Meet Diviniti: Detroit’s Vocal Diva
Originally published in Detroit Electronic Quarterly May 2018 edition
Terri Smith is so much more than a vocalist. Musically dubbed with the name Divniti, the Detroit diva adds a sonic sparkle to every song that features her voice. Known for her uplifting lyrics and soulful crooning, Diviniti has worked with some of the finest producers in house music. Since her first single in 2004, she has collaborated with Louie Vega, Omar S, Piranhahead, and many others, especially Detroiters. As if her music accolades weren’t impressive enough on their own, Smith also founded and runs a non-profit organization and teaches first grade full-time in the Detroit Public School System. As she prepares to release her debut EP later this year, Detroit Electronic Quarterly caught up with Diviniti to chat about the project, songwriting techniques, dream collaborations and how she’s elevating her life in 2018.
How did you get the name “Diviniti”?
Piranhahead and DJ Minx kind of gave it to me in a roundabout way. I guess it’s because of my disposition.
When did you link up with them? I know they’re some of your biggest collaborators – is that how you started doing vocals on house tracks?
Piranhahead and I met in 2003 – that’s when it started. We were not only collaborators, but we were also in a relationship for many years.
We went to a lot of house parties when we were dating. One night we went to see Minx and I was in awe of her. I remember thinking, “Woah look at this chic! She’s got the room dancing and she’s all glammed out.” Piranhahead introduced us and we became instant friends. I asked Minx, “Have you ever heard Piranha’s music?” She knew him as a DJ and I don’t think she realized he was a producer. So I got them together to collaborate.
Piranhahead and I started working on music shortly after that.
What’s your background with music – have you always known you wanted to sing?
I’m the youngest of six kids and we all grew up singing and playing instruments. Music was important to my parents. They wanted us to have a musical background because music teaches you so much more than just playing an instrument.
I started playing classical violin when I was 3 years old. My mom taught me through the Suzuki method– where the parent learns the instrument and then the parent teaches the child. I played violin through high school and got to perform with Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Detroit Metropolitan Youth Symphony. I was good, but it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. Violin was what my mom and dad wanted me to do. As soon as I felt like I had a choice, I stopped playing.
I went to Mercy High School, which is a Catholic school. It had a growing population of African Americans but there wasn’t really anything there for us music-wise, so I decided to start a gospel choir. I got together with the Minister of Music at Sacred Heart and she volunteered her time to help us start the choir. That’s when I really started singing. Terrence Parker was one of my best friends in high school and I recorded my first demo with him. I always talked about voice lessons, but I never did them consistently.
What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
I listened to everything growing up but now I predominantly listen to classic rock – bands like Steely Dan, Chicago, Led Zeppelin and The Eagles. I listened to a little bit of classical, country, disco and some funk stuff, but I really wasn’t into the 70s funk because I was too busy listening to the Beatles. I still think I had a well-rounded musical upbringing.
You released your first single in 2004. How has your process of songwriting changed in the last 14 years? What is that process like?
I think it has changed because I’ve got experience now. Before I started songwriting, I wrote poetry so in the beginning I approached it from that perspective. I still look at it poetically, so the essence has stayed the same. My themes have remained the same.
And what are your themes?
Positive energy! “Everything will be alright,” and “Keep your head up,” are just a few of the uplifting messages in my songs. Some people describe it as sunshine and rainbows, but that’s just what happens.
When you’re songwriting, do you get sent the instrumental first and then you write lyrics or vice versa?
Yes, I usually write lyrics after a producer sends me a track. I’m inspired by what I’m hearing and I let the structure of the song dictate where I go with it. I think that’s been a challenge for some producers. There’s a difference between a song and a track. A song has structure and it naturally has a place where I will put a verse, chorus, hook etc. A song is designed for an artist to sing. Then there are tracks where it pretty much starts the same way it ends. I’ve done a lot of those but it’s a challenge for me because I must find a way to fit in my lyrics. It’s not as formulaic so it’s a little different.
Do you have any rituals or techniques that you do when you’re songwriting?
Most of my songs are written in the car. Find a Way was written in the car. Piranhahead and I were riding down Woodward Avenue in front of the DIA. I was driving at the time, so I had Piranha write the lyrics down. I like the system in my car, so most of the time I have a song I’m writing for I’m listening to it in the car and it just happens naturally. I’ll pull over and write or dictate into my phone. There are times when I will write on the spot. For example, when I worked with Omar S that was on the spot because he’s not one of those digital guys that will send me the mp3. So I go into his studio and he plays me different tracks and he’ll say, “What do you think about this?” He just keeps playing me things until I say, “Stop I got something for this.” Then I write, then we record and then we’re done. That’s how Games We Play happened.
