Miss Mouthpeace sings her truth
The Sacramento artist talks improv, songwriting and healing
The name “Miss Mouthpeace” wasn't something that local soul singer Monique Smith thought to call herself. It came to her in an unexpected way. Smith was singing at an open-mic in Okinawa, Japan, and a drunk woman approached her afterword to tell her she had intended to go home and end her life after the show, but something in Smith's lyrics changed her mind.
You are definitely a mouthpiece, the woman said. That stuck with Smith.
Smith’s not even sure what lyrics impacted the woman—she had been improvising—but the timing was significant. She’d wanted a stage name, and she couldn’t stop thinking about what the woman said. Eventually, she changed the spelling to Mouthpeace.
This was in 2002. She had been singing her entire life but in Japan, where she moved to be with her military husband, had just started taking it more seriously. Smith had just started this particular open-mic, which she called Lyrics 4 The Soul. She wasn’t big on structure; the singer and her band just went for it, whatever came out came out.
Smith remembers it as a tumultuous but creatively fulfilling time.
“It was a rough area in my personal life, so everything that I was singing was really from a place of hurt,” Smith says. “What I discovered was, I could sing from the top of my head. My band was like a jam band. I would do spoken word, but it was singing.”
By 2004, she’d landed back home in Sacramento where she decided to take a stab at structure. She eventually wrote her debut full-length LP, which she named appropriately Lyrics 4 The Soul, and released it in 2006.
The writing of that record didn’t stop Smith from still doing live improv, however. Over the years she’s even recorded some of those sessions and uploaded them to YouTube.
Improv, Smith says now, has made her more comfortable as a singer.
“It took me a long time to even embrace that and even believe that in myself. I [was] just trying to be what fits,” she says. “Once I discovered that I didn’t have to be what other people thought anymore, that’s when my lyrics became more free.”
These days her shows encompass the singer’s many sides. The musicality is diverse in terms of style (soul, jazz, R&B, reggae) as Smith performs originals, covers and improvised jams. There are also bits of comedy and audience interaction with a game that Smith calls “Let’s Write a Song.”
“The crowd and I, we write a song together,” Smith says. “I call people out. I’ll say, ’I see someone that looks like Billie Holiday or Michael Jackson … come up here and sing.’”
Usually their reaction is one of surprise and skepticism, Smith says.
“They always give me this look like ’Girl, I’m going to get you,’” she says. “They do it though. It’s so much fun.”
Smith has also released about a dozen singles. That pain Smith felt in Okinawa continued to escalate, and by the time she’d finished the LP, Smith was going through a divorce.
With the newer material, Smith says she’s focused on healing.
“I sing a lot about self-love. Everything is an uplifting story,” Smith says. “I might crack a joke or two about an ex-boyfriend or something, but even in that, I don’t make it about him. I make it about me. I make it about my choice.”