Written by Shala Hainer Tuesday, August 23 2011
Snapshot: Jan Smith, vocal coach
|Smith and Justin Beiber|
Smith’s career involves much more than coaching others. A songwriter, performer, and speaker, she is also one of the few vocal producers credited on several platinum albums. In September, Smith will be honored as the newest inductee in the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, receiving the Chairman’s Award.
Her talents stretch across all genres, moving from hip-hop to Southern gospel to blues and rock. Smith prides herself on being truthful and forthright with her clients and credits that honesty in part to her success. She uses that skill to assess each client and create a vocal training plan that is unique to each client, as each one is starting with different talents and heading toward different goals.
Considering her roots in writing – usually for her songs – she has published two books, one with singing advice and one that chronicles her personal story. She produces CDs for herself and other artists, and she helps organize and performs in nonprofit fundraising events. Her many professional affiliations include the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences Inc., the Nashville Songwriters Association International, and the Georgia Music Industry Association.
Womenetics: As a talented singer and songwriter in your own right, how did you find your way to training other vocalists?
Jan Smith: I never had a mind to work with other vocalists really – I was too busy pursuing my own career, and God literally had another plan for my life, plain and simple. But I will say, after being honed for nearly 30 years as an artist, my skills to work with others were well adapted when I did start training others.
Womenetics: How do you juggle major clients, such as Justin Bieber, other vocal students, your own songwriting and performance career, and the duties involved with managing a business?
Smith: It's a juggling act for sure, but this is my life and the way I see it, I'm one of the luckiest people on the planet to do something I love and be paid for who I am. There are too many people out of work these days, so I'm thankful to have to run and keep up. It can be tricky at times, like when I have to jump off of a plane from working on a tour with one client to get back to my own studio to help produce vocals for another. But like I said, I'm blessed beyond measure, so no complaints from me.
Womenetics: You were instrumental in getting the Academy to begin recognizing vocal producers as Grammy recipients. How has that victory affected the vocal coaching and production industry?
Smith: That process actually took five years of my life, but it was something I believed in – to see those people solely responsible for the recording, editing, and comping of vocal performances on records (vocal production) recognized for their contributions on products in the national market. Has it changed the industry? Not really, but it has helped to give credit where it's due.
Womenetics: You work with some very big names in the music industry, many of whom also have big personalities. How do create a rapport with your clients?
Smith: You know what? I'm like a personal trainer for vocal athletes, and I'm specialized in what I do enough so that those professionals who are seeking to better their game seek me out. For that reason, it's not difficult for me to establish a rapport with someone who is coming to me for help. I don't seek them out. The other part is just telling people the truth. So many times major artists don't have someone in their lives willing to do that – especially about their voices. I think the truth works.
Womenetics: What skills help you coach such a wide variety of music styles, including hip-hop, rap, rock, gospel, and blues?
Smith: The single most important skill in my game is meeting people where they are. That alone allows me to understand the application of my clients’ voices in whatever genre and work there with them, helping them to better their game.
Womenetics: What has been the most important lesson you have learned during your career, and how does that lesson help you today?
Smith: This might really sound odd but I mean it sincerely: It's not about me. It's about helping others. Trusting God and not relying on myself so much has proven to be a much greater adventure than what I thought I was pursuing on my own.
Womenetics: Although Atlanta's music scene has grown exponentially in the past 20 years, you started coaching there prior to the city's music industry boom. What made you decide to base your company in the South?
Smith: REAL simple to answer this question – I'm from Atlanta; I'm the original article, a real native Georgian, and I love the south. My family is here, and I was raised here. I can hop on a plane and do what I do anywhere in the world, but this is my home.
Womenetics: What does it mean to you that you are being inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, receiving this year's Chairman's Award?
Smith: Honestly? It's kinda weird. I mean, typically when people start handing out awards, it's for past accomplishments, and folks are ready to retire and ride on off into the sunset. But for me, my business is hotter now than it was five or even 10 years ago, and I'm nowhere near stopping. I don't really even know what that word means anyway -- retirement. So, I'm honored and humbled by the gesture, but also kind of shaking my head and asking, "Really? Me?"
Womenetics: Of your own songs that you have written and recorded, which is your favorite, and why?
Smith: Hhmm. Tough question. That's like asking a mother which of her children is her favorite. There are songs that are more notably "thumbprint" songs for an artist's career, and I guess I'd have to say mine would be the following: I Can't Believe You Let Me Go, Rain, In the Shadow, Surrender, and I Hold On. Then the two songs I didn't write that I'm most noted for my arrangements of are Amazing Grace and Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Folks can hear my version of Amazing Grace at www.jansmith.com, and ALL of my music will soon be available on iTunes – I'm really excited about that, seeing as I have six albums of original music in my archives.
Womenetics: What is the most important lesson you teach your clients?
Smith: To take care of their bodies. Our bodies really are temples, and if more people understood that, we wouldn't have the health care problems we have in this country. And because our instrument -- the voice -- is part of the body...well, there you go.
Womenetics: Which brings you more satisfaction -- performing your own songs or hearing your clients perform songs you helped them perfect? Why?
Smith: Don't get me wrong, I love helping my clients and listening to them perfect whatever they're working on at the time. But there's still nothing like standing on a stage and singing, or in the booth -- either way, it's still the closest thing to God I know. It's my personal praise and prayer, so I'd have to say, selfishly, that for me to sing or perform is still the greater satisfaction. I still an artist no matter what.
Womenetics: You've published the books Run the Other Way, in which you share your personal story, and So You Wanna Sing Rock 'N' Roll with advice to singers. What made you decide to branch out into writing books?
Smith: I started out as a writer really. I was writing songs and poems and stories when I was 9 years old, so putting it all together in book form was just another way of doing it. That, and I truly believe what I've written about can help others.
Womenetics: What is your favorite way to relax, and how do you make time for it?
Smith: Huh?? Actually, I love to cut my grass. I live on 10 acres of land – about five of that being pasture, and it requires cutting now that I no longer have horses, so I get out there on my tractor and cut my grass. It's my time alone where no phones can ring -- or I wouldn't hear 'em anyway, and I think, sing, and talk to God. That's about the closest thing to relaxing I know just now.
Womenetics: What advice do you have for women trying to break into the music industry?
Smith: Find what you're good at and specialize in it. Branding is so incredibly important nowadays -- it's part of how my industry knows who's who. But more importantly, if you do what you say you're gonna do, do it well, and don't make any bones about it. Somehow that equals respect in an industry where not many folks seem to be able to hold up under simple scrutiny. And I have to say again, the truth works. SO many people are dishonest that all the rest of 'em are just looking for somebody to tell the truth. Go figure.
Based near Atlanta, Shala Hainer has been writing and copyediting since 1995. Beginning her career at newspapers such as the Marietta Daily Journal and the Atlanta Business Chronicle, she most recently wrote and edited articles for several nonprofit organizations before purchasing a flower shop in 2006. She earned a bachelor’s in communications from Jacksonville State University.