Twenty Questions with Legendary R&B artist – BJ Smith

BJ Smith has toured the world with Toni Braxton and the late great Rick James playing percussion, keyboards and singing backup vocals for both. While touring with En Vogue, he sang background vocals, played percussion and keyboards and he and his band opened for them during their recent summer 2014 tour. These accomplishments are in addition to many different independent headline tours with variations of his band throughout the US, over the years.

BJ Smith has been featured on more than 20 albums, played on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Saturday Night Live, The David Letterman Show, the MTV Video Music Awards, The Arsenio Hall Show, and BET Awards. In a recent exclusive interview BJ shared his thoughts with Jamsphere.

  1. How long have you been in the music business and how did you get started in the first place?

BJ Smith: I’ve been in the music business for over 20 years! As an infant, at about the age of 3yrs old, my mother who was a singer, in the circus, and sang in choirs, discovered I could hold a tune in pitch. Ultimately, she became my first vocal coach, and by the age of 4yrs old I was that little kid going to various churches singing Church hymns and ole spirituals.

  1. Who were your first musical influences that you can remember?

BJ Smith: Well luckily, both my parents were Music lovers, so I was exposed to a wide array of music from classical, gospel, rock, soul, R&B. But Artist wise, definitely Michael Jackson and The Jackson 5. Then later, Earth Wind & Fire, Marvin Gaye, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, Bill Withers, Johnny Guitar Watson, Barry White, Donnie Hathaway, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, Luther Vandross, and so many more.

  1. Which artists are you currently listening to? And is there anyone of these that you’d like to collaborate with?

BJ Smith: D’Angelo, Raphael Saadiq, Tyrese, Jill Scott, Alicia Keys, Amy Winehouse, John Legend, Adele, Andrea Bocelli, Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Prince, Isley Brothers, Lauryn Hill, Nina Simone, Take 6, Bill Withers, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, D- Train, The Time, Rick James, Michael McDonald, Rolling Stones, Rage Against the Machine, Bob Marley, Babyface, Brian McKnight, Ed Sheeran, Sam Hunt, Eminem, Bruno Mars, Sam Smith, Charlie Wilson, Keith Sweat, Boys II Men, Tech N9ne, Kendrick Lamar, Hed-PE, 50 Cent, Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Beyonce, Meshell Ndegeocello, Anthony Hamilton, India Arie, Kim Burrell, and just too many Artist to mention, my ear candy cravings are big! Also, I’d love to collaborate with all of them, past & present.

BJ Smith
BJ Smith
  1. Have you suffered any ‘resistance’ from within the industry, and if so how have you handled that, and how do you handle criticism and naysayers in general?

BJ Smith: Yes, I’ve suffered! Anyone currently, attempting, working, or remaining in the music industry suffers especially Bands or Artists. You can’t buy into either side of praise or resistance, you have to know yourself, and if you don’t know yourself, you’d better find yourself quickly in order to maintain balance and mental stability! The internal highs can soar you higher than the Sun & Pluto, and the lows can pull you down deeper and darker than the Mariana Trench in the pacific if you let it. The true irony in Art is that everyone has their own opinion and perspective and no one likes everything whether they can appreciate it or not. Music is about feelings, and because our emotions are so diverse, mood oriented, and ever changing, we like so many diverse styles. So I say, rely less on your talent, work more on your craft and the resistance will continually diminish as your work will speak volumes.  Regarding criticism and naysayers, I take it constructively, but I don’t read the writing on the wall unless I wrote it! There’s no shortcuts, and I’m willing to endure the road ahead. I know if I focus on my dreams and the possibilities that it will happen, and I just go after it. Ultimately, I know my overall focus will determine my overall reality. I don’t listen to negativity, and I never will!

  1. What are your thoughts on visual media and Youtube? Do think that video is an appropriate marketing tool for your music?

