Samantha Farrell Takes Cambridge By Storm
Samantha Farrell is halfway through her first set at Toad and introducing her next song. “My mother told me once that I didn’t play any songs you can shake your booty to, so I wrote this one that I call Shake.” And shake they do, with Chris DeSanty (drums), Cilla Bonnie (bass), Barrett Anderson (guitar) and Jeff Gaynor (keyboards) lending a hand. Tomorrow, they’ll pile into a car and drive to Manhattan where they are playing the Rockwood Music Hall. It’s a four day, three performance mini-tour that perfectly illustrates the momentum that Samantha Farrell has generated since her first local performance at the Burren – momentum that’s based on her songwriting abilities, her voice, her performing and a little nudge from the Dave Matthews Band.
The show at the Burren was a remarkable event. Her CD, luminous, was released the week prior and charted on iTunes. It’s very hard for a local artist to get that kind of recognition, but that’s where the Dave Matthews connection helped. Samantha Farrell is a local – she grew up in central Massachusetts. She’s just returned from a number of years in LA. While she was there, she met LeRoi Moore of the Dave Matthews Band. Moore recognized the potential in Samantha’s music immediately and signed on to produce her album. Sadly, Moore passed away before the album was released. But the Dave Matthews Band chipped in to help, most notably by promoting Samantha through an email announcement just prior to the show at the Burren. The back room at the Burren was packed that night with young, local fans who wanted to see a breakout local performer. It was a remarkable event and I attended to see what would happen, as I had met Samantha a few weeks prior at the Lizard Lounge and was aware of the buzz around the performance. After the show at Toad, I asked her about that night. “Wow,” she says, “that was the culmination of very long year. I honestly didn’t think my album was ever going to get released, and up until the day before the show, and my release, I didn’t think it would! It’s this big, beautiful blur of good tidings and positive energy and love that I can’t quite all remember, but will never forget. That was also the first time I had ever played in my home state, and I was actually born in Boston- so it was a homecoming, a cd release and a big giant sigh of relief all at once.”
Samantha moved back from Los Angeles in the fall of 2009 and quickly found a solid set of musicians to accompany her. “I had the great fortune of reconnecting with two old friends,” she tells me, “Barrett Anderson who is a well known blues musician about town, who graces my sets with his amazing electric guitar and Chris DeSanty, a fantastic drummer. In September, Chris encouraged me to hang out at the Lizard Lounge Open Mic, where I met his bandmate Cilla Bonnie of January Broke, an amazing bass player , and Jeff Gaynor, an amazing pianist. They were all such wonderful and talented people who seemed to dig my music, so we all got together, and suddenly I had this solid, groovy band backing my tunes. It is a pleasure to play with them, and I can’t wait till we have some more shows under our belts…it just keeps getting better and more interesting every time I play with them…It’s terribly exciting. I stay up late at night thinking of how best to utilize arrangements of my songs to take advantage of all the talent around me. It’s fantastic, and so great to be back in Boston!”
