JD Samson is more than a woman; she is a creative force of nature. With a new album out with her electronic music outfit MEN, aptly titled Labor, and a handful of other audio projects in the works, she has evolved considerably as an artist since her days in the feminist band Le Tigre.
Samson went from founding her high school's first Gay/Straight Alliance to becoming an international icon of the LGBT community. Gimme Noise caught up with her to talk about art and identity, before MEN's upcoming show at the Entry.
Gimme Noise: What was leaving Ohio and going to Sarah Lawrence College like?
I was like a kid in a candy store. Immediately when I got there, there were tons of lesbians hanging out, and tons of queer kids, and it just felt right. My mom always says that when we first got there she dropped me off and I was like, "See you later," and then I didn't even see her for two days. She knew that that was where I was going to go. For me, it was really exciting and I felt really lucky to be there. It was cool. I think having New York City at my fingertips was also really special.
You started working with Le Tigre as their projectionist while still attending Sarah Lawrence. Did you experience an automatic synergy with them, or did it take some convincing to officially join the band?
When I first met Jo she was like, "Wow, you're really interesting. You could be 12, or 40." That was like, the first thing I remember about Jo. Then Kathleen -- I just remember riding in the elevator with her, and I remember other people being totally like, oh my God, Kathleen is in the elevator with us. I remember being like, not starstruck about it, and confused by why everyone was so starstruck, because I knew who Bikini Kill was, but that wasn't really my scene when I was in high school. So it was confusing to me. When I started working with them it was really fun, but I didn't really know how long it was going to last. Once we started touring together it felt like, I'm in it for the long haul. We had a really good time, and we were all able to build a really good business together. It came really naturally to us, what our jobs were. We all worked really hard and it was a natural, rhythmic, organic kind of relationship.
After Le Tigre went on hiatus in 2006, how did MEN get started?
I was writing music on and off with Johanna Fateman and DJing with her under the name MEN, and we did a tour of DJ dates under the name MEN as well. At the same time I had been in a fun friendship jam band with Ginger Brooks Takahashi and Michael O'Neill, and our other friend Emily Roysdon. Basically what happened was I realized I needed to start a new project that was going to be my job, you know, and focus on it that way. Johanna actually got pregnant, and was kind of like, I can't really tour anymore. The first record was kind of a combination of the two projects. We kept the name MEN, and that was kind of how it started. We have all been working separately and together since 2007.
You wrote a blog on Huffington Post in 2011. One line that stood out was, "I live with the stress of not knowing, not planning, and not understanding whether or not I will be able to reach my goals of having a family and feeling safe financially." Where are you with that now? Have things changed?
I found the conversation that transpired afterwards to be really interesting. I thought people had some good points in terms of me being privileged previously, and also, why do I live in Brooklyn, in Williamsburg? Those are all really good points, but I think the important thing that happened was that there was a conversation about class and money and artists that hadn't really happened before in my community, and I felt really excited that that was going on. And for the most part I had a lot of people come to me and say thank you. I really just had to change the way I made my decisions...
I said something about how I don't know how to make a cup of coffee in that article, but the reality is that I can do a lot of other things, and I just need to figure out how to get paid for those things, and although that can be really demoralizing and scary, I've just been having to step towards my fears and get out of the comfort zone a little bit. Its been an interesting couple of years. I'm happy to be public about it. I think its something that's so common and normal, so its good to hear people you look up to going through the same kind of things.
You've said that you "perform" your gender. Can you talk about that a little bit?
I think that's a common way to describe gender identity in more of an academic or theoretical way. For me, talking about performing my gender feels like its in a little bit more of an academic category... I totally believe that everything I do is a performance if its outside my house. I've been thinking a lot about that recently, just in terms of my role as an icon, or something -- whatever people have put on me. I kind of got obsessed with this idea that my persona and myself are two different things, and a lot of that is in the record as well. I think that the way that I present myself to the world is natural and organic to me, and feels comfortable, but at the same time its like, it's a performance to not change it, it's a performance to go against the norm and not try and fit in. That part of it's a performance for sure.[page]
There is a lyric in the song "Take Your Shirt Off," "Memories of those ungendered dreams." What did you mean by that?
