On her new full-length release, Interior Person, Samantha Sidley animates sterling songs with her lustrous voice, transforming them into a sparkling litany of self-possession, revelation and winning personality. Songwriters Inara George, Alex Lilly and Barbara Gruska tailor-made the songs that comprise this singular repertoire.
Prior to the ascent of singer-songwriters in the '60s, vocalists rarely penned their own songs. In the jazz tradition— Peggy Lee notwithstanding—this was particularly in evidence. But stylists Anita O’Day, Sarah Vaughn and countless others built their identities on these repertoires. “I feel like it got lost up until now,” says vocalist Samantha Sidley whose hip, breezy approach shares common historic roots with her predecessors. “But there are so many archetypal singers who weren’t songwriters. Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, Ella Fitzgerald, they were all interpreters of songs.”
For many of her album's collaborations, Sidley was close by. “For the songs on Interior Person, Alex, my wife Barbara and I rented an Airbnb in the desert. We went there for a few days and made dinner for each other and they wrote songs. They interviewed me, so I was present.” Although the Inara George songs were sent to her, George relied on deep knowledge of the artist. “It was what she knew of me and conversations that we had,” Sidley confirms.
Across the songs of Interior Person, Sidley and producer Barbara Gruska interject martini-mixed cool assisted by musical director and multi-instrumentalist Dan Reckard and trombonist Vikram Devashali. Weird electronica and stratospheric pedal steel recall Martin Denny’s exotica touches. An unexpected cover is “Busy Doing Nothing,” a deep Brian Wilson-penned Beach Boys cut.
Sidley is a queer artist whose perspective is presented matter-of-factly in the upbeat lead single “I Like Girls.” On tour this summer opening for The Bird and The Bee, Sidley witnessed reality outside of Los Angeles. “I feel like every time I venture out of my bubble. ‘What is this? The world?’ I go with the flow and not overthink things. When you perform you open yourself up to a world of possible rejection. Traveling puts a fire under my ass. I keep going and give love.”
Barbara Gruska, Sidley’s spouse, is one half of The Belle Brigade with her brother Ethan. A drummer whose rhythms drive the new tracks as well as the producer, she is the scion of a noted Los Angeles music family that includes her father, Supernatural composer Jay Gruska, and her grandfather, legendary film composer John Williams. Sidley is also a native Angeleno who attended Ivanhoe Elementary School in the historically progressive Silver Lake neighborhood. “I always thought my parents were freaks when I was growing up, they were very artsy, but now that I’m a grown up I think they were pretty cool,” she recalls.
To record Interior Person, Gruska constructed a recording studio in Sidley’s childhood bedroom, a house built in the late '30s, designed by progressive architect Gregory Ain. “That house has been through so much—it’s part of our story now and I love that,” says Sidley. “My sister and I shared a room and when I went to college I also shared. I’m 34 and I’ve never had my own room.” She still doesn’t. She and Gruska recently moved out of their apartment and back to the childhood enclave-turned-studio. “There’s a bed in there again,” laughs Sidley.
In between touring with her own project, Sidley has a very cool gig touring as a backup singer with Dave Grohl and Foo Fighters. “I love seeing how Dave brings it every night in a three hour show,” says Sidley. “Even on a high-end tour, you get tired; there is no time to decompress. But you wouldn’t know it from the way that Dave performs.”
While Samantha Sidley is working in a historic genre, she is not a retro artist. “I want to relate to now. I want people who say, ‘I hate jazz,’ to listen and say ‘I like jazz because I can understand this.’ You have to tell your story. The easiest way to do it is to find a focal point. Your job is to give the message and move forward with it. That opens up such a world.”
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