In a plush shearling coat and metallic snakeskin boots she recently snagged on Etsy, Samantha Michelle straddles contemporaneous mores and a gilded yesteryear of record digging and rock & roll aughts’ rose-tinted optimism. Habitués of openings at Morrison Hotel Gallery’s SoHo loft or Sunset Marquis outpost have certainly shared a dancefloor with Samantha, having played no less than a dozen events with us over the past few years.
As dancefloors and the doors to all three MHG locations reopen with the recent ceremonious arrival of 1971: The Golden Age of Rock & Roll (on view in New York and Los Angeles), there is truly no time like the present to reconnect with the internationally-acclaimed DJ to discuss the genre’s past, present and prospective futures. Over a round (or three) of margaritas at the East Village’s delightfully passé Joyface, the stage is set for Samantha Michelle who offers up her own spin on all things ranging from evergreen artistry to “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” in conversation with Morrison Hotel Gallery Content Director Daniel Walters.
It’s been a minute. The last time the gallery was graced with your presence — at least in an official sense — must’ve been The Doors - Morrison Hotel 50th anniversary celebration...
Yes, February 2020. That was a glorious LA moment at the Sunset Marquis with Miley Cyrus performing and Dennis Quaid in those fabulous, outrageous pants. Lizard skin or swarovski crystal maybe? During the pandemic, which came right on its heels, that night was one I would l would look back on and think, "Ah! The glory days!"
Well since you brought it up, it seems unseemly to speak about the "now" times without consideration for the "then" times. Because so much of what you not only do but are is so intrinsically tied to being a DJ, what has that meant for you over the past year and a half?
It's been a unique challenge; that's for sure. I think when the pandemic first hit, I went down the same rabbit hole as many of us did. No one knew how long it was going to be before we could gather again. I kind of felt the need to mourn so many past experiences as a DJ but at the same time, I am so proud of all the things I was able to do and accomplish in spite of that tragic, difficult time. Now that the times are taking a turn for the better again (hallelujah!), it means the world to me to be able to return with so much excitement and gratitude.
So how did you manage to pull yourself out of that rabbit hole and fill that time?
Well first of all, music is life. As always, I listened to music from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to sleep, only really taking breaks to have conversation with other people, and I don't think I could've gotten through the pandemic without music. I did a lot of reading. I also used this time to, basically, turn my Greenwich Village apartment into an 18th century pirate ship meets 1930s New Orleans brothel, if you will. Primary colors, brocade wallpaper, velvets and a sea of faux fur things to cuddle up to. And of course, there are other creative projects, the heavy lifting of hunching over the computer in sweatpants working on various writing projects -- that I'll be able discuss in greater depth in due time -- but even then, music is an entryway for me to move imagination and that's where the really impactful work happens.
What have you been reading?
It's always very important to me to have a reading practice in my life. I read a lot of memoirs. Lately, it's been Dolly Alderton's Everything I Know About Love, Glennon Doyle's Untamed -- it's like the book of our generation --, Jia Tolentino's Trick Mirror and I'm currently reading Pattie Boyd's Wonderful Tonight.
And what would the title of your memoir be?
The Drunk Love Diary of a Rock & Roll DJ.
Back in New York City and better than ever, what's the next milestone or dream DJ gig?
I can tell you that it'd be someplace outside. A festival, in a field with a great AV setup. There's awesome lights and everyone is able to huddle closely together, glitter-faced.
And when you're not DJ'ing, what is an ideal day in the life?
I start my day with some morning meditation, write in my journal, close my eyes and call out to the universe. After that? I suppose, I check in on the emails as I do work in a lot of different parts of the world so I have to be attuned to the time differences. And then, there's a couple of meetings, a bit of music research and some time devoted to my creative projects, mainly writing, because I think it's important to give those projects your most fresh attention. At some point, we toss in the towel on productivity and I take "Bear" [Samantha's larger-than-life bernedoodle] on a long stroll to catch a sunset on the river before phoning up a dear friend and linking up with them to enjoy their company and New York City adventure if we're lucky.
Almost as quintessential to the Samantha Michelle experience as your thorough agenda is your distinctive look.
