Bette Smith Interview: A Blues Grows in Brooklyn

Singer Bette Smith, born in Bedford-Stuyvestant, Brooklyn, to Trinidadian parents, just learned she’s part Italian and she’s very excited.

“Now I have Italian friends and they’re like ‘That’s Italian!’ she says. “I do have a great love for Italian food and I visited Italy and I was absolutely amazed by the culture and food and the people are wonderful. My original voice teacher is Italian and Jimbo Mathus [of Squirrel Nut Zippers, who also produced her first album] is Italian. I have a lot of Italian friends and they’ve been very influential in my life.”

The exchange, based upon a recent DNA test (it also found Nigerian, Ghanaian, Anglo Saxon, and Swedish ancestry), says a lot about Smith’s world view, which sees life not as disparate pieces but rather as a quilt whose only job is to keep us warm. The stereotype of New Yorkers is that we’re angry all the time, but the reality is many (if not most) are sweet people deeply devoted to our communities. Smith is no different. She remains in Brooklyn, an expensive proposition, because her family is still here. That, and easy access to Prospect Park, where she takes Jeremiah, her 55-pound Labradoodle every morning.

Smith isn’t provincial, though. She recorded The Good, the Bad and the Bette, her brilliant second album of rocking and rolling Americana, perfectly mixed with blues and soul, in Water Valley, Mississippi. It’s also where she recorded Jetlagger, her debut album. “It’s a very quaint town,” she says. “I really love it. It’s different from the concrete jungle that I grew up in. It was nice to get away and to go into a different environment. A lot of nature, a quiet town. It’s surrounded by swamp and very different from Brooklyn.”

Her album, produced by the Drive-By Truckers’ Matt Patton and Bronson Tew, is about Smith’s relationship with her mother, who died in 2005. Her father a choir director, Smith grew up in a religious home, and like so many, she’s still processing the maternal relationship. It’s story-driven songwriting, which is ultimately what grabs listeners, more than an artists’ birthplace. It’s also what allows genres to diversify. “There’s a lot of African American women that are gravitating to that whole Americana scene,” she says. “And that’s good, because it’s a storytelling scene and a lot of black women have a lot of stories to tell.”

Smith is telling her story, but also representing her borough, which, as any map from the past two centuries will show us, is often outside of the usual Southern rock orbit. “The New York story is not so much told in that,” she says. “It’s usually about something happening down South. This brings a whole new feel to it. I really appreciate that opportunity to share my Brooklyn style with that whole Southern rocker genre.”

So Smith waits out quarantine in Brooklyn, ready for the world to reopen so she can continue to share her stories live. And true to her positive nature, she’s seeing it as an opportunity. “I’ve been keeping very grounded and very focused and working with my team to set a chart for 2020-2021,” she says. “Some people call this year the lost year, but I don’t like to think of it that way. Because it was a time for contemplation and introspection. For me, personally. I’m really excited about the future.”

Or, as her ancestors might say, il futuro.

How would you describe your sound?

It’s Southern rock and roll with heavy blues and soul.

And has that always been your sound or has it evolved?

It evolved because it was just blues. I started listening to Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday. When I was very little, I was listening primarily to Mahalia Jackson because my mother was very religious. And she always listened to her and Miriam Makeba, who was a South African singer. So those are the two people that I grew up listening to.

And you were discovered at a street fair?

I was discovered at the Fifth Avenue fair in Park Slope. They have it every year. I don’t know if they’re going to have it this year because of the COVID but they’re going to have it next year. But I was singing with the band. Not my current band, but a band I just happened to be singing with that day for the festival and someone who happened to know Jimbo Mathus saw us and he introduced me to Jimbo after he saw a powerhouse performance my band and I did.

Did you feel especially locked in that day?

I certainly felt locked in. We were doing this song written by the wife of my bass player. His wife wrote this song, “Mama’s Got a Gig” and it was about a woman that got discovered because one friend told a friend of a friend of a friend, and we had been practicing that song for about six months. So the lyrics actually came true and I always look at that as a very interesting story. I believe in serendipity and I don’t believe in coincidences. I think that things happen for a reason. Everything that happened to me in my past brought me to where I am today.

And is the album about your mom and your childhood?

