Former Beauty Queen Ashleigh Smith Found Her Calling as a Globe-Trotting Jazz Singer
Dennis Webb Jr.
The odds are ever in Ashleigh Smith's favor, whether she's in an international voice competition or competing in a beauty pageant. The University of North Texas alumna is stepping up to the front of the stage after spending six years singing backup for Chrisette Michele.
Her jazzy R&B debut album, Sunkissed, was released in August through Concord Records, a prestigious label whose artists include Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney. Upon its release, the album sat long and pretty on the No. 3 spot on the iTunes jazz charts. The album release will finally be celebrated this Friday, Oct. 7, at Poor David's Pub.
Smith grew up among a musical family in a small Georgia town. "I grew up naturally in it," she says, of her early musical education. "But I was the only one in my family to decide to do it for a living." She moved to Dallas in 2009 after transferring from Columbus State University, when a professor there recommended that she attend a summer camp offered by the University of North Texas.
After completing the two-week course, the program's director pulled her aside and asked her to transfer to the school permanently. Smith was already enrolled in Columbus' upcoming semester, and was hesitant to abandon her full-ride scholarship in exchange for out-of-state tuition. Nevertheless, she put together a three-song jazz demo, and sent it to UNT. "A week later I got a letter saying that I got in, and got pretty much a full ride to go," she recalls. "I had to change my life in three weeks."
The move paid off, as Smith ultimately earned degrees in vocal jazz studies and music theory. She got acclimated to the local music scene by playing in a cover band, which she found to be a great education in versatility and performance.
Smith first took to large stages by competing in pageants, which her parents only allowed once she turned 16. "I honestly just wanted places to sing. I had no care about winning at all," Smith remembers. "I was using dresses I already had at home. I wanted to be onstage, and that was a big stage."
She won on her first try, and was crowned Miss Columbus. She continued on the Miss America circuit, placing in the top 15 for Miss Georgia. She was crowned Miss Black Texas in 2014, the same year she got signed. "I got a lot of training when it comes to interviewing and conveying your passions to somebody else," Smith says of pageant life. "All those lessons were wonderful."
She cautions, however, that pageants can have a bad effect on contestants. "You have to be super grounded before you go in, otherwise, it will spin and turn your head around when it comes to your character, to your body image," Smith says. "They have a cookie-cutter thing you're supposed to be. I got super small. To have any success in that system, you have to be."
Still, she relished in the social duties. Her biggest cause was raising funds for public school music programs. "I was fortunate enough to have parents who put me into private lessons, but there are so many kids that won't ever get it if it's not through public school," Smith says. "So much talent is missed in those impoverished neighborhoods."
When R&B singer Chrisette Michele asked a friend of Smith's to put a band together for her in Dallas, the friend recruited Smith as a backup singer. With Michele, Smith got to tour the world while opening for George Clinton, Fantasia and her own idol, Gladys Knight. "That was definitely a great catapult for me," Smith says of the experience. "I got to see how to put a show together, how to rehearse a band, how to sing in front of 2,000 people. It taught me how to be a front person instead of just being in the background."
Michele also supported Smith by giving her a solo opening slot in cities like Paris, London and Amsterdam. After Smith's own set, she'd rejoin Michele onstage as a backup singer. Smith is grateful for the opportunities to play before and beside Michele: "It was so much fun; you play both sides," she says. "Music has so many different facets. I think you should be able to do all of them well in order to be well-rounded."
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Even while touring, Smith focused on booking jazz venues like Brooklyn's and Jazz Lounge, which she'd play in her downtime at home. "I made sure that I was still pushing my own name, so that when that stopped, I had my own thing going," she says. Smith started writing songs with Joel Cross and Nigel Rivers, and as they began recording her first EP in 2012, she entered the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Competition in New Jersey. She came in as first runner up. Two years later, the organizers asked her to return. She agreed to compete again, and won.
"The judges told me that the reason they chose me was because I sounded as authentic as I did singing jazz in R&B, as well, and that's because of how I grew up," Smith says, adding that her dad's monstrous record collection ranged from Ella Fitzgerald to AC/DC. She now describes her sound as "soul-jazz with a little bit of funk."
Smith's win prompted the record deal with Concord. "You hear a lot of horror stories from people and labels," she says. "But they literally asked me what kind of artist I want to be, and after we had that conversation they said, 'Ok, we're with that.' They let me put five originals on my CD, instead of the safe-bet of jazz standards that people already know. That was risky."
The label also allowed her to record locally, instead of watching over her shoulder in California. "This recording was a big musical family reunion. I had a hard time calling it my album, because everybody's contributions made it what it was," Smith says.
Sunkissed was released on Aug. 26. "The reception was wonderful," she says, admitting that she'd worried that jazz purists wouldn't take to it. "It's very nerve-wracking, especially when it's music that you wrote yourself. It's a very vulnerable moment."
Her brand of jazz is inspired by Miles Davis. "That's the beauty of jazz, it's not just one thing, it can be anything. It's the all-American art form, everything has grown from it," Smith says. She also plays and teaches piano, though she didn't play on this record.
While Smith plans to hit overseas jazz festivals next summer, she looks back on some of her favorite moments, like singing backup for Ed Sheeran on his performance on The Voice ("He ordered sushi for everyone backstage," she says) and opening on her own for Patti LaBelle back in January. She says that the legendary singer watched her from the side of the stage, and later approached Smith to tell her that she was a fan.
Even after gaining LaBelle's approval, Smith still seems incredulous at having her music play throughout the country: "My cousin called me yesterday, she was shopping at a mall in Alabama and heard me on the radio," she says, excitedly. "I'm getting messages from people in Japan, Switzerland and Brazil. That's never happened before." Then again, Smith is on a winning streak.
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