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Music

Samantha Sidley’s bubbly, LGBTQ-friendly jazz-pop belies a traumatic journey

Samantha Sidley
Jazz-pop singer Samantha Sidley performs at the Hotel Cafe on Friday, Oct. 25.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Sometimes when Samantha Sidley listens to old music by Anita O’Day, she wonders if the late jazz singer was a lesbian.

“There’s this one part in a recording of ‘Them There Eyes’ where she slurs a word and says ‘she’ instead of ‘he,’” said Sidley, 34, herself a talented interpreter of the Great American Songbook. “I’m like, ‘I heard that,’” she added in a conspiratorial whisper. “But I don’t know. Because I’m gay, I kind of always listen with that ear.”

Sidley’s quietly radical debut album, “Interior Person,” is premised on the idea that a listener in 2019 shouldn’t have to decode a love song to hear herself in it. With an opener titled “I Like Girls” — “girls who don’t know they like girls” along with “girls who really like girls a lot,” as she sings — the LP addresses the pleasures and torments of romance from an explicitly gay point of view in original tunes written for Sidley by a trio of well-connected Los Angeles artists: Inara George of the Bird and the Bee; Alex Lilly, who’s accompanied Beck and Lorde on tour; and Sidley’s wife, Barbara Gruska, best known as half of L.A.’s Belle Brigade.

The lush but swinging sound of the record, which Gruska produced, happily conjures memories of Ella Fitzgerald, Blossom Dearie and mid-’60s Dionne Warwick. Yet the lyrics — as Sidley delivers them in a breathy voice that can go from coy to sexy in an instant — reflect the reality of the singer’s modern-day experience, with plenty of unabashed “she’s” and “hers” and just the right amount of profanity for someone of her generation. (“Butterfly in My Ass,” one song is called.)

Given pop’s deep heteronormative streak, it’s easy to regard “Interior Person” as a political or philosophical victory — another step in the effort to expand representation that Sidley first undertook early in her career as a performer when she started changing the pronouns in standards like “The Man I Love.”

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“I’d sing, ‘Someday she’ll come along, the man I love,’ which made the song so interesting,” Sidley said. “Who am I talking about? A trans person? A really butch girl? It just makes this other world of characters.”

But in its joy and its tenderness the record is also a triumph of a more personal kind for a woman who’s struggled over the last decade, beginning with the death in 2008 of her father. In 2012, Sidley was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune condition involving the thyroid. Two years later, she was raped by an acquaintance.

“It feels to me like Sam is coming out of something on this album,” said George, who’s employed Sidley as a backup singer in the Bird and the Bee and issued “Interior Person” through her label, Release Me Records.

Said Sidley of the assault: “It haunts me. It really hurt me in so many different ways, and it hurt Barb.” As she spoke, Sidley was curled on a sofa with Gruska in the living room of her childhood home in Silver Lake; the singer, whose appearance suggests a cross between the Andrews Sisters and “Valley of the Dolls,” turned to look at her wife. “But it also made me come alive. I didn’t want to check out.”

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The angular mid-century house, still owned by Sidley’s mother, is where the couple recorded “Interior Person” and shot a video for “I Like Girls.” Gruska, who crammed a vibraphone into Sidley’s bedroom, recalled running cables down a staircase and having to contend with construction noise from next door.

“There’s a circular saw on a couple songs that magically got in the right key,” the producer said with a laugh.

For Sidley, scheduled to perform Friday night at the Hotel Cafe, recording at home was a way to ground her music in the specifics of her life. Encouraged — or maybe bullied — by her dad to sing at a very young age in an old-fashioned style, she graduated from Los Angeles County High School of the Arts and went on to study jazz vocals at Berklee College of Music in Boston. After dropping out, she returned to L.A. and supported herself delivering pizzas and pulling four-hour shifts singing standards at the Beverly Hills Hotel. (On YouTube you can see a 22-year-old Sidley auditioning for “American Idol.”)

The onset of Hashimoto’s stalled whatever momentum she’d gathered by the late 2000s; the sexual assault led Sidley to withdraw further before she was able to start talking about it. “And when I did, so many people were like, ‘This happened to me too,’” she said. “It’s made me more careful in life. I was always like an open door — a nurturer.” At that Gruska nodded emphatically. “You can’t be like that everywhere,” Sidley continued.

“But onstage you’re safe,” she added. “You’re the one with the power.”

This year she and a couple of players opened for the Bird and the Bee on a brief tour of rock clubs. (Sidley and Gruska also work occasionally as backing vocalists for the Foo Fighters.) But she wants to put on a show complete with dancers, a horn section and sets designed by Wayne White of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” fame.

George recognizes that Sidley’s perspective might make mainstream success an “uphill battle” for the singer, she said, even if the crisp arrangements on “Interior Person” are “not far off from — what’s the guy’s name? — Michael Bublé.”

Gruska is hopeful. “I think we’re all capable of relating to anything human,” she said, pointing out the countless times she’s been moved by songs about opposite-sex love. Then she reminded her wife of a show Sidley had played not long ago in Orange County. The singer smiled.

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“I thought it would be a very conservative crowd, but I got up there and sang ‘I Like Girls,’” she said. “And afterward these three women — very put-together, looked like they played golf — they were like, ‘Thank you.’ Looked me right in the eyes.

“One of them even said, ‘You’re very cute.’”


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