With many of the artists I interview for dapperQ, this is their first experience being able to talk openly about their gender presentation and how that effects their music. dapperQ is proud to be a forum for those conversations, and proud to be the one asking those questions. But with JD Samson the situation is opposite. Because she is so public about her masculine presentation (the famous mustache) often interviewers skip straight over the actual music to the gender and politics. Which is a shame because JD actually has a very intentional and creative process. There is this common myth perpetuated in American society that the best art comes naturally, untouched, through some magical subconscious act. Not for JD Samson. JD is meticulous and nuanced in her art, performance, and music, in a way that we are absolutely thrilled to share with our readers through this interview.
This is my first experience using google hangout to record video of an interview so bear with me if it’s not perfect — most of what you’ll see is JD’s face since I kept forgetting to switch the screen to show me when I talked. Also, because you have to do all the editing in Youtube, it limits the editing capabilities. But the conversation is still solid and in tact!
JD: That’s what makes me love making music so much. I went to film school and I made experimental film, so I worked a lot in this similar realm of editing for a narrative purpose without necessarily a storyline. I think that’s something that comes naturally to me and something that maybe I pay too much attention to. When I’m in the studio and I’m writing a song about fire, or whatever, I want everything to fall into some storyline of burning and ash. So politically I find myself making production choices that are more conceptual. Like, if you take the song I Don’t Care, I was working with this duality inside of me where on one side I was feeling hopeless, and on the other very critical of people being hopeless and nonchalant and not being political. So what I ended up doing was making two vocals, one autotuned and one not, and panned them. The producer we were working with was like, “um, are you sure?” and I was like, “Yes!” This is why I make music. Those kinds of decisions that somebody might not even know. But what it means to me is that I’m thinking about all those little intricacies and that I want to tell a story with just instruments. People don’t think that way anymore about pop music. At least, my experience is that nobody asks me about that kind of stuff. But it’s definitely interesting to me and that’s the kind of music that I want to hear: music that people think about a lot and put meaning behind, where it’s not just about being easy to listen to. Even in terms of our instrumentation on stage, I’m always thinking about what that means. Before, we had these two dueling guitars where one was played by a woman and the other was played by a man and I thought that was so interesting on stage. All of that is really important.
dapperQ: How did this politicizing of instrumentation work for another song? Say, “Let them out or let me in?”
JD:I had written the instrumental and it didn’t have lyrics. That rarely happens. I wanted to sing about something that felt driving and angry to me. A lot of the rhythms that I was playing with felt like marching. So I started actually writing a song about the internet and how it was really great in a lot of ways at bringing together people who didn’t have a community otherwise. But then I was like, “no, this is terrible.” And at the same time I was really deep with the Pussy Riot stuff, planning an evening of readings based on all of the text written by Pussy Riot while they were in prison, and their lyrics, so that was taking up all of my time but I really wanted to finish this song. So I guess I just started singing about that and it felt like it matched perfectly. There were several times where I wanted to have a break in the song where it was like, this freeing moment without lyrics, of hope and optimism.
On the costumes of MEN:
JD: I always make them out of the cheapest thing I can, honestly. [Goes and grabs costume shirt] This was from one group of costumes that was about geometric style. I bought two shirts from American Apparel and sewed them together and added these red dots. Each person had their dots in a different place. It was kind of an interesting gender conversation about sexual organs. Mine was half black and half white. And the other band mates – one had a black shirt and the other had a white shirt. So it was this cool duality where when each of them would play I would turn towards them to become whatever color they were. It’s simple and geometric. That was a cool one because sometimes I feel like I get too complicated. The ones we have now are black sports bras made out of a shirt over a primary color and the pants are black sweatpants with a huge rope that is supposed to be like a tampon string phallus.
dapperQ: (Laughs) Did you think of all this? When did you think of this? Did you wake up like, “man, I’m going to make a rope tampon phallus?”
JD: It’s kind of more like, “oh shit we need costumes!” And then I’m like…yeah…rope! It just happens. It feels easy to me to always have ideas. I have to make a banner for next week and then I was like, “okay, it will be this, and then this.” It doesn’t feel like I’m coming up with crazy ideas, it’s just there. Some people tell me I’m crazy, that that it’s too much, but I just want to always be thinking. I want to always try out ideas and be working conceptually. It’s pretty easy for me to come up with reasoning for things that feel right. Today I was like, “I need a sheet,” so I ordered a sheet from Amazon. I have Amazon prime so it’ll be here in two days. It’s more like I figure out what I need and then I go get it. Sometimes it’s a craft store, sometimes it’s a rope store, sometimes it’s TJ max. It’s usually the cheapest version. I’ll go to the .99 cent store if I need straws.
How does one dress like JD Samson?
