01.09.09 6:05 AM ET
The New Heart of Soul
The best singer you’ve never heard of is Alice Smith, a tall, black soul singer from Brooklyn with a four-octave range in a voice than can go from sultry smooth to operatic power. You won’t find her videos on MTV or BET, but you will find her singing in little places like the Blue Note in Manhattan, the Tin Angel in Philly, or the Orange Peel in Asheville, NC (check her website for when she’ll be near you—she has five new dates in January). Her 2006 debut album, For Lovers, Dreamers, and Me, was named after a line that Kermit the Frog sung in his sentimental classic, “The Rainbow Connection”—a reference that tells you how much of a romantic Alice is. She’ll have a new album out this spring (it’s not yet named, but she says it won’t be inspired by the Muppets this time).
There’s a bit of a Norah Jones/Lisa Loeb vibe to Smith—you get the sense that she’s a music nerd who spends time honing her talent and her songs rather than learning dance moves and picking outfits. Indeed, Smith does not dance or drape on designers Beyonce would love, even though Smith, like Ms. Knowles-Carter, has some striking curves in her hourglass figure. I’ve met Smith a few times—she lives in Brooklyn not far from me with her boyfriend, musician Citizen Cope, so I emailed her directly. No need to go through people—I’m not sure she has them.
“I came to singing organically,” she told me of her start. In college she says she started singing backup “randomly.” Then five years ago lightning struck. “I realized that I didn't want to do anything else. Plus, I realized I was good, and, most importantly, I actually loved to sing on stage.” Now she’s doing more than 100 shows a year. I think it’s interesting that she remembers the moment she realized she was good. “I started to like my voice, the sound of it. So then I started to listen to it as something separate. To me it sounded good that way as well.”
Smith does soul as it should be done: as a next-door neighbor to the blues, with all the necessary melancholy and honest emotion. Her debut sounded like something I might find when fingering through my parents’ music collection so it’s no surprise that she listens mostly to old music and her list of favorite singers includes Eartha Kitt, Judy Garland, Dinah Washington, and the incomparable Nina Simone. (Shouldn’t all singers be required to study Nina?)
Smith says, “I like to focus on making the music sound simple and true, and very lush and full. I think music should take you to somewhere else where you have the space to contemplate or exercise your imagination. All the while you should be feeling real good, like when you have a delicious and decadent meal, macaroni and cheese or foie gras. So that's what I want to for my music, too.”
Visit www.Alicesmith.com to hear music samples and find upcoming tour dates.
Touré is the host of BET’s The Black Carpet and the host of Treasure HD’s I’ll Try Anything Once . He is the author of Never Drank the Kool-Aid, Soul City, and The Portable Promised Land. He was a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, was CNN’s first pop culture correspondent, and was the host of MTV2's Spoke N Heard . His writing has appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Times.