Samantha Martin is a musical chameleon. She first showed off her soulful vocals on her 2004 EP entitled ”Fade”, followed in 2008 by her terrific full-length debut album ”Back Home”, which contained her loving tribute to Janis Joplin fittingly entitled “Pearl”. Samantha then took off in a rootsy-rockabilly direction for the eponymously titled Samantha Martin & The Haggard in 2012 before settling into a groove with her current gospel and soul-based backing band Delta Sugar. Their first album, 2015’s “Send The Nightingale”, was a stripped-down affair consisting of Samantha, her two co-singers, and two guitars. For 2018’s “Run To Me”, she elected to record her emotionally wrought material with an expanded band, augmenting the core of Delta Sugar’s gospel-infused harmonies with a full rhythm section, piano, organ and horn section. Her latest release “The Reckless One” continues on the same trajectory, and people are obviously starting to take notice as the album has garnered a 2021 Juno nomination for Blues Album of the Year. Pretty heady stuff for the Edmonton-born singer, who came to Toronto via Owen Sound.
“It was actually a longer journey than that,” she chuckles over the phone from her Toronto residence. “I was born in Edmonton and then I moved to a little town north of Owen Sound called Lion’s Head. Then my parents divorced and we moved back and forth between Lion’s Head, Owen Sound and High Prairie Alberta. I’ve got several hometowns.”
The Juno nomination feels like a reward for taking a risk and putting out a record in the middle of a pandemic. It feels really good. I came into music quite late. I’ve been playing guitar since I was seven and singing with my dad and stuff. But as far as turning it into a career and trying to write songs, I was 22 before I wrote my first song. The learning curve has been quite great. I find that the more co-writing I do with other writers the more I tend to learn at each session and improve what I’m bringing to the table because I’m not just bringing what I know. I wrote or co-wrote 11 of the 12 tracks on the new album and I think that as far as songwriting goes the new record has the strongest songs to date, so I’m thrilled about receiving my second Juno nomination.”
The record comes out of the gate really quickly with the funky horns that kick off “Love Is All Around”. The song serves notice to listeners that they better strap themselves in because this album is one heck of a ride. The number brings to mind the fine blues and R&B mix of Etta James, a performer that Samantha is sometimes compared to.
“This album doesn’t have as many quiet moments as the last few, and we kind of wanted to come straight out of the gate and let people know that this record was going to be a party,” she says. “We had a hard time trying to decide the tracklist order because there were so many potential candidates as openers. We chose “Love Is All Around” because it’s got a great message, it’s super fun and it sort of sets the tone for what the record’s about.
I love the Etta James reference point because I’m a huge fan. I know I don’t sound like her in the sense of the tonality and that sort of thing, but I don’t sound like Janis Joplin either and I’m sometimes compared to her. If you put me and Janis Joplin side by side, vocally we don’t sound anything alike, but I think people are drawn to the energy and style of the vocal delivery. I get Etta James and Janis Joplin in terms of reference points as to who I sort of sound like. They’re definitely not the worst people I’ve ever been compared to, I’ll tell you that.”
The first single released from the album was “Don’t Have To Be”, a song that sounds like something that Wilson Pickett could have gotten his teeth into. Samantha explains that when she initially wrote the song with Adam Beer-Colacino and Adam Warner, they were looking for an Otis Redding, Rolling Stones, “Satisfaction” kind of vibe. The record’s producers, however, ended up pushing the tune into more of a Wicked Pickett vein. Another song that was shaped in the studio is Samantha’s sterling cover of Bob Dylan’s “Meet Me In the Morning”.
“We were in the studio and we had broken up the album into two sessions as far as laying down the bed tracks with the live band,” Samantha begins. “We flew through the songs that we had set aside for the second session and we had three hours left where I’m paying for the musicians and the studio. Rather than starting to add instrumental augmentation, we decided we would use the time to have a little fun and record a cover song. We played around with a few different options and some covers we played in our live shows but it was coming across as sounding bar band-ish. I thought it was maybe because everyone in the room was used to playing those songs so maybe we should try something completely different that we’ve never played before. I played the band the first verse of “Meet Me In The Morning” and then hit stop and said that was all I was going to give them. I think my bass player knew the song, and the guitarist played it with me once or twice in a duo setting, but the drummer and the keyboard player didn’t know it. The band didn’t really have a history with the song so I said now we’re going to pretend we’re down in New Orleans and we’re going to play the song. We came up with this arrangement and that was one take in its entirety for the bass, drums, keys and my vocals. We added the extra instrumentation and back-up vocals after the fact.”
It’s a crying shame that we’re not able to currently hear Samantha and Delta Sugar perform the record live due to Covid restrictions. The pandemic notwithstanding, this would be a formidable show to take on the road although Samantha would love to take the full band with her when things clear up.
