STOPTIME: Live in the Moment.

AJ Smith: The Intersection of Head & Heart

May 17, 2022 Lisa Hopkins, Wide Open Stages Season 6 Episode 8
STOPTIME: Live in the Moment.
AJ Smith: The Intersection of Head & Heart
Show Notes Transcript

AJ Smith turned down scholarships to some of the top engineering programs in the country in order to pursue the study of music at NYU. With scholarships from the Songwriters Hall of Fame and Carole Bayer Sager Foundation, he was able to pursue a degree in songwriting and it was there where he found life-changing mentors in the late Glenn Frey and hit songwriter Phil Galdston, self-released his first EP “Dragons in the Sky”, had a #3 hit in Australia with “Summertime”, opened for The Eagles at the Beacon Theatre, performed in the off-Broadway and West End hit Close to You: Burt Bacharach Reimagined, learned some more instruments (he plays 10 now), and graduated with one of America’s first Masters Degrees in Songwriting. His songwriting and performance abilities have earned multiple awards, including the prestigious Abe Olman Scholarship from the Songwriters Hall of Fame and he was a semi-finalist ranking in the 2020 International Songwriting Contest. Oh and did I mention he served as a Young Associate Violinist to the National Symphony Orchestra while simultaneously serving as an Engineer and Infrared Systems Developer for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory...in high school?

Don't miss this conversation with the multi-talented AJ Smith!

Find out more about AJ and listen to his music here:

www.ajsmithmusic.com
www.ajsmithmusic.com/better
www.YouTube.com/ajsmithmusic


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Lisa Hopkins:

This is the stop time podcast. I'm your host, Lisa Hopkins, and I'm here to engage you in thought provoking motivational conversations around practicing the art of living in the moment. I'm a certified life coach, and I'm excited to dig deep and offer insights into embracing who we are and where we are at. So my next guest turned down scholarships to some of the top engineering programs in the country. In order to pursue this study of music at NYU, with scholarships from the Songwriters Hall of Fame and Carole Bayer Sager Foundation. He was able to pursue a degree in songwriting, and it was there where he found life changing mentors in the late Glenn Frey, and hit songwriter Phil Goldston, self released his first EP dragons in the sky, had a number three hit in Australia with summertime. He opened for the Eagles at the Beacon Theater performed in the Off Broadway and West End hit close to Burt, Burt Bacharach reimagined, learn some more instruments. He plays 10 now and graduated with one with one of America's first master's degrees in songwriting. His songwriting and performance abilities have earned multiple awards, including the prestigious Edelman scholarship from the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and he was a semifinalist ranking in the 2020 International songwriting contest. Oh, and did I mention he served as young associate violinist to the National Symphony Orchestra while simultaneously serving as an engineer and infrared systems developer for the US Naval Research Laboratory in high school. I cannot wait to get into this conversation with the multitalented AJ Smith. Welcome, AJ.

AJ Smith:

Thank you so much for having me, Lisa.

Lisa Hopkins:

Oh, my gosh, it's a great pleasure. I'm just dying to dig in with you. Let's just jump in. I'm so intrigued by your trajectory. Right. Talk to me about how you got there. Take me back.

AJ Smith:

Yeah, I mean, I guess, like all stories, we could start at the beginning. That would be you know, my earliest memories, for the most part involve music. I my godmother, who was our two doors down the street from us neighbor taught piano lessons growing up. And when I was around three, I think the story goes that I snuck out of the house with a family dog and my mom couldn't find me had no idea where I was. And it turns out that I had gone down the street and was pressing my ear up against the window listening to my godmother teach piano lessons. And this happened a couple of times. And finally, my parents were like, Okay, we got to just put you in piano lessons within that. So then that way, you can you can stop running away, stop giving us heart attacks. Every time we turn our backs to cook dinner or anything. I was disappearing out of the house. And so yeah, that's kind of where it started. And then, you know, they took me to go see my first concert at Red Rocks in Colorado, which was Yanni and then he had a solo violinist playing with him that night. And I was like, Oh, I'm just in love with the violin. Mom, can I please learn how to play the violin? You know, as a kid, you have no idea what lessons cost or anything like that, right? You're just like, I want to do it. And yeah, the parents kind of figure it out. And so my mom figured it out and found me a violin teacher. And I ended up fiddling in a bluegrass band and all of these different things. And then, you know, going on to play violin as a eunuch young associate with the National Symphony. But I think behind all of that, I always wanted to write songs. Not just compose. I was composing ever since I was like six or seven in my little composition notebooks. But I always wanted to write songs. And the first collection of songs that I ever did. I think for my 10th or 11th birthday, I asked for my parents to take me to a recording studio. And I recorded really horrible but cute, cute tunes.

