Wisconsin-native and Philly-based songwriter, Samantha Rise (they/them), discovered the power of a simple song amidst the raw beauty of Wyoming. From their activism to their pursuits in non-profits and theater, Samantha Rise’s journey through professions and song stylings, has been driven by a search for belonging. Now as a self-proclaimed ‘songcatcher, ‘ Samantha Rise aims to inspire change, foster connections, and create a community that embraces love, acceptance, and social transformation through the power of their music. (See full episode one transcript below.)
photo by Senia Lopez for WXPN
Season 1 Episode 2 – From Wanderlust to Songcatcher: Samantha Rise
Meet songcatcher Samantha Rise, a Philadelphia-based teacher, activist, and performer whose inclusive music, rooted in indie folk, evokes their myriad of experiences.
More about Samantha Rise
Black Opry Residency has been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.
EPISODE TWO TRANSCRIPT
(I. Sam cold open)[00:00:00]
Samantha Rise: I’ve been thinking about this language of belonged-ness, like how do I belong myself to the wider world, to different communities, to this city, Philly, which I love. I’m not from here. Right? And I think really the, the experience of like, of, of belonging has just always showed up in music for me.
HOST: This is Samantha Rise.
(SONG: Samantha Rise – “Rye Grass Riders”)
HOST: They’re a non-binary songwriter and activist. Open up Sam’s Instagram feed and you’ll see sun-dappled performance outtakes alongside posts advocating for trans and queer rights and local progressive politics.
Sam also describes themselves as a “bird walker”, meaning they like to wander without necessarily knowing where they’ll land. It comes through in the routes they take in telling stories.
Samantha Rise: Leading up to a performance I always [00:00:30] wonder if I’m, it’s like, am I good enough? Am I, I have all these sort of self sabotaging thoughts, but once I drop in to that creative space, it’s like I’ve never left it, you know, it’s just this, there’s a way that I’m, I’m folded in, in a way that I have more access to. More power and curiosity and creativity and other people.
HOST: Samantha says they’ve always been taken by the way playing music can be both transformative and clarifying. When so much else in the world is challenging or unclear, Sam says performing for people can be the one thing that makes [00:01:00] total sense.
Samantha Rise: But less being like carried away and more being like, uh, plugged in in a way that shut down my worries. And my anxiety. It was just, there’s a deep trust for me in you know, what other people thought of as risky of, of making music and, and performing. It just felt easy as breathing.
HOST: In the past, Sam has worked as a non profit administrator, a teaching artist, a librarian, and a theater performer, among other things, but has recently made a commitment to [00:01:30] pursue music full-time.
Samantha Rise: And so I just, you know, less like finding spotlight and more like being a part of that energy. I was like, I gotta be, I gotta be doing this.
HOST: Even though Sam’s conviction and passion for pursuing a life in music is stronger than ever, they had been struggling to find the right opportunity that would bring their career to the next level.
(music concludes / scene shift)
Samantha Rise: And it was a freezing cold day. It was so cold. And, um, it was a hard, it was a hard window.
HOST: Samantha was visiting Wisconsin, where they were born and raised. Sam’s family was mourning the death of their sister. On top of that, Sam had recently gone through a divorce, moved, and turned down a leadership job at a great organization because they wanted to make music full-time.
Life was in flux.
Samantha Rise: and I had been running to kind of keep my brain together, just to help me kind of navigate various impossible realities.
And so I ran and I was like kind of yelling and singing along to these songs and. Listening to, uh, river by Patty Griffin,
(Patty Griffin – “River”)
but I, yeah, but I was trying to kind of shake out some [00:07:00] of that energy and, um, but I came home and, and opened my laptop in preparation for some, like, what am I gonna do instead of that job?
HOST: Sam says that they remember getting back from that run, opening their laptop and seeing the invitation to interview for the Black Opry Residency
Samantha Rise: And I just felt this warmth and relief and, and reassurance. It was like, even if nothing happens with just this, just the, the acknowledgement of like, we wanna hear more from you. Um, it seeded something in me [00:07:30] that is still like, really feeding me.
