Leah Smith’s Facebook bio reads: “I love Jesus. I like music.” But while the gorgeous songstress’ lyrics often touch on deep moral and spiritual issues, she does not want to be labeled a gospel artist. Since first catching ears with the release of her 2009 EP Beautifully Made, the eclectic singer has been touring and is currently in the studio working on new material. “By God’s grace there will be a project available in 2012,” assures Smith. With the rising star performing for the 106 & Park audience tonight (November 15), BET.com spoke to Smith to learn why she feels the gospel title would limit her audience, why her hometown of Philadelphia keeps churning out great soul singers and how she uses cheery melodies to drop deep lyrics on listeners.
BET.com: Did you watch 106 & Park growing up? Is this some sort of childhood dream for you?
Leah Smith: (Laughs) I didn’t because, to be honest, we didn’t have cable. Of course I really am (proud). The funny thing is the people around me are like, “Oh my God, you’re on 106 & Park!” And that’s what’s reminding me more than anything, because I didn’t come up on the show.
Your 2009 EP Beautifully Made was created entirely with live instrumentation. Did you make that choice for any particular reason?
To be honest, if I did the whole EP again I would do some tracks. But I did a lot of music because I play the piano, so I came up with an instrument at my fingertips literally. So, that’s kind of the musical culture that was created around me. It was a lot of instrumentation. Also, coming from a very strong church background: organ, tambourine, drums, bass — live instruments, that’s all I really do. So when it came time to do the EP it was like, I’ve gotta do what I know. So I used instrumentation all the way down and through. It’s not the most consumer-friendly way to make a record in 2009 and moving forward, especially for the market I’m really trying to reach. But that’s what I did. That’s what I knew.
Does having live music work to your advantage when you perform live?
It does, because you don’t have to translate between how a track was played and how to play it on live instruments. It’s already on live instruments, so you can just go for it.
Is your live show an important thing for you? It seems like an area all young artists are trying to focus on.
Performance is probably, like, the only way artists are going to be making money moving forward. So I know it’s extremely important, because I’m pretty sure the future of music is gonna be just live streaming. People are gonna be streaming music, no one’s gonna really own it. And I kind of see that in different things, like Spotify radio. Artists are making very little money off something like that, but with your live performances, gigging and travelling, that’s where the bread and butter’s going to be made. I know that performing is a very big deal and it is my aim to conquer performance.
Would you consider yourself a gospel singer?
I would not. I actually have run from that title for my dear life (laughs). I love gospel music and I grew up singing gospel and contemporary Christian music. But I’ve realized after a while that I’m not a gospel artist. I don’t have a gospel-leaning voice necessarily or a contemporary Christian-leaning voice, and I think that that both of those genres can be a little bit limiting for the artist and for the audience. You might have certain crossovers like Mary Mary or Yolanda Adams. It can be hard to reach people who are outside of the church if you’re doing a certain kind of music that’s gonna be sold to a certain kind of audience. It’s always been in my heart to reach out to people who don’t know church lingo or church culture at all.
What audience are you aiming for?
A young, [aged] 18-34 kind of audience that’s not necessarily a church audience.
From you to Jill Scott to Musiq Soulchild, Philadelphia seems to produce very unique and eclectic soul singers. Why is that?
Hmmmm, it’s probably the ruggedness of Philadelphia. I think for an artist, Philadelphia is a testing ground. For creative people in general, Philadelphia can be a testing ground. It’s not necessarily the warmest or most friendly city, but I love it and I think that it inspires creativity in artistic people. It is a vibrant city, there’s a lot of art happening. We have the most murals here of any city in the entire world. And there’s a lot of soul here, for whatever reason. I think it’s the ruggedness of the city. It’s just kind of an inspiring place.
What is your creative process like? Where do you write?
I do most of my writing at home, honestly. By myself where I feel completely comfortable in front of a piano or keyboard. And when I get in the studio and I’m working with producers, honestly, I get a little bit nervous trying to break free from that. But it’s fun being in the studio because that’s when the song’s going down. That’s when the record is actually happening and the project is being made. I love that too. It’s harder for me, but I love when my dreams are coming to life in the studio.
The song, “Monster,” from your 2009 EP, has some very heavy messages delivered on a very cheery, upbeat song. What were you trying to do with that?
I wanted a song that sounded cheery and tongue-in-cheek and light-hearted, but had some very weighty matter in it. I wanted it to draw people in because of its melodic and musical composition, and then I wanted the lyrics to fall on people. So it was, probably, of all the songs on the EP, the more thought-through song. And I wanted it to be attractive and then you could deal with the weighty lyrical matter. I know it kind of has this kind of "Broadway" kind of feel to it. I wanted it to feel light-hearted because a lot of people, we take life in a really light-hearted way and we don’t take the time to think through some of the darker emotions that are very relevant and very real and very happening despite some of our idealism and optimism.
(Photo: John Ricard / BET)