Singer Alice Smith: 'I've Always Been Myself'

Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Alice Smith has managed to keep her music unique, despite pressure from music labels. She joins host Michel Martin for a special performance chat of her latest album She.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now we turn to a musician who's creating a beat that's all her own. Singer-songwriter Alice Smith grabbed the spotlight with her first album "For Lovers, Dreamers & Me." Rolling Stone magazine listed her as one of the 10 artists to watch in 2006. And a little over a year later, her single "Dream" was nominated for a Grammy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DREAM")

MARTIN: Well, it's been a while since her last album, and now Alice Smith is back with a new one. It's called "She." And while some things have changed during her hiatus - new music, new outlook, new baby - her powerhouse voice and imaginative lyrics have not. And Alice Smith is with us now for a special in-studio performance and conversation. She's accompanied by Tom Lupe (ph). Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

ALICE SMITH: Thank you.

MARTIN: Well, I'm sure that a lot of people would love to hear you sing, so what do you want to start with?

SMITH: "Another Love."

MARTIN: "Another Love," here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANOTHER LOVE")

MARTIN: Well, all right. Well, thank you and welcome back. 'Cause I said - I use the word hiatus, but you were never really gone.

SMITH: No.

MARTIN: I mean, you were still...

SMITH: I was working.

MARTIN: You were working, writing and you were performing...

SMITH: Yes.

MARTIN: ...The whole time. I know I saw you. It just took a while to get the record out.

SMITH: Yeah.

MARTIN: That's an experience that a lot of artists have had...

SMITH: Yes.

MARTIN: ...In recent years, and I just - I wonder how you handled that emotionally, when you're doing your side, but you can't get out what it is you're trying to say...

SMITH: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...At least through that means.

SMITH: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: How do you handle that?

SMITH: You cry a lot and you just keep doing it - music or, I guess, art. There's no finish line, you know. You're constantly - you can't - it's not - there's no giving up. You know, it's not like there's much else I wanted to do or maybe would be that good at.

MARTIN: Must be hard, though, if you go and you're selling out performances - live performances. I mean, people are...

SMITH: It's very discouraging.

MARTIN: ...You know, beating down the door to come and see you - find you. And yet, the people who want to hear you in another way, who can't get to a live performance...

SMITH: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Can't get access to you. Are you aware of that...

SMITH: Yes.

MARTIN: ...At a time like this? That people are like, when's the album going to...

SMITH: Oh, God, are you kidding? Yes. I stopped playing for a while because I just couldn't hear it. You know, you do the show and everyone's like, oh, when is the album? And I kept saying, oh, it's coming out at this point. And then it wouldn't come out. And then, oh, it's coming out now. No, for real. This time, it's really coming out. And it wouldn't. And I just - I didn't have anything to give, you know, for people to go home with and I just - I felt so bad, you know.

MARTIN: I've noticed that a lot of the people who confront this challenge are often people whose work doesn't fit into a box...

SMITH: Right.

MARTIN: ...Doesn't fit into a neat...

SMITH: Right.

MARTIN: ...Category.

SMITH: Yeah.

MARTIN: Is that what you've observed, too?

SMITH: Yeah. Well, the first thing anybody ever asks me when they find out I'm a singer is, well, what kind of music you do you sing? And I - you know, I don't really have an answer for that. It's just good, you know. If you listen to it and you like it, then great. If not, not so great, but OK. But...

MARTIN: How did you first realize you can sing?

SMITH: I don't know, by doing it. I always sang, but by getting into groups with other people.

MARTIN: But were you one of those little girls that people would say, oh, that girl can sing?

SMITH: No. I didn't have a lot of people say, oh, you can sing. Maybe later, when I got to school or college, maybe high school, I started having people say it around. But I didn't really pay it any attention. I guess I really kind of figured out that I could about - maybe about, you know, 10 years ago. I started to really be like, oh, yeah. Girl, you can kind of...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, a good thing, too.

SMITH: Oh, other people can't do this. This is - oh. You know.

MARTIN: And lucky for us.

SMITH: Yeah.

MARTIN: How do you, as an artist, again, trying to decide who you want to be and what you want to say, how do you go about finding your own sound?