That song is kind of about my childhood, and learning about what my gender was, and what my gender expression was. I think I always thought of myself as some androgynous body when I was a kid, maybe even before I understood what gender and sexuality was all about. That song is kind of about this one time that I remember being in my backyard, and I wasn't wearing a shirt, and my Dad was mowing the lawn. My Mom yelled down, "Tell her to put a shirt on!" I remember my Dad being kind of like, "Why, who cares?" I think it was a moment where I realized my Mom was like, "Girls can't be without their shirt," or something. So that song is this memory of me kind of not understanding that I was different, but knowing that I was, subconsciously. I really love that song, too.
You touched on the "famous" JD and the "normal" JD. What are the differences and similarities between the two?
Well, I think that song "Neon Poles" is a good idea of what you're talking about, which is the idea of a duality. I think a lot of people have it, but I think its kind of more magnified when you add fame into the picture, just because you want the public to see a certain side, or its important for the public to see a certain side. In the past couple years its been just kind of complicated for me to approach thinking about things politically and personally, and trying to figure out a way to stay true to myself, but also be responsible as my persona...I've really learned that keeping my personal life personal is pretty important, and having a place that's just for me is important.
Your new album, Labor, is really personal. Does it feel vulnerable, getting up on stage and telling secrets?
This is the first record where all the sudden, I'm telling shit that I don't even tell my therapist. It does feel really weird, and its kind of mixed with the concept that, this tour, all the sudden, I'm not playing an instrument. That coupled with the content, I'm feeling really vulnerable. It's a really interesting time in terms of vulnerability and performance. I just have this image of playing in Le Tigre and singing "Visibility," which was a song about butch lesbian visibility, and I just remember looking into the crowd and feeling like these people have my back. For the most part, I consider audiences to be a really powerful, loving friend of mine.
For Labor, MEN worked with outside producers for the first time. What were differences in the recording process? Did you feel like you had different expectations?
I think this one felt a lot more like it was time to have a strategy. I mean, I think also working in the music industry...its slowly changed a lot. In 2007 when the band started, and we put out a little EP, people were still buying music a little more. It was pre-Spotify. So now its really different and you have to think really hard if you want to make money. Its been a process for sure. I think we dealt with questions pertaining to this in terms of genre, in terms of content, in terms of label, press -- a lot of the stuff that we hadn't really thought of before. We were kind of just like, we are who we are, this is it. So as much as that's hard to admit, I think it's the truth, and its important to think about when you're trying to make your art your business.
What other projects are you working on right now? You've put out some calendars in the past; are there more in the works?
I'm actually doing a lot of audio art stuff for different collaborations. I'm working on a symposium called Sex in Sound, and that is about gender and sound in music. That is going to be in New York at the City University of New York in February. I'm doing a DJ set that is not actually a DJ set. Its going to look like I'm djing, but I'm king of like, creating feminist response to the songs, whether I'm playing them backwards or adding a beat from a feminist song on top of a fucked up misogynist song. So, I'm doing that, and I'm doing sound for a performance for a dance project by Katie Pyle, and working on another sound project for this amazing artist named Laura Vitale, who did the making of our video. So yeah, I'm doing a lot of stuff like that right now, which is really fun for me. A calendar, I don't know, we talk about doing it all the time, but I'm always like, get ready for me to have grey hair! Soon! Its coming!
What kind of things do you have in store for us at you upcoming show in Minneapolis?
Well, you'll see!!
JD Samson and MEN are playing at the 7th Street Entry with Kitten Forever this Saturday, February 1. Tickets are $12 advance/$14 door, doors at 8 pm, 18+.