“It all depends on how much the budget allows,” she says. “It’s definitely a goal of mine to have at least a 10-piece band on the road all the time. That would be me, the two backing vocalists, drums, guitar, bass, keys, a three-piece horn section and possibly organ. The record is very keys heavy and horn-heavy so a band that size would best serve the songs. Realistically, it’s quite hard to tour that size of a band with all of that gear. It would be an undertaking that would take a good amount of money to do. I’m going to try, put it that way. Closer to home is a lot easier to tour with that large of a band, but when you start adding in plane tickets and long distances it starts getting harder. Generally speaking we tour as a seven-piece, so no horns, unfortunately, but I find that the backing vocals are what Delta Sugar are known for and what we built our reputation on.”
The album’s second single and most intimate moment maybe “I’ve Got A Feeling” which begins with a stately organ and Samantha’s bare-bones vocal. Although the song has a gospel feel it is actually a joyous love song that contains the album’s title in one of its lines.
“I wrote that song with my guitar player Curtis Chaffey, and it came out really quickly,” she recalls. “The song is very autobiographical. I am “The Reckless One”. It’s a song I wrote the lyrics for at a time I had fallen in love and I was scared. I had just come out of a really long toxic relationship that I really needed to get out of and finally did. Then I met a man and fell in love very quickly and I was a little bit scared and tentative at the time. Curtis kind of prodded me to write the number by saying ‘How are you feeling these days?’, so it’s a song that’s very much about how I fell in love.”
Given the fact that Samantha’s name is often mentioned in the same breath as some classic soul performers, one would think that they would have been mighty influences on the singer as she was growing up. While Samantha’s parents’ and grand-parents record collections played a large role in the music that she makes, during her formative years it was video that thrilled this rock & roll star.
“A lot of the music I grew up listening to was more like Much Music style, like Lauryn Hill,” she admits. “Salt-N-Peppa was the first tape I ever bought with my own money. It wasn’t until the last five or six years that I really started to dig into the Toronto music scene. The soul scene in Toronto was much smaller than even the blues scene, and then there’s the Queen West scene that I’m really familiar with. At the time I probably knew more about a country performer like Handsome Ned than I did about 60’s Toronto soul artists like Jackie Shane.”
The album’s third single “Sacrifice’ has a rollicking beat and a great pop vocal. It sounds as if Samantha may have been channelling her inner 60’s girl group on this one.
“When I played the song for the producers in its acoustic version they immediately heard Phil Spector,” she says. “I was definitely channelling that Ike & Tina Turner “River Deep, Mountain High’ kind of vibe. One of the producers, Renan Yildizdogan, loves that kind of stuff because he grew up listening to a lot of orchestral music. He was so excited to be able to layer strings, mellotron, lots of backing reverb, and a huge band and lots of different horn lines. He was in his element. It’s funny because that song was a Rolling Stone magazine country pick of the week. When I hear it I don’t hear country music at all, but when other people hear it maybe they hear spaghetti western and I think it has a lot to do with the galloping guitar. Hey man, it’s Rolling Stone so I’ll take it.”
So maybe Samantha has come full circle and she’s ready to return to the country roots she laid down with The Haggard.
“I don’t think so,” she laughs. “As an artist, I tried on a few different genres early on in my career. There were a few different band formations and a few different bands, but the style of music I’m making now feels most at home. It’s not that I can’t sing country or rockabilly, but I find that blues, soul, R&B and rock & roll is where I feel most comfortable.”
Waterloo Ontario native Nate Haller makes his artist debut this week when he takes his first single, “Lightning In A Bottle” to country radio. You’ll know that spring has sprung when you listen to this upbeat, feel-good love song about finding new romance and the first sparks of a relationship.
On the flip side of relationship matters, 2020 CMT Next Women of Country artist Sykamore has just released a new single called “Go Easy On Me”. The song tells the hauntingly familiar story of a breakup and the lows that you go through when you know that it’s over.
Canadian-born, Nashville-based artists Mallory Johnson and Twin Kennedy recently released an empowering and inspirational duet called “Wise Women”. Now the trio has followed that up with an intimate performance video that features clips of women from across North America, many of whom have been major influences in both performers’ lives, including their mothers, sisters, friends, mentors and colleagues. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wnPAMdxvxPM
Citing old school performers like John Conlee and Stonewall Jackson as influences, you just know that you’re going to love the stone-cold country of Sudbury native JC Brae’s latest single “Savin’ It Up For Saturday Night”, now streaming on all platforms. JC’s obviously creating a bit of a buzz as the single is his first under his recently signed deal with MC1 Nashville/Brandy Records Canada.