With two Grammy nominations, including one for the prestigious Best New Artist category alongside the likes of rock band Maneskin, Anitta, Omar Apollo and more, vocalist Samara Joy is enjoying a moment in the spotlight as the face of jazz music to start 2023.
This Monday night (January 16), Joy will headline a Verve Records showcase (with Brandee Younger and Julius Rodriguez) at (le) poisson rouge as part of NYC Winter Jazzfest. And two weeks later she will be on music’s biggest stage representing jazz in front of the world.
When you are 23 and the face of an iconic genre there are lots of unique opportunities and adventures. So it is perhaps unsurprising that when Sage Bava and I jump on a Zoom call earlier this week with Joy, the singer is at sea, on a jazz cruise.
That is where we start our wide-ranging conversation that covers everything from books and Joy’s SUNY Purchase days to her favorite vocalists and her future plans, including music videos and touring with her musical family.
Steve Baltin: Are you a big boating fan?
Samara Joy: This is my first cruise. So I definitely had to stack up on patches for behind my ears and stuff like that. Nausea patches. But it’s big enough that you don’t really feel it rocking too badly. So I guess I could see myself becoming a boat person after this.
Baltin: I just had this conversation with Damien Marley about his reggae cruise. So you’re putting together your own dream jazz cruise. Who are the people living or dead, who are on your jazz cruise?
Joy: I definitely would want Max Roach, a drummer. I would want the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Count Basie Orchestra and Carmen McRae. Just like that. Oh. That would be such a great time. In my dreams, I would love to be a part of something like that.
Baltin: The Grammys are known for their iconic duets. So who would you want to do your Grammy duet with?
Joy: I would love to sing with either Patti LaBelle or Luther Vandross, share the stage with one of the great singers. And I guess that counts for living and somebody who’s passed on, Luther Vandross. I’m a big fan of both of them.
Sage Bava: I can’t believe that you said you only started singing jazz when you were 18. I saw that in an NPR interview. And I know that you were probably singing since you were born with all of these different genres. What was that like to find jazz at 18?
Joy: Towards the end of high school, I was a part of a jazz band. It was an elective more than it was a part of the curriculum and everything. The teacher over the band program asked me if I wanted to sing a couple of songs for the jazz band. So I agreed. I was like, « I don’t really know anything about this, but I love to sing. » Like you said, I’ve been surrounded by singers and musicians all my life through my family and through their influences. But it was time to go to college, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I wasn’t sure if music would have been a stable choice for me to pursue. And I love gospel, I love R&B, I love soul, maybe I could see myself in those genres. But still I hadn’t found something that I felt like I could do, where I could tell my story in a unique way. We all have our own voices, and so I can’t copy anybody or imitate anybody as much as I would like. So I auditioned. I was in this program, and we were required to apply at the end of our high school career for six state schools. SUNY Purchase was one of the schools that I chose, and I auditioned, I saw they had a wonderful jazz voice program, I knew two jazz songs and I used that one to audition and get in. And the head of the Conservatory at the time, his name is Pete Malinverni, he was really kind to me during the audition and the whole process. He emailed me later on saying, « Thank you so much for your audition, we would love for you to be a part of this program. » And I was like, « I don’t know. The next four years determine the rest of my life, and I have to make the right choice, or else everything’s doomed from here. » At least that’s the way that it felt. It turned out to be the best decision for me. So that’s how it happened.
Bava: And what was your favorite part of that? I’m sure there were many great memories, but what was one of your favorites in your relationship to this music and finding your own voice in it?
Joy: Being at Purchase, I just happened, I guess, to be in the right class. I met so many friends that I’m still friends with now who are just so passionate about music. They were really open to the questions that I had because I was so new and green. I already felt behind, and it was my freshman year. But I think my favorite experience was just being around my friends, we were all staying up late, arranging together, doing assignments and stuff like that. My teachers were, of course, very helpful and very supportive and they were generous with their time as they’re working professionals as well. But yeah, every experience that I can think of, it’s made even more special and memorable because of the friends that I had who helped me, when I felt kind of like I wasn’t up to par with everybody else.
Baltin: The end of the day, it’s all about who the experience is with. And I love the fact that you figured that out. Was there that one moment where you had that epiphany?
