It's Samantha Urbani's World and We're Just Living in it

It's Samantha Urbani's World and We're Just Living in it

By Beatrice Hazlehurst, photos by Angela Baltra

Samantha Urbani is the friend you've always felt is way too exciting and enigmatic for you. The one who goes overseas and dropped off the radar, only to Facebook you "hey!" at the precise moment you're wondering what she's up to. Her phone's answer message asks you to "tell [her] your opinion on something arbitrary," which I'm sure is not a test, but there's something about how casually Sam drops a four-syllable word that makes you want to impress her.

Or maybe it's because she is so impressive. Known for fronting the dreamy Brooklyn-born band Friends, her collaborations with then-boyfriend Dev Hynes (Blood Orange), her banging solo debut, her web series with Motherboard, as well as her modeling foray for Coach and Calvin Klein, Samantha has the career one composing their Tinder bio could only dream of. Of course, she's the kind of girl who's likely much too cool for Tinder -- or even Raya for that matter -- but she'll be damned if you're going to put her in a box.

After lying low for the past two years, Samantha Urbani has a new EP coming out very shortly. It may have been recorded in a basement on acid, but at least she's back in town.

Sam! Tell me a little about what's coming up for you. You're such a slashie, I'm sure you're juggling multiple projects.
Wait, I've never heard that, you say slashie?

You haven't? Yeah it's those people who write in their Instagram bio "photographer/videographer/painter/model." Slashie.
That's so me, I've got a million slashes. I'm putting out an EP really soon. I'm just in the final stages, it feels like the tip of a new beginning because I have so many other things I want to finish and put it out. I've been freaking out like, "Can we just get this shit out as soon as possible?" I'm so ready to get it out of my system so I can get onto the next thing.

Why the hiatus?
I was making a lot of stuff during the last couple of years, but there's something about me that I don't necessarily get gratification off external recognition. There's just something about the sort of hierarchical system of success, fame and visibility that I don't think is right. I think there's a lot of privilege there and a lot of money and things at play that don't feel validating to me. The competition of it doesn't really motivate me.

Could that be because you're based in LA now? Is that kind of constant competition for recognition more prominent out there?
For me LA is very chill. I feel like it's a place where you can hide out more. But you can't escape it anywhere. This sounds so nihilistic, but to find a reason to be creative on my own and writing songs, it can kind of be difficult sometimes. Also the way that the dynamic changed over the last few years with my personal life, from going from the band, then doing a lot of work with my ex-boyfriend. It's just been a transitional time.

That must have been incredibly difficult to navigate. I mean your personal and professional lives were so intertwined, which meant your relationship was very public.
It's amazing when it's good but it's extremely dangerous when it's not good. It's the absolute ultimate in vulnerability because if something personal goes wrong, then you're risking everything that you're doing creatively and professionally also. Especially if you're a sensitive person, which I am, I don't like to turn my emotions off. So when I've found myself in any kind of position where relationships have gone bad, it's greatly affected everything that was created within that relationship. It happened with my band, it happened with my ex.

I mean you were popping off with Friends and your collaborations with Dev. Now that those relationships are over, do you see all that success differently? Is it tarnished somewhat?
With Friends, no. It was pure and important and we went through so many different things together, living together, working together. Blood Orange was not my music. It was something that I was doing and there was a lot of trust and camaraderie, but it's not mine at all. I want to look back and be proud of what I contributed, because I think I contributed a lot, but it just didn't end in a positive place for me.

Are you ever identified as "that girl on the Blood Orange" track?
Yeah! It's super frustrating. I don't like that at all. There was this sexism that was happening the whole time that was hard to deal with in a relationship. There was the constant reference to me being his girlfriend. It's really not that hard to call someone a musician. It's difficult to not take it personally.

Is it still happening?!
I haven't done any press for a while, so I guess I'm going to find out but I've got a really low tolerance. Especially right now in this political atmosphere, the way anyone is marginalized for a social disadvantage, it's really important for people to brush that shit off.

You know I think the media can have a real lack of awareness when it comes to reinforcing the status quo, and the harm that creates, just to amp up newsworthiness.
Exactly, it just plays into really boring negative stereotypes. If anyone starts writing headlines or whatever about the dynamic of that relationship, it's going to be really annoying.

I imagine that barely even scratches the surface of what you have to deal with in the music industry.
Oh yeah, I mean there are lot of things. Like they don't want any liabilities right now, they don't like taking any creative chances on a big level. That's why DIY culture and self-representation has just taken over. People don't want to lose money. They don't want to take chances on anyone.

