"I don’t have any money. I’ll do shows then I give most of everything I make in the show to the band" In conversation with Kashena Sampson
Random story. In Nashville last year I went to see a show at The Basement East, cracking line-up of Little Bandit, Coco Hames, and the ace Joshua Hedley. Now you don't expect to come across the barperson from that evening in your Spotify recommendations. But that's what happened when Kashena Sampson's 'Greasy Spoon' was added to my Daily Mix last August. Through talking to her on email before the US release of her fantastic debut record, Wild Heart, it turns out she was working the bar that night. Coincidence, huh?
Sadly, even releasing a very well reviewed album hasn't enabled the Las Vegas native to give up bar work. "I’m still bartending. I’m still at the Basement East, yeah." But there must be more money in the bank account now. "Oh, I don’t have any money. I’ll do shows then I give most of everything I make in the show to the band. You know? Because they got to make money. A lot of them, that’s how they’re making money. But I’m not making really any money, unless I’m selling some merch at the show."
All of which just goes to show in this day of freedom for artists, all the talk of streaming working for unsigned bands, is a bit blah blah blah. "You need a record deal. And you need to go on tour. But with an agency that’s really going to get you gigs where you can make a living doing it." So Spotify and Apple Music really aren't sticking it to the man; they've become the man.
Hence touring becoming ever more important for artists to get their name out there and make money. But for Kashena the shows right now are local "They are, because I can’t really afford to go out. I really can’t, you know. And the guys can’t afford to go out there and not get paid. So I have been just doing local shows. And if I do go on tour, I just go solo. I did a run of tours with my friend Jeff Shepherd, and we did up through Chicago, and Indiana and the Midwest. And that was cool. I would love to be able to go with my band."
Happily, Nashville, where the singer lives now, is a great place for acts to get known, especially in East Nashville where people are supportive. "Yeah, I play a lot of shows in The Basement which is great. And it helps I work there. It’s kind of my family built in there, it’s my Nashville family. So that has been helpful. And I love playing shows there. The sound and everything is great."
"It’s a great community. I kind of feel I’m living on a campus, you know? We live together, we work together, they’re always at the Basement East. “oh, here’s so-and-so for coffee.” “Let me sit down with you for a minute”, you know, like everybody knows each other. “I need someone to help me with photos.” “Oh, well, here’s twelve people you can call”, you know? Everybody’s really helpful."
But to rewind back a little, Kashena is on her first official tour of the UK ("I was here on the cruise ships. But I didn’t get to see that much."), so we meet in the Oslo in Hackney before her show as part of AmericanaFest UK. There's a little time to do tourist stuff ("I gotta go to Abbey Road.") but playing a few dates in the UK is top of her priorities. Plus there's the record to promote. "it’s had a lot of positive feedback. People seem to really enjoy it. I think someone was saying it was like a cult hit. Which I can live with."
Having her sister as a writing partner really helped. "A lot of the ones we wrote together, we sat down together and were like “let’s write a song.” We wrote 'Hold Me Close' together. She had been out, I was living with her and I was home alone and I wrote the chorus. And I said “oh, I’ve got this chorus. Do you want to sit down and write a song with me? This is what it’s about.” And so we just sat down and did that. A lot of the time, it’ll be a phrase or the chorus or something. And then I sit down and I write out the lyric. And then the melody…you know. But it’s always the lyric with the melody and then I’ll sit down with the guitar after."
And inspiration hits whenever it hits. "'Away From Here', I just started singing as I was cooking breakfast. And I just started singing this melody, the verse. And then I sat down with my sister after breakfast, and wrote it." But for Kashena it's a timing thing too. "I have to be in the mood. Just to sit down and write a song about nothing... that’s hard. I’d rather sit down and wait for a quality song, rather than have a bunch of songs that are shit. It’s amazing how fast some people can write songs and they’re great. It takes me a minute."
Another upside from working with close family is the ability to let emotions flow, like on the soaring ballad 'She Shines'. "That’s the first song I ever wrote. It took me like over a year to write it. I had just gone through a break-up. And it’s just about knowing your self-worth; just holding on to who I am. And knowing that it’s not even really about me, and knowing that I am enough. And that even though it wasn’t enough for that person, that I’m still enough. Sometimes when I’m writing I’ll get chills or I’ll start crying and I’m like “oh my God, this is the truth.” And my sister is like “yeah, that’s good. When you’re crying that means it’s good.” So I always go with that. When I’m like “oh I’m so sad” she’s like “it’s good.”
However, along with all the emotional effort put into making an album, it all comes back to money, to the challenges facing artists building their own careers off their own backs, actually releasing a record is costly. "I paid for all the vinyl to get printed; I paid for all of it. So it was really a matter of "well, I can’t do my record release yet because the vinyl won’t be done because I don’t have the money to pay for them yet." I was bartending a lot. It’s kinda cool because any time I do a show, I’m like "you guys all helped me make this record. You bought a drink from me. And gave me a tip. So thank you."
For more about Kashena and all tour dates visit her website. You can also find out what she's up to by following her on Twitter, liking her on Facebook, or seeing her on Instagram.