Lisa Hopkins:

Let me just stop you there for one sec. This is so interesting. I have two questions for you already. Yeah, one one is I have this this image of you running away to hear to hear your godmother teaching was what was it about the music? Was there any element of I wonder what she's doing? Or it was the music itself? What drew you?

AJ Smith:

Yeah, I mean, I always loved the sound of the piano and I was actually just going through some home videos that my dad sent. And even I think I was maybe one and a half years old. I'm sitting at our family piano just banging along and trying to make sounds with my hands, and then turning the page of music. And I think I was just so intrigued and curious, how do you make this piano sound like that? What But my godmother was playing with her students were playing where it actually made sense. How do you read what's on the page? Maybe I wasn't fully connecting those dots yet. But I mean, some of those dots were getting created. I was, I knew that that was music that then I'm supposed to do something with on the piano. And I just hadn't fit. And I wanted to figure that out. I wanted to know what that language was.

Lisa Hopkins:

Yeah. You know, it stands out to me, is that when you as you were saying that it sounds like, like the perfect sort of intersection of head and heart head first, like when I think about you as being having this this, you know, proclivity for engineering, right? For how things work, how you know, and it sounds like there was a big element of that first, like, how is that happening? Not only do I love that thing that's being created, but how is it being created? Right?

AJ Smith:

Yeah, I definitely. I mean, even still, today, you know, I'll go and I'll do some coding in order to try to figure out hey, what are what are ways that I can enhance my music career? Or, you know, what are, what are things that I can be doing? And then when it comes to music, video production, and everything, you know, I'm very much behind the scenes and all of that, too. And I guess that's a really great way of saying is, it's the intersection of head and heart. I think I lead a lot with the emotional, that's kind of what drives me towards something, but then I'm just so curious, that I have to unpack, you know, why, how, why do I feel this way? How do other people feel? How can I describe this better? Yeah.

Lisa Hopkins:

And also, it's interesting, too, because I heard a distinction in composing versus songwriting. Right? So if I heard you correctly, you learned, you know, you learn the how to compose thing. But what you really wanted to do was song right, which again, is kind of like that technical to the expression, right? Not that you not that composing is not obviously, a huge expression. But songwriting is strikes me as you can tell me what it means to you, but you really, you it really stood out that you said, but what I really wanted to do was song, right? And that six, it doesn't sound like it's the structure of songwriting, it was that you had something to say talk to me about wise, what that meant to you to be a song writer,

AJ Smith:

or, I mean, I think they're differently accessible, you know, composing with lyrics, or songwriting, and then composing without lyrics. And when I'm composing, or Songwriting with lyrics, I feel like I'm able to make the emotional connection a bit more accessible, or I can actually more directly speak to my audience, whoever that is, and really try to use more tools in the toolbox. It's not just the musical language. It's also the lyrical spoken language. And so I've always been really drawn to that. I studied film scoring at NYU, and I always loved writing instrumental music, but I feel as though I was more effective in and connecting with people when I was able to, to find the right lyric, because just like music, you're trying to write almost an emotional feeling or express something that way in a way that's maybe not been done before. With songwriting, you're you're doing that, but then you're also trying to write a lyric in and express something that in a way that hasn't been said before, as well, which it's such a unique challenge, that maybe not all songwriters think about it that way. But that's, that's how I think about it,

Lisa Hopkins:

ya know, for sure, and it connection reads loud and loud and clear, right. I mean, that makes sense. Talk to me about what connection means to you, because for for different people, it means different things. So when you're when you're going into a place of writing a lyric, is it about is it for you about expressing something of yourself? Or is it about connecting by sharing and sort of as I do as a coach like opening, you know, holding space for the opportunity to reflect on this by I don't know being vulnerable? Is it? Is it more of a you know, there's so many different ways you could go right, how does that show up for you?

