BY ZIVIT SHLANK Composer, vocalist and songwriter Samantha Rise possesses a style, grace and complexity. Her musical gifts can be heard in the groups Ellipsis Trio, Erroneous Krunk, The Fractals and In One Wind, among others. Be it an interpretation of jazz standards, classic rock repertoire a la The Beatles, or her own soulful poetic folk, Rise’s unique voice crosses musical worlds and interweaves them rather seamlessly. Her original music marries her love of jazz with shades of folksier, funkier hues. From Billie to Bjork, Rise is unafraid to explore it all. You can check her out at 8 PM tonight at World Café Live.
PHAWKER: When I first read that you’re from Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, I immediately thought “small town America, middle of nowhere.” But no, it’s right outside of Milwaukee, and I was pleasantly surprised to see what a rich, eclectic music scene and history the city has. That must’ve been really inspiring early on.
SAMANTHA RISE: My mother and my grandfather are both phenomenal singers and actors. My mom’s a terrific dancer, too and was really into musical theatre. I had some really great mentors performance wise that showed me the ropes early on. My town was a very traditional suburban space, but truly extraordinary. We were really lucky. Milwaukee, yeah, there’s a lot of history there. It was like you could be a big fish in a small pond. I got to perform at a lot of the jazz clubs and music venues that drew big names and tours like the Jazz Estate. New York and L.A. bands came through there, so I got exposed to a lot. I also had a show on Sunday nights opening up at the Pabst Theatre, and that was an incredible experience. I was also playing trombone and singing in a Ska band called 3 Blocks to Murdock. I got gigs including ones opening for Reel Big Fish and Less Than Jake. Terrell Stafford, whose director of Jazz Studies at Temple University, came to my school and did workshops. He was the reason why I came to Philly.
PHAWKER: What got you hooked on jazz beyond just doing the seemingly requisite school band, choir and theatre activities? Was it a particular artist or experience that tipped the scale?
SAMANTHA RISE: I got into the jazz band as a singer in freshman year, which doesn’t happen very often. My peers were incredible, writing original music and putting it out there. We’d go to the public libraries in Milwaukee County and check out 20 CDs at a time. I started really digging into Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, but it was mostly Ella that blew my mind. It was a game changer for me, the way she approached music. She sounded like an instrumentalist, and you could hear that she could see music the way the guitar player or piano player saw it. She also had this unparalleled ability to narrate or sing a story, but she also broke my heart.
PHAWKER: Oh yeah, the inspiration is always there as long as you always seek it out. And in some cases, it finds you.
SAMANTHA RISE: I love taking instrumental music and putting lyrics to it. Like Sam Rivers, for instance, was an incredible musician, composer. He produced these really lush, harmonic ideas and beautiful melodies. Studying his music and putting lyrics to it, there was mystery and discovery that was unearthed, trying to approach these sounds in a new way is what makes music for me.
PHAWKER: So I know you’re venturing away from the standards and focusing more on your music. You’ll always love them and they are “standards” for a reason, they set the bar really high and are great learning tools. With respect to your original music, what styles and themes are you intent on exploring?
SAMANTHA RISE: I’ll always love singing standards because they have this ability to express moments in a way that you’re totally taken by. I really gravitate towards that type of storytelling. The music I make is hard to put anywhere, there are so many different elements that kinda draw from every era , sound and style. Text, literature, poetry are so powerful to me. Songwriting becomes in a way a craft, putting together an idea. I’ve been experimenting a lot with melody paired with spoken words into the song, which has been really fun and the closest to what I see myself continuing to do. I definitely feel like at its core, I’m really drawn to simple, folk elements and organic sounds. The concept of an American folk song or a children’s lullaby, it’s simple sounds that are easy to listen to. A lot of my songs are about family, about where I grew up with my entire extended family nearby. There’s also unrequited love, feeling as though you don’t necessarily fit. In my life, the most heartbreaking experiences I’ve had were feeling like the odd man out. Someone that doesn’t fit in and the frustration with that, but also coming to terms with a lot of the mistakes and the hard decisions that I’ve made. Singing is reaching out; a magical connection occurs between the audience and me. I’m extending myself, placing it in front of someone else and seeing what they can do with it.
PHAWKER: With that being said, what can we expect from tonight’s co-billed World Café show with you and Alex Day?
SAMANTHA RISE: Alex will be singing reciting poetry during my music, and I’ll be singing along on some of her tunes. I’ll be performing some of the stuff that’s on my soundcloud site. I’ll also be rearranging some Joni Mitchell, some Damien Rice and even a Nat Adderley tune called “Never Say Yes”, which first appeared on the album The Swingin’s Mutual with Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley. There will be a couple more up-tempo dance tunes, too.. And Alex, of course, will be throwing down her amazing repertoire of music as usual. It’s going to be a celebratory night of music. I’m looking forward to it.