Kashena Sampson

There are some graveyards of the soul that simply will not submit to being whistled by....
Kashena Sampson : Q&A
Kashena Sampson : Q&A

There are some graveyards of the soul that simply will not submit to being whistled by. The junkyard jets of past loves, forgotten lives, and former selves will gracelessly zombie-crawl out of the ground within any contrived hiding places, like rabid robber barons, and quickly make minor chord desolation out of even your best days if you are not careful. That is, unless you are Kashena Sampson, who has managed to take those unaddressed sides of oneself that will scream for blood like mental Molotov cocktails and turn them into the music of the terroir, as she has done on her latest full-length release entitled Time Machine, out via New Moon Records as of September 10th.

In the folky fields beyond the fun-house mirrors and the benighted cities of the innermost spirit, Sampson has clearly learned to cultivate a different kind of grief-grape, and she makes a sun-shy audio wine from her personal struggles that anyone can take a lucky dip through and discover something worthwhile about their own roads to perdition.

No one-note lullaby, Kashena Sampson is a one-woman eau-de-middle-finger to the ferocity and velocity of the wolf at the door. She covers a song like “Hello Darkness” by Dutch phenoms, Shocking Blue, and her voice is like pigment to porcelain. There is a lovelorn equanimity in her style that makes anything she sings land like the soundtrack to an unwritten film about soft bangers. A Nashvillian by way of Los Angeles with root-origins in Las Vegas means that Sampson is no stranger to the rockier rhymes of the working musician or the sacred scam artists of the streets, but also that she can put in a shift at the bright-lights party any day.

Since 2017’s Wild Heart, Sampson has rendered a Linda Ronstadt-swirled-with-Cafe-Wha? style of emotive sound that bears tinges of the dark, but never in spirit. Her chant may come from the clobber of life, but the song she builds around it will be haloed in sunbeams. QRO was gleeful at the chance to Zoom away the zombies with spritely Ms. Sampson recently and quickly got down to the nitty gritty on how to make eaglet-art out of those knottier tail-over-teakettle moments:

Kashena Sampson

QRO: Hey there, lady! Thanks so much for taking this time with us today after what I know has been a busy and productive chapter for you!

Kashena Sampson: Thank you! I’m super excited about it!

QRO: I know that you just dropped your latest beautiful piece of work and the first thing I’d really like to ask you, as this feels like not just a highly thought-provoking but a very thoughtful record, is what you feel like you’ve learned about yourself through your own songs this time around? This album seems extra introspective.

KS: Oh my gosh, so much. It’s interesting because the record was actually recorded in February 2019 and I sat on it for a while. All last year I didn’t really listen to it. I listened to it again when it was getting ready to be released, and that’s when I found out what the record was about! When I recorded it, I was in the midst of this horrible relationship – so codependent, so much stuff – and before the tornado that relationship ended. I went through all of this self-reflection, grief, and healing. When I sat down and listened to the record again, I realized: this is about codependency and me finding myself, and the understanding that nothing outside of me is going to fix me. That’s what all the songs are about. So, it’s almost like I was writing the songs as it was happening before I even processed it.

QRO: That’s incredible! And extremely inspiring!

KS: I don’t even feel like I’m the same person I was when I wrote this record – I’m not the same person. Even when I just go out and see people – I just used to be way more insecure and seeking validation from other people. Now, I know who I am. I love myself. I’m content. I can go out in the world and even in how I’m interacting with people, I can see it every day. I’m like, “Kashena, you really have changed – for the better.”

QRO: It sounds like Time Machine was almost your baptism by fire with your former self.

KS: It really, really was.

QRO: That comes through pretty loudly to me. I immediately thought, even on first listen, “This is a record about a transformation.”

KS: Even the way we chose to put the songs in order – it tells the whole story.

I’m like, “Kashena, you really have changed – for the better.”

QRO: Oh, that’s just so fascinating. Yet, Time Machine comes across as a very feminine record and I did notice that you’ve got exclusively women writers, right?

KS: All women! That’s the thing, I think I’ve always felt more comfortable with women. With men it was easy for me to feel intimidated or feel like I couldn’t be me. That’s what I learned from this record, actually. I dealt with all of those issues and now I don’t feel like that with my male colleagues. Before that, I felt like: “women, that’s the safe place.”

QRO: Yeah, I get that totally! So then, you did that on purpose; you specifically sought out women writers?

KS: I’ve only ever written with myself or my sister. She’s a songwriter and she’s also a very safe place; I can be me and we can tell each other when something is terrible! [laughter] So, I knew I wanted to start branching out and writing with some other people and just see how it goes. Erin Rae is like my family here. She has been my roommate for a couple of years and she’s like my sister. I had “Alone And In Love Again” and the song was pretty much done; it was just the third verse. We were just hanging out and I was like “hey, let’s look at this song, maybe we could do a third verse” and we did that – which was great. And then, I knew Kyshona Armstrong and we actually got together when I was in a relationship with this guy that was in jail!

