She’s Confident, Versatile and Unapologetic. And Now Sam Lao Is Ready For The Next Step.

Six songs. Six. That’s all it took.

On August 1, 2013, Sam Lao released a six-song EP called West Pantego just a few days following the release of her stunning, Jeremy Biggers-directed debut music video for that collection’s lead single, a brash introductory statement of a song called “Pilgrims.” Almost no one had heard her name even a week previously. And how could they have? Before the release of that debut collection, the artist born Samantha Mattice-Lowery had never previously performed her music live.

What a difference two and a half years can make: Last week, Sam Lao released her follow-up to West Pantego, a confident and varied 10-song LP called SPCTRM, as one of the Dallas area’s most revered and recognizable performers — and across the whole damn sonic board, too. She was the final addition to the late, great Brain Gang rap collective. She a regular collaborator of Sarah Jaffe’s. She’s even shared the stage with The Polyphonic Spree. At this point, she’s as much a must-get for local music festival talent buyers as there is in Dallas.

And as SPCTRM — the release of which she’s celebrating tonight with a performance at Deep Ellum venue RBC — more than capably shows, she’s well-deserving of all this love, too.

From the opening splashes of the scorching album kickoff “Reminder (Bitch I’m Me)” to the vibe-y, Erykah Badu-honoring “Be Cool,” the Nas-sampling “If I” and beyond, SPCTRM establishes Sam Lao as artist who can’t be boxed in. Want something a little grimy? Hit play on “Pineapple.” Need proof that Sam can rhyme as strongly as anyone else around these parts? Check out “Grenade.” Don’t buy that this undeniable force can pen a pop song, too? “Higher” will downright shame your ass.

And, c’mon now, that’s all before we even discuss the sultry “Gold Link” or the introspective “Dear Diary,” both of which stand as early 2016 regional song of the year candidates.

SPCTRM is clear statement release, the kind of subsequent confirmation of early praise that this town too rarely sees from the fresh-faced artists it so quickly and readily hypes; it shows off an artist fully formed. And, though it’s more than a simple hip-hop album, it stands only equaled in the local progressive rap realm by A.Dd+’s classic 2011 When Pigs Fly, Blue the Misfit’s 2014 Child In The Wild rallying cry and Bobby Sessions’ breakthrough Law of Attraction from last year. Better yet, it does so as Sam’s stage presence is coming into its own and rivaling the versatility she’s shown in her recorded efforts since 2013.

It is a new Dallas classic, a total must-listen, and proof positive that she is ready for the next step up.

A few days ago, Sam Lao and I caught up over the phone to discuss how she got to this point, how SPCTRM came to be and how she envisions her career growing from here. Read our full conversation below.

First of all, I’d say congratulations are in order. This album is really great, Sam.
Thank you!

What can you tell me about when you started working on this, and just how long a process it’s been?
If we’re being honest, SPCTRM came together within the last four to five months.

Was it just a creative burst?
Um, sort of a creative burst? I have another version that I was working on and lost everything and had to start over.

What happened?
I don’t really want to get into too much particular things, because I don’t want to slander anybody, but pretty much I had a disagreement with who I was working with at the time, and, um, they decided to take all their tracks that we had worked on.

Oh, wow. Were you able to recreate some of those, or was it totally from scratch?
A couple of them got recreated. Like, “Dear Diary” got recreated. The only one I was able to fully keep was “Bitch I’m Me.” That was the only one. I lost all the tracks, but I still had all my lyrics. So I used some of my lyrics. “Higher” I had. And, like I said, “Dear Diary” I had, “Bitch, I’m Me” I had, and I had pieces of some of the others that I reused and wanted for SRCTRM. But, yeah, when that happened, it was absolutely a creative burst because at that point I was like, “You’re not going to destroy everything that I worked so hard on. It’s coming out.”

Who are the producers? Who made these beats?
“Bitch I’m Me” was produced by Blue, The Misfit and Ish D. “Be Cool” was Blue. “Pineapple” was Devin Canady. “Gold Link” was Donny Domino. “If I” was Picnic. “Grenade” was also Blue. “Fools Gold” was Picnic. “Kaleidoscope” was Picnic. “Dear Diary” was Blue, and “Higher” was Picnic.