Joy: Well, I think our first assignment, as freshmen we had to pair up and we had to choose three songs from different records to listen to and talk about what makes it special, talk about the arrangement, talk about the musicians who are playing. So I remember, all of us, we were just new to meeting each other, but within the first week, we were all hanging out and talking about music and taking notes from each other, being like, « Oh, I didn’t notice that. I didn’t hear that. But now that you say that, now that you mentioned that, you’ve opened up my ears to listening to music in a way that I hadn’t even thought of before. » So I guess my first memorable experience is freshman year, our first assignment as a class.
Baltin: Was there that one song early on for you where you realized that it had relevance and that you could make it speak to you in 2021, 2020?
Joy: That’s a good question. One of the songs from that assignment that we ended up choosing was Nancy Wilson, singing « Save Your Love For Me, » with Cannonball Adderley. And I remember listening to her and of course it’s a beautiful song on its own. But when you hear the original recording versus hers, which are years apart, you’re like, « Yeah, it really depends on who the interpreter is. It brings the song off paper and brings it to life. » And so that’s why it’s fun with jazz. Of course we sing the melody, but then the second or third chorus of us singing it, we experiment with it and we add changes or we change the phrasing up. So it’s not exactly as written. Because if we sing it exactly as written, there’s nothing more being done about it to make it contemporary at all. So you take the good foundation of a song, but then you put it in the hands of a Nancy Wilson or Sarah Vaughan and it comes to life. It’s the same song, but they bring it to life in different ways and add their own emotional fuel to connect with the audience and make it real.
Bava: That’s one of my favorite things about you is the clarity of emotion and thought. It’s so easy to want to take these songs and make them your own and do all these crazy things. Was it always your conviction to stay really true to the lyric and the melody?
Joy: When I took my first jazz voice lesson at Purchase, my teacher, her name’s Alexis Cole, she’s like, « I love your voice. You have a beautiful resonance, but stylistically, it needs some work. Because a lot of singers, it doesn’t sound like you listen to jazz. And I don’t mean in a corny sense. It just literally sounds like you’ve never heard what jazz sounds like. And so you’re trying to approach a song from a place that isn’t really informed. » So I felt like I started from an uninformed place. The music that I grew up on, the singers that I was listening to is a good start because, I feel like it was better for me honestly to have those influences on how like a Lalah Hathaway sings and adds emotion to a song, how a Luther Vandross sings, how people like the Isley Brothers sing and have those songs and have those ideas of what interpreting lyrics sound like. And then adding this next level of listening to a Betty Carter versus an Ella Fitzgerald and hearing what they did with their artistry as they progressed, stylistically. So, with me, I started and I was like, « This is how I think it sounds. But honestly I don’t listen to jazz, so I don’t know what it is. » But then I started listening to more musicians who took standards and wrote their own melodies on top of it. Then from that they wrote their own compositions because they had that foundation of playing standards, and they progressed and they kind of carried it forward. That’s how I started, not really knowing what it sounded like and then, eventually straightened up a little bit. And so now, I was like, « I have to have, integrity for the melody I sing, whether it’s Great American Songbook Standard or an Abbey Lincoln song, sing the melody. » And then, as you get comfortable with it, and as you know where you’re starting from as you know the foundation of the song, then you can think of ways to change it in a way that’s musical and original to you.
Bava: I’d love to know more about the process of making that first album, like when you decided that you were gonna choose these songs, and when you decided Matt Pierson was gonna be the person to help see this through. I think you were still at Purchase during that time?
Joy: Yes, I was a senior still at SUNY Purchase, and I met Matt when I was doing the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition. He introduced himself after the competition. He was like, « We should get together, we should work together. » And then pandemic. So for the last couple of months of my junior year, there was no movement on that front. Like, I was supposed to play at Newport, it had been cancelled as well as a lot of other things. And so I was just focused on finishing my senior year. I definitely had no intentions of making an album until he approached me about it again in my senior year. And I didn’t know what to make of it, but I was like, « Okay, fine. There’s no way to lose now. » It ended up being definitely a good first start to establishing my name and getting people to know me or come to shows and stuff like that. And certainly, I wasn’t thinking that it was gonna be a big hit. I was just like, « Let’s record something good that documents where I am right now. » So I picked songs that I loved at that time and I wanted to document, it’s like I had already been adding them to my shows and so I wanted to play them on the record. That’s all. It’s very simple at that point.
Baltin: What does being nominated for Best New Artist mean for you, for jazz as a genre? As someone who loves the music, how cool is it to be able to be an ambassador for it?
