The 65th annual Grammy Awards took place Sunday night (Feb. 5) in Los Angeles and included plenty of shockers in the top categories, as Harry Styles, Lizzo and Bonnie Raitt took home album, record and song of the year honors, respectively. But the fourth major category, best new artist, also served up a surprise, as Bronx-born, 23-year-old jazz singer Samara Joy took home the honor following the breakthrough success of her debut album for Verve Records, Linger Awhile.
Joy was understandably thrilled when taking the podium to accept the honor from last year’s recipient Olivia Rodrigo, thanking her family, fans and fellow nominees when making her speech. “To be here because of who I am — all of you have inspired me because of who you are, you express yourself for exactly who you are authentically,” she said. “So to be here by just being myself, by just being who I was born as, I’m so thankful.”
After the ceremony, Joy also sent a statement to Billboard. “Music has been in my family for generations. Singing has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember,” she said. “So to be able to represent a genre as rich as jazz while honoring the musical legacy in my family is a true blessing. I’m so thankful to everyone for their support and I hope I continue to make my family proud.”
For Verve, Impulse! and Verve Forecast president Jamie Krents, the moment was the culmination of another huge year at the Grammys, coming on the heels of the massive success of Verve artist Jon Batiste last year, who took home a surprise album of the year honor. “I won’t say I couldn’t believe it, but it did feel like a dream, because she’s been working really hard,” says Krents on Monday. “Even for a 23-year-old who has a lot more energy than me, she’s worked incredibly hard and she does it the right way. She’s gracious and she’s really appreciating the ride.”
Joy’s win for best new artist also continues a strong recent track record for Verve in the highly-competitive best new artist category, with Arooj Aftab nominated last year and Tank and the Bangas receiving a nod in 2020, giving it three nominees in four years — not bad for a label that rarely dips a toe in the mainstream. And Verve’s other wins were spread across several genres as well: Samara Joy also won for best jazz vocal album, while Madison Cunningham took home best folk album, Renée Fleming And Yannick Nézet-Séguin earned best classical solo vocal album, Time for Three won best classical instrumental solo and Kevin Puts was awarded best contemporary classical composition. And it’s those wins across the board of which Krents is most proud. “This is what it’s all about for us,” he says. “Getting this kind of recognition and seeing these artists be called out for doing superb work. I’m really pleased.”
Congrats on these wins. What did you think of the evening?
It was kind of like a dream. As deserving as these artists are, it’s really competitive. We’re a label that’s extremely artist-development focused, and we had a great year last year with Jon Batiste, who was very nominated going into it, and we were optimistic — certainly in the case of Samara, in the jazz category in which she was nominated, we felt like she had a great shot, and we were pleased that she won, and same with Madison. But you just never know. These are high integrity categories, where every artist — I mean, in folk, you had Judy Collins, and she’s a legend. So you just never know.
I left the pre-telecast already feeling elated that Madison and Samara had both won. And then with best new artist, there were so many nominees and it was such a disparate group of acts, it was sort of hard to know which way the voting would go — indie rock, to Wet Leg, who are amazing? Would it go R&B? I just think Samara’s had a very very fast rise to prominence, and she really deserves it. I think people connect with her voice, but I also think people connect with her, and I think she articulated that well in her speech. She really emphasized the fact that this means a lot to her because she’s putting herself out there. She’s not a construct, she’s somebody who’s gone to school for this, she spent half of her life last year on the road and is really doing this organically, and I think that’s really gratifying, to be part of that, when you know you’re making music that isn’t chasing trends, that is about letting these artists evolve. We were thrilled.
What was going through your head when Samara won best new artist?
It was so reminiscent to me of when Jon Batiste won album of the year last year, where it was like, “Wow, this artist shocks the world, I don’t think the Vegas odds were saying this would happen.” But at the same time, it was just like, all of this talk about making these awards more transparent and fair and reflecting what our world looks like now, this is a great, affirming moment. And also, this should be a snapshot of an artist at the beginning of a great career, and that fits her. That’s exactly where she is. Best new artist should be that — someone who’s really breaking through on their own terms and with authenticity, and she is. I’ve worked at Verve for over two decades, and a voice like this just does not come along [often]. When you have artists in the catalog like Ella [Fitzgerald] and Billie Holliday and Nina [Simone], you can’t just sign a jazz artist lightly, because those comparisons are going to come. There’s nothing we can do about it, and she’s risen to it.
