In EBONY’s new monthly column Liner Notes, next generation artists dissect their songs and, piece by piece, tell us the story of how they were made. Each month, we tap a burgeoning talent to share tales of how one of their songs were written or recorded. As the debut artist of EBONY’s franchise Liner Notes, Samara Joy takes us into the creative process behind her song “Guess Who I Saw Today,” and also shares a playlist of favorites that keep her inspired.
At 23, with her addictively streamable sophomore album, Linger Awhile, Bronx-born vocalist Samara Joy pours the vintage wine of swinging jazz into the fresh bottle of modern platforms (just check out @samarajoysings on TikTok). Bringing classic standards made popular by legends like Sarah Vaughan to younger generations, the young chanteuse embodies the sound of Gen Z’s own elegant, classy Black excellence. Joy’s recent Grammy wins—Best New Artist and Best Jazz Vocal Album—elevated her to a level of visibility occupied by contemporary jazz stars like Esperanza Spalding and Robert Glasper. But she’s lived with the sound of spirited improvisation her entire life.
The daughter of a singer-bassist dad who toured with gospel icon Andraé Crouch, the granddaughter of two vocalists from Philly gospel outfit The Savettes, Samara Joy McLendon inherited her talents honestly. A graduate of SUNY Purchase’s jazz studies program, she brought a few former professors (guitarist Pasquale Grasso, drummer Kenny Washington) along for the ride to set the timeless romantic mood of Linger Awhile. Full of jazz mainstays like “Round Midnight” and “Someone to Watch Over Me,” the album reaches a bittersweet highlight with “Guess Who I Saw Today.”
As the debut artist of EBONY's new franchise Liner Notes, in her own words, Samara Joy takes us into the creative process behind her song “Guess Who I Saw Today,” and also shares with us a playlist of favorites that keep her inspired.
For 'Guess Who I Saw Today,' I had pretty much already chosen all of the songs I wanted to record and arrange for the record. That was one that was kind of introduced to me, actually. I heard a lot of videos of Nancy Wilson singing it, but [producer Matt Pierson] was like, 'What if you sang this song?'And I was like, 'I don’t know.' Because she put such a stamp on it. Whenever people say “Guess Who I Saw Today,” they think of her. She mastered it, interpreted the song to perfection and brought it to life. [I thought] if I do it, I haven’t been through it or maybe it wouldn’t be as mature of a version or as believable.
But I figured I’d give it a shot anyway because it’s a mature music. It’s a young music, but it’s also very mature in a lot of ways. I said, “yeah, let’s see what happens.” Without even realizing it, we’ve always sung heartbreak songs growing up anyway. [laughs] Only when you grow up and you pay attention to the words do you realize what you were singing about. In actuality, I’ve been doing this. Let me have a try at interpreting this song from my perspective, right?
We went into the studio. I think we had three takes of it. It’s a beautiful song and definitely the story is told very beautifully. I ended up really enjoying it live. I combined it with this Stevie Wonder song, “Lately,” to really drive the message home. But specifically with “Guess Who I Saw Today,” people are coming up to me like, “Oh, that plot twist at the end!” [laughs] Even though Nancy put her stamp on it, I’m so glad that people not only are reminded of that and know how good of a song it is, but I can carry it on for people who don’t even know who Nancy Wilson is. And they’re introduced to her for the first time because of my rendition of it. It’s a powerful piece about a common story.
I figured [I would inevitably cover Nancy Wilson]. Because she has such a range when it comes to her discography. I figured one or two of her songs would cross my list and be like, “I actually never heard this until I heard Nancy.” Similarly to Sarah Vaughan. Certain songs that she does, I didn’t even know Ella Fitzgerald sung it [first]. I just knew when I heard Sarah sing it, it was her song. I definitely love Nancy Wilson’s repertoire and been inspired by it.
[With the video], I think because of the fact that it was established in a lot of people’s minds and ears by Nancy Wilson, this would be the first time that the visual aspect was added to the song through my interpretation of it. It felt like a great opportunity to not only showcase the storytelling skills of an amazing director that I worked with—her name is Sontenish Myers—to really act out the story. ’Cause it really reminds me of movies and plays I watched growing up, like Why Did I Get Married? To be able to act out the scenario that I’ve seen play out in movies and real time, it was a great opportunity visually that I’m glad that we were able to execute.
A Curated Playlist of Songs That Keep Samara Inspired
- Commissioned, “Love Is the Way”
- Betty Carter, “Tight”
- Lalah Hathaway, “U-Godit Gowin On”
- Nadine Sierra, “Will There Really Be a Morning?”
- Wayne Shorter, “Dance Cadaverous”
- Abbey Lincoln, “In the Red”
- Count Basie, “The Deacon”
- Sarah Vaughan, “Stairway to the Stars”
- Stevie Wonder, “For Your Love”
- Luther Vandross, “Never Too Much”