AJ Smith:

I mean, for me, I I love connecting through specific intention, and so that it can be different in different circumstances and if my intention for a song is to help others not feel alone it in an emotion, and that's usually there and most of my writing anyways, then I'll, I'll try to make sure that it's really accessible for somebody to even if I'm being specific about my own life or my own story, that there's also still an accessibility where somebody can say, Ah, yes, you know, I have that in my own life as well. I think one of my one of my teachers was Rosanne Cash as well, I had the fortune of working with her. And she talked about how songs are like letters from the future, sometimes where at least that's how she feels. And, you know, sometimes they don't reveal to us in the moment, what they mean, until somebody else comes back and says, Hey, you know, I also had this sensation, and even though it's a very specific thing that she might have written about her dad, then and something that he said to her growing up. And you know, nobody else had Johnny Cash as a father. But then that might be something that it speaks to somebody else in the future, or it reveals its true meaning to her the writer later, because maybe we're working in touch with something in the moment of writing, that maybe our subconscious has realized, but aren't fully awake self hasn't yet to,

Lisa Hopkins:

you know, you're speaking to also kind of the, the performing arts nature of it in where we talk about, you know, the audience being the final ingredient, right, so something new is created when it's received.

AJ Smith:

Absolutely, yeah. And that's, you know, I mean, even going to the connecting with the audience. I mean, that's why when arranging songs, sometimes I'll prefer to be playing a song on guitar versus piano because there's less of a physical barrier between me and the audience, and I want to be able to feel that energy coming back at me and, and, you know, getting people to engage and there's really no greater feeling than when you hear that your song, something that you wrote about your own life experience that you put out into the world expecting nothing, that it comes back to people singing it back, because they felt it was significant enough to learn the words or, or even somebody messaging something like hey, you know, this got me through a really tough time or something like that,

Lisa Hopkins:

ya know, for sure. It's, it's a crazy business, as we know. And there are so many associated limiting beliefs about how you're supposed to do it. Right? Or, you know, you know, I'm sure that that conscious all sorts of things in your head, how are you affected or not affected? Or how do you navigate those things? What are the things that sort of scream loud in your head that you don't want to listen to? Things that you follow? What comes up for

AJ Smith:

you? What's really challenging with the music industry is that there's almost too many facets in it, I think, and that can be extremely overwhelming because you'll have somebody saying you need to focus on Tik Tok or Instagram. And will SoundCloud is is the place to blow up or, you know, get your Spotify streams to work or no, you should be building a Patreon page and get a smaller number but have dedicated superfans you should be having an email list or you should be having a text list. You need to be out there playing shows, you need to be out there not just going and hitting the road and playing house shows or something you need to be opening for people. But how do you get to open for people? Well, you need to be on a label. Well, the major labels are only interested if you're on tick tock like all of this, and there's, there's so many different avenues and approaches and, and different things that you need to be focusing on all at once. That it can be, at times really difficult to focus well on any one individual thing. Because then, within all of that you're also supposed to be writing and creating great vulnerable material that is going to be unique and different from anything that anybody else is doing. And there's 50,000 songs released on Spotify a day. So you know, how do you cut through? And so I think that the noise is one thing that's really difficult to listen to. And then the other is when people who will come in and say, Ah, you know, the thing that you're not doing is X or the thing that you're not doing his why? Because you want to believe so badly that the only thing standing between you and whatever your benchmark of success is, is this magic elixir. So dilution that somebody else has brought to the table. And it can be really damaging to self confidence and faith in oneself. When you listen to that, yeah, but it's hard not to listen to that, because it's such a complex, multifaceted industry.

Lisa Hopkins:

Yeah, no. 100%. And it's interesting, though, because you are so multifaceted yourself. It's true. I mean, I think that's an absolute true statement, that, you know, there's just, there's just so much going on. Right? And, and, you know, we all wish we knew the secret elixir, or whatever. But you with the sort of natural propensity to be able to do that, do you come down on yourself by saying, I should be able to do this? Like, do you? Do you have higher expectations on yourself?

AJ Smith:

Absolutely. And I think that one of the things that I've struggled with, is, I know that I have a lot of capabilities in a lot of different areas, which is great. But then it also means that, you know, I think sometimes success can come through specialization. And because I am able to do a lot in different areas, I'm really techie. And so I, I update my website, and I now am in control of that, even though I have a management team, because I, I at least believe that you can always do the best job yourself. Sometimes, that can end up being a trap, where just because I'm capable, doesn't mean that I need to be responsible for it. Because otherwise, now I'm distracted by having too many tasks on my plate. And I'm unable to focus at the end of the day on maybe the two or three most important things that I need to be doing. And it's hard to because then, I'm not sure what those two or three things are, at times, because there's all of that noise. And so I think that can kind of hold me back at times.

