“My sound is not so much straight-ahead jazz,” Ashleigh Smith claims. “It’s very R&B and funk infused. That’s a part of my upbringing and I love that about my singing.” The 27-year-old Dallas-based singer and songwriter was reflecting on what set her apart from other singers at the 2014 Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition of which she won. “I noticed it more when I was competing against other people. You are what you listen to.”
Raised in a nurturing, musically enriched household with her two sisters in LaGrange, Georgia, Smith seemed destined to become a musician. Her mother, Deborah Smith sang constantly even though she’s physical therapist by trade, while her father, Edwin Smith, is a pianist and former school band director. Smith also had a grandfather who played jazz saxophone; a grandmother who played classical piano and sang; and an uncle who played jazz trumpet. At the tender age of four, Smith began singing along records that her father played. “I would just imitate everything. When I heard Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘How High the Moon,’ that was it for me,” Smith fondly recalls.
But Smith also absorbed the sounds of Stevie Wonder, Prince, Bill Withers, and Sting during her early years. Those touchstones and several others echo on her August 26, 2016 Concord debut, Sunkissed, produced by Chris Dunn and Nigel Rivers. “I listen to a lot of new stuff but I really dig a lot of old stuff,” she says. “I wanted that side of me to be a part of the album. I believe in that older R&B and pop music and the time when real instruments were used. And while some of those old recordings with singers weren’t always perfect, they were beautiful. The mistakes are what made them beautiful.”
In choosing which covers to include on Sunkissed, she was mindful of exploring fresher terrain. That explains her winning renditions of Hall & Oats’ 1975 classic, “Sara Smile” and Chrisette Michele’s 2007 soul ballad, “Love Is You.” Other none originals include a R&B-inflected makeover of the Beatles’ 1968 gem, “Blackbird,” and mesmerizing a capella version of “Pure Imagination,” which features Smith harmonizing with herself via various overdubs.
Those covers are juxtaposed with enticing originals, many of which Smith co-wrote with bassist Nigel Rivers or guitarist Joel Cross. As a songwriter, Smith explores themes of romantic heartache (“Best Friends,” “Into the Blue,” and “Brokenhearted Girl”), self-empowerment (“Sunkissed”), and universal love (“The World Is Calling”).
Before Smith won the 2014 Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition, she studied classical music at Georgia’s Columbus State University on a full-ride scholarship. After attending a jazz camp at the prestigious University of North Texas, she transferred.
It was there that she met Rivers, Cross, and the cadre of other musicians, including percussionists AJ Flores and Greg Beck; pianists Shelton Summons and Sergio Pamies; and drummers Cedric Moore III, Marcus Jones, and Cleon Edwards. “The album features no big names,” Smith says. “I don’t think I tried for it to be that way. But I wanted people who have already been an integral part of my musical development. It was only natural for me that they would be on the first album because they played a big part into the making of who I am as a musician.”
Music teacher Rosanna Eckert also played a pivotal role in Smith’s musical development at the University of North Texas. The singer shows her respect to her mentor by including Eckert’s gorgeous composition, “Beautiful and True.” “Rosanna was one of my first teachers and biggest mentors there,” Smith says. “She’s a phenomenal singer, pianist and teacher. I wanted Rosanna to write a song because she knows my voice very well. I love her ease of lyrical expression. I love how fluid her lyrical thoughts are and how well they match her musical thoughts.”
Smith was already recording an EP before she won the 2014 Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition. She says the process of finding her voice and material was organic. “When it came to writing, my voice is what just came out,” Smith remembers. “I was very picky in choosing the musicians to help bring that out. I’m very big on authenticity. Everything was very organic – even up to the week of recording. That’s exactly what I wanted.”
Photographer: Dennis Webb Jr.