Grammy Nominee Samara Joy on Covering Adele and Bringing Jazz to the Forefront

Samara Joy knows how to command a room. After years of observing jazz champions like Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald from behind her computer screen and through crackling records, the 23-year-old Bronx native has become a gem of her own in New York’s modern jazz scene. Her 2022 Verve Records debut, “Linger Awhile,” is up for best jazz vocal album at the upcoming Grammys, and is both classic and fresh — which is why it also garnered the singer recognition in the best new artist category.

Having developed her vocals in echoey church choir halls, Joy’s performances have become intrinsic practices. Prior to her enrollment in the State University of New York at Purchase’s jazz program, and long before she won the Sarah Vaughn International Jazz Vocal Competition in 2019, Joy’s familiarity with jazz was close to zero.

Instead, Joy’s musical interests were piqued by the music she heard at home. Her grandparents, Elder Goldwire and Ruth McLendon, both performed in a gospel group in the ’50s, and her father was also a touring singer with gospel artist Andraé Crouch. Her childhood influences include Motown and soul, while her current playlists are comprised of smooth, silky R&B voices like Leila Hathaway and Jazmine Sullivan.

On her own 10-song set, Joy deftly exudes a level of confidence beyond her years, adding her own velvety flair to beloved melodies like “Misty” and “Can’t Get Out of This Mood,” a standard covered by Johnny Mathis, Sarah Vaughan, Julie London, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, among others. The upbeat “Sweet Pumpkin” enlists guitarist Pasquale Grasso, whose textural strings ring prominently throughout the album, for a swooning cover of a deep cut from the genre. And on “Nostalgia (The Day I Knew),” Joy proves her star power by coupling her own original songwriting with instrumental solos.

In the days leading up to the 65th annual Grammy Awards, Joy talks about writing her own music, what she thinks about her best new artist peers and her ultimate goal to make jazz more accessible to younger audiences all over the world.

One of your goals this year is to release more original music — what kind of songs are your favorite to write?

When I’m writing, it’s definitely songs that are more on the slower side because I feel like I have the space to really take my time with telling the story – I like having the ability to leave people hanging on the edge of a word like “What’s next?”

“Nostalgia,” for example, is about celebrating an anniversary with somebody, thinking about the day that you first met them — that moment when you know you’ve met someone you could spend your life with. I like thinking about those themes. Honestly, [laughs] I watch a lot of romantic comedies and those have really inspired me to put some of these thoughts to music.

How important is the history of jazz music for you? Is it something you carry into the studio, or give any thought to when writing?

For me, it’s important to come to terms with the fact that I was not born during that time. I can’t sound like the people who were popular during that time — and I don’t necessarily want to. What I love about jazz is the fact that it doesn’t have to be the same every single time.

I often find that pop stars, when they get a hit, people want to hear that hit exactly how it sounds on a record and I get that. With me, I’m cool with having no hits if it means I get to experiment and sing the song differently, playing with the arrangement and the melodies.

I imagine your childhood influences are also vastly different in comparison to what jazz singers of the past pulled from.

Yes, I grew up around a lot of different sounds so I’m drawing inspiration from all the sources that I genuinely like and who I am, the connection I share with my family. I realize how special it is that I come from a family of musicians who have molded my music taste — sometimes I find myself singing and being like “That’s something my dad would do,” and it’s a sweet reminder. This is who we are. We’re singers. That’s what we do. Thinking about my grandfather, who’s 92 years old, who started all of this. And now we get to carry it on? It’s incredible. I’m definitely not denying any parts of my identity, I want to share them all.

What was it about jazz music that stuck out to you and made you want to pursue it on a deeper level than say maybe gospel or R&B?

I didn’t know what jazz sounded like when I first got into it when I first got to college. I listened to jazz records all the time, but I remember specifically wanting to see what those singers looked like when they sang — I loved analyzing their stage presence. I used to watch YouTube performances all the time and I think it’s all in the preparation of the repertoire — the songs and arrangements, knowing the melody, and knowing what the story of the song is about.

Do you often read your own concert reviews?

Yes! I’m interested to see how [concert reviewers] describe what I do — I know what I do when I’m up there doing it, but it’s always interesting for me to see how it translates. The stage has always been the one place where I felt the most self-assured. It’s the one place where I know, ‘I’m good at this. And I enjoy this.’ I know that that kind of joy and passion will come across to people.

When I’m on stage, I think about how it’s just me and the audience — ‘What do I have to say, how can I make this special so that when they leave, they feel connected to the music.’ It’s so fun to me, the uncertainty or just the expectation of an audience’s response.

What role did social media play in your breakthrough?

I’m not the type of person that likes to post every day and maybe I’m not as active as I should be, but I share what I love. And I think that the people who follow me know that and that’s why they followed me in the first place. Sometimes, I’ll have people coming out to shows and they tell me they found my music through socials and I love it — it’s so special, but it’s not something that I’ve ever tried to force.

Are you familiar with the other best new artist nominees?

Once the nominations were revealed, I definitely went through each one and listened. I remember in particular, Tobe Nwigwe and DOMi & JD Beck — they’re great. [DOMi & JD Beck] are doing something really interesting playing their own instrumental-focused compositions, they’re collaborating with Anderson .Paak. — just the fact that they’re bringing that excitement to the spotlight is really great to see. I’m just proud, and surprised, that I’m a part of this category in the first place because everybody there is already a star.

You’ll be performing at the Best New Artist showcase the week before the Grammys — are you looking forward to all the mingling you’ll be doing?

Totally — I’ll be performing my new Spotify singles: a cover of Adele’s “Someone Like You,” which I’m really excited to perform, and a revamped version of “Guess Who I Saw Today.” We were all assigned to pick a song from a previous best new artist nominee so I’m really excited to see what everybody goes with.

What are your post-Grammy goals?

I want to write music, I want to collaborate with some more of my peers, and be in the studio. I also want to go beyond social media and really make a connection with young people and jazz — whether it’s with my high school, or in my own community — and that’s not for the sake of ‘We need to get into jazz, we need to keep it alive!’ I want to place awareness on the career options that exist, as far as agents, tour managers, and all this kind of stuff. My goal is to give back to my community… I still live in New York and I’m probably never going to move.

After the Grammys, Joy will kick off an international tour starting Feb. 11 in Northridge, Calif., followed by two shows at New York City’s Blue Note on Feb. 14 and 15.

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