BJ Smith: Yes I do, even though at this moment, I’ve been less focused on the look at me syndrome, and more focused on honing my voice, my music, and telling my story through your ears, to your heart, Through your body, soul, and your mind. “Emotional Visualization”

  1. Which do you ultimately prefer? Entertaining a live audience or creating songs in a studio setting?

BJ Smith: Both are equally important, however I enjoy the unique infinite moments of live onstage performances. When I can find that one person in the crowd, or feel the masses, I’m totally connected to at that moment, mentally, physically, psychologically, sexually, and emotionally. That momentary exhilarating energy is overwhelming as time never duplicates or repeats itself. But I also enjoy those moments of creativity and solitude in the studio where you can let go and journey off into the nonjudgmental abyss of nothingness and creativity, only to find and unlock the inspiration that’s within you.  “Subconscious Zen”

  1. Tell us something about the creation and production of your album REAL LIFE ISSUES?

BI Smith: My Album Real Life Issues, is a unisex culmination of an emotional cleanse stemming from heartfelt love, lust, sexual, and friendly interaction within the human experience that men and woman encounter, while sifting through the obstacles of maintaining and enduring romance through relationships and the contemplation of  life choices after the honeymoon phase has passed. Men are men, Women are women. And Monogamy can be overrated, but Love omnipotently evolves and lives on forever. If you’re true to yourself, you’ll find your definition of love, and you’ll find someone who understands you and matches your intensity. Or you’ll at least find someone who you can truly agree to disagree with as your relationship evolves. But this comes through the evolution of individual maturity within the relationship. Overall, my content was drawn through personal experiences of friends, strangers, and complicated human circumstances. Everyone can relate, especially grown folks who’ve lived a little, loved a little and suffered let downs or heartbreak. The tracking portion of these songs with my band was incredible and recorded live at the Skip Sailor Studios. My connection to my band, their limitless musicianship, and my explained visions helped find the directional vibe of the compositions. The backing vocals, and arrangement occurred between myself, and one of my mentors, the multi Grammy Award winner, Dave Thomas, member of the world famous group Take 6. Overall production, vocals and cohesive audio development and completion occurred at Tribe sound with my Grammy nominated Producer, the legendary Les Pierce.

Although I’m blessed to be surrounded by and have accomplished musicians, vocalist, and producer in my camp, what’s most important is the established friendships, connections, camaraderie and creativity, shared between us that allows us to all be a creative cohesive unit.

     8. Do you have a fixed backing band or do you switch members on different projects?

BJ Smith: I have a core band consisting of my Bass player Patrice “P-Bass” Jones, and my 2 Keyboardists, Roman ”RoRo” Johnson, and Alessandro “Alex” Alessandroni Jr. I’ve known and played with these musical greats for over 10+ years. There have only been a few floating chairs of Drums & Guitar in this band at various times, but whoever collaborates within this collective of musicians always has a great time. Chemistry goes a long way in any type of relationship, and so does loyalty and respect. I love my core band, but every musician has something to offer, as everyone has their own unique style or feel. I guess it all comes down to capturing the essence of that musician’s creativity and combining it with your vision as the Artist for a specified session or performance.

BJ Smith
BJ Smith
  1. Which ingredient, do you think still makes you special and unique as a performing artist in a genre thriving with young newcomers?

BJ Smith: I just do me! Within my music I strive to make a difference in someone’s life, or to the world. By accomplishing this, hopefully I’ve made someone’s life better, so that makes my life better in return. I strive to relate, empower, and/or positively influence you through my music where hopefully you can reflect from within on an emotional journey.  I’ve lived long enough to let my lyrical content, vocal styling’s, musicality and connection to the music and my listener, pour out through spontaneous emotions without allowing my ego or contrived gimmicks, facilitate, dictate, or stand in the way. I think this makes me special and unique to my audience.

  1. If you were forced to choose only one, which emotion, more than any other drives you to be a part of this tough business. Is it joy, anger, desire, passion or pride and why?

BJ Smith: I believe all the above emotions equate to Passion. The passion that I have overrides any rational reasons to do anything else. With all the negatives associated with the music industry, I love doing what I do, and all aspects of my emotions drive me, which is Passion.

  1. Which aspect of being an independent artist and the music making process excites you most and which aspect discourages you most?