Um, and to, to have a conversation then, um, with, such an extraordinary crew of people and, and answer difficult questions, but also just get to tell the truth about why I have to make music. There’s no other way for me. And then again, to have that be a, like, we wanna hear more from you to be accepted into, into the residency. Yeah, it just, it it has, it’s left an impression on me and, [00:08:00] um, energized me in a way that I hope to, uh, I hope to live up to.
HOST: You’re listening to Season 1 of the Artist to Watch podcast, featuring the Black Opry Residency. I’m John Morrison I’m a DJ and music journalist from Philadelphia. Over the course of [00:02:00] five episodes you’ll hear the stories of Black artists trying to make it in the world of country and Americana music. This is episode two featuring Samantha Rise. If you haven’t heard episode 1 yet, I suggest you go back and give it a listen.
(II. Giving context for BOR / reminding of story)
HOST: That first episode tells the story of how the Black Opry – an organization committed to elevating Black artists in country music – and WXPN – a public radio station in Philadelphia – teamed up to create the Black Opry Residency.
WXPN’s Program Director Bruce Warren says they wanted to elevate the way they were drawing attention to emerging talent.
Bruce Warren: We really, you know, we threw everything against the wall.
HOST: Bruce thought it was important for the artists to live together in the same house during their time in Residency.
Bruce Warren: You know, when people live together, um, interesting things happen, right? Um, relationships develop, um, problems come up, problems that get solved. You know, I, it’s funny, I, um, I went, I went, I used to spend my summers at an overnight camp. And, um, it was a total false environment, but it was an amazing environment that really lent itself to building community, you know, a amongst a closed group of people.
HOST: WXPN and the Black Opry created a national call for artists to apply for the 5 spots in the residency program. Getting selected for the program was just about as competitive as getting into Harvard or Yale.
Nathan Tempro: So we had about a hundred applicants.
HOST:[00:03:00] This is Nathan Tempro. The program’s project manager.
Nathan Tempro: We first narrowed it down to 25, and then we gave that list of 25 to all of the other folks who were, uh, on the selection committee. And it took a while to get us down to the top 10.
HOST: From there, they did short calls with 10 finalists to find out more about their work, their dreams, and ambitions.
Nathan Tempro: By the time we got the 10, we had talent for sure, but we wanted to know more about [00:03:30] these people’s stories. What they wanted from the residency, , and also just personalities and how the group would mesh together. We were looking for different sounds, uh, different points and careers and yeah, I mean, it was really, really hard to get our five, but I, you know, from the first zoom that we had, I already had a, a idea that we’d made the right choices.
HOST: The five artists chosen in this very competitive process were Tylar Bryant, the Texas-born country singer you [00:04:00] learned about in episode 1. Grace Givertz (“Give-ertz”), Denitia Odigie (“Den-eee-sha O-dee-gee”), and the Kentucky Gentlemen. You’ll meet all of them in future episodes.
Samantha Rise is the only Residency artist based in Philadelphia.
(Samantha Rise – “Keep Your Silver Shined”)
Holly G: Samantha is one of the artists that. Actually discovered through the application process.
HOST: Holly G is the founder of the Black Opry. She was part of the committee that selected the final 5 Residents.
Holly G: And that was super exciting to me that people were applying that I was not yet aware of.
HOST: Coincidentally, Holly and Sam ended up on a panel together while the Black Opry Residency interview process was taking place.
Holly G: And I got to hear them talk about their passion for advocacy and, um, [00:05:00] just community within what we’re doing and, you know, looking out for your peers and creating music with people. And it was just, So in line with what our values and missions are as an organization,
Rissi Palmer: samantha. Oh my gosh. I love Samantha.
HOST: Rissi Palmer is a musician, radio host, and an early supporter of the Black Opry. Rissi was also part of the committee that selected Samantha to be one of the residents.
Rissi Palmer: A serious artist and I, I believe that Samantha has [00:05:30] everything to be like a long lasting, like an art, the type of artist that we talk about 20 years from now. The music is very, um, is very honest, very raw, and the activism, I think is, is, is beautiful. And it, and it rings very true and sincere.