SMITH: I never - I think, I - for me, I never had a real choice. I didn't make any decisions, you know. I didn't think about it at all. You know, it just happened, you know. I just have always been myself. And even when I was maybe in high school and I wanted to probably fit in like everybody else, I couldn't actually do those things that people would do. You know, I couldn't wear that shirt, that kind of earring or whatever it was that everybody else was doing because I would just be like, oh, this is whack, this doesn't actually look good on me. I'm not going to wear this. So you know, it's just - I've never been like that.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm in studio for a special performance and conversation with singer-songwriter Alice Smith. Her latest album is called "She." Do you want to sing something else?

SMITH: I would like to sing "Ocean."

MARTIN: All right, let's hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OCEAN")

MARTIN: Thank you.

SMITH: Sure.

MARTIN: When you're writing, are you thinking about somebody in particular?

SMITH: Sometimes.

MARTIN: Has having a baby changed your work?

SMITH: Well, I'm faster, and I'm more ambitious than I was - more focused, you know. More like, OK, we really have to pull this together now. So I'm more like that than I was.

MARTIN: Do you feel that you can - how can I put this - be the mother you want to be and be the artist you want to be?

SMITH: Yeah.

MARTIN: Because I've heard other women artists say they almost feel they have to hide that part of their lives.

SMITH: Hide it? No.

MARTIN: To be- to live up to this kind of image that, you know...

SMITH: Oh, that's weird.

MARTIN: ...Sexy, glam.

SMITH: No, that's weird

MARTIN: You know, obviously Beyonce and Jay-Z having a baby and everything they do is so big and so public, that maybe that's kind of changed that dynamic.

SMITH: Yeah.

MARTIN: But I have heard other women artists say that - somehow, that being a mother is seen to interfere with the image that is desired of them of being kind of sexy and this and this and this.

SMITH: Yeah.

MARTIN: And I know that you're not that interested in other people's opinions...

SMITH: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Of what you do, but I am interested...

SMITH: I mean, I'm interested.

MARTIN: ...In whether you...

SMITH: I'm interested. I'm interested, but I feel like I need more help, then maybe I would if I wasn't trying to run a business that I, like - I am the business and I have to do the - like, there's a lot. It's a lot, but I feel like I can do it. I just got to make it work for myself.

MARTIN: Speaking of the business, you did some fundraising on Kickstarter, right...

SMITH: Yes.

MARTIN: ...For the new album.

SMITH: Yes, I did.

MARTIN: What was that like?

SMITH: It was really great because it showed me how many people really do support me. When they tell me - when we're out and they say, I was on the Kickstarter. And I'm like, hey, great. Thank you so much. I can't believe this. And then, you know, it's like my little community, you know. It was perfect timing, too, because it was definitely one of those periods, for me, that I was like, am I really supposed to be doing this? This is just too hard. And it made me feel a lot better.

MARTIN: Well, congratulations on everything.

SMITH: Yes.

MARTIN: Hang in there.

SMITH: Thank you.

MARTIN: Hang in there.

SMITH: I'm hanging.

MARTIN: You know what they say, it gets better.

SMITH: Yeah.

MARTIN: Right?

SMITH: Yeah.

MARTIN: It does.

SMITH: It's good. It's better now. The album's out. I'm good. Once that happened, I was like, we're good now.

MARTIN: OK. Do you have - I'm sure you think this is hilarious, but do you think you have any wisdom for other artists who've followed this whole saga and...

SMITH: Well...

MARTIN: ...Are kind of starting out?

SMITH: The major labels, I think, are - they're for what they're for, you know. They're good at, you know, what they're good at and that's the one thing. The one lane, you know. They know what they know. I think that for anybody coming into this business, they should know that, you know, and it's not - there's nothing there for anybody who is doing anything different. I don't think it's worth it. That's the only thing I can really say, and, you know, the regular stuff, like, just work really hard and be yourself.

MARTIN: Alice Smith is herself. She's a Grammy nominated singer and songwriter. Her latest album is "She," which is out now, and she was kind enough to join us along with guitarist Tom Lupe (ph) in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you both for stopping by.

SMITH: Sure.

MARTIN: Thank you so much for coming. Come back and see us. Don't wait so long next time.

SMITH: OK.

MARTIN: OK. All right. What are you going to sing to go out on? What are you going to go out on?

SMITH: Oh, we should do "She."

MARTIN: Let's do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHE")

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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