Even though she’s an “Interior Person,” musician Samantha Sidley still struggles with the challenges of stay-at-home orders. Sidley hopes that as L.A. stays shut down, Angelenos come to learn the value of kindness in a post-COVID-19 world.
Quarantine Coping is our series about how local creatives are filling their time — and shelves — in the wake of COVID-19 isolation.
“I’m ready for the apocalypse,” says jazz singer Samantha Sidley as we catch up over the phone. The tone of the conversation is quite different from the first time we spoke over sparkling cocktails in a candle-lit corner of Silver Lake’s L & E Oyster Bar. That night, she was dolled up and fur-clad. “My dream is to have a big band, dancers, kitschy things like jumping out of a cake,” she had gushed. We picked up our chat a few weeks later and life has transformed. Instead of music, an inordinate amount of her focus now centers on Lysoling packages dropped off at her door. And this time, we’re both in sweatpants.
“Since I have an autoimmune disease, I’m high risk,” she says. “My mom had half a lung removed. She’s a cancer survivor. We can’t take any chances.”
Initially, I wanted to talk to Sidley because her debut album, “Interior Person,” about being queer in the modern world, was one of the freshest things to come out of Los Angeles in 2019. The L.A. Times included it in their list of best albums of the year. Served with a wink, the first track, “I Like Girls,” sets a glamorous mood as she lists the kinds of girls she finds attractive — which is all of them, from burly to girly. The rest of the album takes the listener on a journey across fabulous romantic highs to crushing lows of self-doubt, carried by a voice that’s typically reserved for a cabaret chanteuse or Disney princess.
After seeing Sidley perform to a packed Zebulon in January, her presence enchanting an audience of many ages and orientations, it seemed clear she was poised for great things. But that’s all on hold, as projections floating around on the Internet say live concerts won’t resume until 2021.
Now seems like an appropriate time to chat with the self-professed ‘interior person,’ as everyone has been forced into their own interior worlds, whether it’s a place they’re comfortable in or not. A homebody when she isn’t touring as a back-up singer for the Foo Fighters, in some ways, Sidley is already equipped for quarantine coping. “I’ve always isolated,” she says. “In some ways, it feels normal. In others, it doesn’t.”
“I get panic attacks,” Sidley says, describing an instance when she lost her sense of reality while staring at herself in the mirror and was brought back by her new dog Winnie. The adorable brown pit bull intuitively came over, stood between her legs and looked up at her, jostling Sidley back with that singular love that radiates from animal friends. “It was like someone giving me a warm hug,” she says.
Sidley hasn’t had it easy. Her strict father wouldn’t let her listen to anything except jazz standards. She never came out to him about her sexuality. While studying at Berklee College of Music — which she hated — he was diagnosed with brain cancer so she quit school and came home. “It was really hard and really weird,” she says. “He became abusive. Of course, I loved him but when he died, it was sort of a relief.”
That was 2009. “Because of the emotional toll from my dad’s death, simultaneously, I decided to get off Dexedrine, which I had been taking for ADD at high doses for 12 years,” she says. The terrible withdrawal took a toll. In 2012, she was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease. She stopped singing.
“It was all these major things at once, so getting up onstage and being vulnerable — I couldn’t do it,” she says, “but I started dating Barbara at that time, and things started to change.”
Barbara Gruska played drums for local indie darlings the Belle Brigade. Still weak, Sidley mustered up the energy to see Gruska perform at Spaceland and make a move. Their love story blossomed from a stinky armpit. Gruska tells it best:
“She gets there kinda early while I’m saying hi to my mom,” Gruska says. “My mom assumes she is one of my friends and is like, ‘Barbara’s armpits stink.’ I immediately went shvitzy, so embarrassed, and Sam just goes, ‘Let me smell.’ I lifted my arm up and she says, ‘I like it, it smells natural.’ I was just like, ‘Oh my God, this is horrible — and great!’ We went to a party afterward and I spent the whole night running away from her because I was so nervous. At 4 o’clock in the morning, she gave me her number and kissed me on the cheek. I decided, OK, I’m going to wait two days and call her. I literally texted her 15 minutes later. She told me she loved me on our first date.”
Gruska introduced Sidley to musician Alex Lilly who introduced her to the Bird and the Bee’s Inara George. The three of them would eventually collaborate on writing and producing Sidley’s album, which George put out on her label, Release Me Records. But it wasn’t until 2015 that Sidley decided to take the stage again. The shift came after she was sexually assaulted.
“It was this ‘I don’t give a fuck’ moment of clarity,” Sidley explains. “All these things were happening to me and I didn’t know why. I didn’t want to be a victim. So I found the confidence to be myself. When you get up onstage, you are expressing something that people can relate to, whether it’s triumph or pain. And anybody can go there emotionally, that’s what makes it feel good.”
For a while Sidley did standards, changing pronouns to suit her point of view. Gruska, George, and Lilly were inspired and began writing her songs. “I’m not afraid of being pretty or gentle when I write for her,” Lilly says. “Her voice, her message, her vibe, her humor, it’s fun to know she’s going to dig in and really perform.”
George wrote “I Can’t Listen,” the most somber song on the album, about being lonely and not believing in yourself. “I knew her struggle because I had experienced it,” she says. “Wanting to do things but you’re stuck in your mind, in your house. You want to be productive but you don’t know how to do it.”
That song feels poignant at the moment, as we’re forced to turn inward and contend with our vulnerabilities. That’s the song to cry to. Then switch over to something jubilant like “Butterfly In My Ass” — which is the opposite of having a stick up your butt, metaphorically speaking.
“I had a thorn in my side And a chip on my shoulder I had a cramp in my style I had a burden like a boulder And now that I’ve outlasted Put the things in the past I got a butterfly in my ass.”
Reflecting further on our current once-in-a-century pandemic and the introspection it affords, Sidley emphasizes that empathy is essential. “My hope is that people will come out of this and be more careful and gentle with each other because we’re fragile,” she says. “I am more appreciative of what I’ve got. I hope everybody can find something they can appreciate.”