By: Joy Rose
Samantha Stollenwerck :: 05.14.09 :: The Viper Room :: Los Angeles, CA
On May 14, jam maven Samantha Stollenwerck re-emerged onto the live music scene after spending five months of seclusion in the studio working on some new tracks for a forthcoming album. The site she chose was The Viper Room in Los Angeles, probably most well known for being the venue where actor River Phoenix died of an overdose in 1993. But that unfortunate claim to fame shouldn't belie the fact that the club truly is a necessary step on the teetering staircase to stardom for every L.A. rock band worth its weight in zebra-striped guitars.
Stollenwerck is now taking her rightful place as a pop-rock goddess, with a professional band of musicians culled from all over the stylistic map and a roster of new tunes that you find yourself singing long after they've been played. The members of the band at The Viper Room showcase performance had all contributed their talents to the studio sessions, which were produced by Jeff Trott, a veteran of many of Sheryl Crow's hits. They've toured and recorded with Beck, Macy Gray and many other major acts. Joining Stollenwerck on stage were Trott on electric guitar, Sean Hurley (Vertical Horizon) on bass, Victor Indrizzo (Alanis Morissette) on drums and percussion, Vincent Jones (Sarah McLachlan) on keyboards, and Joan Jones (Big Head Todd and the Monsters) on backup vocals. Everyone was laid-back but rocking, resulting in a grooving packed house, despite a show time of 8 p.m. on a Thursday - hours before typical vampire wakeup call on any given night on the Sunset Strip.
The new songs are danceable, hook-laden vehicles that take intermittent rock-outs and dip into reggae, funk and blues. When the silvery curtains parted on the small, semi-circular stage, Stollenwerck and the band blasted out with the hard-rocking, loopy "Oblivious." Through the incessant pop hook, she asks, "One foot in front of the other/ Do you really want to be oblivious?" Next, "One of Your Tattoos" was slower and more relaxed as she sang of relationship woes with just a touch of irony: "A moment of weakness is a moment of truth... Will I be one of your tattoos?"
Mid-set she put down her acoustic guitar for the first time all evening, acknowledging the novelty for her of standing almost naked without it. But without too much hesitation, she stepped to the mic and threw down the wordy "Carefree," which, with its lyrics of confidence, abandon and a bit of self-deprecating humor, is sure to become a liberation anthem: "I haven't changed from being the girl in the back of the class/ talking smack, too laid-back/ they said, man, when is she gonna get it all together?" Here, the serious message of not taking oneself so seriously dropped like a bomb: "I'm overeducated, under-learned/ a blond with an IQ of Arizona's temperature," she sang, while also revealing her creative struggle - "I try so hard to be a soldier, but end up crashing my own rollercoaster... Who knows if I'll find it, but I'm looking for the truth."
The gem of the set was the slowed-down, reggaefied "Japanese Single," where Stollenwerck sang about the futility of trying to live anyone's life but your own. After about six songs, she introduced the band, expressing gratitude for all their energy, then showed yet another side of herself by growling the blues on "Write His Name in the Sky." Here, she and Jones traded playful harmonies ("I'll do anything for love...") and Samantha whipped out the harmonica, showing no small blues influence in her collective repertoire, which now spans quite the gamut.
Stollenwerck's new songs are definitely coming from the heart, and the band was all-out in delivering them to their full power. Although the sound of the new tunes is more pop and a step away from the lengthy jamming of her past performances, the San Francisco summer of love message is still alive and well in the lyrics and should be a blast to dance to in the mud at a festival, hopefully sooner rather than later.
Before the shiny curtain closed at the end of her set, she told the audience that she wanted to leave them wanting more. No, problem, Samantha. We'll be waiting.
Continue reading for a conversation with Samantha Stollenwerck...
