These days it almost goes without saying that emerging singer-songwriters have unprecedented opportunities for self-promotion on sites like YouTube and MySpace. Over the last several years, numerous young artists have jump-started their careers by posting demos or homemade videos to such sites.
Examples include bona fide pop stars such as Lily Allen and Justin Bieber, but stardom on that level shouldn’t be seen as the benchmark for success. Terra Naomi, David Choi, and Julia Nunes are not household names but all have achieved success in the music industry based on amateur videos.
Earlier this year I stumbled across a YouTube channel bubbling over with memorable songs. The young woman performing them was so self-assured I could only assume she was an established professional. It turned out that wasn’t the case, though I am sure with continued determination she will soon be reaching a much wider audience.
Her name is Sam Pinkerton, a young artist who transformed a broken heart into a clutch of emotionally expressive songs. Throughout a creative explosion that began in October of 2009, she has displayed a seemingly innate understanding of pop song craft. Currently building a foundation for what she hopes will become a career in music, Pinkerton stands out as someone special amongst the countless artistic hopefuls vying for attention.
The most striking component of her musical skill set, at least upon initial listening, is her singing voice. With no formal training, Pinkerton has found her voice at the relatively tender age of eighteen – no mean achievement. Though occasionally drifting up to a whispery falsetto, it’s her full-bodied throatiness that is so ear-catching. The idiosyncrasies of her phrasing only contribute to a consistently unpredictable vocal delivery.
Beyond that, however, Pinkerton turns out to be a formidable triple threat. She writes her own material and plays several instruments. Beginning in late 2009, her songwriting (sporadic at best prior to her senior year in high school) blossomed. Drawing from a deep well of personal frustration, she sets diary-esque lyrics against simpatico melodies. The results are fully formed pop jewels, brimming with hooks.
Despite only a year or so of lessons under her belt, Pinkerton is an inventive rhythm guitarist. Never content with simple strumming patterns, her acoustic accompaniment complements the mood of whatever song she’s playing. In addition to guitar, she is a self-taught pianist. Years of playing bass in church bands bolstered her rhythmic facilities. More recently she added ukulele to her arsenal.
I reached out to Ms. Pinkerton in an attempt to discover more about her music, what she envisions for the future, and most of all…just how she got to be so good.
On many of your YouTube videos, you refer to songs as being part of “The Winter Collection.” What does that mean?
Between eighth and twelfth grade, I only wrote about four songs. I wrote “My Melody” in October of 2009, with “Jacob’s Song” immediately after. After those two, I wrote about fifteen to twenty songs between October 2009 and March 2010. Some of which I recorded, posted on YouTube, and performed. Others, I did not. Most of my songs were written during the winter, therefore I call all the songs written from this past year “The Winter Collection.” I am in the process of starting my new collection called “A New Beginning.”
As far as short term career goals, what do you have in mind?
Last year I set a goal for myself: write enough songs to make a CD. I’ve always wanted to have my songs professionally recorded. All of my recordings are either done by friends or just me and my MacBook.
What can you tell me about your songwriting process?
Sometimes I’ll just be fooling around on guitar and write a cool part, then try to write a song off of that. Other times, I’ll be singing in my car and making up words, adding guitar later. Lyrically, all my songs are very personal. About 90% of my songs are about one guy that had an extremely negative impact on my life. “Summer Nights” and “Wait For Me” are about my current boyfriend James. I can only write when I’m going through tough times in life. Well, that’s when the better songs come out.
Give me a few examples of bands and artists we’d find on your iPod.
One of my favorite songwriters is Jason Lancaster from Mayday Parade and now his new band, Go Radio. I am obsessed with the way he composes melodies. I also love Band of Horses, Ingrid Michaelson, A Fine Frenzy, City and Colour, Regina Spektor, Jonny Craig, and Good Old War.
You’ve been performing over the past year with your band As Always. Who are the other members and what are their roles?
The band has basically been me and Kirsten Walchle, since I showed her “My Melody” and “Jacob’s Song.” She started making up harmonies immediately. Kirsten is an amazing self taught vocalist. We’ve been best friends since the sixth grade. Once I started writing, she started singing with me. We kept trying to make As Always a full band, but things kept going wrong and falling through. So we decided to perform acoustically with our friend Olivia Schmid-Larson, who is now our lead guitarist. Olivia adds so such to my music. The leads/melodies that she makes up have now become signatures for most of my songs.
