There’s empowerment pop, embodied most fully by creators of self-belief bangers like Lizzo, and then there’s the posture common to contemporary pop as a whole: the singer who has the microphone giving the authoritative, one-sided account of how things went down and what they feel about it all.
On Honey, Samia’s second solo album, the indie singer-songwriter has actually refined and defined her voice by venturing away from that sort of certainty. By envisioning how differently someone else might have perceived an interaction and letting her questions for them hang in the air, she’s subtly enlarged the scope of her songs.
I spoke with her about choosing that approach, and a number of other decisions she made on her way to this point, beginning with going into the entertainment business like her folks, Kathy Najimy and Dan Finnerty, did before her.
Jewly Hight: When you were getting into music in your teens, you had a lot of sources of influence that lots of teens getting into music have. They’re discovering music. Their friends are introducing them to music. Their friends are starting bands. But you were also around a lot of adults who were professionals in the entertainment industry, and doing a lot of different kinds of work in film and in music, serious work, dramatic work, comedic work, the whole range of possibilities. So what did you take away from that? How did that shape your idea of what you wanted to do and what you could do?
Samia: I feel really lucky to have had access to that at an early age, because it gave me so much support and so much information that both sort of left me feeling disenchanted with the entertainment industry and also so excited about the possibilities of it. I was able to witness up close and personal the whole spectrum of experience doing these kinds of jobs and how it can be so fulfilling and also so detrimental to some people. That gave me the opportunity to choose how I wanted to come at it.
I always knew I wanted to do this, because it’s all I knew. I grew up around it, and I had the most education in this field of any field, obviously. But I knew there was a way that I wanted to do it and honor my instincts and my health and quality of life.
JH: One of the decisions that you made when you embarked on your recording career was to not turn to producers who were the big, established names, but to trust your work and your process to people who are actually peers and friends of yours. What do you feel like that has done for you and your music?
S: I’m obsessed with community, and I always have been, and the chosen family thing. I’m also really shy. I met some producers who were older and more established, and they were super nice, but I couldn’t connect. And I made the decision to do it with my friends. They felt honest, and they knew me. They knew my stories. They knew what I was aiming for, and I knew them. So I trusted them. That’s really the only way I ever want to do it. It’s the only way I feel comfortable being fully authentic and vulnerable in a room. Songwriting is just so private and personal, at least for me. I have a really small circle of people I feel comfortable working with.
JH: I read that you nearly moved to Austin and then ultimately decided to come to Nashville. Both of those are cities that have really robust music scenes. So what factored into that decision?
S: I knew I wanted to get out of New York because it was sort of a wasteland at that point in the pandemic. I thought about Austin, because I’ve always loved going there. The only criteria was trees. So I picked Nashville, because my boyfriend [Briston Maroney] lives here, and he had introduced me to a community of people making music here that I really respected and felt at home around them, namely Savannah Conley, whose music I have always loved. And she became one of my closest friends immediately, and she’s just so already immersed in a scene here that I feel inspired by.
JH: You’ve experienced community and scenes in other cities, and you had people who could begin to make introductions for you here. What has finding your place in Nashville looked like for you?
S: It took a second, like it does anywhere. But I’m really inspired by the younger people here and what they’re doing. I think they’re taking huge risks, and they’re honoring their unique inclinations. There’s something happening here that really reminds me of when I was coming up in New York and the sort of DIY community there and was hearing things that I’d never heard before. So I’m just really honored to be here at this time watching these people do that.
JH: Are any of those people that you are feeling inspired by your co-writers on “Dream Song” from Honey?
S: Yeah, Brenna Kassis from Bea Bitter and Venus & the Flytraps sang on that and wrote on it too. My roommate, Dawson Freeman, my friend, Cameron Schmidt, and Hannah Cole, who’s got an amazing EP that she put out [last] year.
I had that song. The album was done. I went to my roommate Dawson and was like, “Can we just really quickly track this in any way possible just to get it done and send it to [producer] Caleb [Wright]? And we ended up going to Cameron’s house and stayed up until 6 in the morning finishing it. And it was one of the most beautiful impromptu surprise moments. I definitely owe it to them and their willingness to get it together quickly.
JH: You actually worked on that here in Nashville, but the rest of the album was fleshed out in a much more pastoral setting.
S: We were at Sylvan Esso’s studio in the woods, called Betty’s, in North Carolina. They just foster an incredibly open and creative community that I felt really lucky to be adjacent to. And that space was so conducive to making the art we wanted to make, and everyone in their extended family universe was involved in some way with making this thing.