Several years after the release of her first album, Square One, in 2005, and having shared stages with Bob Weir, Mark Karan, Tea Leaf Green, and tons of other bands at shows and festivals over the past few years, Samantha Stollenwerck has done some recent soul-searching in terms of her personal sound, which included a physical move from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
What she found she really wanted was to work with Jeff Trott, songwriter/guitarist/producer of the majority of Sheryl Crow's successes. She called him, he brought some of his favorite musicians to meet her, the musical fireworks flew and for the past five months he and Stollenwerck have been crafting tunes and are almost ready to release a new album, tentatively titled Carefree.
The tunes on the new album show a definitive shift from jam and folk to pop and rock, a rootsy sound Stollenwerck is calling "Cali-Soul." They are songs with catchy hooks, but with their roots firmly planted in folk, soul and good old rock & roll.
JamBase sat down with Stollenwerck recently to discuss the development of the album and her creative journey over the past few months.
JamBase: What makes this new album different from your first?
Samantha Stollenwerck: Jeff Trott, producer and guitarist. He's been involved in every Sheryl Crow album and he was her guitar player for 15 years. Then he branched out and became a songwriter/producer for other artists. We'd worked together before; we wrote a couple of songs. We had a great connection and chemistry.
Sheryl Crow has always been my inspiration. If I had to lean on a female artist, it would be her, because of the originality of her lyrics, her voice and her ability to have her own vibe within a pop music format. Jeff was responsible for a lot of that. I called him and asked, "What are you doing this fall? Do you want to make a record?" He totally got psyched about it.
I was in a phase before this happened where I was kind of fishtailing and trying to find my way as an artist, making a lot of demos and writing with a lot of people but not really having the infrastructure within myself to say, "I want to make an album, and these are the songs I want to bring to the table." Something just opened up, especially when Jeff jumped at it. I knew it was going to be something amazing. So we just started writing.
I brought a lot of demos, but because he's such a great songwriter he helped me make the songs more hit-oriented. The stuff he loved was the stuff I was afraid to show everybody - all these songs that were groovy, beat songs with these big choruses and hooks, all these demos I'd made on ProTools. I had more polished songs that I had written with other people and they sounded good, but there was something that was missing. It wasn't unique; it wasn't special. Those songs may also be very strong for their song quality but the stuff that was unique was the stuff that I was writing alone in my bedroom!
So we developed a body of work, and then we went to the studio, the Sound Factory in Hollywood, with a bunch of musicians to record it very organically. They're all incredible. When you're working with a great producer like Jeff, everyone comes together and has their own creative opinions. It was exciting to see that come together.
JamBase: What's the overriding theme for the new album?
Samantha Stollenwerck: Cali-Soul. West Coast, wind-in-your-hair, moody, vibey, summer songs. Put the windows down, put the top down and rock out! But the lyrics are very smart. I'm writing about global warming in one, being grateful for what you have in the state of the world politically, and just being aware of where we are here in America versus the rest of the world - without preaching, of course!
This sounds like a huge new direction for you.
This is the sound I want to go for in a big way, and this is where I'm going as an artist. It was an amazing process to realize that on my own. It took a long-ass time to finally figure it out. Mostly, it was just the belief in self. [When there's] a producer who's validating and takes what you're afraid to show anybody and says, "This is the real deal," then you can just run with it. Once you get that little bit of confidence, then it just opens up this whole floodgate of creativity. I needed to go write a bunch of songs and develop as an artist and get my hands dirty.
You've long been one of the only females on the jam scene. What was it like working with another female in the band?
I'm so pumped to work with [Joan Jones]. It's always just me and a bunch of dudes! Of course, the guys are going to be singing too, but to have that backup vocal that's a female voice, that adds so much to the show. Some of the songs are made by their harmonies.
When will the album be released?
No dates yet. [We're] looking at options right now. We want to do it as fast as possible, but we want to make sure it's treated right and not let it fall by the wayside. The songs are so strong. I didn't realize we were going to come up with such a good thing. We need to remember that we have such an amazing project.
You can hear some of Samantha's new tracks on MySpace.
Samantha Stollenwerck tour dates available here.
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