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Sy Smith cut her teeth on the local go-go scene before setting out on her own. She traces her social and musical influences to a baptist church on Minnesota Avenue, and her live performances have drawn the likes of Prince and Raphael Saadiq, among others.
But now, the D.C. native has literally gone Hollywood, as she and her new husband now live in the Golden State. When she’s not singing or recording music, she teaches an R&B and pop improvisation class at the Los Angeles Music Academy.
Before her concert at the Liv Nightclub tonight, Smith spoke with Arts Desk about the region’s music scene, artistic freedom, and Patti LaBelle’s influence.
Washington City Paper: What kinds of things do you have in store for the nation’s capital?
Sy Smith: [laughs] I have a live band there in D.C., they’re like my favorite band to play with actually, and they’ll be doing songs from the three CDs that I’ve released. You just never know what will happen, sometimes they’ll just launch into something. If I hear it, and it feels like it’s supposed to happen, I’ll just do it, ya know. You never know what you’re gonna get.
WCP: Because you’re in D.C., will you go more towards go-go/hip-hop? What’s your set list looking like right now?
SS: All the material has a lot of influences. If you’re a little familiar with my music, you’ll hear that stuff anyway, so it’s not like I’ll lean towards it, that’s just what the music is anyway. Some of the songs are very much based in a jazz aesthetic, some of them are based in a more percussion element, it just depends from song to song. Things just kinda take on their own little life.
WCP: I saw that you are a D.C. native. How exactly did this region influence your art?
SS: I always remember this one instance when I was at the Children’s Museum and I saw Junkyard [Band] play. I was a kid, and they were kids. And I was like, “Oh my God, these are kids like me, banging on buckets.” There might have been two actual instruments, and everything else looked like something they got out of their momma’s kitchen, or from an alley somewhere. Seeing something like that when you’re a kid, it actually becomes tangible like, “I can do that.” That was probably one of my earlier times when I said, “Yeah, I think I wanna try that.” I started taking piano lessons early, I studied piano for about 12 years, and then I went off to do the choir circuit in PG County. That was mostly classical stuff. I didn’t start singing contemporary music until college. I remember seeing Patti LaBelle in “Your Arms Are Too Short To Box With God,” and all of those prize performances, concerts at Fort Dupont Park, all of that made it very tangible to me like, “This is something I want to do.” I never thought of it as wanting to be a big superstar, I just wanted to play music.
WCP: When I think of D.C., I definitely think of go-go and hip-hop. I don’t see a lot of soul singers, maybe a handful who I know. How does a soul singer make it out of a town that’s known for go-go and hip-hop?
SS: I don’t really know that I’m a soul singer. I’m just a singer, and whatever happens to come out of that is what people make of it. I’m from that generation where Chuck Brown schooled all of us on jazz. I wouldn’t have had the jazz background, vocabulary and repertoire that I have had it not been for Chuck Brown always playing jazz songs. A lot of us came from that generation, even Essence and those bands were playing and covering Maze and Anita Baker and stuff like that. Even though a lot of the performers were a bit rough around the edges and tried to seem like a more go-go, hip-hop aesthetic from the outside, it was still always coming from a soul or jazz perspective. That’s why Maze can come to DC and sell out, and Patti LaBelle. That was really the aesthetic that people appreciated. It just came in the form of go-go, or the backdrop of go-go, ya know?
WCP: How did your upbringing influence your artistic direction? Was there an ah-ha moment for you?
SS: One of those Patti LaBelle moments was an ah-ha moment. I was at the Warner Theatre for “Your Arms Are Too Short To Box With God.” I was in the front row with my mom. It was the end of the show, a rousing number and [Patti] was running all over the stage, kicking her shoes off and flying and flapping her wings, and she came to me, took my hand and stood me up out my seat, and was singing to me. And that right there? When I saw what somebody can do, just with the power of their voice and their performance, I think that’s when I decided I wanted to be at the very least, some sort of performer. I didn’t really know that I was gonna be a singer, but I definitely knew I wanted to be on stage somewhere and do that —-making somebody react the way she made me react. I think I immediately started channeling the performer in myself. I became the kid in class who told stories, and told jokes, not the class clown. I went to this little private school in Southeast, and we didn’t have a gym or anything, so if it rained outside, for recess, we had to just stay in our classroom. On rainy days, it would be, “Get Sy up to tell some jokes. Make us laugh.” Early on, I didn’t consider myself a singer. I knew I was a musician, but I didn’t know I was a singer until way later.
WCP: Do you feel like you influence others the way Patti influenced you?
SS: Ya know what? I’ve had a couple people come to me and say, “Oh my God, I saw you at such and such” and will name a specific show. There have been a couple of singers who have covered my songs at their own shows. I’m like, “Wow, that’s a trip!” or they’ll send me the YouTube, or they’ll send me the DVD or something like that. That’s always amazing. [laughs] It’s cool, because you get to hear different interpretations of something that was created by you. To hear somebody’s interpretation of your lyrics and your melody and all that is really interesting.
WCP: Describe your personal and professional growth from your last recording to now.
SS: Professionally, I think I’ve hit a point where I’m like, “Alright, I’ve done what I’m gonna do as Sy Smith, the soul singer” and I’ve wanted to reach and do some other kinds of music. It’s really hard to do house and dance, when everybody thinks you’re a neo soul singer, ya know? So me putting out this record, this greatest hits sort of thing is me saying, “I’m kind of closing the book on that part of me for a second, so I can embrace other things that I really want to do. I’m working on a jazz record that’s more straight-ahead kind of jazz. I’m working to finish this synthy ’80s throwback dance record, with a lot of U.K. influences. That’s where I am musically.
I’m just kinda like the girl that everybody knows that nobody knows. [laughs] It’s cool. The way my career is, I kinda have room to make fluid movements and go from here to there without feeling like I’m being jerked or pulled, and that’s nice – to have that sort of anonymity and be known. Known enough that I stay busy, but obscure enough that I don’t get attacked at the shopping mall. In my personal life, I got married three months ago to my long-time boyfriend, and incidentally he’s directed my last four music videos. We’re out here in L.A., doing the thing, and I think that’s gonna move me into another chapter of my life. I think marriage is a big step. [laughs]
Smith performs tonight with Sol Elder at Liv Nightclub, located at 11th & U St., NW. Doors open at 7:30 p.m., show begins at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door.