Lisa Hopkins:

So interesting, because we're talking about tools, right? And what, what, what comes to me, and what I would, what I would encourage you to remember, is there is one thing that you are the top expert in, and always will be and that's you. And you are the brand. So how how you are presented to other people. I mean, obviously, when you show up physically, but in terms of your music, in terms of what you give the people to promote, or what you put out there. I mean, nobody can do what you can do.

AJ Smith:

Yeah, that's really interesting, too, because, you know, I recently, I wanted to bring my brand, make it more cohesive as an artist. And so I started working with the stylist and I had some other people in order, because I know that, hey, I know what I like, fashion wise, and all of that. But you know, to a certain extent, that is part of the look, as is everything you know, and I direct or produce all of my own music videos, and I'm very good at putting together looks for that. But when it comes to every day, or you know, anything that if I need to go and perform on a, on a TV show or something like that, you know, I'm not really sure what to wear. And so I had one person saying, well, we need to give you more edge, we need to make you more of a bad boy. And I'm like, well, that's not really my writing style isn't like that. None of the end. I was I was listening to that a little bit because there's that voice in the back of the head saying, Ah, maybe this is the elixir, that one magic trick that's going to unlock the door that I haven't been able to unlock yet. But then I ended up I felt so uncomfortable that I was like, No, this isn't me, this isn't authentic to who I am. So I ended up you know, having having to do a little bit more research and finding out okay, well what does line up more with who I am and I found a great stylist and worked with them to put together my looks for my tour and put together my looks for my future videos and everything like that. And now I'm actually very happy with it, but I was almost diverted off course. Yeah, just by that certainty. Totally,

Lisa Hopkins:

you know, so often because we're so capable. You know, we get caught in the weeds. Right? And, and leadership, there's a wonderful metaphor for leadership, which is that, you know, you can get caught down in the management in the weeds, right? Or you can climb up the tree climb higher to the trees, so they have a meta view and look down and go we're in the wrong jungle. We're in the wrong forest. That's the leader. Right? That's that's you only you can see that but not if you're stuck down in the weeds, right?

AJ Smith:

Yeah, that's great. I like that a lot. Yeah, yeah. I let myself get stuck in the weeds sometimes. And

Lisa Hopkins:

yeah, Yeah, it's normal. We do because we want to listen, and we're excited. And sometimes, because we feel capable. You know, we get jazzed we go. Yeah, that sounds great. That sounds great. And you know, as cliche as it sounds, the finding our why remembering our why that's homebase. Why am I doing this? Like, actually, let me ask you this, let you know. So I don't know, next year, we get on the phone call together. And you go, Lisa, since we talked, this is what's going on my life has changed completely. Since that conversation we had what would you be telling me?

AJ Smith:

I mean, I would hope that I would be telling you that I have now made music is my entire source of income. That I mean, obviously, during COVID, I picked up other things, I kind of relied back on my my technical skills and coding and doing freelance and everything like that. But I would love for music to be my sole source of income and sustain sustaining myself, I would love to be able to say that I finally got my entire album out. And that, yeah, sure, I would think of maybe some metrics, like, oh, and it got listened to by millions of people or something like that. I mean, that would be great. But I mean, for me, I think I benchmark my success more. And I actually just want to put my body of work out into the world. And whatever happens to it happens to it. But I think that there's so much fear of releasing material, because it won't be accepted. You know, and then I've, and I've done that before, and I have so many songs that are really great songs, but maybe aren't competitive with the things that I'm writing now or don't fit. You

Lisa Hopkins:

said, Great. You said, you know, they're great. But and I get that right. I'm sure that you know, that's not right. We hear that all the time. It's not right. It's not, you know, that's not the right time for them, whatever. What what, talk to me about how you know, in your body, that it's great, despite what anyone says.

AJ Smith:

Because it these songs evoke very strong emotional reactions. From myself, first and foremost, I guess, you know, if it doesn't work on me, then it's not going to work on anybody. But then once I've played those songs out live, I know the reactions that they get from other people. I guess the reason that I then say, but it's because I know that I've grown as a writer since then. And I know that my I've grown as a singer, and as a producer. And so I would have to rethink how I would produce these songs to have them fit. With my sounds now, I think but hey, maybe that's a limiting belief, maybe these songs could still get put out under a different project. Or maybe they don't need to be part of my album, they could just live on their own.

