Samantha Urbani has been a student of pop ever since she can remember. In fact, she’s on her way to becoming a master of the craft, picking apart the production techniques of greats like Janet Jackson, Sade, Nina Hagen, Max Martin, and modern hit-makers like Justin Bieber, and seamlessly incorporating them into her unique brand of bombastic, one-two punch, indie pop. She’s unafraid to be referential. She wants listeners to recognize the sounds that she craves to bring back into the pop world: lush synth lines, drum machines, loud guitars, and that rough, in-your-face quality of late ‘90s and early ‘00s radio hits from the likes of Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears.
This new sound might as well function as her liberation from the tight constraints she placed on herself while working with her former band, the internationally successful outfit, Friends. The band’s music was an exercise in minimalist production, whereas Urbani aims to fill the room and transport her audience into her eternally cool world, one beat at a time.
When Friends—who came out during the height of the mid-’00s New York City indie rock scene—fizzled out, Urbani branched out on her own into other ventures: modeling stints for fashion brands like Coach and Calvin Klein, directing her own music videos, acting, and launching her own label, URU, where she released the long out-of-print debut of her “all time favorite band,” British new wave act Rexy. Now, she’s ready to unleash her first solo EP, Policies of Power, an intense and wildly fun study in late ‘80s and ‘90s pop sounds—a retro cool exploration of what, according to Urbani, made the pop music of the era great: heavy guitars, unrestrained use of synths and drum loops, and unexpected influences that few musicians dare to tout, like UB40.
Her solo career also led her out of New York and into the warmth of Los Angeles, a transition that brought with it its own set of challenges, adventures, and insights, some of which she explores in Policies of Power. Under the shiny, bombastic production, you can hear Urbani—her voice as clear as it’s ever been—struggling with the concept of time, pondering about karma and the merits of letting the world deal with the people and things that have wronged her, accountability, grief, and the eschewed power dynamics in human interactions.
The move also afforded her the time and distance to deal with the things that were weighing her down in NYC. “I feel like acceptance of change is important, and also being nurturing of your own sentimentality and not feeling guilty if you miss something or wish something had changed,” she says about the move. “You have to really get into those feelings sometimes, and often it’s tough to get into those feelings in the place that’s bothering you.”
But the magnetic pull of NYC is hard to resist, so Urbani returns, during the seasons with the most amount of sunshine, and wreaks artistic havoc on the city that saw her grow up. On the phone from NYC, she spoke to Bandcamp about her new music, her love of ‘80s and ‘90s pop, and how Policies of Power avoids the narrative of a breakup record.
Policies of Power is a pretty bold and intense name for an EP. It kind of punches you in the gut, but you don’t really know what’s behind it until you start listening. How did you settle on that name?
‘The policies of power’ was just a line in the first verse of the first song of the EP. I was trying to name the EP and I was like, ‘I need something cute and catchy, but meaningful.’ For me, the production goals are all very pop-based, so the fact that it’s an acronym for POP is perfect. I didn’t want it to be summed up as a breakup EP or relationship thing. It’s more about general dynamics, not only interpersonal and on a human level, but even experientially.
The last song on the EP is called ‘Time, Time, Time’ and it’s about the power that time has over people, over people’s anxiety, and people’s lives, deaths, memories, and connections. It’s supposed to be a total rejection of linear time as a construct and the more meditative intention of living in whatever experience you’re having in the moment, regardless if it’s in the past or the future. That’s a power dynamic too, and it’s way more existential than like, ‘Oh my God, my boyfriend lied to me.’ It’s like, ‘Wait, what is time, why am I afraid, and why am I old now?’—the fear of being eclipsed by a power bigger than you which, in the end, you should be humble and shouldn’t want to have to control anything, but even considering these things can deconstruct a lot of the fear around it.
That’s really interesting because, at first listen, it feels like the EP might be all about ‘romantic woes.’ But, as I kept listening, I felt that there was this duality, even in songs like ‘Go Deeper’ which can be classified as a traditional breakup song. I just heard really universal themes like accountability, responsibility, and this search for understanding…or truth, you could say.
All our experiences are holistically entwined and obviously I’ve had romantic experiences in my life, but I don’t even like to base decision within relationships on romance in general because I think that romance is extremely intoxicating and irrational. If you’re basing logical decisions on irrational emotion, it’s kind of a problem. So, definitely I like the pop construct of being able to use romance as allegory and talk about bigger issues within something that sounds palatable—like a breakup song, a pop song, a crush song. On the surface I’m fine with that, but there’s definitely a lot more going on and I could break down every single line of every verse and be like, ‘Oh, that’s about that feeling, and this one is about that time that person didn’t text me back, or this one is about when this person died.’
There’s a lot of shit going on, but I’m not demanding everybody to understand my side of it. It’s just whatever somebody gets out of it. It’s a little more philosophical than some breakup tragedy or some shit. But, I do wanna be a voice for that also, I guess. I don’t want to reject the breakup concept entirely because I think there should be visibility surrounding that, just like there needs to be visibility surrounding grief. If somebody’s family member dies, that’s a trauma they’re gonna go through, you know? If somebody has a traumatic breakup, we need to have a lot of compassion for each other on those times.