Bruce Warren: When all is said and done. Samantha Rise in their own way is a really unique performer and musician.[00:06:00]
HOST: Again, Bruce Warren.
Bruce Warren: I think Samantha Rise. Has the potential to be both the musical voice and spoken voice of this incredible movement, um, that’s happening right now in Americana and country music.
Kristen Kurtis: I’m Kristin Curtis all this week. At this time, we are inviting our March artists to watch who we’re all part of the Black Opry residency into the X P N studio to talk about the program and to jam a little bit with us. And it feels like a, like a family reunion right now. We were just all excited to welcome Samantha Rise into the studio, our Philadelphia area Resident, welcome.
Samantha Rise: Thank you so much. Kristen, thank you for having me. This is such a dream.
Kristen Kurtis: so Samantha Rise, Philadelphia activist, teacher and [00:08:30] musician here with us today. I know you are a graduate of Temple’s Jazz program, but your relationship with music must have started at some point before you got to college.
Would you walk us through your musical career thus
Samantha Rise: far? Sure, yeah. I, uh, I. Come from a really wonderful musical lineage. My mother and my grandfather are both incredible artists, and I found out later in my life actually that on my, my father’s side as well, we had some blues performers and artists too…
(fade previous clip under at some point)
HOST: Growing up in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin a suburb of Milwaukee, Sam says that there were some really difficult moments during their childhood, but love and creativity were always in abundance.
They were particularly close to their grandfather who was one of their first music [00:09:30] teachers.
(Blue Dot Sessions- “The Spinnet”)
HOST: Sam’s grandfather was a salesman who worked many jobs, but always found a way to bring music into everything he did. Like when he was working at a Sunglass Hut, he would sing jingles to customers to get them to buy glasses.
Samantha Rise: He was one of the first people in our community to get a karaoke machine, to bring it to bars. He was that guy and knew every song. And, um, when he retired, he, um, brought his, his karaoke machine to assisted living communities in nursing homes and, um, called the Gordy’s Musical Showcase. And, and he would sing songs to folks who had, you know, in so many ways, felt left out or disregarded, um, kind of invisibilized in the world that we live in.
HOST: Sam would assist their grandfather at these karaoke events. They would run sound and observe the way he worked the crowd.
Samantha Rise: And we’d stand together before he had start a performance, and he would say, who’s the saddest person? Who’s the quietest person in the room? Who’s the person that’s gonna be hardest to reach? And when we, you know, we would like kind of scan, and when, when we found them, he’d be like, [00:10:30] okay, that’s the one. And every time, by the end of, of, of performance, you know, they would be the one leading everyone else in the song.
HOST: Gordy’s Music Showcase made a huge impression on Sam. The way that music, singing, and performance can help people break out of their shells is something that Sam still holds deeply.
Samantha Rise: when I was growing up, everybody was like, are you gonna audition for American Idol? You know, that was the, the track.
HOST: Samantha never had private music lessons, but says their talent was nurtured in a really strong public school music [00:11:00] program. They played in the jazz band and acted in musicals. From an early age, people recognized Sam’s ability to sing and perform.
Samantha Rise: And for me, I think the appeal was that it was, it, it was hard for me to take up a kind of space just for myself, but when I could lend my silliness or my love of music, or my energy or my, in my intensity even, you know, some of the things that people might discredit. [00:11:30] Offstage, right? When, when that had a place to belong and I could lend it to something bigger than me, that it was just magical. Something really clicked there.
HOST: Samantha left Wisconsin to attend college at Temple University in Philadelphia. They had visited Philly before for a high school jazz band competition and instantly felt like they wanted to spend more time there.
Samantha Rise: I could not have prepared myself for the education that I’d receive in the city. Not, not only [00:12:00] inside, you know, the, the, the music school and that program in particular, but the culture of Philadelphia’s music and also, you know, Philadelphia’s, uh, Heartfulness and sense of mutuality and connection, you know, in, in, in spite of chronic disinvestment.
HOST: Sam says they learned how to be a good collaborator, and a good bandmate in Philly. They took in the history of the Philly sound, especially the city’s storied jazz and soul music.
