HASH Interview: sami.the.great

July 19, 2012 § Leave a comment


By M. Sean Ryan

In January Sami Akbari emerged with a sticky stripe of ballads: sweetly sung, buoyed by the zest and harmonies of 1960s girl-groups, and wrapped in an acoustic intimacy akin to soloists like Jenny Owen Youngs. They’re collected together by sami.the.great (Bold Love), the pint-sized singer-songwriter’s debut under her current pen name.

 How did you land on sami.the.great?

I got to a point where I didn’t want to do Samirah Akbari because there are so many singer-songwriters out there that are just their names. [In Arabic] my last name means ‘the greatest.’ So I’m still going by Sami Akbari, but kind of a translation. It was also a kind of challenge to myself, like, “Now you’re playing under sami.the.great. You have to make people think that.”

Who were the important musical figures for you growing up?

It’s so typical, but the Beatles. I cried at a school dance one time because they played “Let It Be.” I was wearing my Let It Be t-shirt. They were like, “Why are you crying?” And I was like, ‘Because John Lennon is dead!” I was 12.

Any women in particular?

It’s hard for me to like other women singer-songwriters because I get jealous, so if I do like them it’s like I can’t even deny it. Janis Joplin, Fiona Apple—those are probably my top two. And Edie Brickell, or at least the album Shooting Rubberbands At The Stars.

But Fiona Apple, more than anything, her lyrics are just mind-blowing and genius. Then Janis Joplin… in Festival Express there’s this one performance where Janis Joplin sings “Cry Baby”, and she sings it and then kind of talks it. Her singing is unique in itself, but I’ve never seen anyone perform like her. I just saw the Yeah Yeah Yeahs for the first time—super girl crush on Karen O. She’s also an amazing performer. Just badass women… It’s weird because I feel like if you listen to my music you’re not like, “Oh I get that.”

Do you purposefully avoid sounding reminiscent of them? Vocally? In the arrangements?

I don’t know if I would mind if my music sounded like—“Oh, she listens to Janis Joplin.” But it just doesn’t turn out that way. I try not to push myself to do something that doesn’t come naturally.

From song to song on your self-titled album, there’s a bit of push and pull between older sounds or colloquialisms and their contemporaries. Was that the plan from day one?

I was writing for a little while and then I went on a brief tour. While I was on tour with my manager I felt inspired by the doowop, shoo-bop thing. I think we were listening to a lot of it. I can’t even pinpoint what happened exactly but I came back knowing I wanted to experiment with that. I wanted it to be retro-inspired but with a modern twist. I thought the astronaut was a good representation of that.

What is the deal with that astronaut on the album’s cover?

Astronauts are kind of retro, but they represent the future too. You think of the old days, or at least I do, with astronauts and going to space, thinking of the first time people were watching it on TV. But then they’re also the future.

Making Eyes” might be the most heartfelt ballad in the bunch. What spurred that song?

It’s a song about being attracted to other people while you’re in a relationship. For me, that’s what it is because that’s what it was. There was somebody that I was attracted to and we hit it off, but I wouldn’t do anything.

Who says ‘making eyes’ anymore? Was that part of the retro-futurism you were playing with?

Sometimes I’ll have words I like and I’ll fit a melody to it. But for the most part I’ll come up with a melody and let it inspire what the lyrics are. That phrase came into my mind in terms of the situation. It felt good and it sounded good. I was never conscious of being like, “Oh this is cool because nobody says this anymore.” I wanted to make sure I wasn’t doing something for the sake of it being weird or interesting but because it was catchy, good and a natural progression from things that I’d done before.

And what will you do next. Are you writing new songs yet?

I am. I’m deciding what I want to do: a record? An EP? But I have been writing some stuff. The harmonies are a more noticeable part of the experience of the song rather than just kind of adding to it. I’m still holding onto the retro vibe but the songs are also a bit more ethereal and ambient.  I don’t know if they’ll end up that way.

What about the lyrics? Are they coming from a different emotional-corner?

There’s one song that I particularly like the chorus of that’s from kind of a new place. I feel like if I were to boil it down to one word it would be ‘longing’; whether it’s someone, or something from the past, like childhood, I think that’s what drives and inspires me. I’m my harshest critic, but I’ve been really into these songs. It’s hard to remember if I felt this way about other songs. And I’m sure I have, but I’m proud of where these are going and excited for people to hear them.


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