Conversation With Rhonda Smith…
Bassist, composer, clinician, vocalist, a decade with Prince, two solo CD’s, endless touring, and a resume that reads like the ‘Who’s Who’ of the music industry tells you that Rhonda Smith is a voice in the bass community that is here to stay.
Her latest CD, RS2, is a perfect example of everything she has to offer, and more. Rhonda admits her first love is jazz, but she shows outstanding versatility in anything she becomes involved with musically and most assuredly leaves her mark on it. Sporting the Juno award for best contemporary jazz album and three Platinum Plaques on her wall, as well as gearing up for a tour with her band Karma Deuce seems to indicate that there is no end to this special lady’s talent, and her presence on the scene.
Jake: Listening closely to your approach as a bassist, I hear you having that “Marcus like” gift of when to play, and when to let it breathe. My experience as a teacher has shown me that for some players it’s a natural gift, and for others, it’s a process of developing that skill. How did your style come about for you?
Rhonda: Great question Jake, and thanks for the compliment. Anything “Marcus like” is a compliment being the great player he is. It came from listening to a lot of different types of music, because I do like to write as well, and experiment a lot. I think the main point was probably driven into me, mind you in a good way, by the 9 or 10 years I was playing with Prince. He would always say that we had 5 band members, and the 6th band member was called silence, or space. I definitely learned, as far as funk is concerned, that silence or space was one of the fundamental elements. You just can’t have stuff happening all of the time; you’ve got to have space. That’s what makes it funky in my opinion. I kind of live by that rule. It’s cool to do a lot of tricks and all that stuff, and I think there’s a place for everything.
Personally, as far as the consumer goes, I feel that the market for instrumental or bass music per se is a little trickier to deal with. Bass doesn’t always work up front for everything. I usually don’t like to listen to albums where the guys playing at 900 mph constantly. I tend to go ok, that’s great, but it doesn’t give me the patience to listen to an entire album like that. I can listen to a song for a while and go hey, the dude is very proficient, but it doesn’t hold my interest to want to hear that all the time. Probably as a consumer, that’s the other side to it, although I have to practice what I preach—-if I’m not going to by it, why would I do it. That concept falls right into my feelings on soloing, which is you don’t blow all your cookies in the first bar. Continuity, and creating great phrases is a challenge.
Jake: On your latest CD, RS2, which I enjoyed very much, you handled most of the writing. Can you tell me something about your compositional process?
Rhonda: My compositional process, a lot of the time, usually comes from chording, or the harmony involved. The bass a lot of the time is secondary, unless it’s something that’s very, very rhythmic on the bottom, and then it can start from the bass. But usually it starts from the chordal thing. I like to use the voice as well in the process. Everything is a little bit of an instrument to me, but again, it mostly comes from the chords. I’ve always been fascinated by 9’s, 11’s, and 13’s, but I wouldn’t per se call myself a jazz purest, because I’m not. I like to have a little bit of that tension, and I think that lets me hear other things I can do.
Jake: I’m sure with your connections, you could have brought in any number of renowned producers, as some artists do, but you chose to handle the production end of your CD yourself. Do you find that as challenging as the writing and playing, or does your vast recording experience put you at ease in that chair?
Rhonda: It’s always a challenge, and actually I split a lot of that responsibility with my partner, Joey Summerville. We both work on that together. I always like to bring in another person to work with as far as production goes, especially someone I have a great deal of respect for. When I’m able to rely on that person, it always turns out to be a lot better. I actually don’t enjoy doing everything myself. I’m attracted to the sounds that someone can open up to me on the session. When you do a demo by yourself, it’s fine, but as soon as you start bringing in some players, it just takes on a whole different feel because it’s not yours, and I enjoy that aspect of it. I definitely don’t want to do everything myself, but I also tend to use the general rule that unless I start it, it’s not going to get done. I learned a lot from being involved in the production aspect, and appreciate the help I’ve had from other people. I’m very grateful for that.
Jake: Production is something we’ve all had to learn as we begin releasing solo CD’s, and learning the ins and outs of production seem to be a never-ending quest.
Rhonda: I agree. On some of the projects I listen to, the production and quality are great, and then there are some records that I hear, and I’m not talking about the persons playing ability, that sound absolutely atrocious. Bad mixes, created in a basement, with second-rate gear. You tend to notice those elements of the recording, but I realize it’s a learning process for everyone.
Jake: With a decade of experience behind you working with Prince, I’m sure you’ve walked away with some valuable shall I say revelations about music, and the music business. What might some of those revelations be?
Rhonda: There are so many things, and that’s such a great question. I’ll try to share a couple of those thoughts with you. The number one lesson that I learned in that era of playing with him was respect the music first. That’s always been my main thing, and it’s something that I’ve always taken with me. Whether I’m working for someone else, or I’m being sent music, or my own project, the respect has to be there, and I expect the same from the other players.
The number one thing for me is to know the music when I go in. I’m not there to just embellish the parts, that’s an insult. You need to know the music, and that’s a big part of getting the job done right. I try to have that totally together when I work with people, no matter who it is. I want to know the music 120%, and that’s what I call respecting the music. It’s the same thing I expect, and appreciate when I’m doing my own band. I want them to respect the pulse of the music first, and then we can embellish things. And it’s the same thing when you work with artists; we need to give them the courtesy to learn the parts of the music first.
