BETTE SMITH INTERVIEW (BY JOE BURCAW)
The Good, The Bad, and The Bette
I must confess, terrestrial and satellite radio exited in my life many moons ago before the advent of streaming, algorithms and playlists. Unfortunately, this means that a few musical gems get overlooked and fall through the cracks of my somewhat limited scope. One beacon of light who has caught my attention is a power house singer from Brooklyn, New York named Bette Smith. Recently, I had the honor of sitting down with Bette to get an inside look at what makes this spiritually grounded woman tick. Our conversation felt like two old friends catching up over a hot brewed coffee somewhere on Fulton Street. I was touched by Bette’s honesty, and commitment to retelling a story of childhood obstacles through the lyrics of her compositions. One perfect example is the poignant yet prophetic “Whistle Stop”, which came to her after a premonition of her mother’s impending death. She beautifully succeeds in channeling Tina Turner with a splash of Macy Gray throughout this stellar vocal performance. Another highlight is the recent single “I Felt It Too”, clocking in at 2:32 of raw unadulterated grit, full
of hooks, and feel good charm, reminiscent of David Bowie’s soul infused “Young Americans” with treated horns and fuzz guitar. Bette’s new album The Good, The Bad, and The Bette is appropriately sequenced so she can tell her story from trauma to strength on her terms, and no one else’s. The album was recorded and produced above and below the Mason-Dixon line by Matt Patton of Drive-By Truckers fame. I would say they’ve created a huge hit that will wrap up the back
half of a strange 2020 in style. Make sure you show the love and visit Bette at her website and get up dates on her performance and interview schedules.
JOE: Good evening Bette, thank you for joining us, and I wanted to mention that you’ve won over a new fan. I absolutely love the record!
BETTE: Hi Joe, it’s great to be here speaking with you and thank you for the kind words.
JOE: I'm serious, I got the tracks from your publicist (Pati DeVreis) last week taking it all in by reviewing each song piece by piece. I may be way off with this observation, but musically I hear so much of David Bowie and Iggy Pop with that 70’s grit and a soulful voice hovering from above.
BETTE: I get what you're saying, I totally get it. I didn't know much music growing up in a black neighborhood and a black religious family going to private school, I really was shielded. I didn’t know anything about David Bowie until just recently. Then I started listening to his music and watching some documentaries and saw this almost kindred spirit in him. You know, I could see why he was so attracted to Iman. I just got my ancestry DNA and I'm 10% Anglo Saxon, Swedish and German, we could possibly be related somehow.
JOE: That would be some high-quality DNA to be linked to, one just never knows.
BETTE: You’re a big fan of David Bowie?
JOE: Yes, a huge fan of Bowie. There have been two significant deaths within the past 4-5 years that have touched me to the core. First losing David, and secondly losing Prince who died a few months later.
BETTE: Prince was a heavy loss. I’ve been researching his music lately. If he was still alive I would ask him to produce my next album. Oh God, that would be incredible! It's good to remember the people who have passed on, they leave behind a lot for us to hold onto.
JOE: They left behind an entire body of work to embrace, which is timeless. Let’s move onto more uplifting news, you have a new album out entitled, The Good The Bad, and The Bette. I love the Clint Eastwood reference.
BETTE: I love spaghetti westerns. I have a friend who told me that anytime she gets a little down hearted she makes some popcorn, grabs a can of beer, and goes into the bedroom with the lights off and watches spaghetti westerns.
JOE: That is great therapy for sure! I know due to the Covid situation you cannot promote the new record by touring. Are you planning on doing any livestreaming? What are your plans for the rest of the year?
BETTE: I will be livestreaming with the lead singer of Drive-By Truckers, Patterson Hood. He just invited me last night to do some livestreaming with him, and we recorded here in my bathroom, I have a really fancy bathroom and call it Betty boudoir. I had my lead guitarist play in the tub and I'm in the tub and we're fully clothed just getting down playing all these Blues Rock songs. It worked out really nicely, I'll send you a recording.