I love clothes. I absolutely love clothes but I'll tell you, I find it very difficult to find the things I want. Once I find one thing that works, a little silk dress per se, I buy it in every color. And then of course, the funky little accent pieces: the metallic platforms, the chunky belts, satin scarves...
So what are the three key pieces that comprise the Samantha Michelle "costume", for lack of a more fitting word?
I suppose it is a costume, of course. Let's see...a suede, fringy jacket or something with texture, probably a pair of denim cut-offs and then, to top it all off, a pair of platform boots.
Obviously you've curated such a signature look and sound but are there any other mediums you've imagined working through?
Well, there's film. I've made a couple shorts and there's some exciting things cooking there but there's also part of me that totally fantasizes about what it would be like to be a burlesque dancer.
I actually see that correlation for you.
I just think there’s something nostalgic about it that I really like. I guess it harkens back to my childhood obsession with the film, Gypsy, identifying with Natalie Wood’s character: a systemic outsider who works her way in through burlesque. Punchy, risque and not particularly appropriate but when push comes to shove, there she is in all her bedazzled splendor, looking and feeling her best with total ownership and I think that’s the way I want to greet the world.
I’d say you’re on the right track. And in the right place.
Yes, New York City holds such a special place. I’ve lived in a lot of different places. I grew up in Toronto, lived in London for seven or eight years, then Paris for a bit, Los Angeles for a bit, and I’ve never felt like there is a place that is meant for me quite so much so as New York. Millions of hopeful dreamers all gathered on this tiny little island and I count my lucky stars that I’m able to be one of them.
What are some of your favorite spots in the city?
Bagel Bob’s on University & 9th. Bistrot Les Amis. Gemma. Central Park, of course. The occasional skip through The Met. Sometimes, there’s no better excuse to put on a slinky dress and go for a martini someplace like The Mark just because it’s Saturday. I love a good hotel bar, just steeped in the rich history and culture of Manhattan. And of course, I’d be remiss not to mention Morrison Hotel Gallery from which I’ve gotten some of my favorite art.
Oh, really? Which pieces do you have?
My most special is Elliott Landy’s Bob Dylan. Not only is it an objectively amazing image but also, it takes me back to being at NYU and passing the street-level gallery location and seeing it in the window at a time when Bob Dylan was so formative to me. I have a couple of really great pieces from the Jimmy Webb collection and an Elton John by Barry Wentzell.
Did you grow up with a particular adoration for or exposure to these legends?
Not really. I wouldn’t say that my parents are necessarily music enthusiasts, at least not in the way that I’ve become. It was more of a slow-building love for me but when it hit, it hit hard.
And what or who was that initial spark for you?
It all started when I was eighteen and going to NYU and met this devastatingly cute guy in Washington Square Park. If you took Springsteen, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan, and swirled them all together, you’d get this guy – or at least that’s how I perceived him at the time – and circumstantially, that’s how I was introduced to what’s become my holy rock trinity. From then on, it became clearer to me how music can make one feel less alone in the world and thus, my obsession with everything from 1961 to, say, 1977, was born. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of great artists on either side of that era but that particular time is the sweet spot for me.
Are there any contemporary artists in your orbit?
There are. The Allergies, ODESZA, Colter Wall and in terms of up and coming artists, there’s this great band Uni of which one of my dearest friends, Jack Busa, is the frontman. He’s everything a frontman should be. I also have a friend, Vlad Holiday, who is really one to watch. Everytime I see him play live, it’s just incredible. He’s the real deal. It’s so great to see concerts back in New York.
Is there an album that really sums up your love letter to New York?
Truth be told, it’s gotta be Bob Dylan’s Positively 4th Street.
That checks out. And in keeping with love letters to New York and all the tremendous career milestones that has entailed for you, from opening for Mark Ronson at the Wall Street Journal party to your recent gigs with Dolce & Gabbana, any takeaways you wish you could impart on your eighteen year-old NYU student self?
Don’t worry so much about trying to be a model and this or that. The magic is in your head and heart. It’s pretty easy, especially at that age, to get caught up in what you look like but it’s all part of the adventure. And the other thing, which has been more of a pandemic lesson that I wish I’d been able to learn sooner, is that whatever time you give to anything – be it a person, place or project – is time you take away from other people, projects and places for your creative energies to go and that’s okay but it’s also important to try to invest that time consciously. The most valuable thing you can give to yourself or another person is your time so give it to the things that set you on fire.
