Wonder Women: Joanna Smith
Hailing from upstate New York, Joanna Smith started her musical journey on the piano in 2nd grade. Two years later she joined her elementary school’s orchestra on upright bass and has been honing her craft ever since. She received her BA in music from the University of Mary Washington in 2012, spending four years in the UMW Philharmonic and Jazz Band studying under Chief Master Sgt. Paul Henry. Joanna has been playing upright and electric bass professionally for the past ten years. Now local to Fredericksburg, Virginia, she can often be seen playing with various groups in styles ranging from jazz to bluegrass and rock. Joanna regularly plays in the Riverside Center for the Performing Arts’ pit orchestra. Her most recent projects include playing bass for The Kingbolts, Cat Janice Band, The Dangerous Kitchen Band, and Jon Tyler Wiley & His Virginia Choir. She teaches private lessons virtually (Skype, Facetime, Zoom, etc) and in person at Bang! Music, Inc.
Who were your influences?
I think it comes down to the teachers who saw my potential. Having learned how to read music at a young age, it was easy to start playing bass in my school orchestra. In middle school, the band director approached me to join them after school jazz band program. By high school, the music director wanted me to play in both the orchestra and concert band and the high school musical’s pit orchestra all four years. With those experiences, I had the confidence to join the university’s musical groups. After graduating I looked towards the local freelancing musicians for guidance in navigating the business side of music; most notably Bruce Middle and Toby Fairchild. It all comes back to the teachers and the support I had from my family.
What are you woodshedding right now?
It’s tough to pinpoint just one thing. With gigging it feels like I am constantly learning new songs. When it’s just me, I like to keep up my reading chops by going through old Simandl etudes or playing along with pit orchestra music recordings.
We usually hear about the downsides of being a female in the music industry. Let’s flip the script; do you see any benefits?
There are plenty of superficial benefits to being a female player. Being a bass player in a supporting role, I am not in the spotlight, but my presence as a woman always makes people do a double-take. It’s my “easy out” of having to jump around to grab attention.
How are you handling working through the pandemic? How has technology helped (or hindered) you? Any tips to share?
My focus shifted to teaching virtually and home recording. I mainly worked in the realm of live performance pre-Covid, so technology definitely helped me during this time when the only way to play with other people was sharing tracks via email. The technology has become so streamlined and accessible I would say don’t be afraid to start experimenting!
Any current projects that you can tell us about?
Having just finished playing with Jon Tyler Wiley & His Virginia Choir on the 21st annual Rock Boat cruise, I’m returning to play the holiday season show, Meet Me In St. Louis, at the Riverside Center for the Performing Arts.
Dream artist or band to collaborate with?
Important cause or issue that you support?
I think people need to get more involved in local elections and policy-making. It’s the only way we will see any real change that reflects the needs/wants of our communities.
What would you want to change about the music industry?
Seeing other women doing the same…filling in the spaces behind the front person…is what we need more of right now.
Any new/emerging (or new to you) artists that you are into that we should all know about?
Her stage name is BRASSIE, and she has a hauntingly beautiful voice. She is making her way as a solo artist on guitar/vox, but I totally see her coming into her own with a full band soon!
Any early experiences that shaped you as an artist now?
I got fired from a job doing title research I thought would be a career starter right out of college. The reasons cited included taking too much time off for gigging/touring and being unfocused. At first, I was devastated and very embarrassed. Now it’s just a funny “duh” moment.
You know bassists are all about the gear. And I’m definitely a gear nerd. So I have to ask…any recent game-changing acquisitions to your toolkit?
I always dread this question because I am definitely not a gear head. I’ve been using the same stuff for a while, but every now and then, a friend who builds pedals will send something cool my way. Check out Cardinal Phonics!!
What advice would you have for someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?
An experience a lot of artists have to go through is that first time you need to stand up for yourself and your worth. Confrontation is always tough, but for others to take you seriously, you need to take yourself seriously. There will be many people wanting to take advantage of your generosities and may feel entitled to your time and energy. The sooner you establish your boundaries, the better.
What drew you to the music industry?
Necessity. I have a degree in music but also Historic Preservation, which is what I thought I’d be focusing on as a career path. Music gave me purpose after facing a lot of rejection trying to get a job in the preservation field. I would go to some local jams and started getting gigs, and the next thing I knew, that was most of my income. I decided to pursue it more seriously, and over the course of a decade, I’ve established a career.
What’s an average day like for you?
Depending on the day of the week, I’m either teaching, prepping for a gig, traveling to a gig, running with my dogs, rehearsing, visiting with family, practicing, cleaning my house, working on the garden, the list goes on. The routine has become finding a balance between work and personal life.
What’s your favorite part about this line of work? Your least favorite part? Why?
I love that it takes me all over. I’ve played in cities up and down the east coast, out to LA, New Orleans, Nashville, and as far away as Schwetzingen, Germany. Sometimes I wish it paid a little more for obvious reasons, but mostly I’m grateful I’ve had these opportunities.
Where can we find you on the interwebs?
Instagram, Facebook, and my website.
Brittany Frompovich is a highly regarded educator, clinician, blogger, and bassist who currently resides in the Washington DC/NOVA region. For more content from Brittany, check out her blog, her YouTube channel, and her Bandcamp site. She also offers handmade unisex music-themed jewelry through her Etsy store. Get a Wonder Woman Tee!