Photography: Gina Canavan
Styling: Juliann McCandless
Grooming: Erin Lynn Brooks
Assistant: Jeff Woods
The world first met Samantha Urbani as a stereo-toting Fly Girl in the “I’m His Girl” music video for her band, Friends. Of course, it was easy to fall in love with her half-singing, half-rapping falsetto, and the unapologetic way in which she delivered her words. Fast-forward five years and Urbani is still delivering radical pop songs with a punk rock ethos, except this time, she’s doing them on her own terms (and with an injection of ’90s R&B). Policies of Power, her debut EP as a solo artist, moves away from the more experimental nature of her previous work to showcase the 30-year-old’s real talent—and that’s writing perfect pop hits. From her unabashed political message, to her undeniably impressive range, the EP puts Urbani in league with superstars like Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey, much more than any of her contemporaries. But it’s hard to even list who those peers would be, because what she does is completely singular. Sure, it’s natural to compare a cool, (sometimes) blonde singer to Madonna or Debbie Harry, but that would be missing the point. Urbani is too subversive for pop, too saccharine for punk, too catchy for hip-hop, but at the same time, she’s all three—though, she eschews labels. With Policies of Power, the singer transcends genre to create something wholly original that’s equally inspiring—and we can’t get it out of our heads.
BULLETT caught up with Urbani to talk boys, breakups and beauty tips for tour. Just kidding—read our interview, below.
Tell me about the new EP.
The music is a collage of genre and production styles—it was the perfect arena for me to experiment with the control of a solo project rather than a band or collaborating with people on their projects. I started to find that I function best as my own producer. But the songs were written at all different times, and they weren’t meant to be a collection—I write songs constantly, every day.
So why did you decide on these tracks for the record?
These were just the ones I was finishing at the same time—they all felt like they had a narrative to them, even though they weren’t intended to feel that way when I wrote them. There’s something about this EP that feels like an art project. Now, I have to figure if I want to do a live incarnation of it.
Why wouldn’t you?
It’s just not the kind of music I’d put on in the background while I’m hanging out with my friends. I’ve made music before that you can tuck into an environment, and you can keep doing whatever you were doing. But I wouldn’t put this music on when I’m on the dance floor, or when I’m hanging out with friends. Maybe it’s just because I made it, but I think it works in headphones—it’s something to sit down and listen to.
You said it feels like an art project. What does that mean?
The intention was to make pop music that felt a little raw in its production and concept. Policies of Power—P.O.P—it stands for pop, and I thought it was cool and heavy-handed in a different way. The whole thing is about power dynamics—whether macro, micro, internal or external—and the last song is about time as a power structure—how you wrestle with it and its control over you, your experiences and your relationships. A lot of people have asked if it’s a breakup record. But the classic pop algorithm is to use romance as an allegory for bigger things. Rather than write something inherently political, I wanted to fuse these universal messages with more radical thoughts.
On the surface, you’re making pop. But it’s not traditional in the sense that it really moves beyond genre.
I want everything I do to be a little in your face. But I grew up listening to Motown, and my mom would listen to a lot of ‘80s pop, like Janet and Madonna, which was so empowering. Then, when I was a teenager, I discovered more experimental music. And at a certain point I realized these things aren’t all mutually exclusive—there’s a reason why I love The Germs and The Jackson 5.
How would you describe the sound of the EP, then?
I laugh every time I say it, but I call what I make ‘funky pop.’ I’m just not a genre purist, and don’t really believe in classification like that. And the only way I can engage creatively without fear of critics or the press, is to be semi-trolly—everything is a little absurd and ridiculous when you think about it.
Yeah. I mean, the genres some music writers make up are just crazy.
And so self-aggrandizing! They just take everything way too seriously. I mean, I take my music incredibly seriously—its spiritual as fuck for me. But I don’t understand people who get so pretentious. And I naturally like to bring different things together—my goal is not to intentionally shake things up, but I do believe everything is connected. If it’s all in your head, you can get it out in a cohesive way—you just have to create this weird Frankenstein and help smooth it out however you can.
What’s your writing process like?
If I’m going to try to help someone write a song or write lyrics for someone else, it helps if I’m starting with a prompt. But when it’s my stuff, it’s just stream of consciousness—lyrics will involuntarily get stuck in my head with a melody attached to it. Sometimes, if I’m around people, I’ll run away for no reason and pretend that I have to go to the bathroom, just to open my voice memos and start singing.
Your lyrics are unapologetic about the fact that their political. Why is that important to you?
