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Journey of a Wild Heart: Introducing Kashena Sampson

Thursday, 31 May 2018 Written by Simon Ramsay

She may have been mentioned by Rolling Stone magazine in the same breath as Stevie Nicks, and already had her music compared to Linda Ronstadt, Bobbie Gentry and Jim Croce, but Kashena Sampson is capable of standing on her own two feet. Her debut album, ‘Wild Heart’, showcases a singer-songwriter whose artistic authenticity and integrity is increasingly rare in Nashville these days.

From the Beatles, Janis Joplin, and Roy Orbison to Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and southern rock stalwarts the Marshall Tucker Band, Sampson has drawn inspiration from the finest artists of the 1960s and ‘70s to create a vintage sound.

With a flair for autobiographical storytelling to the fore, and a powerhouse voice that fuses Ronstadt’s Americana soulfulness with Nicks’ ethereal vibrato, ‘Wild Heart’ offers passionate and smouldering Laurel Canyon balladry, country romps and a truly jaw dropping rendition of traditional number Motherless Child.

The Nashville based songwriter is currently in the UK to play a number of shows, including The Slaughtered Lamb and Red Rooster festival, and we spoke to her about battling back from some dark days, remaining steadfastly true to her principles and sweating blood to make ‘Wild Heart’ a reality with little help from anyone else.

Let’s go back to the beginning. At what age did you start singing, playing the guitar and writing songs?

I grew up in a musical family. I have two older sisters who both sing, play the guitar, write music and we were in a band together. When I was 11 we recorded our first record. I started playing the piano when I was younger.  I got my first guitar when I was 16 and remember getting the Beatles Anthology book and sitting every day playing along to their records in my room. I really started focusing on it in my 2os and started writing songs later in life. My sisters always wrote but I never did until about 10 years ago.

You’ve been called a reformed wild child. When did you begin drinking and taking drugs and what led you down that road?  

I was 15. I grew up in Las Vegas from high school onwards and just started partying. I didn’t know when to stop and it got out of control. I was going off the handle and got mixed up with a bad crowd. I wasn’t focused on my music because I was so focused on partying. I was a little lost, like a lot of people are in those years.  

I moved back to Los Angeles and the first year there I was by myself. I had nobody that was really watching me like ‘she has gone crazy let’s throw her in the car and get her home.’ I knew there was a problem and the friends I had made kept mentioning that they were there if I wanted help. It got to the point where I woke up one day and said ‘I need some help, what do I do?’

How long have you been sober for?  

It’s been 11 years now and my life is better than it’s ever been. I was never living on the streets or anything. I came from a really good family, but since I stopped I’m a lot happier, I can look at life in a different way, with a different perspective, and instead of using drinking and doing drugs I meditate and write songs. I’ve used music as a way to relate, to compare my feelings and I try to do that in my songwriting so it can benefit somebody else.

You said you were a late starter as a songwriter. What inspired you to begin?

I was living in LA, had a lot of musician friends, and just started practicing the guitar a lot and writing lyrics. I’m a singer and was singing other people’s songs. I figured it would be nice to do my own. They don’t come that easily to me, I don’t write songs for quantity, I write for quality. It’s usually whenever something is happening and I’m observing things in life. Usually a line or lyric will come and then I sit down and try to get the emotion of what I’m talking about. It’s easy to understand the emotion I’m trying to convey and I take the time to find the right words to get that across.

How far back do the songs on ‘Wild Heart’ go?

She Shines was the first. That took me a little over a year to finish. I was living with a man, we broke up and I had my own place for the first time. That’s where I really got into my guitar playing and songwriting and a lot of songs on the record were about relationships I’d had. So it took about four years writing all the songs for ‘Wild Heart’. Then I got a job singing on a cruise ship.  

That’s quite a detour.

I didn’t audition or anything. I was just wanting to do my music, sing and be able to pay my bills. I got a random call from a guy I went to college with who said ‘this music director’s wanting to get hold of you’.  This guy called and was like ‘we think you’re great would you want to go on a cruise ship?’ It was really good pay and good being able to travel. So doing that gave me time to write and have a lot of experiences to write about.

How did you end up moving to Nashville in 2015?

My goal, even before I went on the ship, was to write songs and make this record. After I was done I went home to Las Vegas for a year and lived with my sister to figure out what was next.  A couple of friends said ‘you should really go to Nashville with your sound and what you do. I think that’s a good fit.’ I thought about going to New York, tried that and it didn’t work out. I kind of go with the energy of the universe and what feels right. Pursuing music is difficult no matter how you’re doing it but there’s fighting against energy or going with the flow and I try to go with what feels right.

So I was singing in Vegas at the time and everybody just kept mentioning Nashville to me. Everywhere I went people would be like ‘Nashville Nashville Nashville’. I’d be like ‘why do people keep telling me this? Maybe I should look into it’. There was a girl I’d met and she was saying ‘I’m going to be moving to Nashville in October and I’m looking for a roommate.’ I just said ‘what the hell, I’ll go. I’ll be your roommate. What’s there to lose?’ Nashville seemed like a place I could really dig in and see what can happen with my music.