(Leon Huff – “I Ain’t Jivin’ I’m Jammin”)
Samantha Rise: I felt like Philadelphia really [00:12:30] provided. A soft place to land for me musically and otherwise. And, and it’s something that I just, you know, I I, I always gravitate back to, , yeah, there’s a particular gravity about Philly and music that’s made here and how people do it and yeah. It’s, it’s totally transformed my life.
HOST: Philly is where Sam booked and played their first gig as a singer-songwriter at the Tin Angel, a listening room that closed its doors in 2017. Philly is a place that’s very important to Sam’s story, but they had to leave the city for a while before eventually finding their way back.
(Wyoming: Finding country music)
HOST: After graduating from Temple, Sam spent a few years splitting time between Philly and New York. And then with their partner at the time, they decided to make a change and move to Wyoming.
Samantha Rise: you know, I [00:13:00] took this really wild, kind of left westerly turn and found this whole new world of, of music and, and, and like a new way of like figuring out how music was made.
HOST: It was a big leap going from a world of academic jazz studies and the big city lifestyle to a place that epitomized that old Woody Guthrie quote that says “anything more than three chords is just showing off.” Sam [00:13:30] says the move to Wyoming transformed their music making.
(Samantha Rise- “Let The Great World Spin”)
HOST: Sam nurtured a deeper appreciation of the power of a simple song.
Samantha Rise: you know, getting to the marrow of the story, you know, what is at the heart of the thing that, the thing that [00:14:00] compels me so much is the magic that we get to animate when we make music, when we’re singing someone else’s words or singing our own, you know, there’s something really singular about the experience of, you know, sending words out like a small spell into the world.
HOST: Sam learned a ton of folk and country songs and even got hired to host a weekly hootenanny at a local bar in Pinedale with their partner.
Samantha Rise: We bought ourselves a PA and we’re like, every Thursday we’re gonna do this thing because we got paid a hundred dollars and if we did that for a year, you know, we could pay it off.
HOST:[00:14:30] Samantha played their weekly hootenanny and even flew friends out from Philly to tour through Wyoming. They say this time felt like an easy sandbox to play, write, and create in.
Samantha Rise: And made some really dear, uh, friends in Wyoming, other artists who, just really helped me find my, a place in, in country music.
(music up for a moment)
HOST: Sam says their mother was never into country music, so they never really considered it before.
Samantha Rise: And then all of a sudden it was like, oh, this is so. It’s such just a natural extension. Like, this is where my voice wants to [00:15:00] sit. These are the chords that I love. These are the feels, you know, this, there was just all of this, uh, language and um, and resonance that really was exciting to me.
(music fades out)
HOST: While Wyoming was a fruitful period of Sam’s life in many ways. It was also hard being one of the only people of color, not to mention a voice for social justice in an unfamiliar place.
This was back around 2012, 2013. The Black Lives Matter movement had just started taking shape after the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida. And after Mike Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, Samantha organized their first march.
Samantha Rise: And it was three people through a, through a town. And what people think of is the middle of nowhere. You know, there’s one stoplight and we were marching through and, there was this acceleration of, uh, you know, vitriol and, and, and hateful language. And, um, yeah, I, I think it was like, it was very radicalizing for me.
HOST: Sam worked as a youth services librarian at a local branch designing and implementing programs for kids. They said they often felt like they had much more in common with the youth than their parents.
Samantha Rise: You know, people in Wyoming hated my politic, but loved my kids programming. And I’m like, if you had any idea, you know, the conversations I’m having with your children, it’s like, you, you know, you’re, you’re really comfortable with your kind of willful ignorance, but this seven year old person, we’re gonna catch a vibe.
HOST: Samantha felt more and more like they had to carry a heavy load, especially as Trumpism was on the rise. They had to navigate being a voice against [00:16:00] injustice, while also being an artist, and also just trying to live their life.
Samantha Rise: And for me, there was this, you know, I had, I had, by the end it felt like there were like rug burns on my arms just from the being in a place that is, it’s actually, you know, ac either implicitly or explicitly trying to invisibilize you.
