By: Shenelle Wallace
It’s not often that you come across an artist who is so incredibly talented and not just hype. Hearing the buzz is one thing, listening to the music is another, but experiencing a live performance is proof enough. When it comes to Leah Smith, believe the hype.
Making her debut in 2009, the 23 year old Philadelphia Native is no rookie to the music industry. In fact, she’s toured the world with Gospel star Israel and his group New Breed, she’s shared the stage with Alicia Keys, and she was recently a featured artist on BET’s 106 & Park for their segment, “Music Matters.” I met Leah for the first time after watching her perform live at a mini concert in New York City. She was animated on stage, effortlessly yet powerfully sang, and skillfully played the piano. Her songs were engaging and soulful. Sitting down to talk with the singer, I learned that she was genuine, humorous, and very comfortable in her own skin. Much like her music, Leah Smith is Beautifully Made.
Shenelle Wallace: You’ve been singing pretty much your whole life, since you were 4. What was life like growing up in Philadelphia as a young singer, and what musical influences does that state of Philadelphia capture that helped to influence your style?
Leah Smith: I grew up in the city, but I deeply resented it. I went to school in the suburbs where everyone else there, grew up in the suburbs so I wanted to live there too. But looking back in retrospect I thank the Lord that I grew up in the city because there’s so much diversity culturally and musically. The culture that most influenced my singing was in church. Gospel music, singing in choirs, listening and looking up to people who used to sing in choirs. That really, really influenced me. Philly has a strong neo soul kind of vibe that comes out of it. I got some of that in middle and high school.
Shenelle Wallace: When did you realize that there was purpose behind your voice, it’s not just singing?
Leah Smith: I think after enough adults said that to me as a child, I thought, maybe they’re right! I would sing and sing and people would cry and say wow that really touched me. I was a little kid and these were songs that I wrote. I didn’t know if it was good or not, but I would sing it in front of the church and people would say that was great! Or, that really touched something in me. So I think I started to believe this is a gift that can be used to really benefit people. It was bigger than just singing a song.
Shenelle Wallace: You used to sing background for Israel Houghton. How did that come about and what was the experience like?
Leah Smith: It came about because I was working with a producer in Baltimore he was involved in a children’s choir. His children’s choir did a record and Israel Houghton was a part of it. So he said to Israel, while I have you ear, this is the girl that I’ve been working with, and he passed him my demo. Israel ended up liking it, we had a couple of conversations, and I ended up moving down to Houston where New Breed was the Hub of the area at the time. I got involved in the group and I loved it. We used to travel the entire world. All over the place! I was seeing the music industry in a different way; seeing how sustainable it really can be, seeing how fun it can be, seeing how life on the road is like uuuugggh (laughs). Sometimes it’s incredible and you’re eating incredible food, sometimes you’re like I can’t eat anything in this entire country (laughs). It was a lot. I think the word that would best encapsulate it would be educational.
Shenelle Wallace: Singing background for someone as big as Israel some people would hold on to that position. What made you decide that it was time for you to branch out on your own?
Leah Smith: There were a couple of reasons to be really honest with you. My sister got pregnant. I was living in Houston at the time, and my mom said: “Everyone – especially you, is moving back home!” She wanted everybody back. That was one factor. Another reason is that in Philly, I had joined a church and I felt like the Lord was saying you need to be here, every week. So that’s what I decided to do. Sometimes I’ve looked back like what was I thinking! They’re in Indonesia now! Or wherever, but they were somewhere. There have been some dry seasons in my life where I wasn’t anywhere and I’m looking on their website and they’re everywhere! But I still stand by what I believe the Lord was calling me to do at that time.
Shenelle Wallace: And doors have definitely opened up for you…
Leah Smith: Yeah! It’s been an incredible journey. I don’t regret it.
Shenelle Wallace: Not only do you sing and you play, but you also write your own music. You wrote your first song at 11 what inspired that?
