Work of Art: Chelsea Lee Smart’s New York state of mind

Singer-songwriter Chelsea Lee Smart found joy and new forms of personal expression in jazz, and now the Elder Conservatorium graduate has found more inspiration in New York City.

“I think it’s a more open community with people of the same kind of mindset and the same kind of love for the music,” Lee Smart says. “So, I think it’s a natural progression for a jazz musician. New York and jazz just go together, hand-in-hand.”

After winning the Jazz SA and Helpmann Academy Mike Stewart Memorial Award in 2017, Lee Smart used her winnings to experience her own slice of the famed New York music scene.

“That allowed me to go to New York for two months, and to study with [saxonophonist and composer] Will Vinson who I have on my record,” says Lee Smart. “During this time, I was also given the chance to partake in a life-changing lesson with vocalist Dominique Eade up in Boston.

“Not only was I able to continue working on my craft in a city where jazz thrives, I was able to watch my musical heroes perform right in front of my eyes, while also being fortunate enough to present my original music on four occasions as a bandleader.”

The trip comes off the back of the recording of her debut EP Midnight Cowboy at Wizard Tone Studios, which was released this year in June.

“I got a grant from Helpmann to record my debut album, which helped phenomenally,” she says. “It was a fantastic experience. I got to have my best friends on that album, like Django Rowe, Dylan Kuerschner and Angus Mason. It was just a really great experience. We just all had fun, and we got to create music together.”

This New York experience was the next major step in a career that began when Lee Smart’s singing teacher introduced her to the jazz repertoire during her last year of high school. For Lee Smart, it was love at first listen.

“I think it was just fate because I just naturally fell in love with jazz straight away,” she says. “Since then, I can’t do anything else. I don’t want to do anything else.”

Jazz has since been Lee Smart’s vehicle of expression, with the singer-songwriter finding the medium allows her to express herself more fully than any other.

“Growing up, I was really introverted,” she says. “I still am, but through music I have a voice and I can get out all my thoughts and feelings, in a musical sense, which I think I’m super fortunate to be able to do. It’s just like an aural journey or metamorphosis kind of thing.”

Lee Smart hopes that her aural odyssey will take her back to the bright lights and dingy, history-soaked jazz clubs of New York in the near future.

“At the moment I’m planning on applying for my master’s degree in Jazz Arts, at the Manhattan School of Music in New York… I think my ultimate goal is to just be in New York and just live there and connect with people and just really become more creative and more free flowing. Eventually maybe working more with some of my heroes would be incredible.”

The next crop of South Australia’s up-and-coming jazz stars will be joining New York City sensations The Hot Sardines at the 2018 Helpmann Academy Night of Jazz, on Saturday, August 11. Tickets can be purchased here.

Chelsea Lee Smart was the recipient of the 2015 Helpmann Academy Foundation Jazz Award, The Mike Stewart Memorial Award and a Helpmann Academy regular grant in 2017.

Learn more about the artists that Helpmann Academy support at helpmannacademy.com.au

The Adelaide Review is a media partner of Helpmann Academy.

Photography: Joe Chapman

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