Samantha Urbani talks going solo, self-care and Sade

The former Friends singer is back with her debut solo EP – watch her self-directed video for ‘Go Deeper’ now

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Samantha Urbani
Samantha UrbaniPhotography Gina Canavan

Love, power, and truth are topics that fall very close to home and receive their own unique attention on the debut solo EP from singer-songwriter and producer Samantha Urbani. The mastermind behind the now-defunct pop outfit Friends makes upbeat, magnetic songs that capture both the ennui and intensity of those larger-than-life feelings, with the wide-eyed fervor of someone pushing boldly further and further into her own darkest fears.

Urbani’s name is often unfairly anchored to her past romance with Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes. The Connecticut-raised artist validates those emotional entanglements as part of her story, but they’re only a small part of the big picture. She deftly illustrates larger concepts using the ever-malleable language of allowing any number of personal truths, societal pains, and perceived conflicts to be projected onto it.

And yet, there Urbani is, sipping tea, concerning herself with her own business on the Policies of Power EP – business like the “ontology of truth” on “Hints & Implications”, karmic retribution on “1 2 3 4”, and the nature of time during “Time Time Time”. If those heady topics seem difficult to parse, Urbani knows exactly how to ease you in, thanks to a beguiling retro palette influenced by Janet Jackson, Prince, Madonna, and more. On “Go Deeper”, she raises questions of visibility and accountability, looking over the rim of her teacup in its new video. In the clip, she immerses herself deep under water, pushing herself and the listener to look for something past the surface at every moment.

We sat down with Urbani to discuss this new video, making her transition to a solo artist, receiving a gift from Sade, and more.

I’ve always seen your name associated with New York, but I see you’re in LA now?

Samantha Urbani: I moved when I was 20, but I grew up in Connecticut. As soon as I got my license, I was just driving to New York all the time, getting the fuck out of Connecticut. When I left NY a year and a half ago it was a traumatic ‘fuck-this-I’m-never-going-back-again’ place, and me and my friend Jimmy Giannopoulos, who actually shot the ‘Go Deeper’ video, just drove across the country on New Year’s Day. He’s in this band Lolawolf with Zoë Kravitz. We all started hanging out after I had this bad breakup and they’ve totally swooped into my life at a really vulnerable time. We’ve become family. I ended up staying with them for a while while they were working on their album.

Now I fucking love going back. The only thing that sucks is that all of my favorite places have closed down. I don’t know if I’m getting older and shaking my finger, ‘It ain’t what it used to be.’ It’s insanely expensive and different parts of Brooklyn are now being gentrified. There’s no space for DIY venues anymore, which is where I came up in music. I spent a few months there mixing the new EP.  I had all of these really wild life adventures leading up to that move. Between my band, my relationship with Dev, and working in his project, just trying to regroup after that.

I’ve never read an article about you without a mention of your ex-boyfriend, which I’ve always thought was unfair.

Samantha Urbani: I know. It’s totally fucked up. It made me want to really not quit on music. My whole infrastructure of what made sense to me didn’t make sense anymore. At parties after that breakup, I would have to go to the bathroom and get away from the music. It was crazy. I feel recovered from it at this point. I was feeling really vulnerable and NYC doesn’t account for heartbreak or for needing a moment of nurturing peace. That’s why I like it too. Since I was a kid, I’ve been like a tough guy who liked to stir things up. NYC is just a constant exercise of your toughness. You never can catch up with yourself. Every spring and summer we spend just trying to shake off, and recover from the trauma of winter. Every year just fucking kills you and you have to try and reincarnate into a human again.

You have all those layers on and you have to shed, it’s very poetic.

Samantha Urbani: Like literal layers (laughs), exactly. I’m really close with my family too. I had a brother who died when I was a teenager.

“I’ve been through every emotion about my music: being excited, anxious, embarrassed, scared. I feel like I’m past it. Let this shit come out!” – Samantha Urbani

Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry.

Samantha Urbani: It’s definitely a huge part of my life. It’s like a continual thing that you grow with. I don’t know if you have siblings but I think it’s the closest relationship you can have.

I do and they are the closest things to me, so my heart feels heavy.

Samantha Urbani: It happened 13 years ago and I’m only now adjusted to talk about it. It’s been a lifelong meditation I’ve had to work through. I brought it up because being physically close to my family is so important. I’m really proud I’ve figured out a way to see the world even though I grew up with no money. I was on food stamps when I was a kid. My mum didn’t have enough money to pay the electricity bill. She is an amazing brilliant artist. I’ve always had a poor person mentality, so I can get by when I’m not making money.

I wasn’t sure about moving to LA for that reason, (being away from family), but I can go back whenever I want. I really love my friends here, I have a community of super inspired people, and I have an amazing fucking tomato garden. I found my own place in Hollywood and converted this really weird old dilapidated attic into a fucking amazing studio apartment club house. My whole game in life is Tetris – life Tetris. There were little mice up there and I was just like being a crazy person isolating myself a little bit. The first year was pretty raw, and pretty vulnerable, and pretty tragic. I am actually really happy now and I feel like I’ve found a flow of how to finish the things I need to do. The times in my life when I’ve felt the worst is when I have felt like I have a need to control things and understand things. When you let go of that, that’s when things come together in a natural and very sweet way. Being fluid and flexible while taking care of yourself is the only way to survive because life is really fucked up.

