IN CONTRAST, VOCALIST ASHLEIGH SMITH WANTS TO SHARE THE JOY AND COMFORT THAT SHE’S RECEIVED THROUGHOUT HER LIFE WITH THOSE LESS FORTUNATE. HER DEBUT ALBUM, SUNKISSED, IS A LIFE-AFFIRMING COLLECTION OF MESSAGES THAT CAN ONLY BE DELIVERED WITH CONVICTION FROM SOMEONE WHO HAS HAD A HEALTHY LIVING ENVIRONMENT. INSTEAD OF REVELLING IN HER POSITIVE ATMOSPHERE, SHE SEES HER CALLING AS ONE TO UPLIFT THOSE WHO MAY NOT HAVE HAD THE BENEFITS OF A HEALTY FAMILY AND FAITH.
WINNER OF THE 2014 SARAH VAUGHAN INTERNATIONAL VOCAL COMPETITION, SMITH EXUDES A CONFIDENCE IN HER CRAFT, AS WELL AS HER STATION IN LIFE, THAT IS INFECTIOUS.
WE RECENTLY CAUGHT UP WITH MS. SMITH IN A PHONE CONVERSATION…
IS THIS ASHLEIGH SMITH?
This is she.
SOMEONE TAUGHT YOU PROPER ENGLISH!
My grandmother was an English teacher, and so was my aunt.
SO, WHEN YOU ENTER THE HOUSE, AND THEY SAY, “WHO IS IT?”, HOW DO YOU ANSWER?
It is I; it is Ashleigh (laughs)! My dad taught me that when someone asks “How are you?”, you say “I am well.” If I would say “good,” he would say, “WHAT’S THAT AGAIN?”
OBVIOUSLY YOUR FAMILY HAS TAUGHT YOU A LOT AS YOU GREW UP IN GEORGIA. WHAT WERE THE BIGGEST THINGS THEY TAUGHT YOU MUSICALLY, PERSONALLY AND SPIRITUALLY?
I got my education from every angle. My father was a pianist; he was a musician but he did the education route. He was a music director for 14 years and a choir director all of my life. My mother was a pianist, and my uncle was a jazz trumpet player. He got his degree in Auburn University. He and my dad went to college together and he ended up marrying my dad’s sister. I grew up in a household full of music, so my tastes in music came from what I was around.
I grew up in church, so I got musical direction from the church my whole life, and all of the schools I went to had music programs. I got it from all three; I was blessed.
As far as learning about life, what my family taught me was that my character was much more important to me than anything I will ever do. I try to keep that concept in whatever I do and in my music. People will remember who you are as a person and what you said made them feel more than anything else
DID YOU PERFORM MUSICALLY IN CHURCH?
All the time growing up; I really didn’t have a choice! (laughs) My family was totally involved with church music. I wasn’t forced-it was a natural thing. I went to rehearsals since I was an infant. It was a natural thing to fall into. Performing in something where you always are.
DO YOU STILL GO TO CHURCH?
Yes, every Sunday. I grew up AME Zion, but we are also non-denominational.
WAS YOUR FAMILY CONCERNED ABOUT THE “JAZZ LIFESTYLE” THAT YOU’VE CHOSEN?
No, and I think it’s because they knew the daughter that they raised. They just focused on that I knew right from wrong and that I knew what was appropriate for myself. I’m very strong willed, and if I’m around something I don’t believe in I don’t have to conform to that because I know who I am. That’s how they raised me, so they didn’t have to worry about that.
I know what’s for me, what I’m ok with and my own boundaries.
HAS THIS CONFIDENT ATTITUDE INTIMIDATED THE MEN YOU GO OUT WITH?
Yes (laughs). In the beginning. In general that is typically the case because my father would come home from work in a business suit, and the guys would say, “Hello, Dr. Smith. How are you doing?” It was always that case. My father was a superintendent of schools where I grew up. He was the boss of pretty much the entire school system, so I grew up in an intimidating family, so with guys it was nothing new.
DID YOU GET INTO THE JAZZ SCENE WHILE YOU GREW UP IN GEORGIA OR WHEN YOU WENT TO COLLEGE IN TEXAS?