BJ Smith: I’m excited because I get to focus, express, and promote what I feel is important not only for myself, but for any would be listeners or fans as I know there’s still an audience for my style of R&B/Soul music. I get to be the entrepreneur and direct the course of my business and be part of every aspect. What discourages me is the big corporate side of this business and politics that attempts to control, brainwash, glorify and dictate what or who is a good artist or a bad artist, what’s a good song, and what’s radio worthy. Also the numerous amounts of politics that drive those naysayers’ agendas that Artists deal with. I get it, but I don’t have to like it.

  1. In which way do you think touring with Toni Braxton, En Vogue and Rick James enriched your professional baggage most?

BJ Smith: I learn great lessons from all Artists. With female artists, you have more delicate circumstances, regarding personal safety, hair, makeup, wardrobe etc. However, similar challenges exist with male Artists as well. More importantly it’s about respecting and understanding not only the Artist, it’s about respecting and understanding your surroundings and attempting to understand them as a person within their uniqueness. There’s always enrichment in understanding and recognizing an Artists needs on and off stage, from production to performance, to personal issues within the entertainment and work setting. But overall, its incredible to share the stage and learn the what’s and what not’s with a Star. There’s greatness in all of us, but I feel honored, blessed, and inspired to have this experience with people who have achieved theirs.

  1. How do you achieve your sound? Do you work from a private recording environment or do you use a commercial sound studio?

BJ Smith: I achieve my sound through live music, live vocals and by doing what feels and sounds good to me. I also allow my musicians and/or collaborators to express themselves. I understand the Style & Genre that I’m creating in, and I always find what I’m looking for, or find what I wasn’t looking for, but more than often, I just follow where the inspiration and vibe take me.

Regarding sound environment, Both! I have my own mini studio set up, as most Artists and Musicians do now days, But living in the Los Angeles area, I have access to some incredible studios as well. Every room has its own sound or feel, and if you’re lucky enough to capture a magical moment and create something incredible then you’ve won. The Artist makes the studio matter, and the studio can spark the magic for that Artist too matter. “Creative Symbiosis”

  1. The best piece of advice in this business you actually followed so far, and one you didn’t follow, but now know for sure that you should have?

BJ Smith: Best Advice, “Just Do You” Believe in yourself, and dream the unimaginable. Don’t just rely on your talent, rely on your skill. You can’t please everyone, and not everyone will like your music or your message. So just hone your skills and perfect what you do even if it’s singing or playing just one note, make it undeniable and it will eventually be undeniable. Also, stay out of your own way and stay focused. “Your Focus Determines Your Reality”

What I failed to follow was Marketing, promotion, and awareness! No ones ever gonna hear, buy, or even listen to your music if you keep it in your head or locked up as an idea in your bedroom. Music can be a personal experience, but eventually, you must share it. The graveyard is the richest place in the world, full of great ideas, goals, dreams, aspirations and hit songs that never happened.

BJ Smith
BJ Smith
  1. How big was the change from playing and singing backup for the stars, to moving to fronting your own backing band?

BJ Smith: Huge, when you’re the Artist, the spotlight constantly remains on you, on and off stage. Your responsibility and expectations are much greater, however both positions back up, or lead are equally important because both need each other and both compliment each other. “Cohesive Symbiosis”

  1. Do you consider Internet and all the social media websites, as fundamental to your ongoing career, and indie music in general, or do you think it has only produced a mass of mediocre “copy-and-paste” artists, who flood the web, making it difficult for real talent to emerge?

BJ Smith: Internet and Social Media are all great platforms and tools for Artist that gave rise to independent artistry. It diversified entertainment marketing for all and helped diffuse monopolies. It allows people to discover and choose their own “Picasso” and not just be told, “This is a Picasso, because we said it’s so”. ( Just because a kid can pantomime doesn’t mean he’s the next Elvis. we all don’t need to see that 15 minutes of buffoonery that clouds and clogs) People still have to assert themselves and have an opinion instead of following the masses and be cattle. Let us not dull our senses either. I still truly believe that great musicianship, great vocals, great lyrics, and great performances, will outshine mediocrity eventually no matter how hard it’s stifled, suppressed or hidden once people truly see or are exposed to the truth. The truth constantly surrounds us and there’s no escaping or avoiding it. For the Copy and Paste Artists who rely on gimmicks amongst other things, it’s easy to be the big fish in the little pond until your ass gets dropped into the ocean.

