Q&A, Samantha Sidley: Jazz for Girls Who Like Girls

The unapologetically lesbian perspective of jazz vocalist Samantha Sidley’s Interior Person (out via Release Me Records on September 13) feels like a breath of fresh air. But it is also its meticulously crafted sound, which blends vintage jazz with more modern pop elements, that makes it such an outstanding debut. The songs she interprets on the album were written for her by some of the most important women in her life – aside from her take on a little-known Brian Wilson tune. Many of them were penned by her wife, Barbara Gruska, who also produced the record.

With Interior Person‘s release fast approaching, we caught up with Sidley to find out a little more about her influences, her views on lesbian representation in music and some of the behind-the-scenes work that went into the making of the album. Below is an excerpt of our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

JAZZIZ: When did you discover your serious interest in music?

SAMANTHA SIDLEY: I really can’t remember a time when I didn’t love music. I always was singing. When I was a baby, before I could talk, my parents gave me a little Sony Walkman and called it Japanese Valium because if I was crying, they’d just put the little headphones on and I would just stop crying. My parents were not musicians but my best friend’s dad was. He noticed I could really sing in tune and told my parents I was musical. That just lit up my parents.

What kind of music did you grow up listening to?

My dad didn’t want me to listen to the radio and he only had me listening to Billie Holiday. I grew up with that sensibility and I liked it. I felt very connected to that music. I loved the lyrics. Some of her songs are so emotional and when you’re a child, you’re really emotional. They made sense to me and I connected with them.

Why Billie Holiday?

Because my dad just has this personality and he thought she was just the best singer. So, Billie Holiday taught me almost everything I know just by listening to her. But I say that I have a singer’s fetish because I just love voices. It’s the first thing I notice about somebody. So, I later fell in love with Anita O’Day, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland…The singers of that era. I just love that sound. It’s so rich and beautiful and free because you can really say what you’re singing. That’s a freedom I can relate to.

You definitely hear the influence of that era on Interior Person, but mixed in with more modern elements.

Yes, I definitely didn’t want it to come across as a complete throwback because I was just trying to be authentic and my voice sits where it sits. So, it’s a mixture of now and then, and that’s just how I wanted it to be.

You say you consider yourself an interpreter. What does that term mean to you?

I think it’s really just taking the song and making it your story. That can come across in arranging or just in your vocal phrasing. I always say singing is the Olympics of talking. If I’m not singing from a place where I’m relating to the song somewhere, it feels very boring to me.

My wife Barbara Gruska and my best friend, Alex Lilly and Inara George write me songs in the jazz style and I’ll do a lot of covers. There’s a Brian Wilson song on the record, “Busy Doing Nothing’” and I love to arrange things. For that track, my pianist that I work with also plays horns and we brought the song to this Brazilian kind of style because originally, I just related to the lyrics. I was like, “I’m ADD too. This is me. This is my story!”

The album opens with a statement; you saying “I like girls.” Have you always been that empowered in your identity as a lesbian woman?

I wasn’t empowered but I was always gay. I grew up in a household where it was totally acceptable but I’m an introvert and I think I didn’t feel accepted in the world. So, I didn’t really come out until I was 22 and it was really easy to pass because I’m very feminine.

Now, I realize you have to be empowered because you have to be proud of yourself and it’s all about self-love. If you’re empowered, that energy will translate across other people. I have fully realized that and also when I started singing my songs from my own love perspective by changing the pronouns, it made my shows so much more interesting and so much more truthful. I was like, “Why was I not doing that before?”

Photo by Logan White.

Did music provide you with comfort during those more challenging times where you struggled to accept yourself?

Yeah, if I get too depressed about something, singing is just this thing that I have and I’m so fortunate to have it. I also think with this record and telling the world I’m gay on it, it feels like it’s one of the first times in my life where I feel really, really empowered. And it feels really, really good. Especially when I get a message on Instagram from somebody who will tell me it made them feel so happy about the world and made them proud to be gay. That’s why I do it.

Do you think that lesbian perspective is lacking in music?

Absolutely. I think about Marlene Dietrich or Dusty Springfield. What if they could have been singing from their gay perspective? What if they could have done that freely? How cool would that have been? I feel lesbians don’t have a crooner, they don’t have that torch singer. So, I do feel I really hope that I can get a fan base of lesbians who want that, who are craving that.

Why do you think there hasn’t been that representation?

Well, there were lesbian jazz singers but they weren’t out. Carmen McRae was gay, Marlene Dietrich was gay. I have this feeling Judy Garland was a little gay. Even Whitney Houston, it’s just come out that she was dating her manager who was a woman and that was part of the reason why Bobby Brown was so violent against her. He couldn’t stand that she was gay.

You’re also more vulnerable as a woman. Traveling can be very scary and there’s so much homophobia in this world. There are very violent people out there. So, I feel like women just have to protect themselves on so many different levels and there wasn’t much of a chance getting a career and making money as an out lesbian singer. Their strategy was much better singing songs from a straight perspective.

So the reason is also attached to this idea of empowered female sexuality.

Yes, shaming their sexuality. It’s really empowering for women when they feel empowered by their sexuality. They’re like, “Look at me, I’m sexy and a beautiful work of art. I can walk up here and I can show you what I am. This is me!” That’s because women are beautiful. I’ve never come across a woman who’s not beautiful in some way.

Is it true you recorded Interior Person in your childhood bedroom?

I did. I recorded it in my childhood bedroom. My wife, Barbara made a full music studio and we recorded in there. We’re actually sleeping there now because we’re moving and we don’t have a place to live anymore, so we put our bed there. And now, she has her studio in there because she’s also a phenomenal drummer and has 20 drum sets in there. It’s really cute. She’s an extraordinary person.

How did you meet her?

I was a fan of hers first. I met her at a time when I wasn’t singing and I was kind of just looking for music to like. I came across her music and immediately fell in love. She used to have a band called The Belle Brigade. She also has an incredible voice and play drums, so I went to go see her sing and play at a show. I snuck backstage and gave her my phone number. She called me that night and we’ve been together for ten years. I definitely found my person, we understand each other on so many levels.

I wouldn’t have known we’d start working together but now that we are, it just feels right. She knows me and my voice so well. She can even predict my phrasing or my ideas now. We’re on the same page and it’s really perfect. And because we love each other, we have each other’s back because performing is not easy.

I would say Interior Person is just as much her record as it is mine because if I told her what I wanted it to sound like, she had to do that research and learn how to record it so it sounded like that. And that took hours and hours of work just on her part, and she’s just as proud of it as I am. And she wrote most of the songs, so, I definitely feel it’s our record.

Do you think some of the topics of female empowerment you portray on the album, like on “Listen,” will attract some criticism?

Some people are going to like it and some people are going to hate it. Some people aren’t going to care. “Listen” feels very empowered to me; that one, I feel very strongly about. But I think it’s more with tracks like “Butterfly My Ass” or “Rose Without Thorns” where it’s very lyric-driven and there’s a lot of nuances, that’s more vulnerable because I really want people to listen. And when you want something, you set yourself up to be disappointed. But most of the time, people do listen and it feels wonderful.

Do you feel that vulnerability is there when you’re performing the songs live?

I have a philosophy in dealing with my own insecurities when it comes to performing. My philosophy is that when you’re on stage, you’re being generous. You’re giving yourself. But it’s none of your business what people want to take from that.

For more information on Samantha Sidley and Interior Person, visit her website.

Featured photo by Logan White.

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