LIVING THE DREAM - R&B SENSATION BETTE SMITH TALKS

Wednesday, 31 January 2018 08:08 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

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Bette Smith is talking excitedly to me from Rome, Italy, where she's been shooting a promotional video for her next single, 'I Found Love.'  There's a palpable frisson of wonderment in her caramel-smooth voice as she describes going to visit one of the Eternal City's most famous historical sites, the Colosseum,  earlier in the day.  "It's such a mind blowing experience," she enthuses. "It was surreal to be inside of the Colosseum. There's so much history, so much architecture here." She adds with a self-deprecating chuckle: "This is a Brooklyn girl that has never been to Rome before so it's such a wonderful experience. I'm really getting deep into the tradition and culture."

Bette's Italian sojourn reflects the fact that she's opened a new chapter in her life. She had toiled as a receptionist for many years in her native Brooklyn while doing music as a sideline - but now, thanks to producer Jimbo Mathus, who discovered her, and Big Legal Mess Records, who signed her, being a professional singer - her childhood dream - is now the main focus of her life. "It's a very beautiful, Cinderella story," laughs Bette, reflecting on how her life has changed for the good in the last year. Bette admits that she almost gave up music but was persuaded to continue by her late older brother, Junior, who "got very sick with kidney failure" and on his deathbed "told me that I should not give up my childhood dream of becoming a singer."

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Bette agreed and stayed true to her word. She would sing at any given opportunity. "After Junior died, I started singing at weddings and street fairs," she reveals. "Any time anybody asked me to sing, I started saying yes to everything, singing at people's weddings and funerals, doing backgrounds with a band, and even singing at the senior centre for free."

It was a stroke of good fortune that one day she was heard performing at a street fair in Brooklyn by a lawyer who claimed to have connections in the music business. Impressed by her vocals, he told her: "I have a friend of a friend named Jimbo Mathus and he worked with Buddy Guy a few years back. I'm going to see if I can connect both of you." Bette had been the recipient of false promises many times before from aspirant music biz types so wasn't expecting anything world-shattering to happen but her speculative email to Jimbo Mathus - a noted Mississippi-born songwriter and producer who led his own band, the Squirrel Nut Zippers - was the catalyst that altered the course of her life journey. "He came up from Mississippi to New York and we had a coffee together," she says. "He said, 'I have some songs and I think that you'd sound great on them.' I said 'great, I'd love to do it,' because I was now saying yes to everything when it came to my singing career."

Then Mathus dropped a bombshell. He wanted Bette to record in Mississippi, in the heart of the American deep south, where deep-rooted Jim Crow racism still prevailed. Mathus's rationale was a simple one. Says Bette: "He said, 'I want to take you out of your element and comfort zone.'" Bette was a taken aback but quietly resolved to join her producer in Mississippi.  "I'd never been down there in the deep south, I'm strictly New York City girl," she says. "I was a little nervous but I packed my suitcase, gathered up all my courage and went down to Mississippi to record."

But Bette trusted Jimbo Mathus. Also, she believed that she had history on her side. "I have been studying the blues and soul music all my life," she reveals,  "and knew that Aretha Franklin and Etta James went down south, to Muscle Shoals, and they became famous for recording down there. I said to myself, I've been in New York and I haven't had much luck, let me try something different. Sometimes you have to get out of your element and take a blind step of faith."

 When Bette arrived at Dial Back Sound in Water Valley, Mississippi, she received another shock - she was going to be recording live to tape backed by Mathus's band in real time in the studio."His band was so great - we also had a horn section from Memphis - and we did all of it live," she says. Bette had recorded many times before, but always overdubbed her voice to pre-programmed rhythm tracks. "They buried my voice in all those synthesisers using Pro-Tools and it was terrible because unlike most singers, my voice resonates best live," says Bette, recalling the myriad demo tapes she made before hooking up with Jimbo Mathus. "They just made my voice sound like a garden variety voice. After all the many, many hundreds of dollars I spent, I was never able to get anywhere. It was like putting on a lot of make-up and never seeing your true beauty."

But recording live with Jimbo Malthus and some of his band members was a revelation to Bette Smith. "My voice has a lot of resonance and so when Jimbo recorded me, he just put me on a vintage mike that most newscasters used back in the day, like Walter Cronkite, but it sounded like a real voice."  For the first time she was able to hear what her voice really sounded like. "When I came out of the studio and listened back, I said who is that?", she laughs.  "It was like I had never really heard myself before. It was almost like an out of body experience, it was amazing. It was so beautiful the way that Jimbo had recorded me, which was very live as opposed to the high-tech studio and all the programming they do. I almost started crying but I managed to pull myself together and then Jimbo said, 'I'm going to talk to the general manager of Big Fat Possum, and see if I can get you a record deal.'"