Lisa Hopkins:

It's interesting. I'm hearing two things. One is, and I want to, I'd love to talk to you about how I don't know if perfectionism is the right word. But what I'm hearing you say is, you know, they're great. And they they were very evocative, which is that heart center, right. But then the head comes in and goes, Yeah, but I'm so much better technically in this and I'm, you know, much more, you know, so so your, your rating, what you want, what you feel is great. And then you kind of say you, but yeah, the world is telling me no, but actually, you're telling yourself No, so I'm just gonna point that out.

AJ Smith:

Right? Yeah. No, I mean, it's absolutely true. And I think some of that ties into, you know, yeah, because we grow because we get better. And then it's, you look back on the things that you used to do, you know, I look back at the songs that I wrote when I was 10. And I think, Oh, they're adorable, but they're horrible. And sometimes I look back on even songs that I've released within the last few years. And I go, that was cute. But you know, I've, I've grown since then. But hey, maybe if somebody else would get something out of it, there's no reason that it can't be out in the world.

Lisa Hopkins:

Well, it's really funny, because I feel I really believe that we always do the best we can at any given moment, right? Nobody plays to fail. So when you wrote those songs, you were full on. I mean, that's you strike me as someone that is very intentional, and you were writing them for real reasons at the time, and although you now may not relate in the same way. Would it be fair to say that they still are, you know, authentic and actually speak to who you were then? Absolutely, yeah. Yeah. And if you know, of course you've grown everybody grows. Right. But you know, it's a part Have you right. And I understand I mean, obviously, if there are certain things that that you were doing during your trajectory that, you know, that were more part of a stepping stone towards something else. Cool, right. But if if there are, if there are things out there that that you feel, you know, really speak to a part of who you are, I encourage you to to remember that you're right. I mean, you don't know how that might touch other people in a different stage of their growth.

AJ Smith:

Yeah, no, absolutely. And I actually have played around with the idea of when I'm done with this album, or maybe in between releasing singles for it to just drop. Maybe the four, three or four most, I think effective or transformative songs that never got to be put out into the world. Because I was too afraid to put them out then. And to put them out now, and say, hey, you know, this isn't part of this album. But the songs were really important to my growth as a writer and artist, and I hope that you, you like

Lisa Hopkins:

them. What a gift that would be right.

AJ Smith:

I think so. I mean, myself, to a certain extent, to just say, hey, you know, the songs are out. And you did it? Yeah.

Lisa Hopkins:

Yeah. What's your Achilles heel? Would you say?

AJ Smith:

Perfectionism? Okay. 110%.

Lisa Hopkins:

So I was hearing that.

AJ Smith:

Oh, yeah, you hit it right on the nail right on the head.

Lisa Hopkins:

So where does that come from?

AJ Smith:

Hmm. Well, you could say, because of the classical music upbringing, possibly, you know, of needing to practice apart 100 times until you had it perfect. Or, you know, 1000 times or however many times it took, I think it's that maybe the head piece coming in the you know, leading with the heart, but then the head saying, can I communicate this in a better way? Can I sing this better than I did? Can I play this more effectively? You know, I, I constantly think, well, that was great, but I could do better. And I think it's a double edged sword because on one hand, it's pushed me to grow a lot. And I think that that's a healthy dose of that helps push anybody, but then it can also create a fear of rejection, I guess, because you're thinking that it's not good enough. And if you never think that it's good enough, because you always think that you can do better than me, what good are all the songs doing on my hard drive?

Lisa Hopkins:

Yeah, no, absolutely. Fear is such an interesting thing. And this perfectionism thing, too, because you're right, you know, it's a very fine line, have, you know, when you were talking about, can I make this better? And all that if it's done in an energetic way, where you're looking at possibilities, and it energizes you? So it's coming from choice rather than force? Which is no, no, you can do better than this do better. Right? This isn't good enough. These are all those sort of negative messages, right? Or it could be wow, that's cool. I wonder if dot dot dot kind of like when you ran out of the house, and we're like, oh, what's she playing? What is that? You know, or when you saw the violin, and those things like you didn't, you weren't like, I want to be perfect at that. You were like, I want to do that. Right? Yeah. And then and then fear is also truly a mask for desire. So fear is a really a good thing. Because often it shows up and you're like, oh, that scares me. Maybe it's because I want to do it. Hmm.

