JD Samson photo via The Agency Group.
I danced to JD Samson's music years before I knew her name. As part of the Le Tigre trio, Samson's punky pop-friendly beats and vocals thumped across all my friend's high school mixtapes. Now, the proudly queer and feminist performer is releasing Labor, the second album of her Brooklyn-based band MEN. It's an upbeat, fiery electronic album that you can put on repeat three times in a row and still want to hear again. You can pre-order the album now, BTW.
I talked with Samson in September about activism, making money, and her very first band.
SARAH MIRK: Can you tell me about the process of making this new album? What do you feel good about and what parts were frustrating?
JD SAMSON: It was really hard to make honestly. It was kind of a complicated time, that band itself had kind of changed members and we were trying to find ourselves and find our meaning, I think, through the writing of this record. On the one hand, we wanted to appeal to a larger audience and stay away from being exclusive to our community, but we also wanted to stay ourselves and continue working with radical politics. But, you know, when we came up against ourselves, that was the hardest part—to get past our internal struggles. For me, that was a lot of my job versus my work, trying to make money and make work that I'm proud of. I think the album in the end shows that journey, whether through lyrics or it being okay to be experimental but also attempt to make a hit song.
That idea of making money versus making work you care about is an issue for every artist, I think, but it's not something I heard in the album, which is really fun and upbeat.
From my perspective, working with outside producers was one step toward trying to make something more poppy. That was a different thing for us and the producers we work with are people who want to make pop songs. We merged into that territory, but it was exciting and cool too.
What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
When I grew up, my family wasn't very musical; my parents did not have a stereo, we did not spend time playing music or listening to music as a family. But when I was in fourth grade, we had a band in school called Seven in Heaven and a Real Cool Guy.
Ha! That's great.
It was seven girls and then our music teacher. One of the songs on the record started out there, the song "I'm Leaving." I basically sampled a line from a song we made in that fourth grade band. Obviously the meaning has changed since I've grown up, but that's the first time I remember making music.
What's the line?
The only line in the song is, "I'm leaving, going far away. I'm leaving, I wish I could stay."
Do you remember what that meant to you in fourth grade?
I didn't write the line, but I've been in touch with all those people while writing this song. I wanted to ask permission, but they thought it was funny that I even remembered it at all. The funny thing about me and music is I have a really interesting sense of memory with it, I live my life with pop music as jumping off points for memories in my life. That song for me, I think I thought of it as a song about moving away or going to a new school, maybe missing the person you're going steady with as you move away. My experience of leaving is really intense now, because I go on tour all the time, my life is all about coming and going. So with that song, I shifted all the intention to come from there and with it being the last song on the record, it's like, this is a story and this is the end.
So you started making music in fourth grade—what were you like musically in high school? That must have been in the nineties, were you involved with punk or riot grrrl scenes back then?
I graduated from high school in '96, so before that, I was experimenting with every counterculture there ever was: riot grrrl, hippie, punk, whatever. I grew up in a small town in Ohio and all the outsiders hung out together. It was like one day you'd go to a metal show, one day you'd go to a punk show, one day you'd go to a hippie show. So my experience with music in high school was varied and just basically counterculture. Then in college, that was where I first recognized the queer and feminist parts of that counterculture and I had a huge community that I didn't have before. That's when I started focusing on my feminism and queerness, whereas before I was just a weirdo freak.
How do you think it affected your music to start thinking about queer issues and feminism?
I took classical guitar when I was in high school and then when i was in school, I didn't make music but I set up shows. I think that is a large part of where my music making and community come from now, from creating spaces for riot grrrl shows on campus and building a community. I was the Queer Student Union president and was visible that way in college. I just kind of moved from that space into my role as a musician in a very comfortable way.
When you look back on that time of being a super active person in a community, do you feel like you still take on the same role now? Like, instead of being president of the Queer Student Union, you're president of a band?
I do feel like I'm really similar. I've always lived my life similar to a politician or something in the sense that you are friends with everyone and your job is to like keep everyone happy and make sure everyone's getting along all the time. That's something I've struggled with in my life, because you can't have all the answers and sometimes you mess up, but I consider my activism to come from the same place, from trying to keep peace and understanding among different groups of people who should be hugging.
How do you feel like the music you make embodies that activism?
I think most of the time I'm really sincere and I think that's where a lot of my activism comes from, actually. If you're compassionate and sincere and you have intention with your words and feelings and you're kind and generous, that's the key. I think I put that in my music. In the end, everyone has a story to tell. As long as everyone can listen as hear that and hold it wherever they can, it's beautiful.
So you're coming from a similar place with your intention toward music compared to back when you were setting up shows on campus, but now you've got years of experience behind you and producers and professional musicians and a label. Does that make it different?
Whatever is in the core is still the core. It's great to have producers and a label and all that, but in a lot of ways I feel like I was more alive then. I know that's a weird word to use, but I feel like I was embodying the idea that there was so much out there in the world that was available to me and I was so excited to go out there and do my thing. Having producers and a label and everything sounds really great, but in the end, we paid our own money for this record and we're in debt and we have to pay our producers and we don't have that money. You know what I mean? It's kind of a bummer. I kind of wish I was the queer student union president right now.
I would look at where you are now and think, "Wow, she's so successful. She must be at least, like, making money as a musician." But what you're saying is, "It's a really hard life."
Yeah, I think that comes across in both MEN records. For me at least, when I look at it as a whole, I think "Oh, this record's so fun!" But when I look at each song individually, I'm like, "Whoa, I'm so depressed." It's a reality check for myself. I think the main thing is realizing that, for the most part, it's hard. It's hard to be a working artist in New York City. It's hard to be a working artist anywhere. It's hard to be freelance. It's hard to be an adult. It's hard to know whether or not your art is good.
Want more music? Check out our recent interview with Kathleen Hanna.