JD Samson: Making music that matters
Whether through her music or her message—and for many both—JD Samson has probably moved you, even if you didn’t know who she was.
In the early 2000s, Samson was part of electro-punk/pop trio Le Tigre and most recently released Labor, the sophomore album as part of the Brooklyn-based band JD Samson and Men. In between, she’s DJ’d, written songs for Christina Aguilera, appeared in Shortbus and even released two massively successful lesbian calendars.
Through it all, Samson has pursued the potential of her art, blending her passion for performance/multimedia art and feminist/LGBT community activism into a musical landscape that is equal amounts political and party.
Before JD Samson brings that energy to the Friday night Nashville Pride Fest concert, we caught up with the artist/activist to about the labor of her latest project, whether her queer icon status is a matter of ‘right place, right time’ and the struggle of happiness in a success-driven society.
Beneath the beats, there’s always been a message in your music yet in an interview last year you said the power of the mic was hard to have, that it made you ‘uncomfortable’ and that you didn’t deserve that power— why do you think that?
I’ve just never had the outgoing personality that a lot of musicians have. It’s why I always looked up to Kathleen (Le Tigre bandmate). She was able to start talking and always end up changing the world by the end of her sentence. Once I start talking on the mic, I get really scared. There's a difference between public speaking and having a persona. I always kind of hide behind the "JD," but I'm learning and growing and changing still. Hopefully, I will find a voice on stage, but until then I'll just use my lyrics to shout the things I want to say.
I’d say there is a louder voice than you realize. You’ve been referred to as a gender outlaw—surely you’ve inspired many queer kids to be more comfortable with their gender expression. Laverne Cox recently referred to herself not as a role model but a possibility model- is that your intention?
I love the way Laverne Cox has been discussing her role model status recently! She has actually helped me put so many of my feelings into words, and helped me feel more confident about my visibility. Usually when someone tells me that I saved or changed their life, I respond by saying, ‘you saved mine or changed mine.’ The reality is that I've been in the public eye since I was 21 years old, and every fan, community member, gender outlaw, and family member that I saw out in the crowd was holding me up just as much as we were holding them up.
Something I said in an old Le Tigre song, “Keep on Livin’,” always rings true for me in these moments: you have to look past your life in this town, this moment, this time. There is more, you just have to decide where you want to be and put yourself there, either literally or emotionally.
You’ve also been called a queer icon—do you take that lightly and what does that mean to you exactly?
I have no idea what a queer icon is, but I just happened to be at the right place at the right time, and in the middle of a really important time for queers. We started a revolution. We danced and sweat and smiled and hugged and talked about politics—all in the same room. And we were safe. I feel grateful for being a part of that—on the stage or off the stage we were part of the same energy.
How have you responded in the past to others being confused on our gender—does it bother you less or more when it happens today?
I'm a pretty shy person, to be honest, so usually I just try to make sure people aren't uncomfortable with my presence. Passing as a man has been easier for me than trying to use the women's room, but more and more, I find myself being proud of exactly who I am and using my voice. It just depends on the day. Like today, I went into a bike shop and the person at the counter used the word ‘they’ which surprised me and excited me. The world is changing bit by bit.
Your latest project with JD Samson & MEN is entitled Labor— which is to say that it was work . . . in some personal aspects including a vulnerability fans had yet to see from you as an artist— can you expound upon that?
Yeah, this record was written differently. After several of our band mates had left the project, I felt kind of introverted in the writing process. It was the opposite of how it felt on Talk About Body. The process of looking inside myself was new, but really great for me. I was able to do a lot of psychoanalysis of myself and I think it brought me to a new place both emotionally and artistically.
Well, singles like “All The Way Through” sound like your most commercial tracks to date—would you agree?
For sure. That song was written and then produced by Yuksek. As soon as I sang it I said, ‘this is a hit.’ After trying to sell it to someone else, I decided I wanted it for myself. It was my first love song, and maybe my last! (laughs) But nonetheless, it’s a part of me.
You were featured in OUT’s Love Issue with your partner Ariel Sims- has falling in love changed the way you approach making music?
I think becoming an adult has changed the way I make music. There are so many different sectors to my intentions these days. What kind of live experience do I want? What kind of recording do I want to make? What kind of people do I want to collaborate with? What kind of life do I want to lead? How much do I want to be away? How much money do I need to make in order to have a family? All these things.
You touched on that in a 2011 blog entry for Huffington Post that “you live with the stress of not knowing, not planning and not understanding whether or not I will ever be able to reach my goals of having a family and feeling safe financially.” Were those things you were thinking about in say 2006 or has your relationship and/or age brought those things to the surface?
I think I've been thinking of this more and more since the end of Le Tigre. We were lucky enough to make money, but the music industry has changed, and that moment of magic isn't always going to be there either. Musicians are successful because what they are doing is fresh, new, and exactly what we as a culture need—that happened 100% with Le Tigre. I think that happened a bit with MEN, but I'm not sure . . . now I just sit back and think about what we need and how I can give it to us.
You also say: “We live in a society where people equate success with money.” Has that been a struggle for you as an artist measuring your own success by society’s standards?
Of course, but not just as an artist, but a person. I measure my success against other people all the time. It’s hard not to be able to afford things that other people can. But in the years since that article I've realized that I'm just kind of happy to be alive and have what I have, and I'm gonna do my best with what I have.
Over the last decade, you’ve been involved in many projects. When performing at a Pride festival, is it difficult to decide where to draw from for your set?
YES! I was just doing that today. But honestly this is one of those shows that's pretty easy to figure out- it’s Pride. And no matter how we have separated ourselves in the past 20 years, I still think people want to come together, enjoy how far we have come, and get psyched for how far we have to go. I want to make people dance, and sweat and hug and scream. Again.
If you could write yourself a letter and date it back to you in 2004, what would it say?
That makes me tear up a little bit! I would have said, take a deep breath, love yourself as much as you love your audience, and keep on livin’.