JOE: I would love to hear it! Are you playing mostly newer material for the livestream?
BETTE: I'm gonna do two new songs, and maybe one or two from Jetlagger (2017) including the title song, which was written for me by my manager Danny Lerner, and that's what I'm going to do. I got some bookings, but I don't like to talk about things before they happen, call me superstitious. Some curtains are opening up for next year, but I’m not going to talk about it ‘til we have signed contracts.
JOE: Tell me about your producer Matt Patton from Drive-By Truckers, how did that connection happen?
BETTE: Well, it was a natural progression of things like meeting Jimbo Mathus from “Squirrel Nut Zippers. A friend of a friend referred me and he saw me playing out at a gig and then emailed my management. Jimbo came up to see me in Brooklyn and we sat down and had coffee at a restaurant and he said, ‘you know, you should come down to Mississippi, we have a studio there and I want you to meet Matt Patton’. We went down there and did the first album, which was totally produced by Jimbo exclusively. After Jimbo finished, I got the record deal, and he said that he wanted me to have different producers. I talked to Bronson Tew and Matt Patton, who ended up playing on the first album Jetlagger, it was a
natural progression. I had a vision and invited them to help me produce the new album, The Good, The Bad and The Bette.
JOE: You always hear about the ‘sophomore slump’ when artists release a follow up. Were you nervous about that or did it not even cross your mind?
BETTE: Yeah, you always have a little nervousness. It was three years between my freshman and sophomore projects. I knew that I was going to go back to Jimbo or Matt, and use Dial Back Sound Studio, that is where I felt most at home. Matt and Bronson were really excited to do this and you know, we’re like family at this point, my big brothers. We have a very symbiotic relationship.
JOE: It's very important to build a team and surround yourself with decent like- minded people. You hear about all these horror stories of people getting screwed over by managers and lawyers for millions of dollars. Take for instance Billy Joel, who lost a large chunk of his finances that were embezzled by his brother-in-law.
BETTE: Oh wow, that was his manager, his brother in law? I remember hearing about that, Billy said he couldn't believe it when he found out.
JOE: He definitely let his guard down. It's just proves that you have to be alert and proactive with this type of stuff.
BETTE: Absolutely! Where are you from Joe, are you in New York?
JOE: Funny you should ask because I know you're a Bed Stuy girl. I lived in Park Slope for almost 10 years and when my mother was alive she lived in Stuyvesant Town on 14th Street. I spent my formative years in Connecticut and I live in Hartford county now.
BETTE: Oh, I am so sorry for the passing of your dear mother. I lost my mother in 2006, I know how it feels to have that loss.
JOE: I lost my mom nine years ago in 2011, and it still feels like it happened yesterday.
BETTE: Yeah right, and it will probably always feel like that. I'm getting used to it now, but still have an aching in my heart.
JOE: I agree, the aching never really goes away 100%. It’s a little ironic how we're talking about our mothers, would you be comfortable discussing the song “Whistle Stop”? I know that was based on a dream you had before your mother's passing? Is it true the lyrics came from that experience?
BETTE: As the saying goes, she was close to death's door. She was in the Caribbean with my sister, who asked her if she wanted to come live with me. Well, she wanted to be with her family in the West Indies from Trinidad, by way of Barbados. So I said okay, this is her life and she had the right to end it where she wanted. I knew she was on the way out and then one morning I had a dream that we were at a train station and it was all in black and white. She was just waving goodbye to me. She wasn't saying a single word, but she was waving and waving. I was spellbound, then I got up at 5AM and an old-style train (the kind you see in those old movies) was moving with my mother inside of it waving to me. The next thing I know my sister calls and says mommy died this morning. Oh boy, that was it for me. My heart hit the floor and I stayed kind of depressed for two years. We had a lot of unfinished business and that dream stayed with me. She abandoned me when I was very little, she left me in the Caribbean with some friends of hers that I never knew. I woke up one morning and she was gone. When she died it felt like somebody took their fist and punched me in my solar plexus. It felt like she abandoned me for the second time, but this time she told me telepathically goodbye. The dream was very powerful and it was a recurring dream. So, I just had to write about it, you know?