AJ Smith:

That's that's a great point. Well, I do you know, that's sort of the, the idea of, you know, like, what I was imagining was, you know, the, what's the Robert Frost poem? The path not taken, or

Lisa Hopkins:

I know which one you're speaking of. Yep.

AJ Smith:

And it's sort of thinking through, Hey, am I excited to go down a different path? Am I afraid of this path, but am I afraid of it because I want to go down it or just that it's the wrong path. And I think oftentimes when you have that, you know, like I was afraid of being turned into something that I'm not, and I think that was a good fear, because, well, I don't want to be somebody that I'm not but then the same time. Have I been afraid to be my most authentic self and to put out those raw have you with me? mistakes, kind of recordings. When at the end of the day, we're all human. And we all make mistakes. And, you know, there's a now I think there's been this movement of authenticity, which I think is really powerful, but then also disarming in some ways for the perfectionist, because like me, because I'm like, wait, no, I don't want you to see me without my makeup on. Metaphorically. You know, I, I don't want you to hear me unrehearsed. But then, you know, I have to think, Well, I've been rehearsing for my entire life.

Lisa Hopkins:

No, you know, it's kind of a cautionary tale, when we tie in the sort of limiting beliefs and all these messages of the industry, the external noise that you're referring to, especially now that the trend is to be authentic. Like, God forbid, now that comes into your, you know, yours or anyone else's brain of like, I'm doing it because this is what I'm supposed to be doing. Which is actually, you know,

AJ Smith:

and I, I feel that 110% Yeah, oh, my gosh,

Lisa Hopkins:

yeah. And we're hot, you know, we come by it, honestly, because we're hardwired to protect ourselves. So if we're strong willed, and you know, sometimes it takes a really loud voice, especially the closer you get to doing something that's scary, the louder voice will come going, No, don't do it, you're gonna be in it, you're outside, it's gonna be bad. Okay, so I'm gonna ask you to put humility aside for a moment and ask you to tell me, what would you say are your unique gifts?

AJ Smith:

Creativity, I think is very unique. It's something that I can tap into pretty well. I like to study and I can, I can pick up quickly, on on things, I have a tendency to learn quickly, when I'm passionate about something, which I think is something that I mean, I think probably all of us are blessed with, but you know, when there's passion, then you can learn about anything quickly, but it's something that I'm very grateful for. And then I think, just how, how empathetic and caring, and loving I am as a human being. You know, I think that that's something that I mean, it's it's led me to my, my relationship with Rihanna. And it's made that better, it's made my relationship with my family better, it's made my I think my writing better, it's made my ability to put on somebody else's shoes. And, and understand why they are hurt, and be able to write about that experience. It can be a painful thing to, to really absorb somebody else's emotions and lives experiences. But I think it can also be a necessary thing. And, and I think that's, those are kind of my three top gifts. I would, I would probably say, yeah.

Lisa Hopkins:

So empathy, right. It's interesting. Is that something that you that you've developed those those gifts? Or is it something that sort of you felt were already there? How did they sort of manifest in you as you got older? How old are you? 3131? Yeah, so I'm just curious to know, like, has anything changed? Or what's what's been the trajectory of that of those gifts for you, those inner gifts?

AJ Smith:

That's interesting to think about? Well, I think a lot of us are creative when we're young. I think we're constantly you know, like, what, I was just seeing my fiance's nephew. And he was saying that he was going to build me a red house, and I would be wearing blue. And he would call it the purple house. Which is I once built a Lego house for my mom out of red and blue Legos. And she goes, Oh, what's this? And I said, it's my purple house. So it was kind of really wild to me, hearing him parrot that back and, and I'm thinking gosh, that's that's the kind of creativity that you know, sometimes I think that a lot of us are born with but then life will often make us shut off potential choices. Because specialization can breed success or whatever that is, and and so then when you tune out, so much noise and so many opportunities, then eventually, you're left only following a limited number of beliefs and limited no Both paths. And so I think that it's something that maybe we're all born with, but that then you have to choose to, to caretake to, you know, to tend to. And I think that's the same with empathy. I think, you know, babies, they, they laugh when you laugh, they cry when you cry. I think that we're very empathetic creatures, but you know, out of fear, we learn to turn that off, because we don't, we can't go through our day feeling what everybody else around us feels all the time, we have to be able to make difficult decisions, sometimes we have to be able to make exciting decisions, despite fears. And you know, and so we learned to turn that off, too. But I think that we can shut it off. And then I think this is sort of what happened to me, then I ended up you know, and by the time I was in high school, I was maybe less empathetic, because maybe that's a biology thing. And then, when I moved to New York, I became more empathetic, I think, just based off of the the company that I was keeping, I found all of these great friends and, and I grew into an adult, during those formative years, really caring so much about all of these different experiences other than my own. And maybe because in my high school, most of us were hate, we were all nerdy tech kids, who were kind of going after the same things, trying to get good grades, trying to do all of this. And so then you know, you're the things that you care about are narrowed. And then in New York, this big melting pot of lived experiences and people and everything, you know, the things that you care about can widen. And then I guess when it comes to, you know, the ability to learn quickly, or pick up on things that I'm passionate about quickly, I guess that kind of just the that ties back into having those inner voices that tell you that you can't do something or the inner voices that tell you that you can. And I think I've always had a an inner voice that tells me that, and maybe it comes from my mom, or you know, my dad saying, Oh, you can be anything you want to be or you know, whatever. But, you know, I, I really believe that I could, if I devoted the time if I devoted myself, that I could learn how to do anything if I were passionate enough about it. I believe that any of us can. And I think because of that core belief, I've been able to learn how to code infrared sensors for the for the Navy and build apps and also compose music and learn 10 Different instruments. And

Lisa Hopkins:

yeah, no, for sure. It's interesting. You mentioned your time in New York, that would have been the time I'm guessing where you had a pretty big decision to make about whether you were going to follow that engineering scholarship or pursue music, right. So what came up for you that how did what played into that that decision?

AJ Smith:

I was sitting on stage, I believe at either the Kennedy Center or one of the other music halls in the DC area. And we were playing the orchestral suites to West Side Story, which is really funny because my fiancee Briana is in the West Side Story movie. And we get to the end of the piece, and it's just so beautiful. And I almost started crying. I actually think I did just start crying on stage because I had been putting so much pressure on myself to make the right decision. And then the right decision revealed itself to me. I couldn't give up the ability to write to learn how to write and evoke that kind of emotional response from others that I had, for whatever reason, the proclivity to tap into the musical ether of the universe. And to not do that would be I would regret it a lot. And so the decision was kind of made for me.

Lisa Hopkins:

Yeah. Well, that's beautiful. I can picture it's visceral, right?

AJ Smith:

Yeah. Huh.

Lisa Hopkins:

Wow. And how about sooner did you were you living in New York at that time? Or where were you? Where were you?

AJ Smith:

I was I was at home I was where my parents lived in the DC area I went to my high school was called Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. So you know, is a science and tech school, but then the drama program and music and orchestra and I'm probably one of the very few alumni from my high school that didn't just go off and work at like Google or something. And I, you know,

Lisa Hopkins:

where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

AJ Smith:

Hopefully, you know, I'm gonna stop saying, hopefully I'm just gonna say where I see myself perfect, walking off stage, performing to a great community of people who are all singing my songs and have felt connected to each other and to the universe into me through my music, into the arms of my then wife, and driving across the country together, seeing the entire world together and connecting with communities all over the world. But then coming home, to a place that we've built for ourselves, that feel safe and makes us feel happy.

Lisa Hopkins:

Yeah. That's beautiful. Thank you for sharing that with me. How do you how do you want to be remembered?

AJ Smith:

That's the deep questions here on this podcast. Finally I guess I would like to be remembered fondly. But also, I believe is somebody who, who made an impact greater than themselves. Yet I say this as not somebody who's out there. Like I just did an interview with Food For Life global, who feeds us, you know, people who need it a million meals a day, you know, I'm not out here doing that for the world. But hopefully, my music can end up I'm using the gifts that I have to, to maybe touch that many people's lives. Or maybe it's just one singular person that finds hope in my music, and they go off and do something fantastic with their life to make something better for the next generation. I just I want to inspire people I want I want them to feel inspired to chase their dreams. Because, you know, I think there's so many reasons that we tell ourselves and so many reasons that we find, in order to not go after what we really want to do. And if I can be a reason for somebody to go and do what they really do want to do. I think that's that's how I would want to be remembered.

Lisa Hopkins:

Yeah. Absolutely. Hey, can you finish this phrase? Most people think AJ Smith is but the truth is.

