Originally from the Bronx, Samara Joy first came into the public eye after winning the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition in 2019. A couple of years and a pandemic later, Joy is making her Jazz Gallery debut on Thursday, July 15th, following the recent release of her self-titled debut album. One the record, Joy presents her contemporary take on a set of jazz standards, backed by guitarist Pasquale Grasso, bassist Ari Roland, and drummer Kenny Washington.
Before her Gallery show this week, we at Jazz Speaks sat down with Joy to talk about this new release, dealing with the pressures of early success, and some of her favorite singers.
The Jazz Gallery: Could you tell us a little bit about what to expect from your first album?
Samara Joy: My debut album is really exciting—all the songs I have a personal connection to. I wanted this repertoire to be songs that I could personally relate to, or at least add my own perspective to. A lot of standards talk about love and loss. So me being 21, and having only sung this music for the past three or four years, I wanted to pick songs that I personally relate to, as well as songs that I can add my own perspective to, and authentically convey. So you can expect a very stripped back acoustic sound of songs that I really love to sing.
TJG: Could you give an example of a particular song on your album that you have a personal connection to?
SJ: The first one that comes to mind is “It Only Happens Once.” This was a song that I came across towards the start of the pandemic, by Nat King Cole. The message really struck me because, I had a friend, or a friendship, I should say, that I lost. So, the lyrics, for the first time, struck me not in a romantic sort of way. It spoke to me personally, like: “It only happens once. I’ll never feel that thrill again.” Basically it is saying, this person that you come across is so unique and so special, and you know that you’ll never meet anybody else like that.
So that’s one that definitely comes to mind, as well as, “Stardust.” “Stardust” is one that definitely personally struck me. When I was studying in college, I came across the song, also sung by Nat King Cole, as well as Louis Armstrong. It was just the lyrics. Obviously, it’s been recorded so many times, but the melody and the way that it’s interpreted differently by each artist—that is really beautiful to me.
TJG: How do you go about arranging these songs and making them feel like your own?
SJ: Usually, if I’m not asking for help, I can hear the arrangements in my head or sing it in my head, if that makes sense. Or I’ll sing it out loud. Ideas will come as far as how I want to end it or how I would want to start it. I’ll listen back to versions and see how I can take one idea for an intro and ending and make it my own. But usually, I just sing them out loud, and come up with it that way.
TJG: You won the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition in 2019 and were also named an Ella Fitzgerald scholar in college. What does it mean to you to have these jazz giants associated with you and your art?
SJ: Honestly, it’s incredible. And it’s so surreal—to have started so early, and to have started with, with these same giants. So, freshman year coming in not knowing anything about jazz, and turning to Ella and turning to Sarah for perspective on certain songs and still doing so. So, to have these honors attached to my name, it’s incredible. And I’m extremely grateful for it. I don’t take it lightly. I can’t say I’ll live up to that standard. I’m just really grateful.
TJG: You come from a musical family, with your father being involved in the gospel scene. Did you ever consider going into the gospel world yourself?
SJ: Well, I sang in church with him, but I never thought about becoming a “gospel singer.” But I am Christian so I like to sing Christian music and gospel music and stuff, but I never thought about becoming a gospel artist.
TJG: Do you feel that gospel background and family background has had a lasting effect on the art you make now?
SJ: Oh, definitely. I definitely don’t think I would be able to sing if not for my family, and if not for listening to their heroes, listening to their music, listen to them singing, and trying to imitate them. Yeah, I definitely don’t think I’d have a voice without my family.
TJG : How did the pandemic influence the development of your album and how do you feel it influences you as an artist, having gone through it?
SJ: Well, it was really tough at first. I can definitely say I appreciate the people—the listeners—more after doing live stream shows and stuff like that. I had my first show at this club in New York called Bistro two Tuesdays ago, and I mean, it was packed for both sets. It was overwhelming and amazing. So I would say this, one thing that I am not going to take for granted, is a live audience and people who appreciate listening to the music, and how that helps me grow — interacting with people. The music doesn’t have the same effect, singing to the camera, as it does when you’re singing to people and exchanging energy and everything.
So while the pandemic was hard, I definitely wouldn’t have made an album if not for the pandemic, and if not for the quote, unquote “idle time.” It was actually the producer’s idea, Mark Pierson, to have something to present when things started opening up again. We recorded it in October of 2020. And now that it is being released, things are vastly different now, compared to where we were when we recorded. I think that’s one way the pandemic affected me is taking advantage of the opportunity to make music, even if the circumstances aren’t exactly ideal.
TJG: You came into success at a pretty early age. Do you feel like you have a different perspective approaching this music as a young artist?
SJ: I’m definitely, definitely grateful for the opportunities that I’ve had so far. I think being young in this music it’s easy to get carried away with the attention, and with early eyes on you, thinking, “Oh, that’s one to watch.” There’s a lot of different sort of pressures, to try to stray away from the traditional music. Being young is different, and I think that it’s important when you are a young artist to look to the people who have been doing this for a long time, as well as balancing it with what you love and what your ears are attracted to, and how that can add to your own sound.
I’m thinking of young artists, and they’re like, “Okay, I gotta find my own sound.” When really you are not like anybody else. Nobody else is like you. So you already have a sound, but it’s just a combination of honoring the tradition, with listening to music and listening to your favorite artists, as well as asking people who have had long, long-standing successful careers playing this music and have developed into great musicians. I’m at the beginning, so I’m very new and very green. So, I’m trying to ask as many questions as possible and learn as much as possible, while adding that to my own vision of what I’ve what I see myself doing. I don’t know what my next step is like right now it is really focused on experience playing and asking others their experience as far as being an artist, or a musician.
Samara Joy and the Pasquale Grasso Trio will perform at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, July 15, 2021. The group features Ms. Joy on vocals, Pasquale Grasso on guitar, Ari Roland on bass, and Keith Balla on drums. Sets are at 7:30 pm and 9:30 pm EDT. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved table seating ($20 for members) for each set. In addition, the sets will be livestreamed—$20 per set, $5 for members. Purchase tickets here.