Jake: You more or less lead to my next question here, and we’ll see if we can tie these thoughts together. You’ve worked with some other great artists over the years beyond Prince—Chaka Kahn, George Clinton, Lee Ritenour, and Patrice Rushen to name a few. In this issue, I reviewed Nathan East’s DVD, The Business Of Bass, on which he goes into great depth on how to handle yourself in a business sense as well as musically when playing with different artists, a little bit of what you were just talking about. What other words of wisdom might you add on to what you’ve already spoken to in that respect?
Rhonda: There are a lot of things that fit into that premise. When I do clinics, part of what I like to teach is that it’s not just about getting the gig. It’s just as important, if not more important, that you know how to keep it, and make yourself invaluable. And first on my list to achieve that is back to the word respect. There are a lot of people that don’t take things as serious as they should. You have to be on time, you have to respect the music, you have to respect yourself, you have to have your business together, you have to be a person that people enjoy working with, you need to maintain your gear, it’s a lot of things. Basically, it’s about keeping your house in order.
Man, this is a pretty vast subject too Jake, how do you make yourself valuable. What comes to mind also is being a person of your word. And once again I’m back to being on time, number one, and don’t talk over the people in the session. Basically, be easy to work with, and very dependable. If you abide by some of these rules, it will help you survive in this business. There always seems to be someone in the band that lies behind, or is a pain in the butt, and needs a babysitter, and the less that happens, the better.
Jake: Speaking of clinics, as you mentioned earlier, I know you’ve done clinics at Victor Wooten’s NatureBass camp. Beyond what you mentioned, what else do you try to focus on in your presentation?
Rhonda: His clinics are a lot of fun. I didn’t know what to expect when I first did one. I was a little unprepared, but I tried to think about what I could do, or say. I initially thought that Vic and I were just going to play together. I didn’t realize that I might have to teach a class for like two hours, so it was pretty interesting once I was there, and turned out to be a lot of fun. He just told me to focus on whatever I had to bring.
Every bassist there had a different story and a different agenda. Each one had a track record of the style or genre they were involved with, and it came down to covering everything—technique, musicianship, etc, etc, as well as answering questions from the people. And this goes back to what we were talking about earlier, spending some time talking about the business and how to stay in the business, and make yourself invaluable, and keep your gigs. The way it is today, high profile gigs are getting few and far in-between. For a lot of those gigs out there, the bands are already complete. They’re not looking to hire an additional musician. There’s just not many slots, so you have to find a way to get in there, and not only get in there, but stay in there. So, as you can see, there’s a lot more to it than just getting the gig.
Sometimes I feel like I don’t really have an answer for people when they approach me with the how did you get to where you are question. I didn’t get into this to try and get somewhere, I got into this because I love it, and sometimes it’s hard to tell people that.
Jake: I know how busy your schedule is, and I’m sure time to shed is limited. If you had the time, what part of your musical make up would you be focusing on?
Rhonda: Two things. I’m always working on playing through changes, and soloing. The other part of it would be my thumb technique, what I call top and bottom. I also try to focus on coming up with new rhythms all the time. There is such a cesspool of stuff to do with both my right and left hands when it comes to the way that I play funk, especially working on the technique with my right hand where my thumb comes down, and then under and back up. So I kind of use my thumb as a pick, while working with the other fingers on the other strings. The amounts of possibilities are so vast. I’m able to sit for hours working on this. It gets to be about frequency, and doing this over and over and over again trying to get it faster and faster and faster, and not think about it. And then there’s realizing once you’ve built up all this technique, just how is this applicable. It’s great to build these techniques to a frightening level, but once you’re out there, most of it usually isn’t applicable unless you’re doing your own show.
Jake: As far as artists go, who are you listening to these days that inspire you?
Rhonda: Well, I try to listen to everything, but I love jazz, and end up listening to a lot of Miles Davis. There’s a digital jazz station that I listen to all the time on my television, because listening to the radio just sucks so bad—-too many commercials, just too much blah blah blah. I enjoy some smooth jazz, but a lot of it that the stations are playing is just too cheesy in the way it all sounds the same. That whole trend of music is kind of strange to me, because it seems the purpose of this music is so you can do something else and listen to it at the same time, and it’s not going to bother you or make you think about it. That’s kind of strange to me. Don’t you think?
Jake: No argument there!
Rhonda: And it’s also strange because there are some very talented people playing this type of music out there. For myself, I’m trying to keep the focus of my thoughts and my music on my own band, which is called Karma Deuce. We just filmed a concert about a month and a half ago for HD and DVD, and we’re in the process of editing it right now, which is taking a little longer than I thought because I don’t want to have someone else finish it for me. It’s been quite the challenge to knock it down from an hour to 8 minutes. I’m very happy with it though. It’s basically more rock/funk than jazz. So that, as well as listening to as much as I can, keeps me pretty busy.
For more information on Rhonda and upcoming projects, visit her online at www.rhondasmith.com