Wyoming was also a place where I recognized that. The one container where no one was going to, where nobody could [00:16:30] invisibilize me, and also no one was gonna question or make me feel small in my identities, was if I poured into my music. And I think for the first time I recognized that I could turn my volume up inside songwriting and performance spaces and press the edges of limiting beliefs that were otherwise becoming pretty untenable to me.
HOST: Samantha was a delegate from Wyoming for Bernie Sanders in 2016. That year, the Democratic National Convention was in Philly.
Samantha Rise: I came to to Philly for the [00:17:00] convention and I was like, I think may, I think maybe we come here, you know, I think maybe we moved back here. We’d been in Wyoming for, you know, coming on. It was four, four years, a little more than four years. And, uh, yeah, just decided, you know, that, that summer and early fall to, to, to shift again and, and to come back to a place where maybe we could do a little bit more with the music.
(Samantha Rise – “Sun Station”)
HOST: One of the last things Sam did in [00:17:30] Wyoming was watch in disbelief as Trump was elected President.
Samantha Rise: A couple of weeks later, I said goodbye to all the tiny magical humans that had taught me so much in my time there. And, and we u-haul from, from Wyoming to to Philly, and I think, you know, that that transition was like one of the first pushes toward, uh, really pursuing myself, and also my music. Um, in earnest, uh, was was was coming [00:18:00] back here after, after that election and kind of seeing what could, what we could get into, you know, coming back.
(Coming back to Philly… Going through hard stuff, but knowing it’s the place they need to be)
HOST: Samantha quickly re-connected with their longtime community in Philadelphia. They landed a job as the Director of Girls Rock Philly, a youth centered organization that fosters joy and creativity through music. And they put out a suite of lush, soulful albums called Brighter Days.
(music up for a moment)
HOST: Things were on the right track for Sam back in Philly, but then..
Samantha Rise: I think seven out of 10 of the most stressful life events that can happen to a person happened to me in a two year period here moving back to Philly.[00:18:30]
HOST: Sam was married and divorced, bought and sold a house, their grandfather passed away. And then the Covid 19 pandemic struck.
Samantha Rise: as the world and as my world fell apart, I was navigating a kind of devastation that I had not experienced in a long time. Um, but I [00:19:00] also recognized that the other edge of that kind of dissolution and uncertainty is like, revolutionary spirit is like, is all possibility, is like things waiting to be known. And, and when everything else f fell away, like I was still there and my music was still there
HOST: As the world started to emerge from the worst of the pandemic, Sam started writing new songs, putting together a band. They also had a new understanding of their non-binary identity. [00:19:30] Sam says the new songs they’re writing are about the extraordinary nature of being trans and queer.
Samantha Rise: And it’s been this process of like recognizing parts of myself that I’ve always been around that maybe didn’t have a name or there wasn’t really language to support them, or they were maybe loudly or quietly discouraged by, you know, the world. Um, and, and you know, the finding, finding the words that give me just more room to be with myself, um, and to [00:20:00] celebrate myself.
(Sam Rise Morning Show – How’s Goes Love)
HOST: Here’s Sam performing one of those brand new songs called “How Goes Love”on WXPN’s morning show.
Samantha Rise: I take my refuge in the long white lines. I’m singing Stur songs, but I can’t make them mind. Forest Soul sees me, got to see my tears dry. Hello? Oh Lord.[00:20:30]
When I see her coming. I fight for a time, hope that I could fix things for it. So you find it to lay to see safe to the other side. The lessons cruel. The learning lonely
and the truth, like a ticker [00:21:00] squeeze, how it threatens her heaven in between, and how you wish that you didn’t. But you know what that means when it takes to leave and soul.
(fade music underneath)
Samantha Rise: ,I wanna write a record about not having to be exceptional to be, uh, to be alive or to, to have access to the things that we all deserve and, and, and, um, and hope for. [00:21:30] Uh, but also to write about, um, the sort of everyday miracle of, of believing in yourself beyond a border that someone would, you know, impose on you for their own fragility or narrowness
HOST: Sam hopes the Black Opry Residency will give them the knowledge and tools to bring this ambitious new album to wider audiences.
