Jan Smith calls herself “a personal trainer for the vocal athlete” and operates behind the scenes playing an integral part in helping shape the course for countless singers. Musical giants such as Justin Beiber, India.Arie, Usher, Rob Thomas, Drake, Ciara, Keyshia Cole, Sugarland, Trey Songz — to name a few — are among the successful disciples who affectionately call their vocal coach “Mama J.” Smith is committed to all who seek her guidance whether they are merely singing in a church choir or onstage before a sea of fans. Like all good mamas, Mama J is a guiding force using discipline, conditioning, spirituality, psychology, hard work, honesty and her love for music.
She has become one of the most respected and highly sought-after vocal coaches and producers in the music industry, with a waiting list of two years. If her track record is any indication, the wait is worthwhile. Within the 4,500 square feet of Jan Smith Studios in northeast Atlanta, there are so many gold and platinum albums adorning the lobby walls, they literally run from floor to ceiling. Also housed within the massive space is a fully equipped, state-of-the-art recording studio and numerous private session rooms, as well as a keenly organized yet inviting office where ArtsATL recently sat down with Smith for a candid interview about her love for sound, her love for her Atlanta hometown and her love for her coaching career.
ArtsATL: When did you know you had a gift and were destined to teach?
Jan Smith: I was always writing songs and poems, since I was itty-bitty. I wrote my first song when I was eight years old. I played the ukulele, which led to playing the guitar. I played in rock and roll bands, which was when I became identified as an artist. But I never dreamt in a million years I’d be doing any of this. I never thought this was my destiny. It wasn’t my plan.
ArtsATL: How did you segue way from playing rock and roll to being one of music’s most sought after vocal coaches?
Smith: When I graduated from college, we were in the disco era, where there wasn’t much demand for original rock and roll music. Since I had to make a living, I took my psychology degree from Georgia College in Milledgeville and began working as a psychologist for the state of Georgia. Meanwhile, I was writing, recording and touring with my band. I bought a piece of equipment one day so I could record more at home. The guy I bought the equipment from had a rock and roll store on Ponce De Leon Avenue and he asked me if I could help this guitar player/singer. I said, “Yes.” I started working there at the Atlanta School of Rock with one guy and here I am, 26 years later.
ArtsATL: How did the endearing name “Mama J” become yours?
Smith: It came from working with Usher . . . and one of my non-national clients, Jeffrey Butts, who started calling me “Mama.” At the time I started working with Usher, he called his mother “Big Mama.” He was dating Chilli at that same time and referred to her as “Little Big Mama.” One day I said to him, “What am I, chopped liver?” And he said, “No, you’re just Mama J.” From there it just kinda stuck and became the handle and then I started embracing it, too. It’s kinda funny since I didn’t have children of my own but took on that big name.
ArtsATL: What gave you the confidence to believe you could make it in this town, which was not recognized as a music mecca back then?
Smith: The reason I did this in Atlanta is because my family is here, I love my hometown, and this is where I want to be . . . While I love working in and appreciate the business in LA, New York, Nashville and other great music cities, we have amazing talent here and I believe in shining the light here.
ArtsATL: What do you do with a client who has a whole lot of heart and desire but very little real ability to sing?
Smith: I tell them the truth. . . . We help clients work on their talents, but also recognize what’s not there . . . Some clients come to me because they have a desire to improve so they can sing better in their choir or because they’re looking for vocal improvement in a theatrical production. It’s about raising that bar and personal integrity no matter where they’re starting from, and where they want to go.
ArtsATL: Among the many things you do, such as producing, writing and coaching, do you have a favorite or does it change from time to time?
Smith: The answer to that is creating. Whether I’m writing, performing, producing or coaching — that creative process is the most rockin’ thing I know. . . . I always tell people that sound is the only thing that can enter your mind without your permission. It’s incredibly powerful. So, as long as I’m able to stay in some realm of creativity with sound and help my artists with that, too, I’m happy.
ArtsATL: You’re in high demand. How do you split your time between the studio and traveling for speaking engagements or going to awards shows or flying out to assist a client such as Usher on The Voice?
Smith: Yes, all that, as well as take care of my mom and spend time with my family. You know, I do the best I can do. And sometimes I meet myself coming and going. I have an incredible assistant, Carmen Ford, who helps me. Also, I’m highly organized and a little OCD. That helps. But, inevitably, when the demands for your time get greater than the time you have, a pink slip to call someone or something will fall, from time to time.
ArtsATL: Your two-year waiting list speaks volumes. What are your thoughts on it?
Smith: When you have people waiting for two years to get in here . . . well, we’re just humbled by that fact, and it makes us want to deliver to them all the more once they do get in. While having a full plate isn’t always easy, the rewards are certainly there.
ArtsATL: Many superstars have come through your doors. If you had to boil it down to just three things, what would you say an individual must possess to achieve superstar status?
Smith: Talent — whether it be a great singing voice or amazing charisma. They must possess some form of talent which can be commercially exploited. Team — they must have a team of people around them who believe in them and support them. And, staying with the Ts, they must possess tenacity. That is, a sheer desire, love and determination to keep going no matter what the circumstances.
ArtsATL: Does Jan Smith have a special mentor or coach?
Smith: Many people around me mentor and coach me in many areas of my life. But I always give my mom credit for being my inspiration. She’s a cancer survivor, has two titanium hips, is 85 years old and still lives on her own after having lost the love of her life — her husband of 62 years and my daddy — in 2010. But every day she looks to help others such as visiting people in hospice facilities and people who are shut in. I also credit my pastor, Andy Stanley, whose strong leadership has helped me understand how to stay grounded, set an example, be accountable and be the best I can be in my life.
ArtsATL: What was the impetus for your nonprofit and can you tell us a little about it?
Smith: It’s called Bridge Music Foundation and my cofounder Jim Ramseur and I simply wanted to provide an opportunity for those talented artists who lack funds to be able to move forward. That was our whole motivation. The cool thing is it also allows those people who love the arts and want to help others to have a place where they can do both.
ArtsATL: What would you say to people who only seem to have ears for the negative press for your famous clients such as Justin Beiber?
Smith: Some people are going to hear only what they want to hear. My best advice would be that they try to sort out the information — though not always easy to do — and not be judgmental. And, also to remember — not just Justin — but all of us, have to go through being 20 years old. I’m sure glad I didn’t have a camera following me around when I was younger!