Meet Best New Artist Grammy Nominee Samara Joy

Samara Joy McLendon is feeling all of her middle name in this moment: The 23-year-old jazz singer — who performs under her first and middle names — is up for Best New Artist as well as Best Jazz Vocal Album (Linger Awhile) at the 65th Annual Grammy Awards, which will take place on Sunday, February 5, at Arena in Los Angeles.

Born in The Bronx, Joy went on to attend Fordham High School for the Arts and then studied jazz as a voice major at SUNY’s Purchase College. And, as if the ancestors were especially blessing her journey, she won the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition in 2019. Here, Joy reveals how she received her Grammy love, who she’s stanning for on music’s biggest night (um, hello, Beyoncé!), and what she owes to the legacy of Black female jazz artists.

Congratulations on your Best New Artist nomination. How did you hear about your nomination and what did you do to celebrate?

When I heard about the nomination, I was on a train home to New York from DC. And I found out because I got a whole bunch of texts saying that I had been nominated about 20 minutes before we pulled into Penn Station. But I couldn’t say anything until I got off the train — I didn’t want to freak anybody out. But I freaked out on the Amtrak platform as soon as I got [to New York].There’s a video: I was dancing, I was running around. It was, like, one of the greatest moments of my life. I was too excited.

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Besides yourself, obviously, who else are you rooting for at the Grammys?

I gonna be like Issa Rae: I’m rooting for everybody Black. But I know for a fact Beyoncé is definitely gonna get Album of the Year [for Renaissance]. Like, that’s no question … I would literally carry her dress on the red carpet. I don’t care — I’ll do it.

So who’s your lucky Grammy date?

My little brother Zachary. He loves to play electric bass, like my dad. My dad was the main influence when it came to discovering and loving music. And my grandparents had a choir. So my formative years were spent listening to my family’s music with my grandparents and my dad.

As a young person growing up, how did you get into jazz? It’s not necessarily what the other kids are doing.

I started listening to jazz towards the end of high school. People like Lalah Hathaway really inspired me vocally. And I listened to the Yellowjackets, I listened to George Duke, Donny Hathaway, Chaka Khan, Anita Baker.

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You must be turning on younger audiences from your generation to jazz.

Yeah, it’s been nice introducing people to my voice and the music that I do. They’re like, “You remind me of a time that I’ve never lived in before.” I enjoy it.

What do you think when you get compared to Sarah Vaughan? I mean, she’s considered one of the greatest singers— jazz or whatever — of all time.

I am very honored that people think that. I definitely tried to emulate her in a lot of ways when I first was getting into learning how to sing jazz. I was, like, listening to her all the time — not even necessarily to copy her, but just to immerse myself in the sound, in her feel, her phrasing and that kind of thing. So yeah, I’m honored by it. I still think I have a long way to go before I could ever reach that level of mastery, but I really appreciate when people say that because she was one of my biggest influences.

Do you feel like this is gonna be your lane? Or do you feel like you might try other types of music as well?

The thing is, I really love where I’m at. And I love the fact that I feel like I can grow in this lane. But I also think that I am 23, and I grew up with a lot of influences. Jazz is now as much a part of my identity as those influences are as well.

Where are you finding inspiration as a songwriter?

I mean, pretty much [in] everything that I do. I’m singing melodies all the time. I’m learning melodies all the time. And so all that music is in my head. And I feel like that comes out whenever I go to the piano and I’m writing and I’m thinking about the chord progression that I want, what kind of feeling I want to evoke, the lyrics that will go best with that kind of thing. So I find inspiration in everything I do.

Is there one jazz standard that really speaks to you and captures you?

I would say “’Round Midnight” [by Thelonious Monk]. John Hendricks — an amazing African-American lyricist and singer who unfortunately passed away — wrote these lyrics to the melody that I really just felt so connected to because of the imagery. It was painting a picture of this feeling of being in love, and I just really love things like that.

Black women have such a huge legacy in the jazz world. I mean, I could go all the way down the long list of pioneers. How do you feel about being a part of that legacy of Black female jazz artists?

The legacy is deep. Each of them had their own unique voice. Think about Ella Fitzgerald and her background in the swing era, being part of a big band and being surrounded by musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Lester Young. Sarah Vaughan, being around Charlie Parker and also being in big bands before expanding on her own. Betty Carter, Carmen McRae, Billie Holiday. Like, there’s so many singers that came out of Billie Holiday. Even Mary Lou Williams — she was a pianist and a composer, and she taught Thelonious Monk. The legacy is deep — and it is important. I’m so glad to to be a child of that. You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you came from.

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