(Song up and concludes)
Kristen Kurtis: Samantha, that is lovely. Oh, my soul feels so at peace right now. How goes love the name of that song? Yes, indeed. Yeah. Wonderful. Thank you so much for performing that for us [00:22:00] today. Woo. Samantha Eyes, uh, Philadelphia based artist who as part of the Black Opry Residency, which has been going on for five weeks now via Zoom sessions, but finally able to welcome you to Philadelphia, will welcome everybody else to Philadelphia
(fade under and out)
Samantha Rise: to actually have, have your music be heard is, is just, it’s so challenging and it’s constantly shifting. And it’s about like relationships and, and quality of connections and also knowing like the, like the questions to ask or, um, you know, like, it, [00:22:30] it’s been funny some of like the do’s and don’ts conversations, but mostly like, um, Having an opportunity to, to check in with people who can tell us like what it is that they’re, that they’re looking for has been extraordinary.
HOST: Samantha has had conversations with other Residency artists and guest speakers that have been helpful for decoding and demystifying aspects of the music industry.
Samantha Rise: It shouldn’t be a secret. It shouldn’t be inaccessible. There’s no reason, um, it should be so challenging. And so it’s been, [00:23:00] uh, it’s been really awesome inside the Opry Residency to be collaborating with, uh, people who are willing to have conversations with us, but like also, you know, leveraging their wisdom and their expertise because they believe in the work we’re doing and they want the music.
They want music to be good. They want the industry to be good. They want, they want people who are telling powerful stories to be heard.
HOST: Samantha describes themselves as a “song catcher”. That songs have lives of their own. And you just to be open and ready when they choose you as the one to bring them into the [00:23:30] world.
After all their accumulated life experience, Sam has songs they’re ready to give life to. And they’re grateful the Black Opry Residency arrived at this moment.
Samantha Rise: because when you don’t know where to start, it’s so overwhelming, can feel debilitating to try. And I think in a lot of these conversations, we’ve been able to just explore sort of the next right step for each of us. Um, which I’m, I’m excited to see how all those things sort of traction now, you know, where I, where I can go with that and, and how that can feel more supportive
HOST: In the [00:24:00] next episode of the Artist to Watch podcast, we’ll hear about some of those next right steps for musicians looking to take a leap… and the residents’ action packed week in Philly.
AMOS LEE: the mental stuff on the road is a bitch. and you’re just gonna have to find ways to do it. And a lot of times you’re just gonna want to be home. Not on stage, but you’re gonna be on a plane or on a bus or in an Uber, and you’re gonna go like, I just, I just feel like absolute fucking ass. Mm-hmm. But then you’ll take the stage and you’ll get in a song and you’ll feel the vibes and you’ll awaken
HOST: And introduce you to Boston-based singer-songwriter Grace Givertz…
GRACE GIVERTZ: I wanna be like Brandi Carlisle famous. I mean, I just wanna be Brandi Carlisle. But the career I want and the career I, I think is mine. I think that is, that is what I see. Because if I compare it to anyone else, I’m gonna be disappointed or sell myself short.
We hope you enjoyed this episode of the Artist to Watch podcast. For more information about the Black Opry Residency, visit X – P – N dot O – R – G.
The Artist to Watch podcast is produced by WXPN, member-supported radio from the University of Pennsylvania, in partnership with Rowhome Productions.
WXPN’s Executive Producers are Roger LaMay and Bruce Warren.
The Executive Producers for Rowhome Productions are Alex Lewis and John Myers.
This episode was written by Alex Lewis with help from me, John Morrison.
This episode was written by John with help from me, John Morrison
Final audio mixing and mastering for Rowhome Productions by Justin Berger.
Special thanks to Holly G and Rissi (REE-see) Palmer.
The Black Opry Residency has been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.
The Artist to Watch podcast is distributed by PRX — the Public Radio Exchange.
If you enjoy being the first to discover up-and-coming talent, be sure to go to the Artist to Watch show page on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe by clicking “follow” so that you never miss an episode. While you’re there, please leave us a review and share an episode with a friend.
Thanks for listening.
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