NAME Vanese Smith
HOMETOWN Washington, DC
LIVES IN Toronto
HOBBIES Food, film, health
Like an epileptic-fit inducing cartoon, Pursuit Grooves’ music should come with a warning label. A first listen is likely to send the subject into rhythmic vertigo, tumbling down an M.C. Escher-like staircase, passing myriad and somehow familiar strains of beats, synth patches, and disparate influences, with the artist’s so-sweet-it-hurts voice guiding you through the chaos back to where you started. Except now it’s different.
Confused? Welcome to the club. Pursuit Grooves—aka Vanese Smith—has made a career out of making the familiar unfamiliar, fusing funk, soul, house, hip-hop, and much more into an astounding, if sometimes baffling, whole. Seemingly incompatible rhythms clash head-on, her tracks often vacillating between a classic laconic hip-hop boom-bap rhythm and more upbeat, club-leaning beats. To put it simply, Smith makes the impossible sound downright easy.
Though she’s been making music for nearly 16 years, Smith gained a new current of attention upon the release of her “Foxtrot Mannerisms” EP last year on the UK dubstep label Tectonic. To say the least, the record caught some off-guard, Smith’s smooth, soulful, and genre-obliterating tracks sounding a world apart from the often aggressive and sometimes narrow genre conventions of dubstep. But even more surprising, the EP was widely embraced by the dubstep community, introducing a whole new set of fans to Smith’s novel sound.
With her current success, one can’t help but wonder how Smith has been able to navigate dubstep’s infamous dearth of female producers, to stand out on the merits of her music alone.
According to Smith, “It’s like any other field that is male dominated. You always stand out and you have to work a bit harder perhaps. I don’t really worry about the gender politics because if you listen to a track without any information behind who made it, you’re making your decisions based on what you hear and if you like the music. In that sense it’s an even playing field. But of course, it never ends there.”
When asked if her music can fit comfortably under a single genre, such as dubstep, Smith responds, “It’s so hard to say…soul, downtempo, hip hop, electronic, house, bass…. It all feels natural to me but perhaps to some others it makes me hard to pinpoint.” And it is this mercurial nature of Smith’s music that has breathed fresh air into an increasingly staid genre.
Citing mega-producers Timbaland and Teddy Riley as formative inspirations, it starts to make sense where Smith’s varied sense of musicality comes from. Just as the aforementioned producers’ strengths lay in their ability to straddle numerous rhythmic templates while producing a coherent and catchy whole, Smith aims for a similarly fluid, ever-changing end product.
As she says, “I never set out to produce in a particular style. I think I just hear things in my head that just make sense. I usually don’t quantize my rhythms or work to a click track. So the rhythms are very free flowing. It gives the drums/percussion more of a live element.”
Smith also imbues her tracks with significant gravitas by touching on social and political issues that are important to her. “Music is so powerful.… And if music is my platform I try to use it the best way I can. I spend a lot of time staying up on current affairs so it’s just a reflection of my personality.”
In a bid to make her music more accessible to her ever-expanding fan base, Smith has recently embarked on the ambitious project of producing three distinct albums under three different aliases. When talking about her future, Smith says, “I’ll be doing more Pursuit Grooves projects of course. That’s my hip hop/house/bass side. I’ve created another alias, called 91 Fellows, which I call my cinematic dub side. This alias is less club and more conceptual. It allows me to really be free sonically. And GuSHee is my group project with Cheldon Paterson. That project we share production duties but my focus is on vocals. Hopefully I’ll be doing live shows promoting all of the projects as well.”
Regardless of what the future holds for Smith, there is no doubt that she will continue to push the envelope in terms of exploring new rhythmic paradigms. As she puts it, “As an artist, my music is a direct reflection of where my head is at the moment. I can’t recreate what I made five years ago. So I honestly don’t know what I’ll be making five years from now. But I look forward to it.” And so do we.
By Nick Zurko
Photo by C. Paterson