Smooth Jas on Canh Khổ Qua & Songwriting as a Diary, FTG 9/22

The last band of the night was one I’d never encountered before: Smooth Jas. After interviewing a punk duo, I loitered outside the venue with a couple vendor friends. A bassline hooked my ear & I dipped inside to catch the last half of the set. Contrary to a ‘smooth jazz’ 94.7 FM Nathan East earworm, this riff definitely had roots in indie, but with a knack for groove & forward drive that so many modern alternative bands seem to discard from their arrangements.  Drums built to a crash, distortion hit the audience, & a voice ringing pure pulled my attention center stage. I cracked a smile.

Smooth Jas performing ‘Benji’ live at Que Sera. Taken by Anthony Rivera.

I caught up with the band after their set.


Smooth Jas, names?


My name is Jas; Jasmine Navarro. Smooth Jas is my project & this is my live band.

The band introduces themselves; Ben Greer on bass, Francine Contreras on drums, Sean Lee on guitar. Ben writes his own songs as well & Sean leads his own quartet.


How long have you been writing songs?


I started writing songs on ukelele about two years ago in late 2018, early 2019.  I started recording demos on Garage Band & realized I wanted to make them more full-fledged with a band. After that, playing gigs just kind of found me. I didn’t really start trying to play gigs. Some bands were just like, “you’re playing” so I started playing.

Polaroid from Navarro's first show.

Did you start playing solo?


Well, I started out writing songs solo, but I had a couple of friends for my first gig; Stone played guitar & Camille had just started learning bass. & I was like, “you started playing bass a week ago, let’s play a house show.” So it was me, Camille & Stone. It was really bad. (Haha)




My influences, man… I grew up listening to Kanye’s music a lot as a kid, it’s what my mom played. As for more current influences, I’m loving early Mac Demarco, Animal Collective, & diving back, I really love Arthur Russell. He’s really inspirational to me. Surprisingly, Kanye sampled him before, too, which I found out after finding Arthur’s music. That was cool.


I heard a little Cherry Glazerr during your set?


Yeah, I like that you picked up on that!  I wrote a song called Bitter during quarantine; I’d been dating this guy for two years, very bitter, very jaded guy. I wanted to write a song that sounded Cherry Glazerr, so I was like, ‘what would Cherry Glazerr write about?’ Somebody that’s bitter.

I compared him to Canh Khổ Qua, which is bitter melon soup. The first time I tried it was with him; it was bitter in a way I liked. That was different to me. I wrote the song as a joke, but it became a song that I actually really like to play.

Still from a solo set at Alex’s Bar. Taken by Elizabeth Holt.

& when you bring a new song like Bitter to the band, what’s that process like?


When I make a demo, it’s usually myself with a guitar & floor toms, maybe programmed drums. But when I bring it to the band, the song takes on a life of its own. You know what I mean? Everybody adds their own flairs. My song YCTQ used to be totally different, the original was what I would call a pocket song.  Definitely bedroom pop. When I took into the studio with my friend Richie & another bandmate, it turned into something different. That version turned into what we play today. A live band changes a song so much, but in a good way. & the band does change a lot. This is my band right now, but people shuffle in & out. It’s more like a collective.


Why do you & your bandmates play music?


For me, music was a personal thing. It’s sort of like writing in a diary. Whenever I felt emotionally distressed as a kid, I’d go to my room & start playing piano or singing my favorite songs. Since then, it’s kind of stayed like that. I can’t really write in a diary. Makes me feel weird. But writing a song lets things out & helps me move on. It’s really helpful to me.


Just to feel something, really. It’s the first artistic thing that I got into, I loved it & stuck with it. It became me trying to get really good at something.


It helps me escape from reality.  I zone out, I feel like someone else.


Because I love it & can’t help but participate.

Still from the night by Karen Marie. Left to right; Sean Lee, Jasmine Navarro, Ben Greer.
Listen to ‘Benji’ & discover more transgender, non-binary, & gender-fluid artists on Spotify’s Transcend playlist.


By Hector Zaldivar

Professional magician. @hexzald