In the big scheme of things, it sounds like you’ve managed to fill your time wholly, or wholeheartedly, with a myriad of projects. How does that coalesce into a career in DJing?
By total accident. Some eight years ago, I plugged in my iPod at a party at London's Groucho Club one night and people got confused in the best way possible. As the night went on, people loved it and it showed me the immense power that comes with playing the right song, for the right people at the right moment and it evolved from there.
Between stumbling into DJing by happenstance and your present state of embodying a DJ in every sense, when was the definitive moment of deciding to actively claim that career identity?
That’s a really interesting question. There was a moment a few years ago when I was opening for Mark [Ronson] at the World Economic Forum in Davos that it occurred to me; ‘how special that I’ve not only been whisked away from New York City to this beautiful part of the world to deliver a magical experience and some levity to people but am being paid to do so…’ I love bringing that happiness and joy to people and, in many ways, that is why I DJ.
That levity and joy you bring through the power of music must take on even greater value at this present moment. If you had limitless opportunities and resources to deliver the Samantha Michelle experience to the world now, what might that look like?
Oh, man. I would love to create a festival someplace centralized and accessible to all kinds of people from all over the world to experience all the greats. Of course, living legends like Dylan, Willie Nelson, Tina Turner and Fleetwood Mac, up to contemporaries like Tame Impala and what-have-you. Toss in a heap of locals and unheard-of acts to make some wildest dreams come true. Great vendors and vintage market stalls, like Glastonbury meets a massive, several-day Love-In.
While we’re on the subject of present greatness, as you know, we’re celebrating 1971 at Morrison Hotel Gallery with an exhibition honoring the seminal year in music history and all of the masterworks that came out of that prolific moment.
Looking back on 1971, one of the greatest years in rock & roll history, I think that what’s most incredible is that we’re talking about a time just brimming with optimism and the spirit of revolution. Coming out of the Summer of Love, it’s the natural progression of artists committing to their creative freedom in light of Vietnam and social upheaval at large. Rock & roll was a victory march, well on its way with cultural relevance and commercial success.
And so many of the greatest works to come out of 1971 have only continued to appreciate in social profundity over time, particularly when you’re surveying an artist like Gil Scott-Heron or Sly and the Family Stone.
I’d love to see more of that today, more artists really digging into the stuff that truly matters.
So what are your favorite albums from 1971?
So many. Janis Joplin’s Pearl, of course. Her version of “Cry Baby” gets me every time. What’s also great about this year is the variety of music that came out that year. There’s funk, soul, reggae, rock & roll. T.Rex’s Electric Warrior is another special one. Of course, Marc Bolan has peers like Bowie but his sound was just, and continues to be, so singular. We can’t talk about 1971 without mentioning Sticky Fingers by the Stones. What an incredible album and clearly the best time for the Rolling Stones, creatively.
As someone with such a penchant for that time who did not technically live it, what do you see as the key takeaways from 1971?
It’s important that we discuss this particular year and these particular albums as relics of cultural iconography. What these albums represent is a brief but impactful time spent creating the very best of a genre, an era, and engaging with people in meaningful ways. Imagine what these artists were able to achieve personally and politically through their socially-conscious craft and that’s what art is really all about. That’s why these albums stand the test of time and it’s something I really aspire to with my own work; be about something, something that matters and something grounded in this present moment because it’s the only time we really have the choice to participate in.
In the words of Nina Simone, “An artist’s job is to reflect the times.” Conversely, there’s also something to be said for great art’s propensity for outliving the artist behind it.
Isn’t that what every artist secretly hopes for, to create something that extends beyond your own identity and can transcend your own mortality? But in its present form, I always look at my creative process as a service that can make someone’s world just a little bit better, if only for a couple-hour boogie.
Well on that note, thank you for your service, Samantha Michelle. Before we let you go, would you like to play us out with a little 1971 soundtrack?
Absolutely. Light the candle, lie back and remember a time when everything was just…wild.