By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
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I can't stop staring at Samahra Daly's earrings. It's a recent Saturday morning and I've joined Samahra (she prefers to go by just her first, Arabic name) and her Black Blondie bandmates Liz Draper and Tasha Baron for breakfast at the Seward Cafe, but I'm having trouble following the conversation. I'm obsessed with these earrings, you see. They're huge, bright orange, misshapen rectangles and look like they're made of something spongy. They're lying heavily on the two scarves Samahra has piled upon her rather generous cleavage. Her hot-pink 1980s-era plastic shades lie on the table in front of her. She has a look that is a funky mix of burlesque singer, tarot card reader, and '80s pop princess. And I still can't figure out what the hell her earrings are supposed to be....
"I was a pimple popper and a pussy waxer."
Do You Remember Who You Wanted to Be?
What's that? Not surprisingly, I instantly snap back to attention at this rather unexpected phrase. Samahra just happens to be reminiscing about her training as an esthiologist at the Aveda Institute, but goddamn if this woman doesn't have a way of demanding your attention. Whether it's her fashion sense, the jarring words that come tumbling out of her mouth, or the music she makes with Black Blondie, Samahra's charm and mystique owe much to her unexpected nature. (Oh, those earrings, by the way, are an '80s throwback accessory known as "door knockers." Now you know.)
That unexpectedness permeates the debut album by Black Blondie, Do You Remember Who You Wanted to Be? Samahra, Draper, and Baron (along with recently departed drummer Kahlil Brewington) mash together alternative R&B, dub, '80s synth rock, hip hop, and more. The result is a sound that is genuinely—honestly—unique, but that maintains an organic, seamless sensibility. It's often eerie, foreboding, and somehow still sexy. It feels naughty, yet it's morose. It's the soundtrack to a desert caravan where wafts of opium smoke entice you while the cries of wolves in the darkness send shivers up your spine.
"I always write about really personal things. There are very few songwriters that I can really appreciate their honesty. My mom died last year, so a lot of the stuff I was writing about was going through the emotions of grieving," Samahra explains. "I like writing about being pissed off. It just comes way more easily to me than writing about nice things. I want to write some joyful, hopeful shit, but we'll see about that."
The album's title, Do You Remember Who You Wanted to Be?, is something that Samahra says her mom would often ask her. While most of us spent our childhoods vacillating between wanting to be an astronaut one day and a veterinarian the next only to end up in a fabric-covered cube, the members of Black Blondie are staying true to their lifelong ambitions. Samahra's mom would no doubt be proud.
Although Black Blondie "officially" formed in 2006, Draper and Baron have known each other since they were teens (they're in their late 20s now), and once upon a time played in a youth symphony together (both went on to earn degrees in music from the U of M). As for the band's name, it is indeed an homage to that Blondie, but the "Black" in their name is suggestive of the dark, brooding undertone of their music.
"I've always been a fan of Blondie's swagger," Samahra says. "But most of the stuff I've written about so far has been pretty dark; there are a lot of dark, ambient things about our music."
When you hear Samahra's voice, the comparisons to the likes of Amy Winehouse and Macy Gray are obvious and understandable. But although her voice is often bawdy, taunting, and gritty, it can effortlessly downshift to be sensual, intimate, and lilting. This woman has enormous talent.
The absence of guitars on the album results in a sound that is both stark and meaty. Baron's adventuresome piano, organ, and synth work fills the void and creates a vast otherworld of sounds (without using any actual samples), and Draper's intelligent bass playing, both upright and electric, is so confident it's almost a turn-on.
Black Blondie are equally expert at knowing just when and where to switch things up. "For the Taste," a rambunctious and soulful track, transitions perfectly into "Candy Cigarettes," spooky and ethereal with a Ray Manzarek "Riders on the Storm" vibe to it (and Roma di Luna's Channy Moon Casselle singing backing vocals). "Bye Polar Bear," with its '80s electro flavor and disco beats, is followed by the sleepy, reggae-influenced "Dressed to Kill a Mockingbird."
"There is rarely a time when Liz or Tasha plays something when I don't find it perfect," Samahra says.
Black Blondie have all the dreams and aspirations that you want a band with this level of talent and artistic ingenuity to have...and hopefully achieve. But in typical Samahra fashion, she explains why we won't have to worry about the band relocating to the East Coast anytime soon.
"I kept getting naked on the street while on tour in New York, but no one in New York seems to care when you are in your underwear on the street," she bemoans, recalling hopping out of their vehicle for a quick change of clothes. "I was like, 'I can't live in this city if no one will pay attention to me.'"
BLACK BLONDIE will play a CD-release show with M.anifest, Chastity Brown, and DJ Turtleneck on FRIDAY, APRIL 17, at the TRIPLE ROCK SOCIAL CLUB; 612.333.7399