There aren’t many better places.

If you want to be a musician you go hang out where musicians are and you learn. ‘I need to make a record. How do I do that? I need someone to help me promote it. How do I do that?’ The people are here so the resources are here. I look at Nashville, especially East Nashville, as a big music school campus. You run into people every day and when you have a question about something it’s ‘Hey, call this person that might be able to help you with that’. So you learn how to get things done and that’s what I did

How did co-producer Jon Estes help make your album a reality?

I had talked to a bunch of different people and they were going to be way too expensive for me. People were like ‘20 grand’ and I was like ‘There’s no way I can come up with that kind of money.’ I funded my record from bartending. I saved my tips and paid for my entire record.  

A lot of friends kept telling me to check out The Bomb Shelter. I went over there and it was an awesome space. The owner, Andrija [Tokic], was like ‘We understand. This community is a bunch of independent artists so unless you have a record label we know you don’t have 20 grand to make a record. We’ll work with you and help you make a recording you can afford in a good time frame. Send us the songs you have.’

And that’s how I got in contact with Jon. He called me and was like ‘your music’s amazing. It sounds like something straight out of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and I hear strings, I hear organ…’ and I said ‘That’s exactly what I hear too.’ It was the first time I talked to someone about my music where we were agreeing on everything.

Then we figured out who I could get to play on the record and he suggested Jon (Radford, drums) and Jeremy (Fetzer, guitar). I made them a playlist of my influences, the sound I was going for, and they went ‘Yep, totally get it.’ We went in and in two days all the songs were tracked. Just live takes. After that Jon and I did overdubs together. We knew the songs we wanted strings on so Jon and his wife wrote up the string arrangements and recorded that. Then myself and my roommate Erin Rae did background vocals, we did the mixing and sent it off to mastering. It was pretty amazing how easy it went.

Some artists don’t like being described as retro but you seem to embrace it.

That’s the sound I’m going for. It’s real, raw and honest and songwriting doesn’t get much better than that. It’s what I grew up listening to and what I still listen to today. I don’t really know a lot of new music. I did some demos around Nashville, before I ended up at The Bomb Shelter, trying to find a sound.  I know what I don’t like and when it would sound like contemporary pop country was like ‘This is not at all what I’m going for’. I have a rock ‘n’ roll base but that is from the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Greasy Spoon is a spirited romp. What’s the story behind it?

I wrote that when I first moved to Nashville. I moved to town with about $1000. That’s all I had. So I was like ‘I need to get a job. I need to get one fast.’ So I got a job at this little breakfast place in East Nashville. It was just this little dive and on the way back from the interview I started singing the song in my head about that restaurant. It was a terrible job. Horrible. I lasted three weeks and then got a job at a music venue. I got paid 50 bucks just to sit at the front door and finished the song one night, sitting outside in a storm working the door.

What can you say about the song Wild Heart?

That was about a situation with a man I’d known for a long time. We were both in the same position, that a relationship would be nice, but right now I’m focused on having to follow my music and don’t need the distraction. When I get into a relationship I lose my focus so that song was about that and the fear of being in a relationship and what it could be. It just came from a journal entry I’d written. Nothing ever happened with that relationship but I got that song from it.

Artists often say you have your whole life to write your first record and a fraction of time to make the follow up. So how are you finding that challenge?

I have about six new songs for the next record. Sometimes I’ll write a song in a couple of hours, some take a couple of days. I usually write by myself or with my sister and I’ve done a co-write with another woman in town. That’s a new thing for me too, going out and writing with other people. I guess I can try it right? You learn different things you wouldn’t have thought of doing.  

I also want to stay true to my sound, which I think I’ve been able to do with these new songs. I’m looking to record at the end of the summer and hoping that, financially, I’ll be able to do that. The expenses out here are a lot higher than when I first moved to Nashville. I have a new single coming out at the end of the summer that I recorded with Jon a couple of months ago called Work of Art and then I’m planning on recording the next record.

Most people want their music to be popular but it sounds like you’re truly motivated by producing great art and not commercial success?

Yes, that’s correct. I want to make music I’m proud of and that people are gonna like. It would be great to be able to survive financially off of my art, but I’m not willing to sacrifice my art in order to do that because I wouldn’t be happy. I believe there’s different avenues people can take as artists to be creative and happy with what they’re creating and still be able to live. It might not be a big old house on a hill but as long as I’ve got food in my stomach and a roof over my head and I’m happy, that’s the main thing.

Kashena Sampson Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Thu May 31 2018 - LONDON Slaughtered Lamb
Sun June 03 2018 - HALIFAX Lantern
Mon June 04 2018 - SHEFFIELD Greystones
Wed June 06 2018 - BRIGHTON Prince Albert

Click here to compare & buy Kashena Sampson Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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