Alice Smith's way was the only way it was all going to work. The singer-songwriter wasn't always sure about the sound she wanted for her debut album, 2006's For Lovers, Dreamers & Me. But she knew one thing: Whatever came out wouldn't sound like anything she heard around her.
"I had to deal with having people involved in my business, which is my music," says Smith, who headlines Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis on Monday night. "I had to deal with people wanting me to be R&B; people telling me to make this, make that. ... I wasn't looking at what other people had done. It's not my goal to fit in and be like the other people."
That devil-may-care attitude and adventurous musical spirit served her well on For Lovers, Dreamers & Me, whose title comes from a line in "The Rainbow Connection," the beloved song from 1979's The Muppet Movie. The album was one of the most acclaimed indie debuts of 2006. Smith, a 31-year-old Washington native, garnered kudos from The New York Times and Rolling Stone, and she was featured in Interview magazine. The buzz led to a deal with Epic/Sony BMG, which partnered with the independent BBE label to rerelease For Lovers in 2007. Since then, the gregarious New York City resident has been touring steadily.
"I don't know if I got that far on the first record," Smith says. "I just wanted people to get to hear it, come to the show, hang out. I don't think I realized how people perceive me from this album."
Anchored by Smith's chameleonic, four-octave voice, her songs snake in and out of genres. An R&B; riff blazes into a rock chord, then gives way to a creamy jazz-kissed middle before flaring up with a Broadway-style flair. At times, these movements happen all in one song. Each cut on the album is like a universe unto itself, and Smith's remarkable versatility and control drive it all. The artist says she had no real vision for the debut. But her musical ideas, however disparate, still manage to coalesce into a cohesive album with vibrant twists and turns.
"It's always, for me, how many ways you can put this song together," Smith says. "How many different levels [can] these songs go to?"
The singer's eclectic musical tastes were fostered while growing up an only child in Washington's Capitol Hill neighborhood. During the summer, her parents (her mother was an attorney; her father a pharmacist) often sent her to live with relatives in Georgia, where her maternal grandmother owned a farm. In the urban and rural environments, Smith absorbed a variety of styles, from blues to hip-hop and country to reggae.
"It gave me freedom," Smith says of her growing up in Washington and Georgia. "I didn't feel like I had to be one place spiritually. In D.C., it was my mom, dad and me. In Georgia, there were a lot of people on the farm, but physically there was more space. It made me comfortable with myself in different environments."
But it wasn't until she graduated from Fordham University with a degree in English and history that Smith seriously thought of a career in music. She had been a singer in a band while in college and had written some songs.
"I wasn't seeking out fame," Smith says. "When I got to be 25, I thought, 'What do I want to do with my life?' It wasn't waiting tables, that's for sure. So, I decided to sing. But when I started on the album, I thought, 'I can't be worried about how other people did their music.' I had a hard time explaining to [musicians] why we had to do it my way," she says with a throaty chuckle.
Once released, For Lovers didn't garner much commercial attention, which came as no surprise. Given its eclecticism and eschewal of sleek programmed beats and layers, the album didn't neatly fit into the urban soundscape where the Beyonces and Lil' Waynes rule. But the assured album became an immediate hit with critics and hipsters.
On her next CD, which Smith says Epic might release in the summer, the music will move in even more colorful directions.
"This album has to do with more visual expansiveness," Smith says. "I spent some time in Hawaii recording - more water, more movement. The songs are about that in some way."
Regardless of where the songs go, they will adhere to Smith's vision.
"Do I like the song? Does it sound good? Is it going on the record? That's it," she says. "I like all kinds of things. They all go in there somehow."
if you go
See Alice Smith perform at 8 p.m. Monday at Rams Head Tavern, 33 West St. in Annapolis. Tickets are $20. Go to ramsheadtavern.com or call 410-268-4545.