Records who then founded Work Records. They tried to help Esthero. But the music business was going on more and more about radio, radio, radio, and Je was really just so stressed out from the obsession with radio and singles.

Alice: You know what’s so bullshit about that? All they do is pay those people, so why don’t they just decide to have them pass some money to me so they could just overplay my songs, just jam it down everybody else’s throat like you’re jamming this other stuff? That’s bull!

Bethann: I know, there are so many talented singer-songwriters that are ready to come out. It’s overwhelming to know that you have to find your way, and that’s what I appreciate about you. I don’t care if you’re doing it at 62, just know that you are on the journey of making it happen. I’m very proud of you, I think you’re wonderful. Very talented, and it’s wonderful to watch you perform—to hear that voice, to take people and watch their reactions. It’s like taking a child to Disney, it’s like, ‘Whoa, wow, look at that, wow.’

Alice: Thank you so much.

Producer Gianina Jimenez. Make Up Rie Omoto At See Management. Hair Romina Manenti At See Management. Photo Assistant Ivory Serra. Location Dune Studios.

This conversation originally appeared in Document’s Fall/Winter 2013 issue.