And that's exactly what Mathus did. Bette was overjoyed when she received the good news. "I was so happy, I cried for three days," she laughs. "It's so beautiful, such a wonderful story - it's like a fairytale."

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Bette is effusive in her praise for producer, Jimbo Mathus (pictured), who also wrote some of the album's songs. "He likes to protect the voice, whereas before when I was singing, they'd have the music really loud and the drum set right next to me and I'd go home with a sore throat. Jimbo has the drummer in another room. He only had guitar next to me and he was standing far away from me so that the music and the amplifiers didn't hurt my voice and I didn't have to scream over the other players. He really pampered my voice. We did six songs in about two days and then we went back down to Mississippi and we did another five songs and we thinned it down to ten for the album. When you're in the studio with Jimbo, he would sit down with me and say 'let me get you the right key - maybe that's not the right key for you.' No producer ever did that for me before. It was like having an Italian architect plan your home ...and not just anybody from the Internet!"

Mathus also schooled Bette in how to build the drama of a performance gradually, and saving her voice as opposed to singing flat out from the first note to the last. "I sing, as they say in Brooklyn, from my toes up," laughs Bette. "So when I'm singing a song, sometimes I just get carried away. I get really excited and give it everything and a half. But he's really hands-on and takes care of your voice. He said 'calm down, take it easy, we have five more songs to do today so don't sing too loud.'"

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Bette's resulting debut album, 'Jetlagger,' was issued in the US in September 2017 and receives it official European release on February 2nd. It has already garnered a tranche of rave reviews. "All the critics love it," says Bette. "I've been getting five stars and very good reviews laterally. There's a great energy. Everyone likes the album."

 Its sound is raw, retro and organic, though it's not without sophistication, with Bette's vocals - husky, passionate and untrammelled - the main focal point. Bette co-wrote the title song, which sounds like a curious cross between Stax soul and San Francisco psych-rock band, Love. "I co-wrote it  with a young man by the name of Danny Lerner, who also co-manages me. The song is about my dream to travel the world and the side-effects," laughs the singer. "We wrote the lyrics and the music and I just trusted Jimbo to arrange it and he made it like a interior decorator decorating a house: he put everything in the right place. The horns come in and there are some beautiful psychedelic sounds. I was so pleased to hear the final cut."

Another standout is 'I Will Feed You,' which Bette wrote on her own. "It was written for my first boyfriend who happened to come from the UK," she explains, revealing the source of her inspiration.  "He went back there and it broke my heart because I was in love with him. After we broke up, I wrote him this song and it was very intense. I was sitting down at a bar - I'd had a few drinks - and started to cry into a napkin as I started writing this poem with the music flowing into my ears. It's a classic breakup song about true love."

Different again in character is the turbo-charged cover of '80s LA rock band Lone Justice's gospel-hued  'I Found Love,' where vocally, Bette really lets rip with wild abandon. "That was a joy," exclaims Bette. "The song was so intimidating for me because it's so fast and has high energy. I saw Maria McKee perform it on You Tube and I said my God, that's a real high energy song, maybe I should pass on that. But deep inside of my personality, I really like a challenge, so I told Jimbo, 'let's do it first thing in the morning.' It was the second day I was down in Mississippi. I got up about 7 and got to the studio about 8.30 and said let's go for it. I just said in my mind, how can you do this song? So I thought, I'm going to pretend in my mind that I'm a southern Baptist minister and I'm just going to preach the gospel according to Bette. We just did one or two takes and the song was done. It was amazing. I gave it everything I had. It was such an aggressive energy and passionate type of song and the beat is just a driving beat, but I thought I'm going to definitely have to do this first thing in the morning because I'm a morning person."

'I Found Love' has gospel in its DNA, which chimed with Bette's own upbringing. "My father happened to be a choir director," she explains. "The only person I can compare him to is Nat 'King' Cole. He had a beautiful bass-baritone. He was a real powerful singer with a gifted voice. I think that's where I got my voice from. So by the time I was five years old, he would have me come to church with him and we'd go to Sunday school and then they'd have choir. They would give me a song to sing and I'd just have a little solo because I was very young and tender, and they would have me sing lead with the beginning of a song and then the choir would take over but it was a good training for me and for my career now because it gave me a gave me a lot of confidence to sing with all my power."

Her family, who lived in the Bedford Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, were deeply pious and as a youngster, Bette wasn't allowed to listen to secular music. "We had only gospel music because my mother and father were very religious - they were both raised as Seventh Day Adventists," discloses Bette, "so they were very strict about having no secular music in the house." But it was Bette's older brother, Junior, who introduced her to what her parents called the 'Devil's music.' "He had some R&B and soul records, like Otis Redding, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and Ike & Tina Turner, and I would just listen to them with him. But if I ever got found out, I would get severely punished."