Leah Smith: I have no idea to be honest with you. I was just sitting at the piano, playing some chords, and the melody just came to me. Then the words came to me. It was about all things working together for our good for those who love Him [God] and are called according to his purpose. I guess that scripture just stuck with me.
Shenelle Wallace: I was listening to your song Beautifully made, and I have to say, I felt the emotion. The song is about not feeling beautiful, but I look at your pictures and think wow, she’s gorgeous! I doubt anyone would think you have insecurities. But A lot of people deal with this. How do you get to the point where you are accepting of yourself flaws and all?
Leah Smith: I think it really is a consistent walking in truth. Walking in what God has to say about me. Even though I am by nature sinful, have issues and brokenness, at the same time I’m whole because of Jesus Christ. I’m beautiful on a level that will always penetrate a lot deeper than just an aesthetic; something that I’ll be able to see with my eyes. Now, do I wake up every morning and believe that? No. That’s why it’s a daily walking through. It’s a process.
Shenelle Wallace: You’re very vocal about your love for Jesus, that you’re a Christian and that you grew up in the church and you hold that dear to you. Seeing that your music is not conventional gospel music, how would you define ministry?
Leah Smith: As you said, my music isn’t conventional to a gospel spectrum or a contemporary Christian music spectrum. So I’m not expecting to go somewhere all the time where people will be familiar with Christian lingo, or to be in front of people who are churched. My heart has always been to minister to people [in general]. Just singing before, living before, and being with people who don’t know Christ; don’t know God or about church. Hopefully they will hear something in my music that’s different, or something in an interview that’s different, and look to the Lord. I think it’s more like a missional position, if you will, than hopping from church to church singing; which is cool, but I don’t think that’s where my calling is.
Shenelle Wallace: There is a quote from you where you said: “I want a life-giving message of truth to be presented to people. I see deficit and degradation and want to respond! Having a lot of money, or having fame, possessions, the right friends, a great lover, a high level of achievement or success has never made one single person in all of history truly satisfied. No one has ever had continuous and prolonged joy and satisfaction in any of these things. It’s not reality. It’s all lies and emptiness. This is what inspires me to do my music and to spread the message of truth to all people.” Why does that strike a chord in you, that this whole facade isn’t real?
Leah Smith: Because I felt it and I see myself daily trying to grab and gravitate toward things. Give me what I need in one moment for eternity. We all do it, whether its entertainment, or people, or food, or your job, or your hobby, or your kids. We just have idols and grab on to them and think that this is going to make me truly happy. It’s me looking at me and what I do, and I know other people do it too. So I want to address that.
Shenelle Wallace: What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned about yourself so far being in this industry?
Leah Smith: I’m so easily frightened. I’ll compare myself to other people. I get discouraged.
Shenelle Wallace: What keeps you going?
Leah Smith: I have people around me who are like “Leah, get up!”
Shenelle Wallace: You’ve shared the stage with greats such as Alicia Keys, Israel, all people who you look up to. What’s it like being on the same stage as them seeing that those are people you look up to musically?
Leah Smith: The year before I sang with New Breed, I had all their records and they were “IT” for me. When I was in rehearsal with them getting ready to sing, I was just so excited to be with them because I loved them. They were a great group and they still are. So it felt surreal. I was like, “God are you serious?”(laughs) Singing back ground with Alicia, that was surreal.
Shenelle Wallace: So you’ve had all these experiences in the industry, you’ve traveled, and I’m sure you’ve seen a lot go on. How do you navigate the industry and still stay grounded in Christ?
Leah Smith: I think it has a lot to do with how deep Christ has gone in to my own heart. It helps to have Christian parents and Christian friends. I don’t know if I would be able to handle some of the pressure and nonsense of the music industry without all of those things. It’s Gods grace. It really is.
Shenelle Wallace: What’s next for Leah Smith?
Leah Smith: I’m working on music, so I want to get something new out. I want to keep doing gigs, and traveling. I just want to find what the Lord has for me.
To learn more about Leah Smith click here.