In January, soul singer Bette Smith found herself transported from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn to Water Valley, Mississippi, where she was undergoing a crash course in live-to-tape recording with Jimbo Mathus, a roots music connoisseur who used to play with legendary bluesman Buddy Guy. The discombobulating transition — it was the singer’s first time in the South — wasn’t helped by the fact that Mathus set Smith up with a vintage radio microphone (he likes old recording equipment).
“I never heard my voice recorded correctly,” she remembers. “I was like, who is that?” But she wasn’t upset with what was erupting out of the speakers. “I’m going to preach the gospel according to Bette,” she decided.
The results of those sessions arrive Sept. 29 on Jetlagger, a rugged, chugging southern soul record. The album marks Smith’s official debut, and it’s coming out via Big Legal Mess, a subsidiary of Fat Possum, best known for finding and fostering the likes of R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, remarkable singers that were only discovered by the masses later in life.
This makes it a fitting home for Smith, who is also entering the record business after a stint in the 9-to-5 world. She was raised as a Seventh-day Adventist by her choir-director father and started singing every Saturday at age five. “All my sisters and brothers would be next to me singing and praising the Lord,” she remembers, talking over breakfast at a cafe near where she grew up in Bed-Stuy. “Your parents get very offended if you sing secular music [in that religion], so if you have that dream, you internalize it,” she continues. “It’s supposed to be the devil’s music. So I repressed [the interest] through high school and college. I took music therapy instead.” She attended the New School and Columbia’s School of Social Work.
When Smith’s father died in 2012, she resolved to honor the interest she had kept hidden for so long. “I started going to auditions — I even got an audition for Rent, and I got five callbacks,” she remembers. “But then something happened and I just self-sabotaged. Inside I [still] felt like my parents would frown on it.”
Smith was encouraged to persevere by her older brother Junior. He died in 2013 of kidney failure, and Smith sang Bill Withers songs to him in the hospital. “He said, ‘I don’t care what our parents say, I want you to pursue your goal as a singer,'” she recalls.
Secular music kept hooking her, even if she tried to avoid giving in to its pleasures. “When I first heard Otis Redding, I was like, ‘oh my God, I love this guy,'” Smith says. “When Otis sang a song, you felt like it was somebody teaching you a nursery rhyme. He would start slow, dig deeper, dig deeper, and by the time he’s finished, you feel like you know this person.”
She started to model her own approach similarly, and recruited band members to join her by placing ads in a now-defunct local paper. “I wouldn’t turn down anything — I’d play a senior center one day, a street fair the next,” she explains. This turned out to be a smart strategy: Coincidentally, a lawyer who knew Mathus heard her performing at a street fair, approached her after the show, and put the two of them in touch.
Jetlagger, which includes Smith and Mathus originals as well as several covers, is bound together by Mathus’ production — assertive rhythm guitar, brass that bleeds into songs from all sides, busy drum fills — and Smith’s voice. Like Betty Davis or Betty Wright before her, she’s 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, as she does in “Man Child.” The video for that track, which finds Smith testing prospective suitors on the basketball court (while in high heels), premieres on Billboard below.
Full, textured vocals like Smith’s have been long out of favor in the mainstream. “We’ve taken a departure from that,” she acknowledges. But, she reasons, “what goes around comes around. And I think the hipsters will connect with that.”
A shift may already be underway. Alabama Shakes shot to fame behind the caterwauling vocals of Brittany Howard. Warner Bros. signed Andra Day in 2013, and Motown signed La’Porsha Renae in 2016; both are gusting singers who have enjoyed top ten hits on the Adult R&B chart. These are signs that there is still demand for big, scouring voices.
Smith is also connected to a different thread in the contemporary pop landscape: She’s the latest in a line of committed soul classicists from New York. Although the city hasn’t been a crucial player in soul music since the early 1960s, when the Brill Building songwriters dominated the charts, it has been quietly nurturing a community of singers interested in vintage trappings for over a decade. The best-known proponent of this retro sound was Sharon Jones, who recorded a series of albums for the Bushwick, Brooklyn-based label Daptone before her death in 2016. Another Brooklyn label, Truth & Soul, operates in a similar vein.
The soul singer admits she “cried for, like, a week” after landing her own deal with Big Legal Mess. “It’s like a Cinderella story,” she states.
“I’m busy now,” Smith adds. “I don’t have time to cry anymore.”