The sensitive, streetwise soul of 19-year-old singer Jorja Smith has earned her a place on the BBC Sound of 2017 list, which aims to showcase the best new talent for the new year.
Smith, from Walsall in the West Midlands, started making waves a year ago with a song about police injustice that sampled rapper Dizzee Rascal.
For her next track, the musician borrowed from another English musical icon – 17th Century composer Henry Purcell.
Her beguiling voice takes in Corinne Bailey Rae’s wounded soul, Amy Winehouse’s quivering, colloquial jazz and ends up at Rihanna’s sultry siren – always giving the impression she has more power and range in reserve.
She is now forging her career as an independent artist, filming the video for Where Do I Go? on her own on her aunt’s stairs, and sees no reason to sign with a record label any time soon.
Smith has been performing since the age of 8 and writing songs since 11, amassing a broad catalog of mostly unreleased tracks that skew from pop to modern soul. One of the earliest songs she remembers writing was called “High Street,” about when all the stores in her hometown of Walsall, in the midwest of England, closed during the economic recession of the late-’00s, leaving behind a hollow ghost town. Walsall is a run-down place, Smith said, with “a lot of creative people, but not many possibilities.”
Before Smith’s family settled there, her mom was a jewelry maker who spent her twenties in London, and her Jamaican-born father was the lead singer of a neo-soul vocal group called 2nd Naicha. They raised her on a diet of reggae, rock, and soul, which she countered with her own love of funky house and dubstep. Her dad, she said, realized she had a talent when he heard her sing “Silent Night” in church. And it’s easy to hear why; her voice can silence a room. It’s jazzy, and mixed with the cockiness and slang of London, not entirely unlike that of her hero, Amy Winehouse.
Smith’s father encouraged her to learn piano, and she later won a music scholarship to a prestigious local school where she picked up the oboe and took classical singing lessons. From her early teens, she harbored faith that music would offer her a route out of Walsall. When a friend filmed her singing Alex Clare’s 2011 U.K. hit “Too Close” and uploaded it to YouTube, the video was passed around school so much that older girls would stop her in the halls and demand that she start singing. She was 15 when the clip was sent to her current managers, who contacted her from London. They kept in touch, and by the time she finished her exams, she had written upwards of 70 songs.