So this is an LP, which is a step up from West Pantego which came out coming up three years ago. And West Pantego definitely put you on the map locally. Pretty quickly, you were put into a pretty prominent position in the local music scene. Did that apply any pressure into the creative process for SPCTRM?
I absolutely felt a lot of pressure — because when I made West Pantego, I was doing a personal project. I did it for me. I wasn’t expecting people to take to it like they did. And when it came time to start working on SPCTRM, suddenly I was hearing these outside expectations that people had of what type of music I should be making, what I should be doing, and who I should be. And it kind of became like a little clusterfuck — mentally, like, “What do I do? How do I approach this?” And toward the end, I had to throw all that out because it was messing with my process too much. I just didn’t feel like I was being true to me. And was leading me to be contrived and just fake. That’s not at all what I wanted to be. I was trying to be, like, “Forget that.”

And that’s what “Bitch, I’m Me” is about.
Absolutely. Absolutely. Like, “Y’know, I don’t care what y’all’s expectations are. I don’t care what you thought this next project was going to be, or what I going to turn into. You’re getting what I give you, because you’re getting me.” Like, “I’m giving you me, and if you don’t like that, that’s too bad. But, know up front this is what it is.”

You hadn’t performed before West Pantego, at least not that I’m aware of.
No, I hadn’t.

So, surely you learned a lot between the two. How did that affect the process?Were you more comfortable with writing and in the studio, stuff like that? Were you writing with the thought of live performance?
Sometimes I do. Normally, I write based off emotion or mood. Like, “Bitch I’m Me” is obviously, like, clearly an angry, angsty, throw-it-all-out-the-window mood, whereas something like “Gold link” is way more, like, sensual. I felt like the mood I was going for on that is like as in-the-club, trying-to-hit-on-a-guy mood. So I think about performances in the back of my mind in that I want to have songs that are fun to perform, which I feel like “Pineapple” would be really fun to perform. “Bitch I’m Me” is obviously really fun to perform. So it’s in there. But it’s not like a huge part of my process, considering performances.

I imagine you just felt more confident heading into the writing of this album.
I did feel more confident writing. I mean, that absolutely came through with all this time, like, writing and trying to get the other tracks. And then, having to start all over writing new tracks. There were stages where I was a little insecure about writing and I think that was because I was trying to do what people expected me to do, or what I had heard on the radio, or like what everybody was mainstream gravitating toward. And I realized I can’t do stuff like that. Not that I can’t, I can. I just don’t like to. It doesn’t feel good to me, it feels fake and contrived.

Right, it’s emulation rather than creation.
Exactly. So, I kind of had to, y’know, dig in. Just say what I felt like I had to say, or what the tracks were leading me to say.

One other thing between the two releases is you definitely started to collaborate with a lot of people — beyond the even the Brain Gang Crew. You did a lot of work with Sarah Jaffe, for instance. Did that influence the process at all?
Yeah. We’re friends now, but I still really, really look up to her as an artist and just her professionalism, and her creativity and how she approaches things. Just having that sort of guideline of another strong female artist who is really doing her thing in this city on her own terms. Because one of the things that especially spoke to me was, like, obviously Sarah started out as this indie-folk like Denton artist, an acoustic artist. And now, she’s moving into this a little hip-hoppy with her stuff more like dancey. I especially noticed that at the show me, her and Blue did and there were people in the audience screaming for “Clementine” and she like, “No, honey. This isn’t a ‘Clementine’ show.” And for her to be that unapologetic with her growth was really inspiring to me.

Did you even go so far as, were you bouncing songs off her?
There was a point there where I was not sure that what I was making was good anymore because I had it for so long. Like, I had been listening to it and working on it for so long, I just got numb to it. And there were times when I would send things to Sarah and be like, “Hey, is this good? Does this sound alright?” or I’d send it to Zhora or whatnot. And they were really great about their feedback and constructive criticism. It was absolutely helpful.

Is there a larger statement to SPCTRM? What do you think it says about Sam Lao?
I think it says something like, “You can’t pin her down into one thing,” which I feel like it is absolutely something I wanted to portray. That’s why the project is called SPCTRM because I wanted to show these different facets of me. So, you get the angry Sam, you get the sexy Sam, you get sad Sam, you get inspirational or introspective Sam. The reason I wanted to do that is, part of it was that I feel as a woman like we’re expected to be one way. Like if you’re not demure and sort of quiet and go along with the flow, you’re a bitch. Those are the only two ways that women get to be portrayed, if they’re not, like, overtly sexy. And, I feel like, outside of just being a woman, as a people, we have more than just one facet of who we are. Depending on what situation or who we are around, that’s the part of us that shines. And that’s not to say that anybody’s two-faced or fake. It’s like depending on where you are and what’s going on, certain aspects of your personality are going to come out more.