  1. If someone has never heard your music, which 3 keywords would you personally use to describe your overall sound and style?

BJ Smith: Smooth, Provocative & Genuine

  1. How would you describe the current state of R&B and Soul music?

BJ Smith: As a general overview In my opinion, the current state of R&B and Soul have become a Myopic view within the industry, and its trickled into mainstream perspective especially between several generations from younger to older audiences, causing the listener and Artist to suffer.

 I don’t think the industry has given enough thought and/or possibly enough respect to artists by attempts at limiting their audiences, their sound, and their platforms of exposure in the mainstream, along with construing the accolades that are rewarded. Also there’s problems within limiting or coining and/or defining a correct terms of a style or genre of music that contains certain elements to it, especially within R&B and Soul music. Words have been added to depict descriptions like Urban, New School, old School, Neo, Black, Crossover, etc. And although terms, like Neo Soul may have been added to Soul Music, the avid Soul listener can define the two styles between soul and Neo Soul and the similarities and differences, but can the average listener? How does this affect the art form? Does it have to be for just a certain geographical area or race of listener? Are we stifling knowledge & enrichment?

An analogy might be Soup. Although we know the difference in soup from chicken noodle to clam chowder, we had to be specific in the recipe of ingredients to label what kind of soup it is. What’s the difference between New England clam chowder, and clam chowder?  There’s no assumption there, right? How did we know the difference? Who gets to eat this?

The same thing with MMA or Mixed Martial Arts. What is it? Combative soup? But yet, we understand the different ingredients, between Boxing, Wrestling, Muay Tai, etc. Is this hurting traditional Martial Art forms? Who gets exposed to each form? Is it devaluing each specific traditional style? Does any one care? Are we soon going to forget or not even know the difference between, Kung Fu, Karate, Judo, Wrestling and Boxing? Do we know the difference right now?

So with current so called R&B, is true or pure R&B being exposed? Has it been classified properly or has it become Mixed Music Rhythm & Blues? Furthermore are certain R&B styles or certain artist only worthy to be exposed to the world? There’s a new school Vibe of R&B and an Old school Vibe. But yes, it’s still just called R&B. A lot of new school vibe sometimes possesses an R&B style vocal sang over Hip hop, House, or EDM music and most often contains some type of a rap element to it. Sometimes it may also lack live instrumentation replaced with technology, and contain a lot of auto-tune. Sometimes it s lyrical content focuses on sexual exploitation, rather than just sex. It also is particularly synonymous with whoever the current hot producer is at that time, within Hip hop or even Pop, and that all ok, but the industry calls it R&B, once again creating a Myopic soup.

BJ Smith
BJ Smith

Old school vibe R&B, Artists often had a certain groove element coupled with a high level of musicality and that Artists unique style or sound. The lyrical content they sang about focused on sex, love, life or heartbreak and personal feelings and their talking voice sometimes was just as important or as intricate as the melodies they sang. This I s ok as well, but should one style overshadow another style? What about the Artist or there style? There are newer Artist that possess old school R&B Styles and their material gets played across the radio charts, from Urban, AC, smooth jazz & Pop, but yet other artist with the same style just get played on Urban radio. Why is this? There’s an audience for both of these so called styles mainstream, however some may not call or acknowledge the new school vibe as R&B but the industry does, but yet old school vibe,  just might get called old school and not R&B which is incorrect.

