With stage presence radiating from every curl on her glorious crown, Australian singer/songwriter Carmen Smith is a force to be reckoned with. Long before rising to prominence during the first season of The Voice Australia in 2012, Carmen appeared as a vocalist for several Australian performers, in addition to releasing her own studio albums.
She has gone on to become one of Sydney’s most notable voices in soul. We first encountered Carmen during a tour with Guy Sebastian earlier this year and were simply blown away by her talent, energy, and impeccable curls. We caught up with the artist to uncover some of her style secrets.
Who is Carmen Smith? How would you describe yourself?
I would describe myself as a passionate woman that believes in running her own race and celebrating uniqueness. I’m drawn to people who have their own dreams and chase them unapologetically. I’m also drawn to kindness of spirit and generosity.
I’m originally from Western Sydney and the youngest child of seven (phew!). My Dad is Fijian from a small place called Lame (pronounced Lam-eee) and my Mum is Malaysian, (from Taiping) of Portuguese/Indian heritage. Both parents speak their native tongue but didn’t teach us… BOOOOOO!!!!
How did you first get involved in music?
I spent most of my school years dreaming and scheming how exactly I was going to become a singer. My parents encouraged all my talents with dancing, piano lessons and anything else they could think of to make my dreams come true. My weeks consisted of school, dancing, singing, piano, percussion and athletics.
Once school finished, with the help of my parents, we scoured the city trying to meet people and made bad demo tapes with people that promised the world. This was the time before social media, when we looked in music newspapers for opportunities and were singing the words to our favourite songs all wrong haha.
Eventually, at age 19, I was signed to a small record company that had just signed Jeremy Gregory. Looking back, I was an innocent, insecure young lady, and for any record company, that is not much to work with. I had often been told I “had a unique look that people weren’t sure what to do with”… Enter low self-esteem. I spent years thinking that looking “different” was the worst thing to ever happen to me and if I just had not so curly hair or if I didn’t have freckles it might be better.
The record deal fizzled out after a few years but in that time I had written ALOT of songs. Timing is everything, and when I thought everything was falling apart for myself, my songs were landing on other people’s records… Ricki- Lee, Casey Donovan, winner’s single for New Zealand Idol. So for the next 5 years I wrote songs for other people. In that time I managed to score a gig with Guy Sebastian on his first national tour in 2004. I was a baby and had never been a backing vocalist. I didn’t really know what it meant but there I was, my first national tour.
Things kind of snowballed for me as a backing vocalist and I worked on Australian Idol, with The Young Divas, Ricki Lee, Jess Mauboy, Stan Walker and still to this day, Guy. I worked out the other day that I have done almost 20 tours with Guy. That’s crazy, but on that stage and off, we are family!
I have so many adventures as a singer that the kid from way back would not have believed me if I said this was gonna be my life.
Who are some of your music and style inspirations?
I am absolutely LOOOOOOOVING Tracie Ellis Ross style. She is just swag, style, cool, sexy personified.
I won’t lie, as a kid seeing Whitney Houston with those curls in “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” changed my life forever. For the first time as a child, I saw someone that I related to and she could SING! I knew that day that I was going to be a singer.
Whitney and MJ are my greatest influences. I ruined tapes (yes, tapes) from listening so intently to every nuance in Whitney’s voice. I idolised MJ’s vocal dynamics and his commitment to performance. I respect the art of performance so much.
As an artist, your look is an important part of your work. How does hair factor into that?
A very good friend once said to me “I love you Carmen and if you ever wear your hair up during a performance again, we can’t be friends”.. She said “Carmen, your hair is your look”. Now, at first I thought, “I’m more than my hair” and anyone with curly hair knows that sometimes, you just want to put your hair up. However, I very quickly started to understand just how important it was to wear my hair with confidence and pride. For years I had wished my hair away, but now, when I see people covering their natural curls up I get sad. It’s the most beautiful thing to see a person with curly hair. It always makes me smile and it personifies beauty to me.
A few years ago I said to my Mum (who has straight hair) “Thank you for my smile and my face and my cheekbones and if Dad were here I would tell him thank you for my hair and my freckles and my strong legs”. She asked “Why do you say that?” I told her that for years I would complain that she never gave me her blue eyes or her straight hair, yet dad gave me his “big boned body”, and that being mixed was annoying; so I apologised for not saying thank you before because my self-hate was so strong that I couldn’t see that I am perfectly theirs. I am so proud to be a product of them. Stupid teenage years (rolls eyes). Don’t worry, I want to go back in time and slap myself too.
Have you always worn your hair curly?
I DO NOT have the care or patience to do anything else with it but wear it naturally. Full stop. The end. I look ridiculous without my curls.
Tell us about your experience as a curly-haired woman in Australia.
I don’t see enough of us out here. I was so excited to discover Saint Curl because I follow so many curly hair Instagrams for inspiration from overseas and just to see one in OZ is amazing and long overdue. Admittedly, growing up in Australia, I still don’t see curly hair represented as much as I would like to. Where are our curly haired hosts? News readers? We want to be represented in Australia too. Let’s start a hashtag! Ha!
Have you ever felt pressured to change your hair?
NEVER! The only pressure was from me. I definitely remember, when I first started in the industry, seeing girls hiding their curls, tying them up, anything they could do to hide it. Now, I think people really are embracing it. I love my curls and I’m not me without them. Also, my hair stands out and I love that. Individual.
You’re currently on tour with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra for a tribute to George Michael. Can you tell us more about your experiences on tour?
Oh gosh! I’d need to write a book if I was to tell you about my tour life! Touring is my favourite part of what I do.
Sometimes you’re away from home 3 or more months at a time so you have to create your new normal. I create a schedule for each day. Example: If call time at the lobby is 10am, I’m up at 6.30am for some exercise and breakfast. Then the day goes something like this: packing my bag for the next destination, check emails, make phone calls and meet in lobby for a potential 4-5 hour drive. Arrive at new destination, drop bags off, grab show bag (make up, costume etc.) Go to sound check, do another light workout to warm up, prep for gig, get on stage, back to hotel, sleep, then repeat for however long tour is. It sounds boring but it is so much fun being around people who become family and so many memories are made.
What’s your secret? How do you manage your crown given the bustling schedule of a performer?
The hair can get pretty crazy during touring, but I wash thoroughly twice a week and the rest of the time I dampen my hair to bring the bounce back in the curl. I try to not use hairspray, but you know, sometimes you need volume. I use leave in conditioner when I dampen and let it dry naturally if I have time.
What advice would you give to women and men who may not have the confidence to rock their own curls?
My advice is to first of all learn about your hair, products, techniques and experiment. There is nothing more beautiful to me than curls.
Remember, you never know who is looking to you for inspiration. My nieces and nephews ALL have curly hair and even now, other people try to tell them that maybe they can “fix” (i.e. straighten) their curls. It is our job to show them how to love their curls and be proud of all they are.
All photos provided by Carmen Smith. For more, follow her Instagram @carmensmithmusic