AJ Smith:

Tall. Yeah, I don't know people always I know, that's a bit of a joke of an answer. But for whatever reason, whenever I meet people, for the first time in person, they always go, Oh, I thought you were taller. I'm like, Wow. You know, either that, or I feel like a lot of people look to me, at least even sometimes in friend groups, you know, that I've that I've got it all together. And that I'm maybe because of that perfectionism that I have, I only let the world see the perfect version of myself sometimes. But I'm not. I'm a human just like everybody else. I make mistakes i i Take steps off off my path in this noisy path of road or whatever world of the music industry and, and life and all I can do is just try to, to find my footing and get back on the road to where I'm supposed to go just like anybody else. So hopefully nobody else is holding themselves back because they look at me and think, Oh, well, he's got it all together. And I don't because yeah, I do not. I'm no better than than anybody else.

Lisa Hopkins:

Oh my gosh, that's awesome. Love it. All right. So we're gonna play what makes you Okay, so I'm going to say what makes you I'll say a word and then you just say what comes to mind?

AJ Smith:

Sounds good. Sounds great.

Lisa Hopkins:

Okay, what makes you hungry? Chipotle. What makes you sad? heartbreak. What inspires you?

AJ Smith:

Love

Lisa Hopkins:

what frustrates you?

AJ Smith:

Myself.

Lisa Hopkins:

What makes you laugh?

AJ Smith:

My dog

Lisa Hopkins:

what makes you angry?

AJ Smith:

Failure?

Lisa Hopkins:

And finally, what makes you grateful?

AJ Smith:

Brianna was the first person that came to mind. I was trying to think of something less specific in my own life though. Opportunity.

Lisa Hopkins:

Beautiful. What are the top three things that have happened so far today?

AJ Smith:

Well, being on this podcast, of course, is number one. Number two, dancing in the kitchen before this podcast with Brianna, after she got home, just just just the little things in the day, just go to give her a hug and just kind of slow waltz for for a minute. And then I got the official social media assets for my performance on the Kelly Clarkson show. Which is, I'm not sure when this is going to air but it's April 5, is when I perform on the Kelly Clarkson show.

Lisa Hopkins:

Oh cool. That'd be fun. Do you know what you're doing? How does the perfectionist come into your brain right now with that? Are you getting all ready? Or what's?

AJ Smith:

Well... So behind the scenes scoop, I've already done it. pre recorded the video already. So

Lisa Hopkins:

perfect. Perfect.

AJ Smith:

Yeah.

Lisa Hopkins:

Oh,my gosh, that's so funny. What came up for you preparing for that anything? I mean, I know you do a lot of stuff. So was it not a big deal for you?

AJ Smith:

Um, well, you know, I think when we recorded the video, we didn't know whether or not they were going to actually air it or pick it. Because, you know, I think most of these slots are used by major label artists. And I'm an independent, and we were preparing a video for them. In case they had somebody drop out, or just if they liked the performance enough that they would flex it in an arid. So in one way, that was super, it made me feel like I was auditioning, and I had to be perfect. But then in another, I also felt as though Hey, you know what, whatever is going to happen happens. I've helped Briana with enough self tapes, to realize that sometimes it's it's not about how good of a job you do. It's about what, how they how somebody else sees that role being filled. And maybe I fit that, and maybe I don't, and maybe that's okay. And so, in one ways, I was putting a lot of pressure on myself, but then another. I was taking it off. And so I kind of just I just did the best that I could do on that day. Yeah. Well, here it is. It's happening. It's yeah, there you go.

Lisa Hopkins:

Yeah. So remind you, I encourage you to remember that that that attitude, that mindset seems to work well for you there. What are you most looking forward to? Today or at work? Or in life? Whatever comes to mind.

AJ Smith:

Getting married. And my album, I think are the the two things. Yeah,

Lisa Hopkins:

Fair enough. AJ, it's been such a joy speaking with you today. Thank you so much for joining me.

AJ Smith:

Thank you so much, Lisa. It's been awesome.

Lisa Hopkins:

I have been speaking today with AJ Smith. Stay safe and healthy everyone and remember to live in the moment. In music, stop time is that beautiful moment where the band is suspended and rhythmic unison, supporting the soloist to express their individuality. In the moment, I encourage you to take that time and create your own rhythm. Until next time, I'm Lisa Hopkins. Thanks for listening