Smokey Jones is an anomaly—more accurately, an anachronism. She is not an internet sensation. Nor is she the most recent candidate cast off a talent show. And her music and personality are both wonderfully free of the constructs and artifacts of playing the game. Her rise is the stuff of fairy tales, the sort of dreamweaving that inspires kids to pick up a microphone in the first place. Someone heard her sing, ushered her cross country to audition for Island/Def Jam executives, and a contract was put before her the next day.
So Smokey Jones was transformed from utter unknown to roster member of the world’s most powerful record label in exactly five months. Of course, this glamorous coda is the lasting upswing in an otherwise circuitous story. Prior to the lightning strike, Smokey was homeless, spending nights on friends’ couches around Los Angeles or in her car’s backseat. She had left college and her family in northern California to pursue music fulltime: “The agreement with my parents was plain,” she recounts. “They told me ‘We won’t support you financially if you don’t go to school.’ They offered love and mental support, of course—but not money. I accepted that.”
In truth, Smokey — real name Sara Mancuso— was always comfortable on her own, and in her own skin. She found her creative space, literally and figuratively, quite early and began recording music by age fourteen: “I didn’t like anyone, ever, growing up, so I’d always have these little hideaways where I’d go write songs. My favorite spot was a beautiful tree on Carmel Beach. I’d sit on one branch that opened up beautifully to see the ocean, but no one could see me in the tree.”
As fate would have it, she needed just one person to lay eyes on her—Chris Anokute, IDJ’s Senior Vice President of A&R. By sheer happenstance, Chris heard her singing in an LA studio and set up the meeting back in IDJ’s New York offices.
That career is now set to ignite, sparked by her remarkable impending debut album, set to release in the next year. “I have no genre!” Smokey squeals, in equal parts pride, glee, and consternation. Indeed, the album’s mixed bag speaks to Smokey’s wide-ranging influences, inherent ability, and talented supporting cast—writers and producers like Jay Angel and busbee, who counts P!nk, Katy Perry, Keith Urban, Kelly Clarkson, Christina Aguilera, and Lady Antebellum among his many collaborators. This eclecticism allows Smokey great creative freedom but inevitably invites externally-imposed categorization, both fitting and forced:
“I’ve been compared to everyone from Janis Joplin to Amy Winehouse to Joss Stone. I agree that Janis or Amy are accurate references, but I don’t think I sound like anyone. I think I sound like myself. To be honest, I think I sound most like the female version of Caleb Followill [lead singer of the Kings of Leon]. If I were a guy, I’d be Caleb. But really, I don’t want to sound like anyone else; I don’t want that taint in your head when you hear my music. I don’t want people to think of anyone else but me because I’ve poured my entire self into my music and it’s really emotional and honest. To call me someone else is dishonest.”
One listen is truly an exercise in openness. The songs, though assorted, artfully weave together strands of pain, loss, angst, retribution, and rebirth. “Lightning” features a dramatic and –forgive the analogies—Adele-esque build that segues into infectious sing-song smacking of Fun and the Lumineers. Of particular note are Smokey’s remarkable harmonies. Meanwhile, the balladic track Bumps & Bruises balances the thorns of hurt with refrains of empowerment: “What a girl needs to hear is that she’s beautiful/ What a girl needs to feel is that she’s worthy inside.” Elsewhere, “Don’t Lie to Me” is wonderful paradox: its ominous opening strains and venomous lyrics borne of love gone awry sit in stark contrast to its delightful, “Hey Ya!”-ish backbeat.
Then there’s the wonderfully idiosyncratic “Train,” a whiskey-soaked wailer that shows just how Smokey got her name. Proclaims Smokey: “You’ve never heard anything like ‘Train,’ ever!” Other standouts include “Walking on a Thin Line,” a tribute to her now-deceased grandfather. “My Grandpa was a working doctor who helped thousands of people,” Smokey sobs. “But he was especially important to me because my dad was in jail until I was ten years old. He suddenly and unexpectedly was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I had just gotten back from seeing him in the hospital, and I could barely stand to see him like that. As a doctor, he knew what was happening, how serious it was—but he tried to keep our spirits up. I didn’t know what to do or how to help him. So I wrote the song as a poem, an ode.”
Finally, there is “Naked,” a beautiful, bare catharsis laid over airy piano plunkings: “I gave you everything but you left me naked / Promises, silly dreams, you loved me but you faked it.” Smokey forcibly drags the listener through a poignant, teary chapter in her life. To use her word, the honesty is staggering—epic, really. The stuff of “Naked” is the stuff that endures.
With heartache as a backdrop, Smokey Jones stands eagerly on the cusp of new beginnings. And to her, the future is assured: “I don’t feel scared because I made it through the discovery process. Even if just one person hears one of my songs, someone who was like me—sitting in a stairway, depressed, and has nothing; I want to touch that person. I want to be there for people who are total strangers. The Beatles held my hand when I was down and alone, and I want to do the same for others.”
When asked to sum up just how she made it, the uncanniness of her ascent, and where it’s going next, Smokey says simply: “It’s just happening.” Indeed, Smokey Jones is just that—happening.