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Cover photo via The Hamilton

“There’s no goal, there’s no plan, I just want to musically be open to doing whatever I want.” – Alice Smith

To discuss creativity with top-tier soul vocalist Alice Smith is to fall deeper by the second into the recesses of a brilliant mind, as well as a conversation regarding not only music, but life, love, and just about everything else, too. Watching Alice Smith perform live, as she did last Thursday evening at DC’s The Hamilton dinner theater/performance venue is just as intense of an experience. Performing new material as well as songs from her beloved 2007 debut For Lovers, Dreamers and Me, it’s one of those times when you learn again what it is to appreciate everything about music that isn’t part of a commercial goal or slick marketing campaign. Showcasing a rich timbre, fantastic talent and an ethereal gift for phrasing lyrics, Smith’s performance was a music moment borne of true, honest passion and skill. Alice Smith is a credit not just to music, but to creativity and celebrating the beauty of both being unique but accessible, a rare thing in these strange times.

“Well, I write songs faster,” says Smith with an earnest, yet joking tone backstage prior to her headlining set. She’s the mother of a two-year old daughter, the child born to her and bluesy rocker Citizen Cope. That’s not the only change for Smith, who, as a professional has had a career filled with the growing pains of welcoming commerce into her career aspirations. “It’s hard to wait when you want something to get out there…having something or someone control your creative process is detrimental.” Signed to Sony Records for the release of her 2007 debut, the relationship between Smith and the label only lasted for the initial recording, Smith now an independent artist looking at the release of her second album. To see an artist fully realize the scope of their creative force is always wonderful, even more amazing when you watch Smith perform live.

The set is a series of incredible vocal performances followed by fits and starts of laughter and frank crowd banter. “Wow, it’s getting kinda smoky up here” she says as a fog machine is turned on, her body seemingly twisting to avoid the fog rolling into her stage show. It feels as if the audience is allowed in peek-a-boo style, Smith pausing between each song as if to compose herself before letting us in again. It’s this type of moment that lets you know that she’s definitely better off in control of her own work. Mainstream artists, especially of the female variety are all winks and cute moments, ultra-aware at all times that it’s showtime, and that the crowd is there. Another number, of the peppier and up-tempo variety is done, and Smith stares into the audience – though seated at tables, in a cramped space – and asks, “why isn’t anybody getting up and moving!” Appropriately, the crowd – bound to sitting at tables – claps louder and more forcefully for other numbers, but to Smith’s glee, two women -one celebrating a birthday – later awkwardly dance in front of her as she sings. In being always aware only of seemingly only herself, and in awkwardly hoping that we’re all having fun being let into her mind and world, she’s unique, gracious and singularly brilliant. There’s only one Alice Smith. And for that we should be glad.

“I’m finally going to get this album out!,” Smith gleefully exclaimed before performing. She successfully completed a Kickstarter campaign for her latest album She, and in hearing her describe the process, it sounds like an artist discussing true creative fulfillment. “I like the vibe I’m in right now. “She” is more personal, more about telling my story. When you have control of your career, there’s no second guessing of yourself, nobody telling you something else.” Whether classic or new, watching her live lets you know that her material has a timeless flair, and thus is delivered with tinges of classic soul singers of yesteryear. In Smith admitting to being raised a fan of Nina Simone, the legend’s honest and engaged/disengaged style is there, that feeling of “I’m just going to stand here and pour out my heart,” crowd or no crowd, the song moreso than the stage as the ultimate therapy.

My favorite song of the evening? “Woodstock,” from her 2007 debut. In its classic R & B drum pickup, Smith’s allowed to use a scat-jazz cadence to spit sing-song lyrics about a city-to-country excursion to Woodstock, NY where she’s “takin’ it easy” and not “[thinking] about all those bills [she has] to pay.” As a Washington, DC native who also grew up in rural Georgia, and also as a free spirit who’s appears to be perpetually in conflict with more grounded notions of reality, it’s perfect. Alice Smith has a four-octave vocal range. There are some vocalists who look at this as a gift to be shared. Listening to the ease with which she switches between pushing those octaves and also falling into a harmonious groove, it’s in successfully navigating the figurative space between heaven and Earth where her success, and ultimately, the legacy she’s creating that allows her to sell-out The Hamilton exists.

Once again, there’s only one Alice Smith. And for that we should be glad.