Luminous is Samantha Farrell’s second album and it is a strong and coherent album. The 11 songs showcase her style – rich and yet simple arrangements, sweet and sometimes melancholy lyrics and her signature voice. I ask her about her voice, because it is integral to the feel of the CD. She talks about how hard she has worked over the years to find her style, “My vibrato simply did not exist a year and a half ago. I have been trying for YEARS to sing with vibrato to no avail. At first I couldn’t produce the sound, and then when I kind of could waver my voice, I couldn’t control it. Then, all of sudden, it seemed like my vocal chords finally got hip to what I was trying to do…I was actually just kind of figuring it out when I started doing sessions at Haunted Hollow! Now, I can’t stop doing it….and I love it. I feel like I have a whole new region to explore, which is exciting.” The conversation turns to the artists that have inspired her vocals, and she continues, “I’m drawn to vocalists who have soul and who have playfulness and strength in their delivery. Van Morrison is huge influence for me, as are the jazz greats such as Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn. I’ve also recently gotten into Odetta, who just blows me away with her power…I love people who can really let it rip as they say”
The crowd at both venues, The Lizard Lounge and Toad, seem to agree. Samantha was very generous in her approach to both shows, particularly the show at Toad. Although clearly the headliner, she played in the middle of the evening, and let Cilla Bonnie, Jeff Gaynor and Barret Anderson plays sets that evening, with Barret closing out the evening. And she drew a good crowd at both clubs. Toad was standing room only for most of her set and the Lizard Lounge was packed as well. I had a lot of trouble just moving around at the Lizard Lounge to take photographs because it was so crowded. Part of her draw is her ability to write songs. It feels like her songs are driven by melodic lines, but the truth is more complicated than that. “Songs come to me in all different ways. I’d like to say that I’m more melodically driven, but a lot of times melodies will emerge from a chord progression that just lights up my insides….so, it’s definitely not an either/or type situation…for example, my song Fade Away, which I think might be the best song I’ve ever written, I wrote that sans guitar, driving cross country, simply because I had the melodic line in brain. Who To Trust was the same…I wrote that sitting in my cubicle at work, just with a melody line, and I was shocked when I got home that the accompanying chords were so easy! However, on other tunes like, Sweetest Sound, or Slow Dance Romance, the music came first, and I just wanted to sing along. Sometimes, I’ll just randomly catch a line of a tune, and then everything builds around it.”
Like many songwriters, there is no proscribed way that Samantha writes. “My process, as I’m sure other writers can attest to, is maddeningly un-methodical, occasionally random, and seems to be driven by circumstance and by how favored I am by the gods of the muses that particular day! I generally get in the zone for periods of time, where I have super creative outbursts, and I realize now, that that is not ‘everyday’ for me. That used to upset me – I used to try to force writing on days when I felt totally uncreative, and it was terrible. Yes, I could finish something, but there is nothing worse than forcing a song, and then the next day ripping it up because it felt manufactured. A good song to me is one that always involves a bit of spontaneity and playfulness…I’m really not one to labor over a tune for months or even weeks fine tuning. My best songs I write quickly, I’ve found!”
Fade Away is one of her best songs — certainly it’s one of my favorites. Relix Magazine, in an upcoming issue, writes that Fade Away and Slow Dance Romance, “showcase Farrell’s prodigious and undulating vocals that are delivered with rare, swinging passion.” And like many good songs, it just flowed out of Samantha during a road trip. “I wrote that maybe in 7-8 minutes, on some highway in Oklahoma, whilst driving from Los Angeles to Virginia to record,” she tells me. “I just had an image of an ideal day with an ideal person that I wanted to describe…I certainly was feeling the pastoral vibe driving through fields of hay…Off in the distance, there was this one lone farm house, and I couldn’t help but thinking of who lived there, and what it must feel like to grow up and fall in love in a place like this.” I tell her that it reminds me a little of Pink Floyd. Samantha deftly sets the record straight. “Early Van Morrison records definitely have had a huge influence on me, and I’m sure if you check out Astral Weeks or Veedon Fleece you’ll hear some of that seeping through. I feel like some of my best songs are the ones that just come quickly, and are written in an absurdly short period of time. One of those songs is certainly Fade Away. I suppose I was trying to capture a vibe of a partly real, partly ideal imagined, but not so distant kind of day.”
Samantha is humble and sweet on stage and when she addresses the audience between songs she sounds as down to earth as the next person. She seems delightfully unchanged by the success she’s had. I ask her if she is ever tempted to write anything with more angst. “I guess when I’m really upset, I don’t like to write songs about it, because then it’s like re-opening a wound every time I play it. When I first moved to Los Angeles, I think I was definitely writing more slow melancholy tunes and was advised by everyone I met in the biz to jazz up my repertoire, to avoid being the cliché of sad girl in coffee house singing depressing songs. I think I could definitely venture back towards that territory with a little bit more style and taste in the near future. I also had a really long, rough year that I need to get out, so rest assured, the minor chords and existentialist bad poetry is coming!”
Even if she does write an album full of songs with minor chords and existentialist bad poetry, the odds are that it’s going to sound fantastic.