Brooklyn, New York-based rock ‘n’ roll singer, Bette Smith, grew up loving music. She sang her first song at five-years-old in church, a full choir behind her. But her parents, who were Trinidadian immigrants, forbid her from singing secular (read: nonreligious) music after that. So while she could listen to standouts like Mahalia Jackson, she couldn’t openly enjoy others like Gladys Knight & the Pips and Otis Redding. Adhering to her parents and their strict upbringing, Smith studied hard. She went to college, got a job as a receptionist, worked on Wall Street. But, years later, as her older brother, Louis, was dying of kidney failure, things changed. He told her to sing, to achieve her dreams. So, Smith went and did just that. Her latest installment is today’s premiere of the new single, “Everybody Needs Love.”
“He was my best friend,” Smith says. “On his deathbed, my brother told me he’d always wanted to sing. I was singing to him there, consoling him and he said, ‘Go ahead and follow your heart. Follow your dreams.’ He loved Bill Withers and he suggested a song by him. After that, I sat down and just got going. I started accepting volunteer jobs to sing at weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, funerals, block parties.”
Smith was eight years younger than her older brother. And while she was not allowed as a child to delve into secular music, her parents were much less strict on him about it. He was their mother’s favorite, Smith admits. He was able to listen to rock records and stash them in his room. Smith would take part when her parents were out of the house. But while their rules seemed over-the-top, in many ways, they were just trying to protect their children amidst a dangerous environment. Where the family lived – in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn – there was often violence right outside the window.
“When I was growing up,” Smith says, “there was a lot of violence, particularly gang violence. On a typical day, I would try to avoid getting killed. There was a lot of shooting, fighting. My mother told my brother to take me to school in the mornings. I came home on the A train and took a dollar cab to my doorstep because I was afraid of getting shot or hurt.”
Because of the danger outside, the Smiths largely stayed indoors. When her parents weren’t watching, Smith would listen to soul music, artists like Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson and albums recorded at the famed Apollo Theatre. Smith would emulate the musicians she adored on those albums. Many of them were Black Americans pioneering Black American music. Today, Smith, who is a powerful singer and skilled songwriter, to be sure, is carrying on the lineage of those artists she adored, taking up important space, as they did.
“It’s very fulfilling,” she says. “I’m really honored that I got a chance to do that. It was my dream and I’m really pleased about that. But it’s not in the forefront of my mind. When I’m writing music, it’s coming from a very personal place, not an extroverted place. It comes from within.”
For her latest LP, The Good, The Bad and the Bette, Smith recruited Matt Patton and Bronson Tew at Dial Back Sound in Water Valley, Mississippi. The two, who she dubbed “Papa Bear 1” and “Papa Bear 2,” helped Smith hone and craft her energetic sound. The sessions went so well that Patton’s band, Drive By Truckers, pulled Smith on stage one night to sing. Her new album, which incorporates rock riffs, gospel choruses and soulful singing, showcases Smith’s life in full. The work is centered on her mother but it also incorporates stories from Smith’s life. The LP is laid out chronologically, moving from Smith’s youthful penchant for parties to today’s hard-earned, well-worn wisdom.
“I had a complicated relationship with my mom,” Smith says. “She passed away in 2005. When I was little, because of circumstances that were not her fault or mine, she had to leave me with people down in the Caribbean for three months. She left without saying goodbye. That was heartbreaking for me.”
Smith says by making the new record, she learned new lessons about optimism and forgiveness. As someone who has recently began to study Transcendental Meditation, staying composed and at peace amidst the chaos of life is a goal for Smith – even if it’s not always easy to achieve.
“I’ve learned to embrace letting go of the past and moving into the now,” Smith says. “I’m trying to live each day in the now and be very present. I’ve been able to center myself and meditate twice a day for the last three years.”
Today, as Smith has felt the dire affects of death in her family as well as the highs of personal and creative achievement, she has chosen to lean into one side of herself, specifically. It’s her desire to know other people fully and deeply and her wish to be known in the same way that drives her focus. And, thanks to the help of her late brother, Louis, and his enduring memory, Smith continuously finds routes to these creative roots through her love of music.
“I like to understand people and I like for people to understand me,” Smith says. “I use singing as a connecting vehicle between me and my audience. I really like that about music. It resonates on a deeper level than the color of your skin or religion. It gets past all that. Music is very life-affirming.”
If you dig what you hear, go ahead and pre-order it! The album is out on Ruf Records, Sept 25th