In 2012, while finishing her undergraduate jazz studies in the prestigious program at the University of North Texas, Ashleigh Smith competed in the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocals competition, and finished first runner-up to French-born singer Cyrille Aimee. Not winning turned out to be a blessing for the Georgia-bred, Dallas-based artist. She finished her degree, continued touring as a backup singer for R&B star Chrisette Michele and took the time to figure out her essence as an artist and authentic vibe as a vocalist.
“I was raised around a lot of different kinds of music, from rock and R&B to gospel and jazz,” Smith says. “All of those things are a part of me, and I wanted to figure out a way to showcase [my diverse sound]. When I returned to the competition in 2014, I felt a lot more grounded in who I was.”
“I wanted to figure out a way to showcase [my diverse sound].”
A few weeks before Smith won the competition in 2014, she found out that a significant prize had been added for the performer who won––the opportunity to sign a deal with top jazz label Concord Records, home to two of Smith’s idols, Dianne Reeves and Esperanza Spalding. Concord Label Group COO Mark Wexler made it clear that it was up to her whether she wanted to sign, and Smith––impressed by the label’s rich history and great jazz roster––knew it was the right choice.
Concord assigned Chris Dunn, Senior Director of A&R, to oversee the development of Ashleigh Smith's debut album Sunkissed. Dunn, who co-produced the collection with electric bassist Nigel Rivers, a classmate from the University of North Texas, told her it was paramount that she go on a journey of “sound discovery.” She was way ahead of the game, giving him a budget, a batch of demo’d originals and a detailed game plan. The album features six originals and four covers, including Michele’s “Love Is You.”
“Besides being classmates, Nigel and I toured together with Chrisette, and so he was a natural part of the music I was already making,” Smith says. “Chris took everything to the next level by teaching us how to take our raw material and transform it into an album. We had the songs, the chords and arrangements, and he helped mold it into an amazing, cohesive experience for the listener.”
Photo by Dennis Webb Jr.
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