When I went down to Mississippi and I sat down in the studio with Matt Patton, I had a concept and he started asking me questions. I told him about the song “Whistle Stop.” I wrote the song after I had a dream. I didn’t know it at the time, but my mom was dying. She was living in Trinidad with my older sister and she died in my sister’s arms. But the thing is, before she died, I had a dream that night. She died in the morning and that evening, I had a dream that she was waving goodbye to me by a train. Not an Amtrak, but the old-times, back-in-the-day kind of railroad train, where the back is open. And she was saying goodbye to me. So Matt asked what she was saying and I said she wasn’t saying a word. And then we kind of went over the song and he helped me thrash it out and expand it. I had written the lyrics and he worked with me to refine them and it turned out to be “Whistle Stop.”

And what’s your writing process?

How I write sounds corny but I write by divine inspiration. When I was talking to Jimbo the first time I went down to Mississippi, I said, ‘Jimbo, how do you how do you write songs?’ And he says, ‘Well, I get a word. That word gets stuck in my head. And I just write around the concepts of the word. And it turns out to be the song.’ That’s interesting because I write differently. Let’s say I have an impactful experience; I write from that. I write a poem or a lyric. And then slowly I write and gradually pick up my guitar and I work out the chords to the lyric. Then, after that, I go into band practice and they’ll work out the trumpet part, the bassline… Then we take it to the studio and they really polish it up. That’s my process.

Do you want to do more of your own songs?

Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I’m writing all the time.

I loved “Humans” so much. Where did that come from?

I take my dog almost every day to the dog park. And we go running and jogging. And there’s this dog beach in Prospect Park, and you can let your dog off the leash from 5am to 9am. You can legally let the dog run free through the park and on any given date there are about 100 dogs running free and it’s kind of like Dances with Wolves. A fun experience.

The first time I went there, he was still a puppy. I let him go but I was afraid that he wasn’t going to come back to me. That day he kept running and I said, ‘Jeremiah!’, but I just couldn’t find him. I panicked and then the other dog owners were looking for him. Then, within about five minutes, he just came darting towards me, running really, really fast. That’s where I got the idea for the song: ‘Run to me / I want to be a human.’

What was your process for choosing the songs?

Because I’m up here in Brooklyn and Matt lives in Mississippi, we just emailed each other. You know, it took about a year to finish this album, because we went down in February of 2018 and then in 2019. So I went down south twice. I called Matt and Bronson [Tew] and I told them, I’d like them to produce this next album for me. Matt said, ‘Do you want me to pick the personnel? You want me to pick the songs?’ I said, ‘I want you all to pick the personnel, but I would like to work with some of my songs.’ And he said, ‘I have a huge vinyl collection. I’d like to go through that.’ I said, ‘You pick half the songs, and I’ll pick some songs, too.’ So we just collaborated. And then the month went by, he kept sending me songs and asked me if I liked them, and then I kept sending him my originals and asking him if he thought it would fit into the concept of the album. It was a huge collaboration.

Does the album have a southern feel to you?

It has a Southern rock free to me, definitely. “Pine Belt Blues” [a Dexateens cover] is about the Pine Belt, the area of Mississippi where the pines are grown. It makes me feel like I’m down south when I whenever I listen to that album.

And so where do you see your career going?

Oh, I would love to I’d love to just have a happy ending, which would mean winning a Grammy or getting nominated for Grammy and going on to produce a whole lot more albums and. I see myself collaborating with different artists and touring the world. I especially want to go to Australia. I have quite a few fans that have reached out to me from the New Zealand and Australia area. So that would be really wonderful, to tour the world and just share that music with everyone.

Who would you collaborate with? Like if a genie gave you one wish.

I know it’s going to sound really weird but I was really dreaming of collaborating with Elton John on the song “Whistle Stop.” I love Elton John. My big brother is a big fan of his. He used to blast it through the house while I was growing up and I really got addicted to Elton John, the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album especially. It’s interesting to play Elton John in Bed-Stuy. That was interesting, back in the day. But I really loved Elton John and I would love to do a duet with him. I know Mary J. Blige has done a few duets with him and they all can sound fantastic. So I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

Interview by Steven Ovadia

Steven Ovadia

Steven Ovadia interviews blues artists about their songwriting process for Working Mojo.

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