Jan Smith is tucked inside her recording studio on a summer night in metro Atlanta’s North Druid Hills neighborhood, conceptualizing background vocals for an unreleased track from her latest protege. Dressed in a black blouse with lace sleeves, white jeans, and black open-toe boots, the 63-year-old Smith sits calmly at the soundboard with a notepad as “Karma,” a country-pop cut from 21-year-old singer-songwriter Grace Asbury, plays through the speakers. For the next few hours, Smith and the singer, along with two of Smith’s producers, hum, mumble and “yabba dabba doo” melodies, piecing together disjointed sounds so tautly that it’s hard to imagine they ever existed separately.
Asbury, a student at the University of Georgia, was looking to hone her sound and songwriting style when a family friend recommended that she hire Smith, known as “Mama Jan,” last year. Smith heard her sing and, according to Asbury, told her father that she didn’t need his money. The revered vocal coach already had a thriving business and a stellar reputation in the industry; instead, Smith wanted to work with Asbury because she believed she could help her become a successful country artist. Coming from Mama Jan, who counts Justin Bieber and Drake as former pupils, this was high praise.
For more than 35 years, Smith’s career has been intertwined with the rise of Atlanta as a music and entertainment mecca. Her success has stemmed from her undeniable skillset as a vocal coach, but also from her proximity to rising talent: In this music capital, the coach with the southern drawl and the nurturing but forceful persona has found herself in the orbit of artists such as Usher, Rob Thomas, Young Jeezy, and a few reality stars.
Smith, who herself started as a musician, never intended to be the woman behind so many megastars. But as a long-term power player in the industry and advocate for Atlanta’s music business scene, Smith says there’s nothing she’d rather be doing than elevating talent in the place that raised her.
Earlier that day, Smith met with a former client for a recording session in her studio, located in a nondescript business complex. Eager to show Smith what he’d been up to since the last time they talked, the rapper Pioneer told his producer to cue up his latest song. Instinctively, Smith whips out her phone and begins recording, bending her knees and circling the rapper to get the right angle as he performed for the camera. He consciously censors himself, skipping over the curse words in the song as he raps along. Mama Jan, after all, is respected in the industry for her wisdom and nurturing quality as well as her vocal prowess. You probably wouldn’t curse in front of your mother, and Smith’s clients don’t curse in front of her, either.
Smith’s career as a vocal coach started in the early 1980s when she walked into a guitar store in downtown Atlanta looking to make a purchase and left with a new gig: She’d reluctantly agreed to help a construction worker by day/rock singer by night who was losing his voice.
At the time, Smith was in no way interested in a career as a vocal coach — she was a touring artist, not a teacher — but she soon realized she was in a unique position to help others. As a singer with both classical training and rock sensibilities, Smith was able to appeal to pop artists in ways that most vocal coaches, who emphasized classical training, could not. “A hard, sunburned construction worker who was drinking and smoking was not going to [train operatically]. He wasn’t gonna do that,” Smith says. “Nobody was catering to the needs of what I call street singers, rock and roll, R&B, pop, [and] rap [artists]. I started catering to [them] and they started coming out of the woodwork.”
Soon, Smith had set up a modest studio behind the music store where she’d once gone in search of a new guitar. Michele Caplinger, now the senior executive director of the Atlanta chapter of the Recording Academy (the organization behind the Grammy Awards), was a singer in the band Lipstick Stain when she first visited Smith’s “shotgun studio.” At that time the office was decorated with 8x10 photos of Smith’s clients stuck to the wall with push pins. “She had a tape deck, a desk, and a microphone,” Caplinger says of the setup. Smith’s expertise, not the ambiance, was clearly the draw.
One of Smith’s first clients to make it big was Rob Thomas, lead singer of Matchbox Twenty, who had been referred to her by a former pupil before the group released their debut album. Smith says Thomas jokingly referred to her as the “vocal badger,” a nod to her persistent coaching methods, but she’d eventually become known under a more benevolent moniker: Mama Jan, affectionately coined by two of her clients, singer-songwriter Jeffrey Butts and John Hopkins (eventually a member of Zac Brown Band).
The nickname stuck right around the same time a woman came to Smith looking for help coaching her son, Usher Raymond. Usher was signed to La Reid and Babyface’s Atlanta-based label LaFace and had achieved success with his breakthrough album My Way, featuring songs such as “Nice & Slow” and “You Make Me Wanna ...,” as a teenager. But he’d gone through puberty later than expected and lost the middle part of his vocal range. Smith came in and coached Usher ahead of the release of his follow-up album 8701 (“U Remind Me,” “U Got it Bad”), as well as the diamond-selling album Confessions. He was the first person to start crediting Smith as “Mama Jan” publicly.
Years later, Usher hired Smith preemptively to help his young protege, Justin Bieber, adjust to his post-pubescent voice. The vocal coach can be seen in the 2011 documentary Justin Bieber: Never Say Never not only coaching Bieber vocally but helping him adjust to the demands of fame as a teenager by describing her own experiences as a young musician. She saw it as her responsibility to pass her hard-won lessons along. Bieber and Usher joined Smith onstage when she was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 2011.
