GRAMMY-nominated producer/songwriter Johnnie "Smurf" Smith strives to "be the best" he can musically be, whether it's producing, writing songs or releasing a solo project. He's also a believer in stretching his personal boundaries and taking chances. In an exclusive interview with GRAMMY.com, Smith discusses his debut solo album, Surrender, musical influences, collaborations with artists such as Musiq Soulchild and Jazmine Sullivan, being nominated for a GRAMMY, among other topics.
Born and raised in Hammond, Ind., Smith transitioned to the East Coast. It was in Philadelphia where he met and starting collaborating with renowned R&B producers/songwriters Ivan Barias and Carvin Haggins. Smith not only lists the duo as among his musical influences, but also cites them as mentors.
"Carvin Haggins is one of the best songwriters," says Smith. "He can tell a story by just talking to you. He's able to piece the missing pieces.
"One thing that Ivan [Barias] taught me as a producer, he said, 'Make sure you finish everything from beginning to end,'" says Smith. "'If it's hot, use it. If it's not, you finished it through and you [can] come back to it another time.'"
In describing his initial collaborations with Barias and Haggins, "the chemistry just instantly came," according to Smith. Along with the duo, he co-wrote Musiq Soulchild's "Teach Me," a song from the artist's Luvanmusiq album that received a GRAMMY nomination for Best R&B Song, marking Smith's first career nod. He garnered a repeat nomination in the same category a year later, this time for co-writing Raheem DeVaughn's "Customer."
"I was grateful and humbled," says Smith regarding his GRAMMY nominations. "The GRAMMY Award is the biggest award that you can get."
Smith's résumé also includes collaborations with Faith Evans, Keyshia Cole, Jazmine Sullivan, and T-Pain, among others. However, this year Smith took the next step in his career in completing work on his debut solo album, Surrender. Released in April, the album is a collection of hymn and worship songs and features collaborations with Tyrus Bush, Jayshawn Champion, Thomas Clay, and Junior, the latter teaming with Smith for the single "I Surrender All". The album marks Smith's debut as a vocalist.
"My comfort zone is in the studio or playing an organ or piano," says Smith. "But to actually sing, I feel totally exposed."
Lately, inspiration and song ideas seem to come frequently for Smith, who prefers to work "at night, when everything is just still." Taking another tip from his mentors, he sees concentration and focus as key elements to his success.
"As soon as I sit down at the piano it seems like all of this inspiration comes," says Smith. "It's so hard sometimes, because I sit down to create one song and then four other songs come. I have to discipline myself to [concentrate] on the one song."
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