JD: Probably half of my clothes are from the thrift store that I’ve been visiting since I was 21. Part of that is because I can find stuff that fits me. I feel like the modern man has a different body type from me, so since I’m very small it’s hard for me to find men’s clothes that fit me the way that they should fit. Sometimes I shop in the teen boy department but a lot of that kind of clothing doesn’t fit with my lifestyle. So it’s complicated. I have to know which brands work for me and which don’t. I generally wear t-shirts and jeans and sneakers and sometimes boots. I wear a lot of button downs and flannels. I’m kind of a practical dresser to be honest. Honestly I’m pretty practical in general about my life. Not my creative life. But I have the same Northface jacket that I’ve had for 10 years. Mostly I focus on glasses being the thing that sets me apart from everyone else. I’m on the hunt for a new pair of glasses and it’s been rough. The guy at the glasses store knows me by my name. So I guess I’ll pick and choose some signature pieces that I think are cool. I like to think that I have good dad style – preppy but practical. Or teenage-boy-with-great-hair. I’m not an accessory person. I have black belt and a brown belt, I’ll wear the same necklace every day. No scarves or ties or bracelets or rings. There’s this one friend of mine that always has a Christmas party and I always want to look good, but I feel like every year I wear the exact same thing. And I’ve had the outfit for like ten years. So now I’m like, when am I going to change my style?
Sometimes I go to the most expensive places possible, and see what they have. And be like, I wish I could afford that. Then I start moving down, into like what I could maybe afford, and somehow I meet in the middle. I shop online for sales. I shop at Crewcuts, which is J. Crew’s kids department. They have crazy sales.
For JD Samson’s style icon page on dapperQ, click here.
On what she’s wearing on the cover of Labor:
JD: What I’m wearing on the cover of the record is a huge kind of mascot of myself that an artist friend of mine made. The skin is yellow so people think it’s me as a Simpson or something [laughs]. I’ve been wearing parts of that in different configurations on tour…I’m really obsessed with reasoning so almost everything I do has some sort of conceptual or abstract thought behind it. For example, on the cover of the record, I wanted to show this idea that there is this shell character of JD Samson and then there’s a different person inside of that. So I wanted to use this mascot image as something that would promote the idea that this is my job, and the character of JD Samson is different from the human of JD Samson. The image is of the character fretting and worrying so I think that works together with all of my feelings of feminist failure as an artist. I think many feminist artists critique their work a lot and think that everything they do sucks.
On “All The Way Through” and JD’s process for writing music:
JD: Every song is totally different. Some of the songs on Labor were written with different people, some were written on my own, or started with Michael, [O’Neill] or started on my own then brought to other people. There’s something really organic about having a new process with each song. I like the feeling that it’s a grab bag of “what’s this song like?” but they all work together in this way that encompasses life. Because some days I feel like this, whereas other days I feel like that. So it’s this duality of being an artist and not conforming to one way. For all the way through, I had the idea and the vocal melody but I didn’t know what to sing it on. Michael and I had been working on this one song since the first record, so I tried singing it on that, and as soon as I did I knew it was a hit. I knew it, I was like, “This is the song!” We actually changed the whole music underneath the vocal melody three times. Then we ended up doing a new version with DJ Yuksek when I was in France and I had a session with him. We were originally going to write something for his record, but then we ended up working on All the Way Through and I was like… I sat down with him and knew that was going to be it. But we kept going through options. It was a really cool experience to work with the vocal and build a song around that.
It’s funny, that was the most complicated song to make, but I think that’s why I wanted to put it out first. I was so afraid of that song being too poppy, or not poppy enough, or too weird, or too love song-y. But it just felt like such a strong movement for me to just be like, fuck it, I don’t care, I’m putting it out. And I think the response was really great.
On Labor as compares to Talk About Body:
JD: I think both records are pretty dark but Labor might feel a little bit…easier, maybe? There’s less guitar and more synth. To be honest, we had four thousand conversations about “what we wanted to do with the next record” but then, when you process too much you just end up losing yourself. What I wanted to do was just to let it be what it was. So there wasn’t a conscious effort to change our sound. But collaborating with other producers was an important thing, so that might have ended up changing the sound. I love the song Neon Poles because it sounds like something that would be played on the radio, but the content is introspective and interesting and complicated. I think that’s what makes this music different. I like making work that’s not super musically or lyrically easy.
On why “Orange Juice is the center of the world” in the song Rip Off:
JD: We wanted to write a something like this song called “Rip it off and start again” by a band called The Orange Juice. We ended up writing Rip Off and I decided it should be about ripping off other artists and trying to make your music sound like their music. So the song lyrics are all taken from wikipedia entries of other artists that we want to sound like. And then the “orange juice is the center of the world part” is just referencing the band. But we kept saying, like, I don’t know why an orange juice company doesn’t want to use this song in a commercial. That would be the best.