Interview: ‘Losing Everything’ (and Shane McAnally) Helped Jo Smith Find Her Sound
When Jo Smith (formerly known as Joanna Smith) released two albums on Sony in the early 2010s -- Georgia Mud in 2011 and Be What It Wants to Be in 2012 -- neither album managed to climb very far on the charts. After releasing her fourth single, "Girls Are Crazy," in 2013, and watching that one, like her three previous singles, fail to even crack the Top 40, Smith thought that being a singer -- the thing she dreamed of doing since she was a little girl -- might not work out. And, she admits, that thought terrified her.
"Everybody scattered, as does happen in the music business. I ended up with no publishing deal, no manager, no nothing -- just, at my house, alone, starting back from square one," Smith recalls to The Boot. "Really, I was in the negative, because after you’ve had several singles on a major [label, and they haven't done well], you’re worse off than you are just fresh."
Smith could have walked away and pursued another career -- but, as the Georgia native soon discovered, the determination and tenacity that helped her record her previous albums was still inside of her, and it was compelling her to try again. So, she recorded some new songs, which now make up her Introducing Jo Smith EP, released in October; it's the music that the singer believes she was born to make.
I was like, 'What am I going to do with my life?' And I started from that question and slowly built my way back to really defining who I was, my purpose on this planet, what kind of music I wanted to do.
"I was like, 'What am I going to do with my life?' And I started from that question and slowly built my way back to really defining who I was, my purpose on this planet, what kind of music I wanted to do," Smith shares. "I literally started writing songs by myself and discovered that I had left something massive out of my previous music, and that was the Motown, the soul influence, the R&B influence, that I grew up listening to."
Smith was a minority in high school: Her classmates were mostly black. She recalls "rid[ing] around listening to "A Country Boy Can Survive" right after Nelly."
"That was what influenced me, along with my dad’s vinyl collection. And I had left all of that out of the previous music," Smith notes. "When I started realizing I could bring it back in, I started feeling whole again. But then the question was, who is going to see this vision with me and allow me to do this? This is going to be something completely innovative and new."
The answer came in the form of veteran producer and songwriter Shane McAnally. Thanks to his long list of eclectic credits (Kacey Musgraves, Old Dominion, Kelly Clarkson, Uncle Kracker and Keith Urban, among others), Smith believed that McAnally was the perfect person perfect to champion her vision -- and she was right.
"He believed in me and gave me a place to land, to write, and continue working towards that vision, and that’s how we ended up here," Smith says. "There’s two things that particularly bond me to Shane, that I love, and [the first] is the fact that Shane recognizes himself in people. He had to work so hard and hustle, and he sees that hunger in people -- I know that he saw that in me -- and that makes me love him. You feel like you’re an orphan and somebody adopts you.
"And the other thing is his instinct; he knows when it’s right, and I respect that, because I kind of have the same thing," Smith adds. "I’m not an incredible musician, or even an incredible singer, but I know when it’s right emotionally."
Still, Smith acknowledges, it took some work -- on herself, on the inside -- to try again. It's not that she didn't believe in the music she was creating, it was because the industry had failed to embrace her previous work.
"I didn’t know if I could be viable. I didn’t know if I could survive in this industry after four failed singles on a major label. So I definitely asked those questions," Smith concedes. "But it’s the 'knowing' thing: I know that I’m meant to do this. A lot of people in this business are like, ‘I can’t go do anything else.’ I’m actually passionate about a lot of things, but I just know that this is my calling."
Ultimately, it was the music -- that new sound that felt more authentically her -- that convinced Smith to try again.
"I think losing everything and being so vulnerable and literally laying on the floor and staring at my ceiling, just draining my savings, day by day -- that’s such an insecure place," Smith says. "When I found the music, it was like the net. The music made me feel safe here. And, normally, I look at all things, and I overthink, but this is something I’ve never questioned. And I still don’t ever question it. I just know."
I know that I’m meant to do this. A lot of people in this business are like, ‘I can’t go do anything else.’ I’m actually passionate about a lot of things, but I just know that this is my calling.
With her Introducing Jo Smith EP out and available to the masses, Smith is content to let the music take her wherever it will.
"I would love for it to grow as big as anything can in this industry," says Smith. "I hope that it’s the seed of a full-length album, of course; I would love for this EP to set me up for the right kind of a partnership with a major record label ... I feel like I have learned enough about that process that I’m ready for it again. And so, my hope is that this EP is the beginning of a full-length album and a great partnership going forward, that’s defined by the music at the core."
Smith's current single, "Old School Groove," can be heard on SiriusXM's The Highway channel. Introducing Jo Smith is available for download on iTunes and Amazon.
Modern Country Music's Female Trailblazers