You started out in the late 2000s New York City indie scene with your first band Friends. Their sound was very minimal, concentrated on drum loops and bass lines, while your sound on the EP is worlds away from that—a bombastic, guitar, and synth assault. It all made sense when you told me the acronym for Policies of Power is POP. Why did you decide to make your music fill the room?
I wanted to sort of leave behind the very minimalist, groovy, thing that I did with Friends. I still love it, and I’m writing things like that again, but I also just wanted to get to understand production more. […] I don’t have one palate for Samantha Urbani. I write a million different kinds of songs and just always look for a way to bring each one of them to their full potential. It’s almost like I’m a channeler, trying to give my ideas a home rather than put my stamp on them. I wrote all the five songs at totally different times, about different things. Somehow, those five songs kept sticking together to me and feeling like one little unit.
I worked on the production on all of them with [Sam Mehran] and the help of other instrumentalists along the way. He’s amazing, he grew up playing a lot of metal and can shred guitar. I feel like a baby with keys jangling in their face when somebody shreds the guitar, I can’t keep my composure, I lose my fucking mind. It’s like a drug. So, every time I would tell him, ‘Play a little more guitar on that part,’ he would just plug in with this very metal distortion and I would just wheel and die. I’d be like, ‘OK, I just need you to do that on the whole thing.’
For the EP, I just went full in on making it overproduced and overly schizophrenic. Some things were overtly intentional, like, ‘OK, this is a synth pop song.’ But with ‘Time, Time, Time,’ for example, it’s like, what the fuck is going on? It’s a five-minute arrangement that doesn’t make any sense, but it’s perfect to me. I went over-the-top because I reigned it in for Friends to keep it really minimal.
Aside from Mehran, you also collaborated with a couple of interesting artists on the EP. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
The first ones that come to mind are Daniel Aged, from this band called Inc. No World; they were formerly called Teen Inc. My favorite sort of guest appearance is Stuart Matthewman, who plays the saxophone on ‘Time, Time, Time’ and he’s the guy who’s been Sade’s main writer before the band was even called Sade. They kind of branched off from that band in the ’80s to develop her career together. I just became friends with him randomly in Brooklyn a few years ago, and now he plays saxophone on ‘Time, Time, Time’ and I’m fucking honored.
I’m continually astonished by your meticulous study of pop and the production methods behind it. It shows on Policies of Power; everything feels retro but with a unique attention to detail and respect for your references. I noticed that in your artwork as well.
There’s something that I think about, being intentionally referential to anything. It’s like, you don’t want it to come off as being kitschy or not yourself. When I make something that I want to make, I like it to be as original as it can be, but if there is some kind of thing that already existed that I think is amazing and isn’t really being represented right now, yeah, I’ll use it as a reference. For me, the main reference was Nina Hagen’s artwork from the mid ’80s. Klaus Nomi, all of these kind of new wave, new romantic, punk artists that were making pop music that was infused with opera and classical music, and they sound really queer, really anti-establishment. All that shit is super rooted in me.
My friend Brodie Kamen, who I did all the artwork with in Brooklyn last September, he sort of knew my old band and was a fan of my music, and we ended up kind of crashing in the same loft together for a couple of weeks. Once I saw his artwork, I felt starstruck. I was like, ‘Holy shit, you do exactly what I like.’ He makes these posters that look like punk zines from the ‘80s. He’s really artful about how he does it and has an amazing color palette, amazing taste in design and font—it’s not light. We both deeply care, and the front and back of the vinyl, all of the singles covers, we worked on it for months. I was mad neurotic about getting the artwork right and I was pissing everybody off by going over deadlines. It’s super important to me, I’m really happy with how it came out, and I’m looking forward to continuing with this visual presence that’s very bold.
I wanted to ask you about ‘U know I know.’ This track surprised me because it has this drum & bass feel that you don’t get in the rest of the record. What was your inspiration for that?
That was not intentional, but I’m down. I made the beat, arranged the chords and everything, and then wrote the vocals for it before I even brought it to Sam to work on the production. I’m obsessed with UB40 in a crazy way. Some people don’t expect that because they had a couple hits but it’s not like they’re a main reference point for musicians. The Elvis cover ‘I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You’ which was one of their huge hits, was a huge influence on ‘U Know I Know.’ They have a couple of records in the ’80s that have a simple production, really cool drum machine sounds. I was just sort of trying to tap into that while at the same time getting super fucking pop with it, where it was reminding me of ‘Genie in a Bottle’ by Christina Aguilera and Ace of Base.
Then we put a whole bunch of guitar over-the-top because to me, that is what made ‘90s pop production really cool. All of the Max Martin shit was amazing because he was a metal guy and brought that heaviness into pop music. So me and Sam were kind of doing that for that song. I remember being like, ‘UB40 times Wally Badarou times Journals-era Justin Bieber times ‘Genie in a Bottle’-era Christina.’ Maybe it doesn’t sound like that, but to me, that’s the perfect palette.