The steady rise of Samara Joy reached a pinnacle on Grammy night 2023 when Olivia Rodrigo — last year’s best new artist winner — announced Joy’s name as the latest recipient of the Big 4 honor. Beating a stacked roster of popular artists, she further cemented herself as one of jazz’s rare mainstream breakouts. Even sweeter, it was the 23-year-old’s second Grammy: she won her first, for best jazz vocal album for sophomore effort Linger Awhile, earlier that night.
6 Reasons Samara Joy Pulled Off That Upset Grammy Win for Best New Artist
With silky vocals that provide refreshing interpretations of oft-recorded standards as well as effervescent originals, Joy’s seemingly overnight success traces its foundation to a Bronx childhood growing as part of a musical family (her grandparents founded the gospel group The Savettes). It wasn’t until she attended college that she got serious about jazz in particular, later inking a deal with Verve Records, a powerhouse label of the genre.
Now, Joy is basking in her burgeoning success, turning in a memorable appearance on The Tonight Show in the midst of what’s become an in-demand global tour. Billboard spoke to her about that triumphant night, her creative process and the fine art of interpretation.
Congratulations on your Grammy wins. Out of the two you won, which one meant the most to you?
I think they both mean a lot, but people have definitely been separating the album win from the big award: best new artist. They’re both incredible but winning the first one was definitely a moment. When I won, it seemed like the culmination of the past six months of touring and recording, and it really just hit me. I sobbed like a baby, which I don’t normally do. So the first one definitely meant a lot because it was related most closely to the music. It was a labor of love that I presented to the world. You hope when you release music that people listen to it and enjoy it and want to share it and come to your shows. But going into the weekend, it felt like I already won because I had so much support and encouragement from musicians and singers and audiences. Also, winning best jazz vocal album was definitely the most special because it was my first win.
When your name was called, it was surprising you won if only because jazz is rarely recognized in the best new artist category. With that in mind, what was that moment like for you?
Number one, the diversity in the category to begin with definitely felt like a step in the right direction as far as highlighting different pockets of the world as far as the genres are concerned. Music is not just pop and hip-hop — it’s diverse. So I thought they did a great job with all of the nominees. But to kind of be an ambassador of the underdog genre in the category, it’s an honor and a step in the right direction for live music and highlighting jazz artists who maybe go unnoticed or under the radar. I hope that it opens people’s ears and eyes. We’ve always been here; it’s not like jazz is being reborn or brought back. But hopefully I can be the voice that illuminates all of the other voices who have been shouting out for so long.
What was your weekend like in general?
Well, I got there four days before the actual Grammys and immediately went into work mode, singing at events and meeting people like Stevie Wonder, John Legend and Brandi Carlile. It was pretty wild because while I guess I’m connected to a few of them through social media, to be connected in person with everybody, to be in the same space, I was like, “I can’t believe all of this is happening.” It was amazing.
I want to talk about your voice. It’s very unique and brings to mind artists like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. How did you perfect your vocal style and when did you realize that you have vocals that stand out?
Well, I definitely have a cassette tape somewhere of my dad recording me singing an Usher song when I was four years old [laughs]. So there’s that, but I started singing in musical theater and chorale concerts when I was in middle and high school. I always knew that I loved it. I think that my voice is still a work-in-progress, but I guess I had my own voice before I came to jazz, like the tone. I developed it in church; I sang there all the time and also listened and imitated many gospel, soul and Motown singers. I came to jazz with a certain style and a certain way of singing. I’m still learning how to perfect my voice so right now I’m listening to classical music, learning about healthy vocal projection and having a strong voice, so that all of those styles can come to the forefront whenever I sing.
Can you talk about your art of interpretation? You make songs seem singular and that’s a difficult thing to pull off.
The art of interpretation is definitely a sensitive one. I think about this quote from the great trumpet player Clark Terry, which I believe is: “Imitation, assimilation and then innovation.” I learn the melody of the song first and foremost as it’s written just for the sake of the integrity of the composer. I don’t want to make it something that it isn’t because of my own creative tendencies; I want to have a good foundation of the song and its bare bones. Then, I’ll listen to other versions of the song. Different singers and instrumentalists phrase things in a different way, so I’ll take ideas away from that: what words to emphasize, what harmonic ideas as far as maybe straying away from the melodies. Maybe going higher or lower on certain notes, for example. Then it comes down to what comes out when I sing it once I understand the song, words and the arc of the melody.
How did you go about choosing what to record for Linger Awhile? A song like “Someone To Watch Over Me” is a popular song, but “Guess Who I Saw Today” is more of an obscure cut.
The process really came about over the course of a couple months as I was looking for new material to add to my live shows. I had these gigs on the books and said I wanted to switch up the set so we’re not doing the same thing every night. I was looking for new songs to add into the set and keep things fresh musically and coming up with different arrangements. When it came time to do the second album, I already had songs I was trying out, and chose the ones that would be good to document in the studio with the band I was playing with at the time. It was a simple process, but that’s what I liked about it.
How do you get into the headspace of singing a sad or love song? Or do you just go in there and let it rip?
For Linger Awhile, I got in there and knocked it out. We recorded it in two days. I think we did seven songs the first day, the rest of them the second day and then narrowed them down.
You’re signed to the legendary Verve Records. How did that come together?
I made my first recording and licensed it to an independent label in the U.K. But when it came time to record Linger Awhile, my team and I decided to move onto a major label. I had established my name a little bit. When I pitched my first album, everyone said no, because of the pandemic and there were just no resources to break a new artist at the moment. So for this second album, I paid for it and presented it to different labels; all of the ones you could possibly think of. We met with Verve and I realized that in addition to the rich history of having jazz singers and artists released on Verve, they had a great team being under the umbrella of Universal Music Group. They were all passionate about music and great teams of distribution, and promotion. At first we had to meet over Zoom, which wasn’t as fun, but I’m really glad I partnered up with them.
Let’s talk about your childhood in the Bronx and your father Antonio McLendon’s influence, as I know he is a bassist. What were you listening to at the time and how did your father influence you?
I was listening to everything from Disney Channel soundtracks like The Cheetah Girls to Stevie Wonder, Jill Scott, Lalah Hathaway, Motown and Michael Jackson. I really enjoyed a lot of good music split between my mom and my dad. There was also a family album my dad had a chance to produce along with my uncle-in-law who worked with Donna Summer and Michael Bolton; he was a famous producer back in the day. The family album never got released, but that was my Holy Grail growing up and it still is: just hearing my family sing and hearing their original contemporary gospel compositions. All of that was playing around the house. I’d always watch my dad sing in church and at home where he has a studio, so even now when I’m singing there are certain things that I do that I realize I got from him without even realizing it. He’s definitely been a huge impact on me as far as listening to music, as well as looking out for the electric bass in every song I hear and being open-minded about it all.
You’ve said in the past that when you attended college and started studying jazz, you felt lost. I find that interesting because there are other people who felt the same way early in their creative process, but sometimes feeling like an outsider gives you a different, fresh perspective on things.
I agree wholeheartedly. It wasn’t like starting from zero musically, but in that area as far as music theory and the style of singing jazz. I just did not have any experience with it. But it allowed me to be a sponge and made me really, really take it seriously and immerse myself as opposed to having some preconceived notions as to what it sounded like.
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