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

March 20, 2023 12:54 pm

[Source: CNN News]

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

The 23-year-old has a sound that’s both timeless and fresh, blending old-school jazz crooning with the R&B vocalists she grew up on.

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

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And last month, the Grammys gave her the ultimate seal of approval – awarding her best jazz vocal album and, more significantly, best new artist.

Recent winners of the latter prize include household names like 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 recalls 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 humbled.”

But when she got to the stage, a chilling realisation set in.

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

After bashfully improvising her thank-yous, the night improved immeasurably.

“Beyoncé told me congratulations after the show, which was ridiculous. Me in the same room as Beyonce? And her knowing of my existence? It’s just crazy.”

By this stage, however, Joy should be accustomed to receiving honours.

Although she only took up jazz five years ago, she’s already won the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, and been awarded the Ella Fitzgerald Memorial Scholarship.

Her voice is warm and mellifluous, lingering over notes like she’s savouring wine, and simmering with emotional intensity.

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

But she also possesses an innate ability to take an old standard and make it seem like the lyrics were torn from her diary.

It’s an approach that causes confusion for fans who aren’t well versed in the jazz repertoire.

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 she says of her most recent single, originally made famous by Nancy Wilson.

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

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

“My parents were very protective. My dad picked us up and dropped us at school, we went to church together, we didn’t go to the mall, I didn’t really hang out or anything like that.”

A studious child, she devoured teen fiction (“the less popular, cheaper ones”) and competed in codeathons with her school’s computer science club.

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

Joy tried the bass, too, but it was singing that truly fascinated her.

“I used to have an iPod Nano and my dad would upload music for me. I can remember listening to Lalah Hathaway, Jill Scott, Stevie Wonder… and I also loved the Disney Channel songs. High School Musical? That’s me.”

As she listened, she would pick apart details like phrasing, timbre and vibrato, exploring what made one singer different to another.

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

By the time she was 16, she’d been chosen to lead worship at her local church, at three services every week, for two years. The experience changed her forever.

“It basically taught me how to overcome being nervous, but it also helped me realise that the performance wasn’t all about me.

“In church, it’s like, ‘We came to connect to something greater than ourselves’. So if I’m the vessel for that, then I have to be completely free of any sort of ego or nerves. That’s what I still keep with me now.”