Samantha Urbani On What It Means To Finally Go Solo
Her name is often cited alongside her first Bushwick-born band Friends or her collaborations with Blood Orange, but Samantha Urbani is currently working on a project bearing a somewhat shocking name: Samantha Urbani. That’s right–she’s going solo.
Besides decidedly striking out on her own as a musician, she launched her own record label, URU, in response to the opportunity to re-release her all-time favorite album Running out of Time, the 1981 record by Rexy, a short-lived, obscure UK synth-pop band. As icing on the cake, Urbani–with the help of musician friends including Ariel Pink and Connan Mockasin–is also releasing a compilation of Rexy covers. Dope.
Everything that Urbani puts out is in the spirit of collaboration. She told me that she was apprehensive about using her own name, because of all of her conspirators who contribute to her project. “It feels funny to represent it as Samantha Urbani, but basically what that means is that I’m curating the whole thing,” she said. But the truth is that she’s a Lynchian auteur when it comes to her music, regardless of its title. Everything she touches has her distinct fingerprint on it–non-conformist, extreme, without taking anything too seriously. We met up for her headlining set at the Urban Outfitters x Milk Makeup South by Southwest Showcase, which unfortunately had to be canceled due to crappy weather. Instead of fuming over the misfortune, Urbani and her team took group selfies and looked for a last minute party to play. Read on for her take on Rexy, beauty standards, and the culture of SXSW.
You just re-released Rexy’s Running Out of Time, with a compilation of Rexy covers, on your brand new record label URU. How did this come about?
It’s really exciting. That album, Running Out of Time, has been one of my very top favorite albums for the last five and a half years. When I started getting really obsessed with it, I kept being like, “I would start a label just to re-release this album.” And then it came around that that was actually an option a couple years ago. My friends at this label Lucky Number, who put out Friends the band, came to me with the idea. They were like, “We heard about this record through you. Do you want to be involved if we re-release it?” I was like, “Wait, wait, hold up. I want to be so involved.” There was really only a small handful of people who knew about this band, but everyone who knew about them wasn’t just like, “Oh yeah they’re cool,” they were like, “This is a fuckin’ genius album. I’m obsessed with them.” They were artists who I’m friends with and fans of.
“Me and Rex started talking on Facebook about two years ago… It’d be like if someone was Facebook chatting with Madonna.”
We got Connan Mockasin to do one, and Ariel Pink and Puro Instinct did one together. There were a bunch of other people who were really, really interested, but just weren’t able to do it, which to me was a testament to how important this band is on a really low key level for a lot of bands who are really big and influential.
How were you able to get in touch with Rexy?
Through Facebook. It’s not that hard to find people. There’s a lot of old musicians that I’m obsessed with… You just find what their real name was, and you look them up, and they’re there. You email them, and they’re surprised that you know their shit.
Me and Rex started talking on Facebook about two years ago, and it was crazy how much we had in common, even though our eras of playing music are between almost a 30 year time span. But we have a lot of really similar experiences as far as starting music and really just doing it for fun and being really creative with it, and labels coming in the picture and things getting complicated. We talked about relationships, and we got really personal. We just had this really cute dynamic. It’d be like if someone was Facebook chatting with Madonna. To me, she is super iconic and has been a guide in my life for years.
In what way does your current work differentiate from Friends?
It’s different in that friends was an isolated group of five people, whereas this is me being a vessel of integrating whoever I want at whatever times. I was playing shows last summer with a whole live band, and today I’m just using tracks and backup singers and dancers and my friend playing the guitar over it. So it’s a completely different live set up. It’s cool to have the freedom to do that. I love the dynamic of a band, you get to have this crazy camaraderie when you’re traveling together all the time. It’s fun for it to be a sort of ongoing conceptual project where they say “Hey, do you wanna play a UO [showcase] at SXSW,” [and I say] “Yes, but how am I going to make that interesting?” I don’t want it to just be a band playing on a stage. I want it to be a DIY pop show. So that’s what I’m doing right now.
When I first met you at SXSW years ago, you told me that the festival was a sort of New Year’s for you. Do you still feel that way?
I haven’t been here in four years. I’ve been moving a lot, and I’ve been spending my winters in LA the last few years. The new year feeling was also because it was after a long winter in New York. Oh my god, we’re all going to survive; we’re not going to die of the cold.
This is a whole new experience for me. Any other time I’ve come down here, I’ve been here all week and played ten shows. This is just me playing one show. It doesn’t really feel like SX the way that it used to feel, but I think the whole thing is changing a lot. I would definitely tour the way that I used to tour and play tons of shows, but I’m not in that flow at this moment. I’ve been more in a basement in Hollywood with my friend working on tracks, not playing live.
“I have never felt constricted by any societal beauty standards.”
From topless live shows to the gender-bending imagery of the music video for “Va Fan Gör Du” from your Friends days, it seems that you comment on beauty in an indirect way. Do you feel like it’s a theme in your music?
I don’t sit and think, “how am I going to subvert beauty standards?” But I know that I do that in my work, because I have never felt constricted by any societal beauty standards. I find all kinds of things beautiful: all different ages and races and sizes and concepts. And I really like when things are visually extreme and visually conceptual. I just really like it when people feel really free.
When I played that show in Austin four years ago, it was literally over 100 degrees in the room. It was over 100 degrees – that’s inhumane! Guys started taking their shirts off, and I remember being like, “Fuck it, take your clothes off.” Then I [thought], “I’m being a hypocrite. Why do I feel afraid?” Because people tell us that we’re victims, or that there are predators. Yes, that’s true, but I created this show, I created this community, let me feel safe in my own space. Taking [my] clothes off wasn’t meant to be a statement, but I knew there would be a reaction, but it was a natural thing, to be comfortable.
Can we can look forward to more self-produced videos in the future?
I’m a multimedia artist. I need to see everything through myself, or I think there’s no groundedness in a vision.
Get your copy of Running out of Time at Rough Trade.
All photos shot exclusively for Milk by Koury Angelo.
Stay tuned to Milk for more badass auteurs/musicians/slash everything.