I know you released a couple of songs two years ago, now you’re releasing a new EP and this video, but the whole thing feels cohesive and genuine. It’s refreshing to see you so personally tied to everything.

Samantha Urbani: I’m an animist to a degree. I personify objects and ideas, and then I’ll get really sentimental towards them. I just felt a responsibility to resolve these songs because I had put work into them a while ago. It needed to be a finite collection, and those were the five that felt like they were a little world within themselves. That’s been part of the process of learning how to be a solo artist rather than a band leader.

The entire EP is all about the boldness with a pop edge and an almost punk attitude of being powerful. But there’s this real fragility at the same time. I don’t mean to pick apart your lyrics...

Samantha Urbani: No, please do! I love it. I want to go on Genius and annotate all of my lyrics. I’m really weird. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a Virgo or whatever, but I’m very obsessive with analysis.

And your voice is really clear on some of these tracks.

Samantha Urbani: I know! I learned how to sing (laughs). I know that they sound like breakup songs, but I have multiple exes. You go through things, you have emotions, and then get a little more allegorical about it and think about it in terms of those dynamics rather than being so indulgent in your own fucking selfish personal concerns.

On ‘Go Deeper’, the verses sound like heartbreak, but it’s the principle of visibility, accountability, calling each other out, and getting to the bottom of things rather than just skimming over them when they get hard. There’s a lot of shit that’s in all of our minds about accountability and representation. I called the EP Policies of Power because it’s about power dynamics, but like pop in the classical sense, you can talk about it in the form of love in order to get a point across.

“Now I fucking love going back (to NYC). The only thing that sucks is that all of my favorite places have closed down... there’s no space for DIY venues anymore, which is where I came up in music” – Samantha Urbani

Let’s talk about the new video. There is something so beautifully sexual without it being about sex.

Samantha Urbani: I wanted it to be really wet and sensual, because I’d never really done that! It felt a little trolly because I’m not a ‘sexy, sensual’ person. It was very much Sade/Janet, classy, hot, smart, and tough… and a little crazy. Sade is one of my favorite songwriters of all time.

Didn’t one of her collaborators play on ‘Time Time Time’?

Samantha Urbani: Yes! Let me tell you about Stuart (Matthewman). Oh my god, I’m such a geek about him! Basically he was Sade’s main co-writer her entire fucking career. They were in a band together since before the band was called Sade and she was just a backup singer. He played sax and guitar, and he’s in all of her videos. It’s him playing saxophone on ‘Smooth Operator’. We were put together by management three years ago to try to work on some Friends stuff, and we just clicked. When I was writing ‘Time Time Time’, I very humbly asked if he would ever play on a track. And he was there in a second, fucking shredding on saxophone.

I did a listening party in New York a couple of weeks ago, and he brought me a crazy gift. He had just been in London with Sade, handed me an envelope, and in it was a seven-inch record of ‘Your Love is King’. He said he was at her house, told her about me, and even that, I was like, ‘Please stop speaking because I am going to die.’ They went into the room where she has her personal collection of memorabilia, and she picked out this record and signed it for me. I’m looking at it right now as we speak, and she’s holding a playing card and she looks beautiful with her leather gloves…

What did you discover about yourself during this long, multi-year process?

Samantha Urbani: I’ve gained a lot of confidence in my value as a musician and as a producer, which is funny because I have this weird handicap in that I’m not able to learn how to play instruments, it feels like a learning disorder. One of my favorite musicians of all time obviously is Michael Jackson, he would beatbox ideas to people. I do that. I had a lot of issues with taking myself seriously. I had a really crazy abusive boyfriend while I was in Friends, and it fucked my self-esteem up. He was jealous that I was getting successful because he played music too.

He was so manipulative, filling my head with the worst self-esteem possible. Our songs were playing on the radio, and I was getting big publishing deals, but the person I was closest to was hating it and telling me to hate it. That was a huge trauma, and part of the reason why I stopped doing my own thing for a while. Now it’s come full-circle and I’ve found a confidence. I’ve realized that any fucking misogynistic dudes who have been jealous of me are fucked up, not me.

It’s sometimes much easier being left, than being loved. It’s very difficult to let yourself be loved. It is so hard to give up independence.

Samantha Urbani: When you’re an artist and you’re going to date an artist, it’s somebody’s jealousy or intention to squash you down. It totally fucked up my life for a few years. I’ve had relationships, I’ve had breakups, and they’ve all taught me things. I feel like I’m a philosopher of love! Now I’ve been writing new shit that’s not tragic, it’s cool, empowered, and funny. I’ve been through every emotion about my music: being excited, anxious, embarrassed, scared. I feel like I’m past it. Let this shit come out!

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