Who coins or classifies these terms for the world? Are they correct? What makes R&B or Soul? What makes Country? What makes Hip Hop or Rap? What makes Pop? We need to be careful while labeling music and make sure before we give a title or label or term. We need to be specific and more importantly understand the ingredients and the recipe for correct or proper titles to certain styles or art forms of music. We must allow the audiences the opportunity to hear all styles of music and the platforms of exposure that exist must be fair. We must respect those Artists legacies who created these specific styles, and sounds and not allow or believe any corporate marketing ploys to make manipulative, or manufactured statements to the masses like “The New Voice of Country, Rap, Soul, or R&B or only honor or give accolades to their chosen few and purposely deprive accolades from others only to perpetuate censored marketing, corporate theft and devalue or mismatch true art forms. Don’t let anyone tell you something is not what it is, or tell you something is, when its not. Lets not let corporate marketing, strategy, or categorizing divisions within the politics of record labels, radio, and the music industry dictate. Don’t force an Artist into a genre, and tell the world that everyone else that pre-existed in this genre were something else when we know where it came from.

 Call MMA, MMA, but don’t call Boxing, Karate, and Wrestling, Kung-Fu and let us choose to watch, learn or practice all styles, and pair up, or choose the fighters we like. There’s room for everyone.

In a different comparison of music styles, could one say “Indie Rock” is the new industry term or classification for Punk Rock? Are some elements similar? What do true Punkers say about this, what do Indie Rockers say and what does the industry say? Does it not matter now because we’ve been able to coin a term for a music style that possessed certain elements that are acceptable, or popular to the industry or the masses?

We’ve taken new industry so called R&B standards and what used to actually be R&B, and merged them into one thing, causing the actual listener to suffer or be almost confused. In simple terms, everyone is being forced to eat one soup without distinguishing the flavors, and older recipes aren’t allowed to be used. Or, only certain chefs can cook up these meals for targeted audiences with those recipes, and other chefs can cook for the world. Is this the only option R&B has just to survive? Has R&B lost the ability to have its style coupled with broad strokes? Is true R&B loosing its audience because they’re being starved out?

So many countries around the world have created certain styles of music, But in America, the cultural relativity of Jazz, Soul, R&B, Country, Blues, Rock n Roll, Rap, and Hip Hop are all specific homegrown art forms with specific elements we cultivated, and there emulated around the world. WE CANT EVER LOOSE THIS ORIGIN!

 I still believe that not only is there an audience for Soul & R&B, but as an Artist, its your obligation to seek out and continually connect to your audience, and if you truly believe that your voice, your sound and your music is for the world, the world will eventually embrace it if you expose them to it. Every Artist should have the right to express their creation with their own recipe and we should accept their flavor and contribution. And, we must recognize, and we can never forget or loose the true origin or essence of influence that creates that specific Art form so we can know the actual flavor of Soup.

BJ Smith
BJ Smith
  1. As you work your way through your career, which more than any other still fires-up your imagination – A Grammy award, Platinum music sales or any other tangible milestone?

BJ Smith: Awards and recognition are always nice, but they say the best form of flattery is emulation. Becoming an “influencer” to future generations is probably the greatest milestone you can accomplish. Also, acknowledgement and respect from your peers toward your craft is quite rewarding as well. Moreover, when you inspire people to want to sing or play music because of the sound of your voice or the way you sang it, or when someone wants to hear or sing your song because they are so moved by your performance, or your being, or when they relate to the message, that’s magical and I believe you’ve just paid it forward to the world as they choose your music to set a positive mood, a setting or a moment to get lost through emotional infinite connection. Your award and recognition lives on, as you, your music and your art, become an influencer.

  1. What is the ONE thing you are NOT willing or prepared to do EVER, in your quest to achieve your career goals?

BJ Smith: I WONT QUIT! If you keep moving forward while walking through that tunnel of darkness in life, don’t be swayed and don’t be scared. Don’t pay attention to any dark shadows, voices, or sounds you perceive that may exist, Keep Moving Forward! Keep your focus. You just might discover the light when you walk around the next curve, and guess what? That Light may be greater than you ever imagined!  

“Manifest, Focus, Persevere and Prevail”

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Rick Jamm

Journalist, publicist and indie music producer with a fervent passion for electric guitars and mixing desks !

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