Joy: It’s definitely a surreal feeling and I’m definitely honored to be the ambassador chosen at this particular moment to represent the music that I love so much. The diversity in the Best New Artist genre this year just goes to show that when more artists are involved in the voting process and everything like that, then that’s what you get. You get the variety that is actually represented in the world. So it’s really special to me.
Baltin: Give us one sentence on New York City Winter Jazzfest, because we will both be at the show on Monday.
Joy: It’ll be a showcase of Great American Songbook standards as well as jazz compositions. There will be a possible collaboration with Julius Rodriguez.
Bava: I would love to know what’s the next dream project for you. What’s the next thing that you’re most excited about? Is it a lot more writing of your own music? Is it in collaborating with some greats that are already out there? What’s next for Samara that she’s super excited about?
Joy: I’m looking forward to writing my own music in lyrics and exploring that on the next project, as well as collaborating with my family. I did a holiday tour with them at the end of December for Christmas. I think I was the youngest grandchild on the tour to my grandfather, who’s 92 years old. He sang with us on one of the nights. I think it’s very important that I share with everybody that, where I come from, where my roots and music stem from, everybody in my family sings. My dad sings and plays electric bass. They’re all musicians. They’re all creatives, and to highlight them as my inspirations in front of everybody, to put that on display, it’s really important to me in the show. And the tours went so well. Every show was sold out. Everybody really enjoyed it. So I’m hoping to do that more often in the future, and hopefully, it will materialize into a holiday album.
Baltin: What have you been reading of late that really has inspired you, and more importantly, what are you reading that’s inspiring you lyrically?
Joy: The most recent book that I’ve gotten is called, The Defining Decade, about being in your 20s. I’ve been feeling, especially with the pandemic, that I missed the chance to tell people that I’m 21 and 22. It’s just like, all of a sudden, I’m almost 24 now. So I’m like, « Okay, things are moving pretty fast. » But also there’s no rush to finish everything that I’ve ever wanted to accomplish before I’m 30. You have time, and these are important years. But at the same time, don’t pressure yourself too much or put so many expectations on yourself that you end up not being happy. And I just finished reading this book called Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. It’s probably one of my favorites from the past couple of months. With her work, I admire writers so much because there are certain things that I want to say in my lyrics. When I read poems or I read writers like Yaa Gyasi or like Isabel Wilkerson, the way that they use metaphors to bring across this message, I’m just like, « I want so badly to be a good writer and to be a good lyricist, and to be able to convey lyrics that send a message without necessarily putting it in everybody’s face. » So I guess these are my favorites; The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson; Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, and The Defining Decade, I think her name is Meg Jay.
Bava: I’d love to know what artists right now, in the contemporary space, that you love, whether they be singer/songwriters or in jazz.
Joy: Well, I definitely have a lot of love for Cécile McLorin Salvant and Jazzmeia Horn, who I both have the pleasure of knowing personally or at least getting to know personally. But I admire both of their approaches to jazz and approaches to expressing themselves through their own music, through standards, but also through their original compositions and their arrangements. They’re the whole package as far as artists go. I admire their artistry, their musicianship, their performance style, the way that they are, the way that they present themselves, everything.
Bava: I absolutely love the « Guess Who I Saw Today » music video. It’s so classic, but there’s this like slight modern edge, visually. Is this something that you are going to explore, bringing even in the music, more modern elements or right now, you want to stay as true as you can be to what old jazz is?
Joy: I think jazz as a music is naturally progressive. It’s artists all grew. Dizzy Gillespie, at least, experienced a couple of different eras of music and through all of them he grew and expanded as a musician. So expanded. I don’t want to stay away from standards, but what I noticed about jazz is all the people that I look up to had a solid foundation in what jazz was to them at that time. And then they grew and they found their own artistic voice. They had their own repertoire and stayed true to jazz in their own way.So I think that the nature of jazz is like, « I’m not gonna be singing songbook standards forever. » That’s not what it’s meant for. If you’re not expanding your repertoire and not searching for different ways to grow as an artist, then you’re not moving, you’re just kind of staying stagnant, which is not what jazz is. It’s natural to grow. It’s just natural that my perspective as a 23-year-old now is going to reflect modern elements and reflect my surroundings and the music that I love and listen to. So yeah, that’s the plan. More visuals, more good music to come.