So what was going through my head was, if there was any 23-year-old in the world who deserves it, it’s this woman. She’s putting in the work and she respects her audience and she really deserves this. She’s been a really good partner. She absolutely appreciates why we ask her to do all of the things that we do. And that’s part of it, too. She’s been really open to strategy and to opportunities. And she’s a huge focus. It’s self-fulfilling.
People are comparing Samara’s win to Esperanza Spalding, who surprised everyone by winning the category in 2011.
I think that’s kind of reductive, in the sense that these are both female jazz artists coming from the jazz space. I mean, I get that, but it’s also very different. In Samara’s case, she’s so young, and this happened, I think, faster for her than the cadence of Esperanza’s journey to best new artist. But I can understand it — the surprise to many people, and any time a jazz artist — whether it’s Herbie Hancock winning album of the year in the 2000s or Stan Getz winning album of the year in 1965 — there’s always a gasp in the theater.
But musically, she and Esperanza are very, very different. At that point, you might as well compare her to Muni Long or some of these other nominees. She loves TikTok and she loves Beyoncé, and as much as she loves jazz, she’s also a very normal 23-year-old woman. She’s not just one thing. So I get the comparison — and she loves Esperanza — but I just don’t think we’re following any sort of Esperanza template. I think those comparisons happen because they’re both jazz, or jazz-adjacent, artists winning that award. But it’s like how [Samara] gets a lot of comparisons to Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald — I also understand why those come, but I feel confident saying that she’s got her own voice and her own road here.
You guys had a great year last year with Jon, but Verve has had a pretty great run in recent years in the best new artist category, with Samara, Arooj Aftab last year and Tank and the Bangas a few years before that all getting nominated. What do you attribute that to?
This is the thing that I’m most proud of. All of the awards are wonderful, but best new artist, when you’re a record label with a legacy like Verve, whether you’re talking about Ella or the Velvet Underground, this is about artist development, being a place for artists who are maybe a bit left of center, or who aren’t on what the current trend is, and then giving them the chance and supporting them to really evolve and develop. And that takes patience and resources and it’s very international, because we live in that world and all of these artists do really well outside the U.S. But the fact that we have had these nominations and Samara’s win in the best new artist category is the most validating thing, I think, for Verve. Because every label talks about artist development — if you sat in on any A&R pitch to sign any artist, no one’s gonna say, “Well, you’ve got one chance and that’s it.” Everyone says it, but I feel like this is a little bit of proof of concept that we mean it, that we’re good at it and that we bring that value. Ultimately, it’s the artists who achieve it, but we’re there to amplify what they do with a strategy that does get that kind of recognition.
I wish Madison had won it earlier in her career — I don’t want to leave her out of the story, because winning her first Grammy and doing an incredible performance, she just released a song with Remi Wolf — Madison’s also on this trajectory where everyone who owns an instrument knows she’s incredible, but she’s now starting to transcend that and people are starting to realize what a good songwriter she is, and her music is really connecting with an audience outside of the choir she’s been preaching to. So she’s also someone who’s got a different future than she maybe had two years ago. But to get back to your question, the best new artist story for Verve, and having three nominations in the last four years, if someone were to ask me what I feel best about at Verve, I would probably cite that.
Madison won for best folk album, Samara won also for best jazz vocal album and you had winners in three different classical categories. What do these wins say about what you guys are doing at the label?
I’ve been at Verve for a long time, and there have been different iterations of Verve, and I’m really grateful that at this point we’re so supported. Universal’s a big company, the number one music company quantitatively. But you don’t need Verve to compete with our sister labels who are signing the [biggest] artists. Verve is the home for eclectic music at Universal. And I think these wins across a disparate group of categories shows we have a fluency and a value in all of those areas, but mostly it’s about the fact that there’s no template. Whether you’re a classical artist coming through Decca or Deutsche Gramophone, or a singer/songwriter or indie type of artist like Kurt Vile or Madison coming through that side, or you’re Samara Joy and in my opinion the greatest jazz singer out there, we bring you some value and we can help you and support you and help amplify your vision. And if you’re more mainstream or more in that game, Universal has lots of great options for you there, too, with places like Capitol and Interscope and Republic.
But Verve exists to serve a different agenda. It’s a business — we still have to keep the lights on, and these artists all have careers and a commercial aspect to what they do — but I think something like the Grammys showing that yesterday, it highlights that. That’s what we’ve built this company to be. We’ve staffed the company so that we have the right people to help these real, generational artists, artists that make timeless music, not making records that only sound topical today. It’s artists making records like those that we’re proud to have in our catalog, from Coltrane to Oscar Peterson to Nina Simone to the Velvet Underground. We’re still making records that will be resonant long after I work there.
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