JH: When you released your 2020 debut The Baby, you talked about that the album got its name from a nickname and there was a youthful persona attached to that. How did you sort of move from that to what you’ve done with Honey, seeking other ways of developing your songwriting and bringing other kinds of of maturity to it?
S: I had not been as introspective as I would have like to be leading up to that point, and I had to face a lot of things alone during the pandemic. There were situations I wrote about on my first record that I wrote about again for this record, just with a totally new vantage point after having been forced to grow during that solitude.
JH: One of the things that I picked up on is that you were writing from a place of interest in other vantage points on and feelings about relationships and experiences.
S: Yeah, it’s hard. You can only tell one side of the story. As a songwriter, you only have your one perspective, and we know there are many. So it’s really hard to feel confident in telling it how you experienced it and being careful not to exploit other people’s experiences and the ethics of that whole thing.
I’m pathologically concerned with other people’s feelings. Anytime I feel anything, especially anger, I try to look at it in the context of a court of law and weigh my argument against someone else’s objectively, which is impossible for one person to do. There’s a lot of going back and forth with that on this record.
JH: There are a number of songs where you present questions to others, so many songs that feel like they’re checking in.
S: You know, I love to check in. All of my songs are like desperate attempts at communication with people that I’m too shy or scared to actually communicate with.
JH: Is there a song that you feel like is the best example of that?
S: “Pink Balloon.” We spent seven months writing that, because I wanted to try to tell the whole story. I think, part of the pain that I felt in that particular conflict revolved around how well I knew the person I was in conflict with. And understanding why someone does everything they do makes it really hard to be angry with them and honor your own feelings about it.
I’m remembering how hard we worked on getting those questions right for ourselves. The questions were posed a lot of different ways leading up to that decision. It started out as a more bitter song, but I wanted to be as considerate as possible.
JH: Well, you say that like it’s an obvious thing, but in pop music and in songwriting, I think it’s more prevalent to hear artists write in a way that comes off as being in the right in an absolute sense. And that is not how these songs feel at all.
S: Well, I’ve never experienced the feeling of being in the right.
I really love to imagine being in someone else’s shoes, and I always have.
I feel like I’m certainly in a different place than I was when I made my first record. And I’m proud of that. I’m proud of the work that we did to tell this particular story. Caleb and I, we definitely didn’t cut any corners there.
JH: No song goes by without leaving us with some really specific, evocative imagery. That’s a thread throughout. But the musical presentation of the songs varies so wildly. And what I’m thinking specifically of is the contrast between some of the songs that you presented in the most intimate way, in terms of the arrangement and their performance. Somewhere between a singer-songwriter sketch, and the sweeping melody and of a musical theater number where a character reveals their inner dialogue — artfully melodramatic but on an intimate scale. And then there are other songs that you built out and polished into, like, capitol P pop songs.
S: I think that’s a reflection of my music taste. I just like a lot of different things, and I like a lot of different genres. And I’ve always received that as a compliment and a criticism. Like, what is the throughline? What is your sound? Which genre are you trying to fit into? And for better or worse, like, I just don’t know.
When it feels like a song that’s supposed to make you want to dance and feel a relief, then we’re going to try to make it sound that way. But I think the sonic world sort of comes second to the poetry always.
JH: Have you felt that you have to choose between identifying with the world of indie pop or indie rock or something entirely different than that?
S: I used to be really concerned with that. I used to think there was more intellectual value in some genres than others, which is really false, I think now. I just want to make music that makes people feel the release that I felt when I wrote it. And I don’t really care how it gets categorized, as long as it’s resonating with people. With my first album, I’ve definitely done like the full-out indie rock thing. And I love that, and I love those bands that inspired me to do that. But I also love musical theater soundtracks. I also love Sondheim. And I love FKA Twigs. And I love Father John Misty. My taste really bounces around. You can hear it in my work, for sure.
JH: On both albums, you’ve incorporated voicemails that give us this tangible sense of familial connection and cultural roots. One was from your grandmother. I read an older interview where you said that there may be subtle Arabic melodic influences that surface sometimes. I listened for that on Honey. The verses of “Mad At Me” begin on a surprising high note and the contour of the melody is not necessarily confined to familiar Western pop structure. I wondered if that was an example, maybe, of those influences coming through?
S: I can totally hear what you’re saying about “Mad At Me.”
I think far-reaching melodies have always had a place in my heart, because of the way they’re incorporated in musical theater and also a lot of Middle Eastern music and the music that I was raised on from both my extended Lebanese family and my immediate family. I also just love to sing. So I think I inadvertently give myself opportunities to experience the parts of my voice that feel the best for me.