Smith has worked with vocal performers of all kinds, including rappers, on-air reporters, pastors, public speakers, and more. In 2005, after releasing his critically acclaimed major-label debut Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101, Atlanta rapper Young Jeezy underwent surgery on his vocal cords. Untrained on how to perform properly without damaging his voice and scared he’d blow his career just as he’d begun achieving success, he hired Smith to help him recover. At that time, few people had considered working with rappers to ensure they didn’t damage their voices. But not Mama Jan. “It’s equally important for [rappers] to be able to really maintain their vocal health as well,” Smith says.
In 2008, Smith was contacted by singer-songwriter Dallas Austin (TLC’s “Creep,” Pink’s “Just Like a Pill,” etc.) about booking vocal lessons for a friend. There was a small caveat: the session would be filmed for a new reality TV show.
At the time, Smith wasn’t familiar with the show or the network it was airing on, but she agreed to help.
That show was the Real Housewives of Atlanta, where in a standout scene during season one of the Bravo show, Smith evaluates housewife Kim Zolciak, who says she’s an aspiring country singer. “You’re like a beautiful house that’s been constructed, and we’ve got great light fixtures and beautiful chandeliers and all this stuff,” Smith says. “And we have a crack in the foundation,” referring to her singing abilities. In an interview that aired during the episode, Zolciak says she feels like Smith is “nitpicking” and that she’s unsure what technique has to do with singing in a studio. Reflecting on the awkward encounter now, Smith says, “I kind of didn’t know what to think. I wasn’t sure if ... is this serious? Like, am I being Punk’d or whatever?”
As a viewer, it’s hard to watch the scene with a straight face. But Smith, ever the professional, isn’t laughing. Zolciak’s vocal performance aside, the segment is a pretty accurate depiction of Smith’s working style. Throughout her years as a vocal coach, Smith’s blunt but charming persona has kept clients coming to her for her honest feedback.
It’s not nitpicking if it helps turn you into a star.
Born in Atlanta and raised in a Christian household alongside her two brothers, Smith says she’s been vocally gifted since she was a toddler harmonizing with her mother’s vacuum cleaner. She grew up hearing music in church and watching The Beatles and The Supremes perform on television. “I came into the world singing, being color sensitive to sound, and understanding music and harmonies before I could talk,” she says.
Smith says that, unlike today, rock stardom was an unusual dream to have when she was young. “Being a kid with a guitar, I was the odd girl out. I was not the popular girl in school at all,” she says. Smith played flute in the school band and participated in choir at the small Southern Baptist church her family attended. By the time she was 15, she’d started singing in rock-and-roll bands after school. By the time she graduated from high school, she was playing in clubs.
Throughout her career as both a solo artist and in rock bands, Smith found relative success performing both covers and original songs. Being a career artist was always her dream, but Smith now admits it wasn’t the healthiest path for her. “I was living my life without restraint and it brought me to a place of real reckoning,” she says, referring to her struggles as a young artist, including battling addiction. “When you kind of meet your God on the bathroom floor in your house, that’s kind of where the rubber meets the road and you either get up and pull it together and make some other decisions or you’re gonna go on down that road.”
Smith admits the transition from being an artist to working primarily behind the scenes was one she initially resisted. “It was hard for me to really release that and understand the greater good of what I was being positioned to do,” she says. But Smith’s background as an artist helped give her a lot of credibility as a coach. Clients and employees say Smith is able to warn them about the harmful effects that drinking and smoking have on an artist’s voice without coming off as “preachy.” She’d lived in their world long enough to tell them how to survive it themselves. And, from her early childhood, she knows what it’s like to not have a clear path to follow.
A far cry from her early studio, Smith’s current office is big enough to house eight coaches, a photography studio, performance rehearsal space, and several recording studios. Smith says she’s always been more than a vocal coach (she’s also a Grammy-nominated producer and she once worked as a manager for Kimberly Perry of The Band Perry). On top of vocal coaching, she has a roster of artists, including Asbury, who she’s working to develop into superstars. She coaches them, produces their records, and sometimes acts as a manager. On top of that, she’s working on her own music, too.
Alongside power players such as Caplinger, Smith has positioned herself as a major advocate for Atlanta’s music business scene. She’s been around long enough to see music executives such as Babyface and LA Reid open labels in Atlanta, but she’s also been around to see how frustrating it’s been for insiders as a city that exports so much of its culture struggles to retain businesses. From R.E.M. and the B-52s to Outkast and 21 Savage, Smith has seen Georgia consistently pump out artists who inform music trends globally and she says there’s nothing she’d rather be doing than elevating the industry in the place that raised her.
“If I won the lottery today, this is where you would find me tomorrow,” she says. “I’m going to be doing what I’m doing until they throw dirt on me.”
Grace Asbury says Smith has finally helped her hone in on the “country-pop” sound that she hopes to build her image on; the pair hope to release new music this fall. “She’s always said that I’m somebody who can sing anything, but she’s trying to make [my sound] original,” she said. “It’s really allowed me to find myself as an artist.”
Smith still keeps in touch with her A-list clients like Usher, who calls her ahead of major performances (such as when he performed “Amazing Grace” with Andrea Bocelli during an Atlanta show in 2017). After Real Housewives, she continued to work with Zolciak after those infamous episodes aired. “She became a legitimate client. I love Kim.”
Still, she’s proud that they’ve mostly left the nest and learned to fly solo. There are plenty of rising acts in need of Mama Jan’s touch.
Jewel Wicker is an entertainment reporter who has written for publications such as Atlanta Magazine, Pitchfork, and Teen Vogue.