JOE: It must have been cathartic writing about the dream?
BETTE: I told a loved one about it and he said to write it down. Try to get it off your chest by writing it down, so I wrote it down with my guitar and that's where the song originated from.
JOE: It’s very poignant. I gravitated to the intensity and usage of dynamics. Your vocals were kind of subdued at the beginning, and then by the end of the song there is this crescendo release. It really felt like you were releasing yourself emotionally, is that accurate to say?
BETTE: An emotional release it has been. It's hard to sing and a real heartache for me. But you know, the thing about that song is you start singing it and you feel so alone, like going back to that little five-year-old being abandoned. I look out into the audience and I see grown men with tears collecting in their eyes. They come up to me afterwards, and this one guy stuck $100 into my coat pocket and said I earned it that night. Like they say in Bed Stuy, people be crying when you sing this song. You know, for some reason the men especially shed the most tears. I haven't had many women come up to me, but men definitely, somehow it just tugs at their heartstrings.
JOE: That must be enlightening for you to hear how the words and your expression touched them on such a deep emotional level?
BETTE: Absolutely, absolutely! You took the words right out of my mouth.
JOE: When listening to “Whistle Stop” I was hearing old school Tina Turner, I felt like you were channeling her. The throwback days of Ike & Tina from the 60’s & 70’s. I also heard Macy Gray. A combination of both of those women came out in your performance. I'm taking a leap of faith by saying this, but those two singers came to mind instantly.
BETTE: Tina Turner and especially Macy Gray are on my list of famous women that I actually adore, so it's a compliment for you to tell me this, oh wow. I really had a vision of Betty Davis, Betty Wright, Tina, Macy and Mavis Staples. I started out loving Tina Turner, her health is a great concern now. I still love her and I'm praying for every day that she will recover and feel better. She had kidney failure but her husband gave her one of his own kidneys. She was so lucky to marry him because he's a true hero who saved her life.
JOE: Oh wow, I wasn't aware of her health issues.
BETTE: She had cancer, and it turned out the therapy drained and shut down both of her kidneys. Her husband donated one of his kidneys because they were compatible. It's hard to get kidneys because of the waiting list.
JOE: Prayers and good intentions to her making a speedy recovery.
BETTE: Yes, I love her dearly.
JOE: You mentioned earlier in our conversation something about your childhood trauma. Can you elaborate a little bit into what that was like? Also, were you influenced musically by going to church, and was there a lot of music in your home?
BETTE: Yes, that's a good question. Every Sunday morning my mother would get up and put on these Gospel records of Mahalia Jackson and James Cleveland. The weekends were huge, just put on the old Gospel LPs and listen all day. My mother was a very religious woman, and only played and listened to religious songs, your typical Bible-styled Gospel songs, and I was steeped in I tell you!
JOE: How about your father, what was his background like?
BETTE: Dad was also very religious, he was a choir director. He ate, slept and worked. He was a contractor who loved music. He would build and restore brownstones five to six days a week, and then on the seventh day he would sing. He had a Nat King Cole-like voice so you would just feel the heartbreak. My dad was a heartbreaker, he looked like that famous actor who did “Enemy Mine”.
JOE: Lou Gossett Jr?
BETTE: Yes! He looked like Lou Gossett and Sydney Poitier six feet tall and a very handsome man. My first cousin is Wintley Phipps. He sang at the inaugurations of the last five presidents and sang at John Lewis' funeral. Google him ‘cos he's quite famous. He sang for all the kings, queens and presidents around the world. This type of talent runs in the family.
JOE: Were you encouraged to study music, or to take up an instrument when you were young?
BETTE: Not at all, on the contrary I was discouraged because they felt like the secular music was off the scale. They didn’t want me in the secular world at all, it was very much frowned upon and discouraged. They wanted me to be a nurse or a secretary, but nothing within the secular arena. They didn’t like that, they were very religious people.
