Interview with Samantha Clemons: Never Mind Smoke, Something’s On Fire

Kansas City songwriter Samantha Clemons describes her life as being “crowded into too few years.” Before the age of twelve, she had lived in four different US states as well as Germany, and, although she is still in her 20’s, she has now been playing music for about a decade. She describes her early music as acoustic pop, but her newest EP, Burn, marks a shift in her sound towards soul, gospel, and blues.

Recently, she took the time to tell us more about the motivation behind her newest songs, the symbolism in her new video, and her perspectives on life as a songwriter.

How do you describe your music and your mission?

My music is really just an expression of my personality. I’m a problem solver. I love to take things apart and examine them. It’s almost calculated, a sort of reverse engineering of emotion and experience. You can really get to know something by examining its parts. And when you get down to the root of things, to their bits and pieces, you realize how much similarity and familiarity there is. Our opportunities and circumstances—our lived experiences—vary so drastically, but we’re all made of the same stuff, put together in much the same way. Songwriting, for me, is about creating a space where those commonalities allow difficult conversations to take place and marginalized stories to be told.

Has your songwriting style changed over the years? And what keeps you writing now?

I’m relatively young but I’ve been writing so long that I’ve gone through a few evolutions already. Now I lean much more heavily on gospel, blues, and soul influences with my sound. Lyrically, I was a bit more plain-spoken early on but quickly gravitated to a more folk-style storytelling. There’s so much to work with when you’re dealing in abstractions.

Right now, I’m in a place where writing is as much something that I am as it is something that I do. It’s hard to ignore what feels like a significant piece of your identity.

What was going on in your life when you were writing “Burn”, the title track of the EP? What line are you talking about having crossed, in the lyrics?

I wrote “Burn” right after the 2016 presidential election. The fact that the best we could come up with for our President was a dishonest, unprincipled grifter engaging in demagoguery—and that this was an achievement for some—felt like a significant shift. This was new territory; I think we saw that in the immediacy and strength of the Women’s March. Since then, the rhetoric and behavior out of the White House has deteriorated in ways that are actually damaging relationships and emboldening the worst impulses in people. We’re putting people’s humanity up for discussion. Never mind smoke, something’s on fire.

And, while many of us are alarmed at the erosion of our institutions, there are some of us that welcome the change of pace. No matter how you perceive it, everyone can feel it. I wanted to express the moment we’re living through together in a way that everyone could simultaneously relate to and be challenged by. While we’re busy pretending that words no longer mean anything, I thought I’d try to use them in a way that demonstrated how effective they can be. I hope the effect of “Burn” is like that of “Savages” from Pocahontas: context and perspective allow everyone to participate equally in the telling.

What about the video? The images are really captivating, and there appear to be multiple story lines. Can you tell us more about how the concept came together?

When I decided to do a video for “Burn,” I knew I wanted to base it around the imagery of Lady Justice. I’ve always had an affinity for her symbolism, and it seemed like the perfect foundation for telling this story. Our ability to empathize with and make room for (not just the existence but) the experiences of others is evident in how we regard one another. Collective sentiment compounds quickly over time and shapes the world we live in and the way it treats us.

My sister helped me flesh out the idea with the little boy stumbling upon Lady Justice’s things (the sword, balance, and blindfold), and mishandling them–an unwitting participant, as many of us often are. And Renee at AÉNL Media did a wonderful job executing the whole thing. Everything came together really well.

Most of your songs previous to Burn EP were performed solo—just you on acoustic guitar. What motivated you to get a band together for this release?

The intensity of these songs was just different. Given what I was trying to express and the context of the moment, I needed more weight sonically, and I knew I couldn’t get that on my own. The energy of this record was going to be the backbone and had to withstand the gravity of everything else, so the sound had to be bigger. Joel Nanos at Element Recording in Kansas City brought together all of these talented musicians, and we were really able to hone in on that feeling.

Your vocal dynamics really stand out as a strength. Some of the songs’ most powerful moments come when you really belt it out, like at the end of “Love for Me”. How have you grown as a vocalist over the years?

When I was in high school I was a first soprano, which is hard to believe now with where I’ve settled in my range. I think once I decided to explore the lower part of my register, I kind of came alive, not just as a singer, but a writer as well. Part of it is that my voice has naturally deepened as a result of having kids. But this is the most comfortable I’ve ever felt as an artist, and I think it shows on this record.

Do you have any tour dates coming up? What else is in the works?

Later this summer, I’ll be visiting some cities in the Midwest and playing some solo acoustic dates. I’ll be in NYC this fall, and then back in the studio. Next year, I’m looking forward to a bit more touring in the US, and then potentially heading to the UK & Europe.

What do you value about performing the songs live when you’re on tour?

For me, live performances are all about the relationship. There’s a greater degree of intimacy with the listener, and the stakes and expectations are higher. They’re not just sharing that time and space with other listeners, they’re sharing it with you, too. With recorded music, you can explore the complexities of expression, but a stripped-back live performance is where my songs go to find their depth.

To end, I’m wondering what advice you would give to new songwriters. Or, what advice would you give to yourself if you could go back in time?

I think the advice would be the same to both: collaborate more. You can only get better by doing, and your peers can be your best motivators. Also, inspiration comes much more easily when you’re creating with other people. Be generous with your time, and look for ways to contribute to the creative community.

Samantha Clemons’ Burn EP can be heard in its entirety on Soundcloud and other streaming platforms.

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