As she grew older, Bette was drawn to the blues.  "I like sad songs," she says by way of explanation.  "It's just the way I am. If we did five songs that were fast, upbeat, and happy and one song that was sad, I would love listen to that and that's what would permeate me. So I always liked sad songs and would listen to the blues. People would tell me, when you sing, you really pull people in. So I ended up listening to Otis Redding's '(Sitting On The) Dock Of The Bay,' and 'Try A Little Tenderness.' Those kinds of songs really pulled at my heartstrings and I tried singing along. I just gravitated to these kind of bluesy, sad, sad songs... I love soul music so much."

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Bette reveals that she almost got to record with the great Ray Charles, back in 2004. "I lived in Los Angeles for seven years and during that time I started taking some voice lessons with a famous vocal coach, Seth Riggs, and upon meeting him, we hit it right off." Riggs was the voice teacher for a host of mega-famous singing stars, among them Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Jennifer Lopez, Barbra Streisand, and ... Ray Charles. He asked if Bette would like an opportunity to meet Ray Charles, which of course, she eagerly agreed to, and arranged for her next lesson to begin right after Charles's. Recalls Bette:  "The following Wednesday, I was walking in as Ray Charles was walking out. Seth said, 'Ray, I just want to introduce you to one of my vocal students, Bette Smith,' and he shook my hand and said 'do you have any demo tapes' so I gave him one of my CDs. It was just a rough of a song I wrote called 'Stay Free.' A couple of days passed and his assistant, Vernon, called me and said 'Ray really likes your voice, style and music' and said,' if you have some time, if you could come and visit Ray in his Los Angeles studio, he would like to meet with you.' So we ended up meeting and he said he wanted to collaborate with me on 'Stay Free,' and we arranged to meet up a couple of weeks later. After that, we planned to meet again but I didn't hear from him. So I called Vernon, his assistant, and he told me that Ray had taken ill and was in hospital. And then shortly thereafter, he passed away. It was like a sign but it was very sad for me too. It was bittersweet. I'm so happy that I got to meet him though. To have the confidence of Ray Charles was very inspirational."

 Although Bette's professional career as a singer is now taking off spectacularly, she remains grounded. When she's not performing, she can be found doing voluntary work for the less fortunate. "I love volunteering," she says. "I volunteer at an organisation in New York City called God's Love We Deliver. Basically, it's like a soup kitchen, and they prepare food and deliver it to people that are shut-in and the elderly who can't get up and prepare their own food or they're not feeling well. We have a van to deliver their food and drive it to their homes in the five boroughs of New York. It's one of the things that I like to do the most. It's very fulfilling to help people and actually be a part of the solution and not just saying, poor soul, you don't have anything to it."

Bette, herself, in her spare time, likes to cook and prepare food. "I love it. It's one of my favourite occupations," she states, adding that her signature dish is jerk chicken. "I season it a week before I cook it. My mother taught me how to make it. I cook Caribbean with a little French twist."

But it's music that Bette will be serving up for a hungry audience when she comes to London's Borderline venue on April 30th 2018. "I'm going to be singing six or seven songs from my album," she says. "Jimbo can't come with me because he has to go on tour with his band, which I totally understand. But I have a great line-up of men and these guys are fantastic. Jimbo loves and approves of them so I think we're going to have a great band to take to the UK. I'm really excited about them."

Looking ahead to the future, Bette reveals that she has already started working on her follow-up album. "Jimbo has already recorded a few songs for me," she says. "He's just waiting for me to come off the tour and then we're going to finish what we started. It's going to be a  fabulous collection of obscure and original songs, so I can't wait until we do the second album. I'm really looking forward to it."

Given her trials, tribulations, and hard work over the years, Bette Smith is really enjoying life right now and savouring every moment in the spotlight. She feels blessed by her good fortune - "I'm so thankful for all these things that are coming towards me," she says - but she still has to pinch herself to see if what's happened to her is all real. "I still can't get over it," she gasps. "I really am living a dream."

 

'JETLAGGER' IS RELEASED ON FEBRUARY 2nd VIA BIG LEGAL MESS/FAT POSSUM.

 

Catch Bette Smith at London's Borderline venue on April 30th

                           

Read the review of 'Jetlagger' here:   http://www.soulandjazzandfunk.com/reviews/5285-bette-smith-jetlagger-big-legal-mess-.html

Last Updated on Friday, 02 February 2018 11:09

 

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