Kashena Sampson


QRO: It happens! Especially in this country!

KS: It does! And so, Kyshona was involved with this program called Send Musicians to Prison where she would go into the women’s prison to do songwriting with them…

QRO: Yes! I love that organization and do a bit of work in support of that cause myself. That’s so cool that you’re involved with that.

KS: I mean, it was great! She asked if I wanted to be involved and was looking for someone to kind of sub in for her here and there. She’s a music therapist and at first I felt like, “I can’t do what she’s doing.” You know, because I’m sober, for a very long time. I feel like I could be more helpful in that regard with these women, talking about drugs and alcohol. I could do the songwriting too but she is really good at what she does so I think that’s why we started talking to begin with. I thought she was just the perfect person to write “I Plead Desire” with.

QRO: Most definitely! That one I wanted to ask you about as it brought up one of the most persistent questions I find myself asking a great many women artists. I guess it’s as much an observation of a philosophical dichotomy as it is a question, really. Obviously there is a part of the patriarchy that encourages women to prize romantic relationships, but do you feel like some of our inherent nature as life-givers, as Gaias of whatever sort, may actually make us bio-hardwired for a little bit more of an intense emotional experience too?

KS: Well, I think we are definitely a bit more emotionally driven than men in general – and more intuitive as well. I don’t know when I’m looking at that now with a lot of the stuff I’ve done around how I was looking at relationships before – because I haven’t had a relationship since – I would hope that I wasn’t the same person that I was. Like most of us, I grew up watching Hollywood. You get these ideas of what love and romance are. I had a friend ask me, “Is it safe to say that your idea of what love is could be expanded?” She was always encouraging me away from the classic “I’m 50% and you’re 50%” and asking, “Wouldn’t it be cool if you were 100% and you found a partner that was 100%, and together you were 200%?”

“Wouldn’t it be cool if you were 100% and you found a partner that was 100%, and together you were 200%?”

QRO: My absolute motto and mantra precisely!

KS: I had been single before and anytime I was single I’d be like, “yeah, but when I meet him, then my life will be complete, then I can live.” I don’t believe that anymore! Now, I have my life. I love my life. I’m living life and if I meet somebody my first question is, “are you going to mess this up?” That’s a whole new place for me to be. So, with “I Plead Desire” it was almost like I was holding a person emotionally hostage – and he didn’t even sign up for it! [laughter]

QRO: My phrase is very similar to yours; it is, “Are you going to make my life bigger?” Because that is your only option with me as a person who is long-since done swimming backward for anybody. So I get that, Kashena, big time! And that’s just it though, isn’t it – you have to keep a certain equation in your head no matter what the guy or potential partner is like because nobody in the picture is getting whatever time you spend together back – and that’s why that song spoke to me from such a sacred feminine aspect pretty forcefully!

KS: It was deep because that whole idea of “I need you or I’m going to die!” and then you look back and you’re like, “I don’t even know if I liked you”… [laughter] Because it wasn’t even about them; it was about me!

QRO: You’re not that cute! [laughter]

KS: Right! You ain’t that cute but I went through it with that one because that relationship was scary – very scary. It was such an awakening. I think for me the danger is that I go into a fantasy and fall in love with the potential – this idea of who the person is – and when you find out that they are not this idea, it is shattering! That’s the grief – not so much that they’re gone – but this dream of what I thought it was.

QRO: The dream is gone, right. Well, I think you have parlayed that into a truly gorgeous record. You’ve taken these gravelly experiences that we’ve all had and you’ve turned it into something really very special. Now, did you release this independently, on a label, or what’s the story there?

KS: I did it independently like my first record, which I’m very proud of. I did it under what I call “New Moon Records” and I found distribution through Symphonic, hired my own PR, and just put it out there!

QRO: I respect that to the ends of the Earth!

KS: That’s why I had to wait on it a little bit once the tornado hit, and COVID and everything, because I fund all of my music from bartending at The Basement East. That’s how I recorded all my records and did all my artwork – I paid for it in cash!

Kashena Sampson

QRO: That’s super impressive! Will you be doing any kind of touring or showcasing around this record at all?

KS: That is really my goal for this; I’m trying to get some booking. There are a couple of things that are maybe in the works. I think, with my music, there’s a specific room and a specific audience. I’ve done some shows in honky-tonks and bars and it just doesn’t go over, but I’d love to come down to Atlanta and do, is it Eddie’s Attic?

QRO: Yes! That’s a great listening room and a place where many legendary singer-songwriters like Indigo Girls and Shawn Mullins have cut their teeth – and that is also an incredible listening room, where people are really there to listen. I also read that you have a cruise background – is that correct?

