Sunkissed, the title of Ashleigh Smith’s August 19, 2016 debut on Concord Records, describes her singing perfectly. The 27-year-old Dallas-based winner of the 2014 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocals Competition possesses an iridescent alto that radiates a spectrum of poised emotions. While clearly she’s capable of tackling material underscored by darker themes such as heartache and sobering social commentary, optimistic rays of light always shine through her voice.
The disc reveals Smith to be a gifted songwriter too. She co-wrote five of the disc’s 10 compositions. Like the musicians accompanying her, most of Smith’s writing partners – electric bassist Nigel Rivers and guitarist Joel Cross – were fellow classmates of hers from the University of North Texas, where she studied jazz. Indeed, enlisting a cadre of musicians whom she’s already forged a sparkling rapport imbues Sunkissed with a greater sense of warmth and personal conviction. “I wanted people who have already been an integral part of my musical development,” Smith explains. “We were all in music class and jazz forums together; we also performed together. They played a big part into the making of who I am as a musician. That’s something you figure out not necessarily in the classroom but when you’re performing on stage.”
Sunkissed begins with “Best Friends,” a bittersweet original co-written with Cross. Even though the song glides to a percolating sanguine bossa-nova groove, powered by Cross’ acoustic guitar riffs, Smith’s lyrics touch upon on the pains of a waning romantic relationship. The song’s melody and “heart on your sleeves” lyrics also betray one of her brightest lodestars – Stevie Wonder.
With Cross, Smith also co-penned the music for “Into the Blue,” another melancholy Brazilian-tinted gem, marked by sauntering rhythms and bracing melodicism. The lyrics, however, were co-written by her older sister, Lauren, after the two were swapping stories about things that were happening in each other’s amorous relationships.
On the glowing soul-jazz original, “The World Is Calling,” Smith partnered with Rivers as a songwriter. Distinguished by sliding keyboard chords, a subtle Latin mid-tempo groove, and a jaunty melody underscored by pleads of universal love, Smith refers to this song as her “love call.” “I’m very empathic with humanity and things that are going on in the world,” she explains. “It’s important to know what’s going on around you – not just what’s happening within yourself. I think we’re becoming so self-consumed. We don’t love people enough. Loving each other more wouldn’t solve all the world’s problems, but it would be a great start.”
Similar glimmers of hope sparkle on “Sunkissed,” the title track co-written with Rivers and singer Nadia Washington. Riding atop a breezy, hip-swerving samba rhythm, Smith sings empowering lyrics to young girls of color, who oftentimes struggle seeing themselves as beautiful. “There had to be a song on this album for girls who look like me,” Smith argues, “A lot of times when I’ve mentored African-American girls, they always commented that there weren’t any role models that looked like them. They saw mostly people who looked like their Caucasian friends. This is not to say that one is better than the other. We are all beautiful. But I think all of that beauty should be represented equally.”
Smith acknowledges that the melody on the succinct “Brokenhearted Girl” resembles “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Centered on “break-up songs” and written with Kwinton Gray during a rehearsal for a Dallas show, the song purposefully eschews the conventional AABA song format.
Sunkissed contains one song – the searching “Beautiful and True” – that’s written by Rosanna Eckert, one of Smith’s teachers at the University of North Texas. With its soaring melody and lush arrangement, the tune superbly accentuates Smith’s effervescent tone and gift for articulating other people’s verses. “I wanted Rosanna to write a song because she knows my voice very well,” Smith says. “I love her ease at lyrical expression. I love how fluid her lyrical thoughts are and how well they match her musical thoughts.”
As for the covers, Smith chose wisely. Raised in LaGrange, Georgia in a musically rich household and nestled deep in the modern R&B sounds of Dallas, Smith wanted material that reflected her upbringing. Such is the case with her winning makeover of Hall & Oates’ classic tune, “Sara Smile,” which is given a discreet hip-hop bounce via punchy rhythms.
Even more indicative of Smith’s generation is her sumptuous rendering of R&B singer Chrisette Michele’s 2007 ballad “Love Is You.” Interestingly enough, Smith has been singing backup for Michele for five years. “We’re great friends,” Smith adds. “I’ve learned a lot about the music business from her. Lyrically, it’s such a beautiful song.” On Sunkissed, Smith beefs up the arrangement by incorporating silhouetting strings and fanciful Latin rhythms inside the bridge. “My version is completely different from the original. But Chrisette loves it – it’s an ode to her.”
Smith digs deeper into the pop canon and covers the Beatles’ late-’60s classic “Blackbird.” It was the song’s dark themes that first seduced Smith. “The opening is so haunting; it’s so pivotal and timeless – it brings you in immediately,” she says. Smith brightens the mood with a gently swaggering rhythm while keeping the haunting tenor of the lyrics well intact.
Sunkissed concludes with a mesmerizing version of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s immortal “Pure Imagination” from the 1971 movie, Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. Showcasing her love for sophisticated harmonies, Smith’s rendition features her harmonizing with herself via overdubs. It makes for an ideal ending to the shining debut of a creative singer with her own distinct style poised to take on the world.