Samara Joy brought back old school jazz. It earned her two Grammys

  • By Mark Savage
  • BBC music correspondent

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Joy’s velvety alto tone is reminiscent of the golden era of jazz singers

When Samara Joy sings, the world stands still. Tension is released, shoulders relax, serenity seems within reach.

The 23-year-old has a timeless and fresh sound that blends old-school jazz crooning with the R&B singers she grew up with.

She’s not a household name yet, but those who know knowledge.

And last month, the Grammys gave her the ultimate seal of approval – the award for Best Jazz Vocal Album and, more importantly, Best New Artist.

Recent winners of the latter award include household names such as Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo. To win, Joy had to beat chart regulars like Latto, Måneskin and Wet Leg.

Speaking in London a month after the ceremony, she recalled the moment Rodrigo opened the envelope and read her name.

“My eyes were closed and I was holding my little brother’s hand; and when she said my name it was like, ‘Oh shoot, oh shoot, oh shoot!’

“All these people stood up for me, Adele, Lizzo, Taylor Swift … so I was completely flushed, completely humiliated.”

But when she came on stage, a startling realization hit her.

“I had left my phone behind,” she laughs, “so my whole speech was just sitting at the table!”

After shyly improvising her thank you, the night improved immeasurably.

“Beyoncé congratulated me after the show, which was ridiculous. Me in the same room as Beyoncé? And that she knows of my existence? It’s just crazy.”

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The singer says she only avoided crying over the Best New Artist title because she “already stopped all my crying” after winning Best Jazz Album earlier in the night

However, by this point, Joy should be used to receiving honors.

Although she only started jazz five years ago, she has already won the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition and was awarded the Ella Fitzgerald Memorial Scholarship.

Her voice is warm and savory, lingering over notes as if sipping wine and seething with emotional intensity.

She credits some of this to her producer/manager Matt Pierson, who told her to “pretend that a microphone is the ear of the person who’s listening.”

But she also possesses an innate ability to take an old standard and make it appear as if the lyrics were ripped from her diary.

It’s an approach that confuses fans unfamiliar with the jazz repertoire.

“People say, ‘I love your song Guess Who I Saw Today?’ And I’m like, ‘I wish it was mine!’ she says of her latest single, originally made famous by Nancy Wilson.

“Others say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that song before and it’s a really great story.’ I find it amazing that people identify with it.”

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Born Samara Joy McLendon, the singer grew up in the Bronx, New York, in a sheltered, church household.

“My parents were very caring. My dad picked us up and took us to school, we went to church together, we didn’t go to the mall, I wasn’t really hanging out or anything.”

As a hardworking kid, she devoured young adult literature (“the less popular, cheaper ones”) and participated in codeathons with her school’s computer science club.

But music was always there. Her paternal grandparents are Elder Goldwire and Ruth McLendon, who formed one of Philadelphia’s most prominent gospel groups, The Savettes; and her father was a bass player who toured with gospel icon Andraé Crouch.

Joy also tried the bass, but it was the vocals that really got her intrigued.

“I used to have an iPod Nano and my dad uploaded music for me. I can remember listening to Lalah Hathaway, Jill Scott, Stevie Wonder… and I loved the Disney Channel songs too. high school musicals It’s me.”

As she listened, she dissected details like phrasing, timbre, and vibrato, exploring what separates one singer from another.

“I would try to copy every little thing and make sure I was really paying attention.”

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The singer was surrounded by music from childhood

When she was 16, she was selected to lead worship at her local church for two years, serving three services a week. The experience changed her forever.

“It basically taught me how to get over my nervousness, but it also helped me realize that the performance wasn’t just about me.

“In church it’s like, ‘We’ve come to connect with something bigger than ourselves.’ So if I am the vessel for it, then I must be totally devoid of any ego or nerve. I’m still holding on to that now.”

Addicted to jazz

Her first exposure to jazz was in high school, where she performed “contemporary, fusion-style stuff” with a jazz band, but gospel was her main focus until she enrolled in college.

Even then, she chose SUNY Purchase’s acclaimed jazz program, more for the proximity to her homeland than for the opportunity to study with jazz masters such as Pasquale Grasso and drummer Kenny Washington (both featured on her debut album).

“I remember the first day I was so confused and feeling left behind,” she says, “but it turned out for the best for me.”

When friends introduced her to Billie Holliday and Sarah Vaughan, she was “hooked” and applied the same analytical approach to jazz she’d practiced on Disney soundtracks as a kid.

“I thought I had never heard these women before. It was really an eye opener.”

Encouraged by her professors, she won the prestigious Sarah Vaughan Jazz Competition in 2019, but her subsequent debut at the Newport Jazz Festival was abruptly shelved when the pandemic struck.

Instead, her big break came on Facebook.

When asked to record a “thank you” video for the benefactors who funded her scholarship, she filmed herself singing Ella Fitzgerald’s “Take Love Easy,” accompanied by one of her professors.

The next morning, the video had 4,000 views. Four days later, that had grown to a million, with Tony Award winner Audra McDonald among those praising her performance.

Taking the opportunity, Joy set up a GoFundMe page and raised $8,000 (£6,500) to fund her debut album.

Recorded in two days and released by UK label Whirlwind Recordings, the self-titled LP received rave reviews for its wisely chosen collection of jazz standards harking back to the golden era of interpretive singers of the 1930s-60s.

“I really wanted to focus on songs that no one else had done or that were really rare that I could make my own,” says the singer, who borrowed her approach from Cecile McLorin Salvant. (“She has an incredible repertoire. The songs are so random, but when she sings them, it all makes sense.”)

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The singer plans to tour with the rest of her family in late 2023

But touring the album made Joy realize she had been leaning too much on one aspect of her musical personality.

“Most of the songs [in my set] were kind of sad, so I wanted one that was about love and wasn’t too cheesy.”

She settled on Can’t Get Out Of This Mood, previously recorded by Frank Sinatra and Nina Simone, “about that jittery feeling you get when you’re falling in love.”

“It’s very positive and uplifting. I was like, ‘We can put this on set to end all this misery!’”

This became the centerpiece of their Grammy-winning sophomore album, Linger A While; alongside Guess Who I Saw Today – the story of an unfaithful partner, told with nerve-wracking narrative tension.

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As with her debut, Joy self-financed the recording before licensing it to historic jazz label Verve Recordings – proof that her knowledge of jazz greats extends beyond her music.

“I watched a lot of documentaries with my mother about how people are exploited in music, about the background of artists’ lives and about these business relationships,” she admits.

The resulting independence is smart: after the Grammys, the bidding war for their third album will be intense. But after experiencing the glamor of “music’s biggest night,” she’s wary of stardom.

“I’ve seen a lot of celebrities that I’ve only seen online before, and I was like, ‘Wow, you’re real.’ But at the same time, I don’t want to be in their shoes.

“To be looked at and put on a pedestal? That looks tough.

“So I’m like, ‘I’m cool, I’m cool. I go home, I ride the subway, I walk the streets and I’m just normal.”


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