Alice Smith’s unorthodox approach to R&B was already rearing its head when she was just 10 years old. While other fans her age were lip-syncing to their favorite Bobby Brown song, the Washington, D.C., native was having an out-of-body experience at a vastly more mature Miki Howard concert.
“I literally cried at that show,” says Smith, 35, from the kitchen of her Brooklyn home. “I think about that sometimes, like, what kind of 10-year-old cries tears at a Miki Howard concert?”
Years later, Smith’s left-field musical vision–and four-octave vocal range–have netted critical accolades, a Grammy Award nomination and, now, her long-delayed second album “She,” due March 19 on Rainwater/Thirty Tigers, after years of label turmoil, a Kickstarter campaign and a new indie deal.
Smith released her dreamy, genre-jumping debut, “For Lovers, Dreamers & Me,” in 2006 on taste-making U.K. indie BBE, drawing comparisons to a diverse range of iconoclastic divas, including Erykah Badu and Fiona Apple. After a bidding war, Sony/Epic inked Smith and rereleased the album in 2007. (It has sold 37,000 copies, according Nielsen SoundScan.) Yet not even a Grammy nod for best urban/alternative performance in 2008 could improve what Smith describes as a rocky relationship with her former employer-one that left her on the shelf for four years, during a period of well-documented staffing shake-ups at the label.
“There were a bunch of changes. I got the last of the old regular kind of deals, but I was still in the beginning of the ‘we don’t know what the fuck we are doing’ era,” she says. “They didn’t know what to do with me, so I was like, ‘Just let me go.'”
Smith took matters into her own hands, raising more than $22,000 through Kickstarter and partnering with Thirty Tigers for “She,” her first release in six years. “Alice [has] got a really strong idea of who she is and what she wants to do,” Thirty Tigers president David Macias says. “Good stuff doesn’t always find its audience, but when somebody is as talented as Alice, you just have to have faith and work as hard as you can.”
She further expands Smith’s penchant for sidestepping musical labels with help from “For Lovers, Dreamers & Me” producer Alex Elena, Grammy winner Reginald “Syience” Perry (Frank Ocean, Beyonce) and Smith’s husband, singer/songwriter Citizen Cope. But it’s Smith’s own vulnerable lyricism that takes front and center on soaring single “Cabaret.” “The most important part of my songwriting is the honesty,” she says. “That’s the only way that you can get to know someone personally.”
Following an intimate three-week residency at New York’s Rockwood Music Hall last month–designed to remind fans and press “how great she is in a live setting,” Macias says–Smith performed at a Prince tribute headlined by Elvis Costello and D’Angelo at Carnegie Hall on March 7 and on “CBS Saturday Morning” two days later. Next up is an East Coast tour launching April 2 in Annapolis, Md., booked by Brooks Roach at the Agency Group.
But for now, Smith, who last year gave birth to a daughter, is basking in the glow of new inspiration. “I want to show her that it’s possible to do what you love and be a [good] mother,” she says. “It’s possible and it’s necessary.”