JOE: Did you do anything musical in school or are you self-taught?
BETTE: No, but I still have a lot to say. If you really look at it deeply, my Dad was a choir director, and I was heavily steeped in Gospel music. Blues and Rock & Roll have their bases in Gospel music. So even though I wasn't taking music in school I was surrounded by it at home.
JOE: I understand completely. Do you find that being from New York City really educated you musically with all of the different ethnic cultures and backgrounds?
BETTE: Oh yeah, absolutely! My neighborhood had block parties, and they would invite revivalist-style Gospel acts and Soul music every summer. We would be out there singing and dancing until the sun went down. It would end with a big dance off, and the police would have to close off the street. It always starts out with southern people who moved up here from the deep South. These were my neighbors and I just got exposed to the revivalist-style Gospel acts. It made a very strong impression on me.
JOE: Were you subconsciously foreshadowing getting on the stage to do this professionally?
BETTE: Yeah, I was just in it. Just like the water, I was the water and it was a tea bag.
JOE: When did it occur to you that you had the strength and tenacity to do this on your own terms?
BETTE: Oh, that's a good question! I was working as a receptionist on Wall Street at the time. One of my neighbors heard me sing, I guess I was singing in the shower. She came over and knocked on my door and said ‘here's the outfit you're gonna wear’. She was a very feisty Jamaican woman named Rose, I'll never forget it. She came with clothes in a plastic bag from the dry cleaners, I guess it was one of her dresses. She said ‘this will fit you and go get ready because you’re going to sing at my cousin’s funeral’. There was no time for me to even prepare anything. I was living in Manhattan at the time and the funeral was in New Jersey. I said to Rose I don't even know if this dress is gonna fit, and what am I supposed to sing? She said ‘just sing anything’. There were close to 300 people there and I knew “Amazing Grace” from church. So, I got on stage (I was terrified) closed my eyes and sang the song. By the time I sung the last note I opened my eyes after keeping them closed the entire song. There wasn't a dry eye in the place, that's when I realized I had a gift. Everybody was crying and I was smiling because I was like, wow, I can't believe I had such an effect on people. It was a pretty amazing feeling I'll never forget as long as I live.
JOE: Those lyrics are poignant and really hit home. Let’s talk about your new video “I Felt It Too”. I love the cinematography, and that it was filmed out on Coney Island.
BETTE: That video was the brainchild of my wonderful manager Danny. He came up with the idea for the video. Since I grew up in Brooklyn, and Coney Island was (though it’s different now) a real escape for a kid like me to get near the water out of the concrete jungle of Bedford-Stuyvesant. It was like a real day trip. We did that and it kind of brought everything around full circle.
JOE: Yes, that’s where the whole Bowie inspiration came to mind when listening. He went through this phase in the mid 70’s (Young Americans era) where he brought horns and soul influences into his music. Before that it was the ‘Spiders from Mars’ sound, leaning more on the Mick Ronson glam rock aesthetic.
BETTE: Oh yeah, interesting. I love that song, it was written by Tyler Dawson Keith.
JOE: Were the lyrics written by you or did your team write everything?
BETTE: I just sang it. I wrote three songs on the album, “Song for a Friend”, “I'm
Human” and “Whistle Stop”.
JOE: How will “I Felt It Too” be marketed and promoted under the current world
BETTE: Yes, that is being pushed to college radio stations, and abroad all over the world. We got a lot of love from the UK, Australia and France. I have plans to tour France in 2021. They have to hear these songs, they really love them! They're old school and very soulful, there’s nothing dated about soulful Rock.
JOE: Let’s discuss recording, do you do find that when you're in the studio recording you have the urge to do a lot of warm ups, and do you have preconceived vocal ideas prior to laying down to tape? Or is it more of just going for it and seeing what happens?