KS: Yeah, so I was living in L.A. before Nashville, for a while; I think I moved out there when I was 20 or 21, and lived out there for about seven years. I never thought about a cruise ship. I didn’t even really realize that people did that. I had been doing a musical theater audition class, actually, and we made a video for the class and put it up on YouTube. I was working at this little breakfast place in L.A. – this is such a weird story! [laughter] – and I got a message from a guy that I went to college with in Vegas. He said, “Kashena the music director from Le Reve in Las Vegas wants to get hold of you; can I give him your number?” So, the music director calls me and explains that someone showed him my video, that they were looking for a girl to go out on a cruise ship and rehearsals started in two weeks! The day I had to leave to make it was the day the lease was up on my apartment, so I put my stuff in storage thinking I was going for seven months and I did it for three years!

QRO: That sounds like a truly serendipitous occurrence!

KS: It really was; it was just meant to be. It was a high-end cruise line, like 300 passengers, and I saw the entire world. I think I went to 78 different countries. It was really great practice, just doing a show every night. We did an ABBA show, an opera show, a Beatles show, a decades show – and then each of the singers had to do their own cabaret. I did ‘70s country with my guitar! I’d be doing things like John Denver and Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton. Then, every once in a while, I’d put one of my own songs in there and it was great because I was still getting used to singing and playing the guitar at the same time as I was kind of a late bloomer.

QRO: That all sounds like sheer magic! And I bet that gave you a lot of perspective that you have found useful in your writing.

KS: Yes! You’re around so many different people from so many different backgrounds. A lot of my first record was about all of that. And as much as I am like, “Oh I wish I could go to St. Tropez today,” three years was the right amount of time and I was ready for something different.

QRO: Oh, I can imagine – but such incomparable experiences to feed into your art! When you say that you were a late bloomer with your musicianship, when did you actually get into music properly?

KS: Well, I’ve always sang. I have two older sisters who are both songwriters and guitar players, and they started very young. We were in a band together growing up, doing three-part harmony, and we made a record together. Then, when I got to my teenage years, I was a rebel!

That’s what I want to do with my music. I want to be able to change the vibration in a room.

QRO: Not you, Kashena… Surely not! No way! [laughter]

KS: Oh, I was full-on like “I don’t want to be like them! I don’t even like their music!” I was listening to Babes in Toyland and Nirvana and was like, “You guys are lame!” [laughter] That’s why I moved to L.A., actually; I was just determined to be different from my sisters. I got my guitar on my sixteenth birthday and I was obsessed with The Beatles. I would sit in my room and I would play along to all of The Beatles’ records. That’s when I really started. Then, I kind of put the guitar down for a minute because I was partying and when you’re partying you’ve got no time for music!

QRO: No time for practicing!

KS: Right! Then, when I moved to L.A., I got sober. I remember my sister and my brother-in-law coming out to see me and him saying, “Kashena, you should really dust off your guitar and start playing again.” At that point, I was sober and I was trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do – and I just fully realized that what I wanted to do was write songs. My sisters had been writing songs since they were eight years old so I was no longer in that mode of not wanting to be like my sisters! I had a friend out there named Tommy Peacock – he’s awesome – and he would get together with me and teach me things, like even how to string my guitar – everything I needed to know! That year before I went on the cruise ship, I would go to work, come home every night and, for hours, just learn songs. Joan Baez. Joni Mitchell. Watching music documentaries and every night learning a new song, figuring out fingerpicking, all of it!

QRO: I find it so interesting that you went from that period of swirling around not knowing what you were going to do and into this intense focus, disciplining yourself every night like that to play.

KS: Yeah, and that was mostly because it was now my own thing and it wasn’t being pushed on me – because I have taken vocal lessons my whole life but I used to dread them – and also at that time in L.A. I found a vocal coach who really helped me to understand my voice. He changed my voice, and it was almost like science of the mind. All of a sudden, my whole voice opened up and I could just…sing! I have my warm-up tapes that he gave me, and I warm up with those still before all of my shows.

QRO: Those kinds of teachers that show you new aspects of your own body and mind are some of our most important connections in this world, I think! Which leads me to my last question for you: what is it that drives you to make music? What do you love most about it?

KS: Oh man, that’s a really good question! Okay, so from a listener’s point of view, I’ve always loved music because of my relation to the emotions. I think that’s mainly why we love music, right? You’re going through something and there’s that one song. I would listen to Fleetwood Mac’s “Storms” endlessly during my first heartbreak and you just feel it. Even a guitar riff by itself can do that – and that’s what I want to do with my music. I want to be able to change the vibration in a room. That’s what music does; it heals. Even if it’s “I took that person away from whatever is going on in their life for 30 minutes” or “I helped them to process some stuff in that 30 minutes.”

QRO: Well exactly, what bigger gift could you give anyone, honestly? Love it, Kashena! I want to thank you so much for taking this time as it has been a real joy talking to you!

KS: Thank you so much! This has been such a pleasure getting to talk to you and I will definitely look forward to seeing you when I come to play in Atlanta.

QRO: I’ll be the one with the glitter down the front! Best of luck on all of your musical endeavors and I can’t wait to see you do your sonic siren thing out on the road!

Keep up with forthcoming tour dates for Kashena Sampson on Twitter and via updates on her official site.

-photos courtesy of Bridgette Aikens and Laura Partain

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