More so in Texas. I discovered jazz growing up in Georgia when I first heard Ella Fitzgerald’s “How High the Moon.” I memorized that song backwards and forwards. I actually did it in a talent show; but there wasn’t an avenue for me to study jazz where I was growing up.
I studied classical for two years, and then I transferred to the University of North Texas, and that’s where I really started studying jazz.
HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED WITH THE JAZZ SCENE THERE?
I started making different friends once I moved there. At UNT the jazz scene was great because you’re not only studying with your peers but you’re also performing together. So, your friends call you and tell you how you did at that gig.
SINCE YOUR FAMILY WAS SON INVOLVED WITH MUSIC, DID THEY GIVE YOU ANY ADVICE ON MUSIC OR LIFE?
We have this phrase in our house. Whenever I leave to somewhere, my grandmother would always say “Take care of yourself; no one can do it better than you.”
My parents always say ”Remember Who’s you are and who you are.” It applies to you, who you are and what your family is, where you come from and what you grew up with. What your character is. It applies to your music, too. You have to know who you are as an artist or you’ll get pulled into so many different directions. You have to be very firm.
YOU SEEM TO HAVE LINKED UP WITH TWO ARTISTS ON YOU RECORDS AND CONCERTS, BASSIST NIGEL RIVERS AND GUITARIST JOEL CROSS.
They were both people I met in school. I was studying jazz with them in UNT all through college. Nigel co-produced the album with Concord, and Joel and I wrote some of the songs.
MANY TIMES, WHEN YOU WIN AN AWARD, THE RECORD EXECUTIVES WANT YOU TO RECORD JAZZ STANDARDS. WHAT DID YOU PERFORM TO WIN THE SARAH VAUGHAN AWARD?
I won the award by doing standards. As far as the originals on the album, that was a result of when the label asked me what I wanted the album to sound like, I pretty much had written these songs before I got signed. I was just working on them as an artist.
I submitted them, and I was prepared for the label to say “No, because original material by a new artist is risky.” I was ready to go the safe route with this first album and branch out on the second. But, they loved the original tunes that we wrote, so we put them on the album. We were super excited.
THERE ARE YOU TUBE VIDEOS OF YOU SINGING WITH YOUR BAND, BUT THOSE ARE ALL STANDARDS. DID YOU TRY THESE SONGS OUT IN CONCERT BEFORE RECORDING THEM?
Those videos were recorded about a year ago at a club in Fort Worth called Scat Jazz, the songs were still in the works, with the album not having been made yet.
YOU ALSO HAVE RECORDED AND PERFORMED VOCALS WITH R&B ARTIST CHRISETTE MICHELLE. WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM THAT EXPERIENCE?
We worked together for five years. What I learned from her was a lot on the business end of it; how to be an artist. I got to watch her when she went to label meetings, and also how to play a show. How to arrange a show, so as an artist you are showing who you are, and you aren’t being made into anything.
She taught me to be who I am, and not be pliable. Whatever you release, make sure that it’s something that you are proud of, because if it’s not authentically yours, it will show on stage.
YOU’VE HAD PEOPLE GIVE YOU SOME GOOD ADVICE
I’ve been very blessed to have some wisdom around me all my life.
YOU’VE GROWN UP LISTENING TO ARTISTS LIKE ELLA FITZGERALD, AND HERE YOU ARE STARTING OUT ON YOUR CAREER. DO YOU EVER ASK YOURSELF “WHY SHOULD ANYBODY LISTEN TO ME” WHEN THERE ARE ALL OF THESE CLASSIC ARTISTS THAT HAVE PRECEDED YOU? WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO OFFER THE LISTENING AUDIENCE?
I think most artists think that at times. I do question myself, but I remember at the same breath that I will listen to Ella Fitzgerald or Della Reese and I’ll hear something different every time because every artist has that one thing, that inflection that is different than the way another artist may do a song.
The same way that I come from a different environment, I will sing a song differently than anybody else and with a different perspective.
ARE YOUR OWN COMPOSITIONS AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL?
Yes, they are from personal experiences in my life.
WAS THE SONG SUNKISSED A SONG TO YOURSELF?
That came from a common thread of people I met that a lot of African American girls didn’t have someone to look up to. They didn’t know a lot of women that did what they wanted to do when they were growing up.