BETTE: What questions Joe, you have some good ones tonight! No, what I do in the studio is meditate. I tell my engineer and musicians, look I need 20 minutes and then I am good to go. I've been practicing transcendental meditation for the last three years. I meditate 20 minutes twice a day, I am very disciplined. I do it before I get on stage at the arena’s, and in the small smokey Blues halls. Before I sing the songs, I meditate and I get into a very introspective place, that’s where it all comes from.
JOE: Do you get into lotus position and you just quiet your mind in a dark room?
BETTE: I light a candle, and then I'm gone. I keep everybody in my environment.
My dog is allowed to come with me in my meditation room. I wake up in the
morning around 7AM every week, I have my pillow and I just sit on it with my Labradoodle. He meditates with me every morning. It's really something to see nature and a human being like this together. Animals are very meditative, they know how to relax, and human beings have a hard time with it. Animals also have a sixth sense.
JOE: They can see and feel a higher plane of existence, unlike us.
BETTE: I agree with you 100%!
JOE: I have so many questions left to ask you, where do I begin? Okay, tell me about “I’m A Sinner” I know it's a standard Blues in B. When listening all the way through to the end of the song, it stops and there's a Gene Vincent surf-guitar lick playing, and then it segues into an acoustic version of “I Felt It Too”.
BETTE: Well, it comes down to the nuts and bolts of the record company expectations. They wanted us to add 30 seconds because they have an industry within their own industry for song length. In Germany it has to be 42 minutes, we tried with 10 songs and it came about a few seconds below the mark. We added that acoustic guitar in the backyard when we were warming up. We had a rehearsal and my manager was smart enough to record it, so we had a little filler, which has become quite a topic of conversation. I'm glad it happened.
JOE: Isn't that funny. I noticed the guitars were mixed higher than the other instruments. Was that intentional?
BETTE: They definitely cranked up the guitars, these guys literally broke their backs on this production, they worked really hard. It took two years, then we shopped five tracks in Germany and came back signed to Ruf Records. We finished the new material the top half of February, we flew back to New York and then quarantine happened, so the timing couldn't have been better actually.
JOE: It sounds great, like I said at the top of our conversation I am a fan now! I saw a video of you performing at “Rockwood Music Hall” in New York. I always loved playing in that room, what was it like for you performing there?
BETTE: It's very nice because you get a lot of bridge and tunnel folks, and you get a lot of New Yorkers too. So, it's a very nice venue for up-and-coming people like myself to break out and work out all the kinks.
JOE: What are your thoughts regarding live music venues possibly shutting down for good due to Covid?
BETTE: I'm not worried about it. I have optimism and a lot of hope in my heart.
I don't let it bother and burden me. Look at nature, if you ever go to the beach edge, the tide comes in and it comes out, it never stays in and it never stays out.
JOE: That's true, it's cyclical.
BETTE: Yeah, we get used to that concept of the tide moving in all different ways. When I have down days I say okay the tide is out, the tide will eventually come back in. I just hold my breath and wait for it to come back in. It comes back in waves, sometimes bigger waves than I can even handle, it can be overwhelming. I've been very blessed and have a lot of hope. I try to spread hope to everyone when I'm singing. I try to infuse a lot of hope and a lot of power into my singing. When people hear my songs they get up and feel something more than just another song on the radio.
JOE: That was going to be my next question. What do you want the common lay person to get out of your music and out of your presentation? You summed that up beautifully, so thank you for the explanation.
BETTE: I’m very eager getting back into touring. It's going to be even more powerful than it was before because we've all gone through this together, and we're going to be stronger together no matter what.
JOE: Amen to that! Before we finish up, do tell the people where and how they can find you.
BETTE: You can get hold of me at my website or firstname.lastname@example.org for autographed copies of the CD & Vinyl versions of the new album. They’re selling out so act fast! Ohh, also at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Best Buy.
JOE: Wonderful! Well Bette, thank you so much for a great chat and looking forward to seeing you live sometime next year for sure.
BETTE: Thank you Joe, I had a nice time speaking with you and we’ll connect soon