What was the concept behind Games We Play?
Honestly, I just listened to what the music told me that’s all I can say. I don’t think I approach making a song with the mindset, “I want it to be about this or that.” I kind of let things happen organically and I write what I feel.
Has growing up in Detroit influenced your sound?
I think the musical history of Detroit had a lot to do with me finding my voice but as far as a sound, I don’t think so. People talk about how Detroit has this gritty and grimy sound, but I didn’t grow up gritty and grimy, so I think that sets me apart from other Detroit artists. I have this pure sound going on and I think it contrasts well with the gritty sounds of like Omar S (laughs) and even the stuff I did with Moodymann. I think it meshes well together.
Are there any songwriters that you look up to or grew up looking up to?
I’m a Bob Seger fan. I really like the way he tells stories. I also admire the songwriting of bands like The Eagles, Steely Dan, The Beatles and Motown singers. Just the melodies of the music and the message are so important and influential.
Any dream collaborations? What producers do you really want to collaborate with?
A few years ago I made a “hit list” of producers I wanted to work with and I put it on my vision board.
The list includes: Karizma, AtJazz and Kerri Chandler. Kerri and I have been talking about working together for a long time and I think something will eventually happen with him. AtJazz doesn’t know it yet but it’s going to happen with him, too. Some of the names on it I’ve been able to check off my list, like Louie Vega and Josh Milan.
Tell us about the EP you’re working on with Josh Milan.
It’s called In Due Time because it’s about time that I had a body of work in one place as opposed to singles. I’m very proud of it and it’s very different for me; there’s a ballad on the project.
When we first got started with the project, we were listening to different genres. We listened to a lot of classic rock ballads and studied the structure, the songwriting and the composition. It inspired us to create some different stuff and we ended up making this one song that’s jazzy. There are 2 house songs and the rest are different genres. I can’t wait for it to come out in late summer/early fall.
That’s awesome. Was there a difference writing a house song versus writing a ballad?
I wrote the ballad without music. Josh and I talk about songwriting a lot and I’m always picking his brain because he’s written so many stellar, legendary songs. Josh told me to just start writing and see what happens, so I wrote the song on a Sunday afternoon when I was just chilling around the house. There are only a few tracks that I’ve written without music.
Any other music projects in the works for 2018 and beyond?
Piranhahead and I are always plugging away at something. I have some music with Zepherin Saint in the UK that should be coming out and another group called Stump Valley. I still have some music with Minx that will be coming out and Charles Webster has some music on me.
Switching gears, I saw that you got a Master’s Degree last year at Wayne State University – Congratulations! What did you get your degree in and why was it important for you to go back and get a graduate degree?
I graduated with a Master’s in Elementary Education. My dad wanted me to get my graduate degree. I know he’s proud of me and I am too. I come from a family of educators; I’ve been teaching for 21 years. I’m a full-time 1st grade teacher in Detroit Public Schools.
What other personal accomplishments are you proud of?
I’m proud of my nonprofit organization, The Little Bit Project. The mission is to initiate acts of kindness in the hopes that they will spread and facilitate people that are changing their lives for the better. I started with Little Bit cards, which are portable affirmation cards that say different positive messages like, “You Got This,” “You’re Beautiful,” “You’re Awesome” etc. The organization is doing phenomenal right now.
During Women’s History Month in March we partnered with Detroit Fiber Works and collected donations of feminine hygiene products to give to women in need.
In December we’ll be doing our Christmas drive again. Last year we were able to help 15 kids; it was phenomenal. This year I want to double that number.
So how did you get started with the Little Bit Project?
I spent a lot of time repeating negative things to myself for a long time and I see what that got me, so I decided to try being more positive. I started to focus on things like the power of suggestion, law of attraction and setting an intention. I also read a lot of self-help books and try to be on a spiritual path. Things are really going well for me right now… like really (smiles). I’m finally making some personal changes in my life for me and no one else.
You must work to be positive – it’s not easy. It’s a choice that you make, and you must stick with it.
I made a conscious decision last year to pick a word of the year to live by. Last year my word was passion. It was good, but I don’t know if I brought it to fruition the way I wanted. So, this year I thought long and hard about it and my word is “elevate.” It has shown up in so many ways and I keep it in the front of my mind. I set my intention for everything to be higher this year – my energy, my health and my happiness. I’m not even 6 months into it and I can see the top.
Follow Diviniti on Facebook and Soundcloud. Check out her nonprofit organization at thelittlebitproject.com.