That's funny. I would have thought the opposite was occurring. Like, the fact streaming has democratized music beyond just radio play, means that all different genres or subgenres can fall on all kinds of different ears.
Well, if anyone's smart they'll see that what people are connecting to now is pretty radical and pretty honest, but I think labels are always just trying to pinpoint what's the most universally palatable stuff possible because it's a safe bet. Ironically though, the mainstream always looks to the underground for influence and a heads up in trends and stuff.

Have you had to battle to get that kind of ubiquitous approval with this latest EP?
I haven't actually been working with any labels or A&R teams on this or huge producers. I made the EP with zero dollars, just completely on my own in my friend's basement. It's more like a hifi super-produced art project. I think it has a universality of being on the radio, but doesn't fit into modern pop music.

I'm interested to see how it comes out because it does sound like it would be palatable to a pop music radio audience, but it was made by a couple of extreme weirdos in a basement pretty much on acid everyday. But I don't think those things either are mutually exclusive and everyone should just be making sounds that they like.

It's like someone decided that authenticity is the height of cool and popular music isn't authentic. So if your stuff has anything beyond a cult following, it isn't cool--and everyone's trying really hard to be really fucking cool.
It's such a shame man, and it's so antiquated because it's pushing us towards this 90s dichotomy of mainstream and underground. That shouldn't be a real thing anymore. There should be no elitism. People that exist in a counter-cultural realm could be making stuff that appeals to a lot of people.

Plus that kind of segregation between ingroups and outgroups, that we're seeing so much of right now under the new administration, is so dangerous in the entertainment industry because audiences don't see any diversity in experience or opinion.
Totally! [Defining artists by] what you look like or how old you are or where you're from or what you've produced in the past is just really boring and ignorant.

Boring is the perfect word.
Anyone trying to put anyone in a box right now is really fucking boring.

When you came up--Friends started in 2010--it was just prior to the whole social media explosion. We've seen in the fashion industry in particular value models by their online following. Have you seen that translate to music?
Totally, I mean I didn't even have an Instagram when Friends was out! Then all of a sudden it's like how many followers do we have? It's funny just like with the press stuff, I haven't put out music in a while and so I think people have this very basic, superficial assumption of who's doing best based on numbers. Cultivating a following has become the talent. Connecting with people image by image or caption by caption, I find it fascinating, but I think it's easy for the actual music to be overlooked in favor of an artist's aesthetic.

In that sense I wanted to talk to you about Brooklyn as well, because so much of Friends' musical identity came from Bushwick and Brooklyn is gentrifying rapidly-
It's fucking crazy man! It's hard for me to feel at home there. I was out of town for a couple of months and I came back and a block of venues had shut down. It felt apocalyptic. I don't want to necessarily mythologize my microgeneration of Brooklyn and I'm sure there are a lot of kids there that are starting really cool shit but definitely Bushwick is kind of some Frankenstein version of itself. I heard recently like the majority like 60-70% of Williamsburg were Trump voters which is so disturbing.

Wait stop that's a lie. Seriously? Like the FiDi dudes?
Yeah, like it has this artist's community facade but heaps of people that work in finance are there. This is was all bound to happen like I'm not trying to be naive about it, but if you split it up like that politically, it just shows it's not what it's pretending to be. It's really dark. It's not necessarily a place for people who have nothing and feel like aliens in their small towns to congregate, which is what it's been since New York was New York.

I feel concerned. Not only for it's the financial reason, like rent prices, but artists are becoming more and more stigmatized. It just feels like part of a conservative wave of misunderstanding that's really dangerous to creative communities. It just doesn't feel like as much of a free, open space to incubate. I care so much about artists that don't want to compromise and it's concerning.

Do you feel like you've been pushed out?
With venues shutting down and stuff? Definitely. It became like why would I even want to play a show right now, if there's nowhere I would want to play a show. I think people are going to have to be more fierce with standing their ground and maintaining their creative communities. But I'm also very nomadic and I've never felt like there's a place where I really belong. I have friends in the underground scene and friends that are the biggest pop stars on the radio going to Grammy parties.

There's something really beautiful about though. Never feeling like you quite fit. It gives you room to evolve I guess.
Exactly, you can make your home anywhere. I feel equally comfortable talking to any given person and not who they are or what they're accomplishing.

photos by Angela Baltra
styling by Monet Luhrsen