The album art which adorns the cover of Samara Joy McLendon’s eponymous debut is a head in the clouds snapshot that features the songstress’ beaming smile. This image hints at a piece of the magic that she possesses. Her wistful grin and skyward gaze suggest that something special is about to happen. Still, somehow we’re not prepared for the amazing treat that awaits on the other side.
Actress/producer/director Regina King said it best in a 2021 Hollywood Reporter directors’ roundtable, “I discovered a young woman who seems like Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald are both living in her body. This girl looks like she’s about 16 years old — this beautiful, precious baby—and all this power and emotion comes out. Her name is Samara Joy, and it brings me joy”. Those sentiments sum up the SJ experience in a nutshell; her voice is a gift in a package that feels familiar, yet, fresh and beautifully timeless.
Hailing from a family of musicians, McLendon credits her father for introducing her to everything from jazz greats Betty Carter, and Ella Fitzgerald to the Clark Sisters, Eric Crouch and Kirk Franklin, instilling musical depth at an early age. This family unit strengthens her focus and determination, while helping her navigate the ups and downs of touring and recording. One of the biggest lessons SJ has learned along the way is the importance of sticking to her dreams. “Everybody’s journey is unique, so if you try to copy someone step for step, you’re only going to get a cheap version of it,” she says in an exclusive sit-down. “Your unique journey has its own strengths, mistakes, and detours. It will be yours, so keep going.”
Samara Joy’s debut has interesting origins. She discovered her extraordinary aptitude in college just a few years ago. This is when she decided to focus her studies on the skills of arrangement, and jazz composition. “Being introduced to this music through school opened my eyes to a whole different community. I’m born and raised in New York, but I had never been to a jam session before. My peers were light years ahead of me as far as being passionate about it and knowing various recordings and instrumentalists.” But after immersing herself into the artform, the ingenue would eventually surpass many of her more experienced peers.
Backed by the Pasquale Grasso Trio, Samara Joy is a triumphant body of music with a depth and maturity rarely seen in a debut album. Her love and respect for the craft is apparent. From the dizzying opener Stardust, to the wistful and heartbreaking But Beautiful, the emotion is palpable; quickly we see that this is no ordinary album and no ordinary voice. “I was always a bit of a loner,” she says, “But with this music, I found a sense of belonging.” My personal fave is the songstress’ take on Jim, a sublimely rocking muse on commitment and unrequited love. The standards on her album have been covered by music royalty the likes of Aretha Franklin, Sara Vaughan, and Billie Holiday. SJ’s renditions fit in comfortably with only the most iconic versions which precede her.
When asked if she identifies with being labeled a jazz singer, Samara Joy says “I grew up listening to Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross, Chaka Khan and gospel singers like Kim Burrell, so I think right now I would probably classify myself as an interpreter or stylist. I take a melody that is written in a certain way, and I want to tell the composer’s story, so I sing it the way the composer wrote it, but then I make it my own.” With a voice as smooth as velvet, her signature sound is one for the ages.
The ingenue’s dream collab? “I keep hearing Lalah Hathaway on a lot of Kendrick Lamar songs, so if Kendrick were to call me or my people and be like, ‘we need you to sing something on this,’ I’m totally there.” With a steady stream of tour dates on the horizon, Joy seems to be hitting her stride after a challenging 18 months. “Right before the pandemic hit, things were really starting to take off. I had just won the Sarah Vaughan competition in 2019 and was embarking on a residency at Dizzy’s Jazz Club at Lincoln Center. The day before we were supposed to play, everything got canceled.”
With plans derailed and now faced with the social unrest sparked by the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, SJ struggled to stay inspired. “Witnessing this collective horror while being confined to our homes brought on a sense of hopelessness and fear,” she says. “Then, when John Lewis died, that made me really think. This man has been fighting for the same thing for decades. He stayed consistent in his vision for so long.”
Out of that that time, a sense of renewed purpose was born. SJ took to TikTok for a series of viral performances viewed by thousands. Once the world opened back up, those performances would help lay the groundwork for a stream of sold-out appearances throughout Italy and Austria. Now she’s touring stateside, spreading her message of joy. “Just like we need activists who are natural born leaders, we need [the art of song] as our way of escape. Making music that spreads joy is form of resistance in the face of darkness. I want to help be a light for people.”
This sentiment sums up SJ as an artist. At a time when we seem to be lured ever more by the trappings of viral acclaim, rooted in her God given talent and nurtured by her love of song, Samara Joy McLendon stands firmly, atop the future of Jazz in America, right where she belongs.
Visit Samara Joy’s website to find out when she will be performing in a city near you.