Is that something you feel like you faced in Dallas, like in the music scene, where like expectations have been placed upon you?
Not so much the scene. I feel like individual people… Sometimes, when I talk to people after the show or even before a show, people who are not super familiar with me but come up with this perception of “Oh, she’s a female rapper so she must be overtly sexy.” Which I don’t think I am at all. Or they see me and they don’t think of me as a rapper at all — y’know, I must just be a singer. Which, you know, I can be sexy. I do sing. But, I don’t ever want to be known as one part.

I think that’s what part of what makes this record and also your live shows compelling — that there’s levels to it, that they’re not just one-note.
Exactly! Exactly.

To that end, as far as the release show, what can people expect?
Blue’s doing a DJ set. He’s opening the night with a DJ set just to get people moving. 88 Killa is doing a small set before me, too. And I’m super thankful to him for doing that, because he was the person who gave me my very first show at one of his release shows a few years ago. So, for that whole thing to come full circle where now he’s supporting me at mine, that’s a really big deal for me. I hold that dear to my heart that he’s doing that.

And, obviously, that’s one of the lines that stand out on “Pilgrims,” the very first song you released. That you “got the Killa cosign.”
Yeah, it was a big deal!

I don’t know if I’ve ever heard about how you linked up with the Brain Gang crew, actually.
So, I met the Brain Gang guys through Jeremy [Biggers] because Jeremy was working with Unkommon Color with Brian Blue, whose brother Brandon Blue — Blue, The Misfit — was in Brain Gang. We were just going out in Denton, and Brandon moved back, and Jeremy got deeper working with them more, and then me and Jeremy got more serious in that relationship, so I started hanging out with them more. And we sort of all became friends there. And then when I had to leave school right before I graduated… I wasn’t using all that time in school well, and I got like super depressed because I had already been in school almost seven years and I had to drop out. It was the worst thing ever. I had to work the whole time. I couldn’t go to school full-time.

Where was that at?
UT-Arlington. So, having to drop out that final semester and literally seeing the finish line and being like, “Hey, you just can’t make it,” that’s a huge blow, and I wasn’t using any of my other creative outlets during that time. And it was really depressing — y’know, a big downer. I started working on music and then Killa was just like “Hey, come to the studio with me” one day.

Like just to hang out?
Yeah, just to hang out and stuff. He introduced me to Ish and just sort of fell into me working on stuff.

And now, here we are.
Here we are!

Three years later.
Yeah.

Do you get nostalgic about that time that’s passed at all? Have you thought about how far you’ve come in the last three years?
I do. I do. It’s insane because I never saw this trajectory. It was never, in my mind, something that would happen. Like, I really didn’t expect to release West Pantego. It’s just one of those things like, “Hey, I released this cool little EP one time.”

When did you realize that things, that that lane, kind of opened up?
It was a couple months after I released it, right when I started that wave of performing all the time. And there was a week when I opened for Jessie Ware, I did a Red Bull show, and I did Index Fest. Like, four or five shows in a six-day time frame. I was like, “Oh, shit, it’s lit!”

And that there might be something to it, like a career path?
Yeah. Yeah. And then, I was realizing how much I legitimately enjoyed it and loved the process of making music, performing it, and sharing it. And seeing that it resonated with other people. When you make something for yourself, or course you like it, you think it’s cool. But when someone else is like, “Oh, hey, that’s cool!” You’re like, “Ahh! I made that! You think it’s cool, too!? That’s so weird!”

Has that gotten old at all, or do you still have to appreciate that?
No, I still appreciate that. I still, like, really appreciate that. Like when I go to Beauty Bar and DJ Sober will drop a song of mine when I’m in the bar, it’s like, “Holy shit! Someone’s playing my song right now. This is my song you guys!” I get super amped. I get excited. I feel like, as an artist, you’re supposed to get excited when random people come up to you in a Home Depot and say — and this happened to me a couple weeks ago — “You’re such and such! Hey, will you take a picture? I saw you six months ago at some random show. You were great!” Like, shit, that’s so tight.

Look at you. Taking Home Depot selfies.
Yeah, it’s pretty rad. Like, I’m picking out paint right now and you want a picture?

I imagine a lot of the thought with SPCTRM and things moving forward is a lot of “What’s next?” I don’t think you’ve done too much performing outside of town, have you? Is that the goal? How do you go about doing that?
I haven’t and that is the goal. My plan is to start reaching out to venues and other artists and just see where I can get shows. I wanted to do a Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana tour to start. This year, my goal is absolutely to get Sam Lao outside of Texas and see how well I’m received.

Is that nerve-racking?
It is a little bit. But I’ll be alright. There’s not an option to not do it. So I’ll be OK.

Cover photo by Karlo X. Ramos.

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