A combination of intimate lyrics and lush instrumental texture, “With You” the latest release from Sammy Jackson (BMusPerf 2013) is a powerful exploration of love, broken relationships, and vulnerability. In collaboration with fellow songwriter alumna Jacqueline Teh (MMus 2018, BMusPerf 2016), Jackson has created a stunning EP that effortlessly combines elements of Pop, R&B, and Jazz with deeply emotive lyrics. I met up with Sammy to discuss the birth of “With You,” her creative process, and the spirit of collaboration behind this release.
This Interview with Sami Anguaya has been edited and condensed.
I am very curious about the story behind “With You.” Did you start the project with certain themes in mind and the songs came second? Or did you have the songs already written and notice there was a connection between them afterwards?
It was half and half for sure. So basically, I had gone through a period where I wasn’t that engaged with music. I was doing some performing and teaching, but I was also finishing another degree in Linguistics and Spanish. Around that time I was very uncertain of what I wanted to do and very unsure of myself. But through all of that, I had this growing feeling in the back of my mind that I wanted to pursue music and release something new.
So I had been writing a few songs here and there but nothing too concrete or finished. Eventually, I decided on the goal of releasing an EP. I figured out the themes I wanted to convey and decided to work with some of the songs that I had already written. From there I wanted to bring in a collaborator for the project - sometimes two heads are better than one! I was very interested in what the experience of collaboration could create.
How did your partnership with Jacqueline Teh come about? What was it like collaborating with her on this EP? Was it hard to share personal experiences in the songwriting process?
I met Jacqueline Teh in the Jazz program at U of T when I was in my fourth year and she was starting her first. Right from the start I was very impressed by her, she would bring in original music to our Vocal Jazz Ensemble and arrange it too! I just thought that that was so impressive for a first year. I noticed we had a similar vibe and I really liked her writing style, so I thought it would be great to team up and see what we could create together.
In terms of the songwriting process, even if I know the person really well, collaboration can be scary. Especially as a singer, you can have insecurities feeling like you don’t know enough (that you are writing boring chord progressions or even bad lyrics!). It can be difficult to get past those insecurities. So when we were working together, sometimes I would be nervous to share my ideas. But I know that to grow and get where you want to go, you have to put yourself in uncomfortable situations. I kept telling myself, “I’m uncomfortable, but this is what I want to write about,” and that helped me communicate in the writing sessions. It was especially challenging because the song ideas I had were very personal. The song “Past Tense” is a story about my husband and I, and how I was feeling insecure early on in our relationship. Another very personal one was “Bad Reception,” which is about a friendship that disintegrated because of a relationship. So yeah, it was scary to share these things but I kept focusing on our end goal and what we were going to create.
What role does instrumentation play in your songwriting and what sounds inspire you?
The sounds that inspire me really depend on the song. Sometimes there is a clear vision of what the arrangement is going to be and other times we workshop it. The players that recorded on this album, I’ve been playing with forever. We all know each other so well and they’re really familiar with my music and what I’m going for. Because of this, sometimes when I bring them a song, the instrumental parts seem to write themselves. So the majority of the time, I’m not giving them very specific instructions, just a lead sheet with a description of what I’m feeling.
With the song “With You,” I actually did have a very specific idea of what I wanted the arrangement to sound like. I wanted the song to be like someone walking through a park passing a bunch of trees, or driving by a forest. So in that case, we wrote a lot of parts with the guitar and piano apregiating, and I wanted more of a triad sound rather than major 7th chords. So sometimes the music takes life that way, but other times I bring the band a skeleton of some patterns I like and we go from there.
Something that interested me from reading your website was the idea of musical fusion. I wanted to ask, what roles do genre & fusion play in your songwriting process?
I would say genre is definitely a part of my process. So for myself, growing up, I wasn’t really exposed to Jazz. It was only when I decided to pursue music in University and prepare for my audition that I started listening and learning. Prior to that, it was mostly R&B and Pop that was ingrained in my singing and what I was exposed to.-
With my writing, I sort of come at songs from a Jazz perspective but not really (but sort of!). What I mean by that is I use a lot of 7th chords, so in that sense it’s “Jazz” — but my forms still come from my R&B/Pop background. So in my process, I’m definitely drawing from all of these influences.
On the singing side, having studied Jazz for four years, I’ve definitely adopted some stylistic features which find their way into my melody writing. However, there are other times where I belt it out or do runs and those are definitely coming from my other influences. Essentially I try to draw from all areas of my toolkit.
“With You” is available for streaming on Apple Music, Spotify, Google Play and for sale at https://www.sammyjackson.com.
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