ATLANTA -- Jan Smith is known in the industry as "Mama Jan," the frank-yet-empathetic vocal coach who has become a star because of her high-wattage clientele: Usher, Rob Thomas, Justin Bieber, Drake, The Band Perry and Young Jeezy are a handful of her multi-platinum charges.
She had a prominent role in Mr. Bieber's 2011 concert documentary "Never Say Never," spending 86 dates on tour with the teen idol and frequently dispensing blunt advice about his vocal care. Usher publicly gushes about her -- he claims to have nicknamed her "Mama Jan," but Ms. Smith says it was Atlanta singer-songwriter Jeffrey Butts "and Usher drove it home." Now Ms. Smith, 56, a singer-songwriter-musician since her teens, is adding another job to her resume: production and artist development.
"It was just a natural progression," she said in her Southern lilt while seated in a purple-hued recording room at Jan Smith Studios, a 4,500-square-foot suite tucked inside a nondescript building here.
Fans of those familiar faces view her as a conduit to their music idols -- hence her more than 300,000 Twitter followers -- but the singers who have developed under her tutelage regard her as an invaluable friend and instructor, even after they've reached mega-stardom.
Since 2010, the country sibling trio The Band Perry -- Kimberly, Reid and Neil Perry -- has been ubiquitous on the charts with No. 1 hits "If I Die Young," "All Your Life," "Better Dig Two" and "Done." Ms. Smith served as Kimberly's first manager with the Perry parents when the fledgling singer was in her late teens (artist management, however, is not in Smith's future -- "I don't want the phone calls at 3 a.m. that the bus broke down," she said) and remains tight with the band.
"The first time I came into (Jan's) studio she had me sing 'Happy Birthday,' " Kimberly recalled. "She told me I was the most vanilla-white singer she had ever heard, but she knew there was a soul singer in there." Kimberly's younger brothers remember sitting in on their sister's sessions with Ms. Smith and "hearing these animal sounds coming out of the studio," Reid said.
"She has a wonderful way of making you understand the physical side of singing," Kimberly said. "It's very important to her that artists maintain a spiritual balance."
Usher was in his late teens when he came to Ms. Smith. She worked with him in the early days of his "My Way" and "8701" albums and then she "really kicked his butt" for three months before he recorded "Confessions," the 2004 follow-up that sold 10 million-plus copies and launched him into the stratosphere.
"That made a tremendous difference to everybody else's ear in the progression of him as a superstar singer, and I'm proud because that's my work with him," Ms. Smith said.
Of the hundreds of acts Ms. Smith has coached, she pinpoints Usher as "the single most gifted singer I've ever worked with in 26 years."
"He's a remarkable vocal specimen and he understands it now," she said.
Another famous Smith product is Grammy-winner Rob Thomas, lead singer of Matchbox Twenty. They met 18 years ago -- Ms. Smith praises him as the "first major artist to put me on the map" -- before he began work on the band's debut album, 1996's "Yourself or Someone Like You," which sold 12 million copies.
"Rob didn't come into the game thinking he was a great singer because he was a songwriter," Ms. Smith said. "But he's become a great artist because he was willing to study his own art form and his own vocals to make himself a better live performer." To this day, Mr. Thomas uses a warm-up tape from Ms. Smith before every live performance.
"She's a blues singer herself, so I think she has an affinity for rock 'n' roll voices," Mr. Thomas said. "She understands the life of being on the road. She's had her own pitfalls, and she never looks down on anyone in judgment."
The "pitfalls" that Mr. Thomas refers to include Ms. Smith's decade-long affair with her married keyboard player. She reflects on that, as well as her Christian faith, in a collection of essays she published in 2009 called "Run the Other Way."
"I've made a lot of mistakes," she said. "While I'm not sorry for that, I learned a lot from it and it taught me a lot about my own shortcomings. In 2000, God redeemed my life."
She also struggled with drug addiction that landed her in rehab in the early '70s.
"I've been hung over a toilet. I get it. I've done more illegal drugs than most of my clients who come in here," she said. "That's not my life anymore, but I think for that reason (artists) trust me and I can speak from a place of truth and non-judgment."