Q&A with wild rock & soul singer Bette Smith, the next big-voiced soul sensation into rock & roll and gospel

"It definitely can be a challenge. Women have faced so many obstacles that men would never think about. Although I believe things have improved quite a lot recently, it still can be tricky at times. But the key for me is to work with really good and dedicated people where music is first and foremost, and respect for each other as artists reigns supreme."

Bette Smith: Long Walk To Soul

Wild rock & soul singer Bette Smith traces elements of her life-affirming new album ‘The Good, The Bad and The Bette’ (2020/Ruf Records) to her childhood in rough Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Musically, it connects to the gospel music she heard in church and the soul music on the corners. No party host would regret putting on this platter! She remembers, “My father was a church choir director. I was singing since I was five years old. I take it to church. I just break out, start speaking in tongues.” She also heard gospel around the house every weekend. “My mother listened to nothing but gospel,” she recalls, citing Mahalia Jackson and Reverend James Cleveland. “Every Sunday morning, she would get up and put on these records while dressing and praising the Lord,” she says. Bed-Stuy block parties would also have revivalist-style gospel acts. “I’m steeped in it!,” she adds.                                              (Photo: Bette Smith)

This injection of soul music and gospel into rock & roll powered a breakout in 2017’s ‘Jetlagger,’ which received raves from NPR, Paste, American Songwriter, Billboard, MOJO, and a feature in the New York Times. Not just a critics' darling, the album rose to #1 on the Roots Music Report chart and topped off a banner year with a celebrated appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Billboard said, "A rugged, chugging southern soul record... Like Betty Davis or Betty Wright before her, she imbues tracks with shingly, sawtoothed texture, capable of breaking off a high note with a throaty cry or scraping so low and wide that she threatens to put her bass player out of work."  Born and raised in New York, Bette Smith reconnected with her musical roots in Memphis and Mississippi – and fulfilled a promise to her late brother in the process. 

Interview by Michael Limnios        Special Thanks: Pati deVries (Devious Planet Media)

How has the Soul and Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I haven’t been too focused on the counterculture when it comes to my own music. I just try to write and perform good, passionate and inspirational music. With that, I hope to contribute in my own personal way to the culture of music. But I will say this: I’m a huge fan of 1960s and early 70s soul and rock artists—icons like Otis Redding and Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. So yes, I’d say those guys are my big, counterculture influences, for sure.

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

My sound is a mix of Soul and Rock. When recording my latest album “The Good, The Bad and The Bette” with my talented crew down in Mississippi, it just felt organic and it all came together naturally. Maybe there’s something in the water down there, but I was able to instinctively tap into my Soul vibe (as I did on our previous album “Jetlagger” 2017). When a group of like-minded musicians come together and play off each other—things just click, and magic is created.

"I’ve learned that collaboration is a beautiful thing. The music industry is extremely competitive now, and you certainly can’t do it all yourself. It truly requires a team effort, where people contribute and focus on their unique areas of expertise. And when you approach it that way --in the spirit of collaboration and team effort-- it always works out for the best." (Photo: Bette Smith)

What would you say characterizes New York music scene in comparison to other US local scenes and circuits? 

Every city has it’s own music vibe and history. For instance, New York and Memphis are very different places, musically. The mindset of people in each location feels so different. And of course, that stems from their different histories. Also, just the climate and weather is so different in these two regions. So, between all of that, the music naturally is just going to be different too. But one thing I notice and appreciate wherever I’m performing in the world—when I look out to the audience, I receive that same universal response—a deep love for great music.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

I have lots of good memories touring and performing! I love to travel and perform overseas, and meeting people everywhere. One of the great joys of touring is to take in all the rich cultures and histories, eat the food, enjoy the art, and really have a good time.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I really like today’s method of recording music, with all the technical developments that make it so easy to track and mix songs so quickly.

Also, it’s great that it’s become quite a lot easier and less expensive to travel and tour internationally, which allows for a lot of flexibility in touring.  I’m talking about pre-Covid, but I’m still optimistic that things will return to near normal by late 2021.

During the Covid era, I’ve also embraced the idea of live streaming performances, but it will never replace the energy and excitement of actual live concerts when I get to see my audiences in the flesh. I hope that never changes.

"Every city has it’s own music vibe and history. For instance, New York and Memphis are very different places, musically. The mindset of people in each location feels so different. And of course, that stems from their different histories. Also, just the climate and weather is so different in these two regions. So, between all of that, the music naturally is just going to be different too. But one thing I notice and appreciate wherever I’m performing in the world—when I look out to the audience, I receive that same universal response—a deep love for great music." (Photo: Bette Smith)

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

To introduce a lot more people around the world to Soul music, and to generate a wide variety of new fans from all corners who will become interested in this classic American genre.

What does to be a female artist in a Man’s World as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?

It definitely can be a challenge. Women have faced so many obstacles that men would never think about. Although I believe things have improved quite a lot recently, it still can be tricky at times. But the key for me is to work with really good and dedicated people where music is first and foremost, and respect for each other as artists reigns supreme.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

I’ve learned that collaboration is a beautiful thing. The music industry is extremely competitive now, and you certainly can’t do it all yourself. It truly requires a team effort, where people contribute and focus on their unique areas of expertise. And when you approach it that way--in the spirit of collaboration and team effort--it always works out for the best.

"I haven’t been too focused on the counterculture when it comes to my own music. I just try to write and perform good, passionate and inspirational music. With that, I hope to contribute in my own personal way to the culture of music. But I will say this: I’m a huge fan of 1960s and early 70s soul and rock artists—icons like Otis Redding and Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. So yes, I’d say those guys are my big, counterculture influences, for sure."

(Photo: Bette Smith and her dog, Jeremiah)

What is the impact of music on the racial and socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?

I think any artist, regardless their background, who can create and perform from a genuine, sincere point of view will have a good chance to succeed and touch people deeply and directly, no matter their style or genre. That’s the beauty of music.

Bette Smith - Home

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