So, I wrote that for girls that were un- like myself and my background, and to let them know that we can see them differently than they see themselves. That they were conceived in grace and fearfully and wonderfully made.
I know that I grew up having tons of great role models around me. I was blessed. But I also know that most kids don’t get that; that’s not their experience. That’s why I wrote that song; to let them know that they are still beautiful and perfect, with no alterations needed.
THAT’S A GREAT MINISTRY FOR YOU RIGHT THERE.
YOU’RE STARTING THIS CAREER AT 27 YEARS OLD. DO YOU FEEL THAT YOU ARE LATE IN THE GAME IN STARTING A MUSICSAL CAREER?
I really like just taking what happens. I believe that this all happened to me when it was supposed to happen to me. I don’t know anyone else’s journey, but for me it’s happening to me at 27. I’m okay starting at 27, because there are people out there that need what I have to offer at this particular time.
One of the things about being an artist is that you constantly evolve. And, the best artists are timeless. Dee Dee Bridgewater doesn’t go out of style, because she’s Dee Dee. Ella was timeless not because of how old she was, but because of what she represented, and that’s the kind of artist that I want to be.
So, I’m not really scared of starting at 27. This is just where I am in my journey.
ARE YOU READY TO TOUR?
I am super excited to tour! I love recording, but I just love the “live” element. I love that you can never predict what will happen on stage, with the musicians or the audience. It’s a complete new experience every time, and I absolutely love that.
I love hearing people’s input and watching their faces during the show. That’s my favorite part.
ANY PLANS FOR CONCERTS IN CALIFORNIA?
I hope so. I love the vibe out there and the great artists out there as well.
ONE OF THE SONGS WAS AN A CAPELLA VERSION OF “PURE IMAGINATION.” WAS THAT A REFLECTION OF YOUR CHURCH UPBRINGING?
Willie Wonka was a favorite movie of mine when I was growing up in my household. My dad loved it because he loved the lesson in it. He’s a big lesson person! I loved learning from all the kids and the personalities of all the people growing up.
That song has such an enchanting melody; it’s always been a favorite of mine. It was kind of an ode to childhood.
YET IT SOUNDS LIKE IT CAME FROM CHURCH
I love harmonies. One of my students asked me why I love harmonies so well, and I told him it’s because my dad kept me in an environment where you had to learn how to hear. The part wasn’t just given to you; you had to be able to hear your part to know how to fit in.
HOW IS IT BEING IN A STUDIO FOR YOUR OWN ALBUM?
Kind of surreal, but it also felt like home. I purposely chose all of the musicians on the album to be people that I had been playing with for years when I moved to Dallas. It was kind of a family reunion. It was my music because I had been playing it with these guys forever, and even with the material that wasn’t mine it felt comfortable because I was with people that have been on the journey with me since Day One.
YOU’VE BEEN BLESSED BY HAVING A LOT OF GREAT RELATIONSHIPS. THAT EQUIPS YOU WITH SOMETHING TO PASS ON.
Relationships are really the biggest part of your life, whether it comes to your personal life, or your job; it all comes down to relationships.
The best way to think about it is that when you’re on tour with musicians. You’re only on stage for a maximum of two hours. The rest of the time is just hanging out. But for the music to work you have to have relationships; you have to have them like being around you. You have to be a likeable person. You have to get that respect so they want to work with you. That’s the biggest part.
AND YOU CAN ONLY HAVE THAT PROPER RELATIONSHIP WITH PEOPLE IF YOU’RE IN A PEACEFUL RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD.
If that link is broken everything else is also broken. If you’re out of sync with God, everything else is out of sync.
AN OPTIMISTIC MESSAGE SUCH AS ONE FROM ASHLIEGH SMITH CAN ONLY COME FROM SOMEONE THAT HAS HAD SOMEONE POUR INTO HER LIFE. FROM BOTH FAMILY AND GOD, MS. SMITH HAS BEEN EQUIPPED TO SERVE HER GENERATION WITH A MESSAGE FROM HOPE, WITH THE MEDIUM BEING SONG. LIKE THE BEST OF PSALMISTS, SHE GIVES MELODIES OF HOPE, ALWAYS POINTING UPWARD.