I have a lot of strong feelings, and if I were to put anything out that stayed impartial—that would really bum me out. It kind happened with my old band—I wrote a bunch of songs that I didn’t think anybody was ever going to hear and then they did, and people liked them. That was amazing, but I would sit there thinking, ‘I wish this song didn’t say I want to be your friend,’ I wish it said more. Like, “I’m Your Girl”—that song that had a big socio-political intention, but only some people got it, because it’s a cute, catchy song. That’s the thing—I have very major ideologies, and they’re going to be on my tongue and in my songs. But I’m also very sensitive to people exploring social or political issues just for their own gain—I think it’s pretty transparent when people do that.
Right, because being progressive is trending right now.
Right, it’s trendy, and it’s a very slippery slope because we do really need to have these dialogues. But there’s also so much hypocrisy surrounding the commercially of music, and people spend a shit ton of money to get likes for speaking about marginalized people’s issues.
Totally. Feminism can’t be feminism if it’s being used to sell a product to insecure women. But you have pop artists screaming feminist messages because it sells records now, and because it’s cool.
I agree, but there are arguments on both sides. It’s like, better late than never, or something is better than nothing. But when you do grow up in the punk community or the queer community, or any marginalized community, and that’s your ethos by nature—it’s not like you’re territorial because you want to propagate those feelings, but you can’t help but be a little cynical when you see something you so passionately believe in being packaged, sold and exploited.
Does that ever make you question being in the industry?
There have been times when that whole concept has made me want to step away from music. I mean, the whole system is fucked and there’s really no right way to do it. But then it hits me: ‘I don’t know what the fuck I would do if I weren’t singing.’ If I start to think about the politics of music too much, I’ll shut down. And if I shut down, I’ll die. So the best thing I can do is, to be honest with everyone around me, including myself, and actually work through this shit instead of just calling it out—you can’t change things by just backing out.
Is that why you have your own record label, URU?
Yeah, I think it’s important to represent yourself from an individual perspective. I’m not against working with other labels, but it gives me an umbrella to be able to put my stamp on everything I do. Trusting yourself—and being able to really speak for yourself—is the most important.
Especially as a woman in the industry.
Right. Sexism is palpable sometimes. And other times, it’s subtle, which almost feels more dangerous. I identify as fluid, but it’s just funny—even the guys I know who have the best intentions will never know what it feels like to be female-bodied. It’s like, it doesn’t matter how many great ideas you have or how confident you are—somebody will always be there to tell you, ‘Well, it’s actually this way.’ Even if you’re doing something that everybody loves, a guy is going to come over to you and say, ‘Let me help you do it better.’ That almost engages my confidence more—if I walk into a room and feel like someone thinks they know me, I know that I do so much more.
Do you feel like people have underestimated you?
Yes, and even journalists will take things out of context, or add what you say to their drab constructs of what a woman is, or what a singer is, what makes someone an artist. In my old band—our record came out five years ago—and even then, things were not like they are now. Every interview was about things like ‘How does your beauty routine change on the road?’ or ‘So, there’s two girls in the band, and three guys. How do you deal with messy dudes in the van?’
So you think things have changed a lot in the last five years?
The conversation about gender and sexuality and artistry, women as producers—it’s changed completely. Everyone is conscious about pigeonholing people now, and there’s a lot more inclusivity. And we’re actually having conversations about equality and race and intersectionality, and feminism, abuse of power, police violence—all of these things that were not really on the table then. I’d try to bring them up in interviews, and people would like at me like, ‘Whoa!’ I got hurt fast, and it hurt us as a band. But I just kept thinking, ‘I’m not going to talk about my vintage clothes anymore.’
You mention your old band, Friends. What’s it been like transitioning to being a solo artist?
I’m a collage artist—I can’t really play instruments. I mean, I can crudely write synth lines on a midi keyboard and edit it together, but I can’t sit down and bang out what I want to play—it can feel like a handicap at times. But other times, it feels like this amazing opportunity to collaborate with different people. It is a struggle because it’s way more to organize, and it’s hard to work on a project and keep everything in place. Sometimes, it’s so challenging, it makes me want to fucking die. But it’s also so exciting, and it’s been a great exercise as far as building my vocabulary and being able to communicate my vision as an artist. And if I hadn’t done it myself, I wouldn’t have learned as much as I have.
What was the hardest part about making the record?
I was basically in an apocalyptic emotional hole when I made this EP—I had just gone through the worst breakup of my life, I moved from the place I had lived for ten years to Los Angeles, which can be the loneliest city in the world. I was just not in a flow at all—writing the record felt like I was doing physical therapy to learn to walk again. So finishing it was actually a miracle, but also what got me through it—it was a huge healing process, and now that I’m done, I’ve learned so much and am in such a different place. I’m excited to be back in a flow instead of a weird Tetris puzzle.