If you haven’t yet tuned in to Samara Joy, you’re undoubtedly missing out. Reinventing jazz for the modern age, Samara is arguably the first true jazz star of Generation Z. After the Grammys named her 2022’s Best New Artist, an iconic award reserved for only the best in music history, it’s clear she’s making an impact.
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Born Samara Joy McLendon in 1999, Samara grew up in New York City’s Bronx borough, in a household surrounded by music. Aided by an immediate family obsessed with soul, gospel and Motown, and grandparents who ran multiple church choral competitions, she developed her voice in choirs and high school jazz bands throughout her teens. But it wasn’t until she began a vocal jazz major at New York’s Purchase College that she truly engaged with the genre that’d build her career.
In 2020, Samara’s professor asked her to post a home performance video to Facebook to thank a recent college benefactor. Only four days later, the video had unexpectedly ballooned to over one million views. Off the back of this success, Samara gradually developed a following into the hundreds of thousands on TikTok, too. Her laidback bedroom singing videos expanded over time to cover her journey into the celebrity world, showcasing her youthful, tongue-in-cheek humour with stories of stranger interactions, unconventional performances and the bizarreness of fame. With a decidedly youthful approach to music promotion, but an inclination for the freedom and feeling of historical American jazz, Samara was already on her way to building an overlapping audience of an all-new flavour.
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This massive social media following carried into the success of her debut album, Samara Joy. Samara recorded Samara Joy whilst still in college, working on the side with her producer and eventual manager Matt Pierson. Released on independent label Whirlwind Recordings in 2021, Samara Joy is a twelve-track collection full of inventive new takes on jazz standards. From the misty-eyed ballad ‘But Beautiful’ to the bittersweet ode to relationship toxicity ‘Jim’, Samara Joy tackles every emotion of love with a voice full of deep, dark longing well beyond her years.
“Sometimes I wonder why I spend the lonely nights dreaming of a song, the melody haunts my reverie, and I am once again with you,” Samara swoons on the glittering opening track Stardust. It’s a testament to the romantic storytelling central to her work. Although much of her material so far has been covers of classics, she’s expressed an interest in writing more original material in the future, continuing her tales of love from a more personal perspective.
Never one to take it easy, Samara followed the album up quickly with 2022’s tremendously successful Linger Awhile. This record saw Samara’s introduction to Verve Recordings, America’s largest catalogue of jazz music, where her idols such as Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald once resided. Opening track ‘Can’t Get Out Of This Mood’ sees Samara at her most energetic, almost audibly smiling through the evocative lyrics and quirky instrumentation. Elsewhere, staggering, sultry numbers like ‘Social Call’ and ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’ showcase her absolutely incomparable vocal timbre. “I’ve something to tell you, so linger awhile”, she croons on the title track, beckoning listeners to come closer into her world. It’s a collection polished to perfection, yet beautiful in its pure, raw emotion. There’s no wonder why the record took out this year’s Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album, making her a two-time Grammy winner at only twenty-three years old.
The magic truly lies in Samara’s traditionalism. Her voice recalls the sheer charisma of classic performers like Billie Holiday and Nat “King” Cole, harkening back to timeless Americana and jazz’s black cultural roots. However, what equally sets her apart is her willingness to toy with arrangement and melody. Never confined to how a song was originally written, Samara always puts a unique spin on her vocal approach to make the song distinctively hers, freeing herself from rhythmic structures and crafting her own melodies. It only takes one listen to her beloved Spotify Singles cover of Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ to realize how her blend of modern perspective and old-school convention makes for something truly unforgettable.
Samara Joy’s future in music is beyond promising. With a busy release schedule and a personal commitment to keeping jazz alive within her New York community, it’s clear this historical genre is safe in her hands. So the best way to help Samara Joy, and jazz itself, thrive once more, is join her on this thrilling musical journey. Rest assured, it’s sure to be worth your while.