Have you done much live performing?
I started in my first band, Second Chances, playing for my middle school at our chapels on Friday mornings. We started playing for other local churches. Through high school, I played for my home church and led worship regularly. Whenever an opportunity came, I was able to lead worship for big youth rallies. The biggest one that I played was called “The Red Letter Rebels Rally,” which was for about 200-300 people.
Halfway through my senior year, I started writing a lot of music and meeting the right people. I slowly but surely worked my way into the music scene in my town. I began performing small acoustic shows with Kirsten and Olivia, eventually playing a show [with a] full band in front of a few hundred people for a benefit that I put on for Haiti. It was the first time that I performed all my own original music. All the other bands I had played with previously, we did covers of worship music.
Tell me more about the Haiti benefit show.
It was April 9, 2010 at Grace United Methodist Church [Venice, Florida]. We raised just under $2,000 [for Agape Flights]. Reggie Williams, Tent City, The End of April, and Lion Choir also performed. It was an event for teens and young adults.
Sounds like a great event. Let’s talk about the role of faith in your music.
I am doing this because I feel that the Lord is leading me to. Jeremiah 29:11 is the verse that I hold on to. I know that He has plans to give me hope and a future. He has placed these desires in my heart and it is my dream to reach an ultimate fulfillment of His plans. I want to make music that is relatable to people and songs they can cling to when they are struggling.
Based on what I’ve heard, your lyrics are not overtly religious.
These songs that I’ve written were created out of broken hearts, frustrations, and anger. My songs are about my situations and how I handle them. In a few of my songs I talk about praying and God because that’s a way of life for me. But I believe that my music can glorify God without actually saying “Glory to God.”
Do you envision yourself targeting the Christian music demographic specifically?
I’m not targeting a certain age or group of people. I don’t intend on being known for Christian music. In all honesty, I feel that Praise and Worship is the hardest music to write. Everything that can be said has been said, so it’s coming up with a catchy tune and good music that’s the catch. Most of my songs are simple musically – it’s the lyrics that mean the most to me. My attitude [about] performing and everything I do, I do it with a thankful heart and I do it for God. I’m not trying to hide that from my music, I just find it easier to write about how to get through life as opposed to worship music.
Since you mentioned lyrics, I want to talk about a few of your specific songs. I’ll throw a title out there and you share some thoughts about it. Let’s start with “I Choose Not To Name You So I Won’t Get Attached.”
My most honest song. “I won’t let the outcome of dreams make or break me/I hate to say/I can’t relate to you or your ways/So I’ll be going my way/but I’m sure someday we’ll see each other soon.” Basically after that relationship ended, I felt hopeless. I kept getting one let down after another and even though my dreams didn’t come true I will move past that. He was a partier and I wasn’t. Even though I couldn’t relate to his lifestyle, I was able to say, “See ya around. No hard feelings.”
“Journey Through January” has a line, “I deny altering my perception of your imperfections.”
I love that because all of my friends – and my family – could see who the guy I liked really was and I was blind because I liked him so much!
There’s a lyric in “Chase” that seems to explore that same issue: “I tend to idealize you and make you who I need you to be/Somehow it kills me when I find out that you’re only like this in my dreams.”
A friend once told me that I was idealizing the guy, making him everything I needed him to be because I was broken and somehow believed that he could fix it.
To wrap things up, pick a favorite of yours and explain why it means so much.
One of my favorite songs lyrically is “Love Love Love.” The guy that I liked never could really hold on to me or fully commit. He wanted it and he took a little, then gave it back and then took a little, and gave it back…kept reeling me in but never doing anything with it and that hurt the most. “Your false affection is pulling me in and giving you the strength you need to strike again.”
The past twelve months have been extraordinarily productive for Sam Pinkerton. As with so many burgeoning artists, she has yet to produce polished, professional recordings of her songs. Yet even in rough fidelity, her home demos and webcam renditions burst forth with conviction and a startling depth of feeling. Whether it be finessing the melody in a plaintive hush or singing with impassioned, rasping abandon, she knows exactly how to convey her emotions through music.
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