“How does anybody know when they’re telling the truth?”
If we don’t count Jesus Christ and Kesha, Samia sings 10 distinct human names across her new album, Honey. Pseudonymous or not, each of these sonic characters stands for a flesh-and-blood individual, and every “you” outweighs the lyric sheet, vowels plump and rounded by a real soul. “Muriel” and “David,” “Gigi” and “Meredith,” “Chris” and “Amelia” — the inhabitants of Honey wash infants under kitchen faucets, sweat away mascara while raving to Def Leppard, and ride along in the backseat to emergency rooms.
But though the album obsessively retraces steps taken by its real-world analogues — laboring to understand the looping path they dart across the New York-bred, newly Nashville-based singer-songwriter’s troubled mind — these psychic footfalls reverberate differently in song, newly burdened with the tremor of anxiety. It’s one thing to write music to air out relationships, litigate unexpressed conflicts, and wrest meaning from chaotic personal history. More than ever before, Honey finds Samia asking herself if she even has the right.
“I have a real fear of confrontation that sort of edges into the psychotic,” she explains over Zoom in December. “I want these people to hear what I have to say to them, but instead of just telling them I’m writing something maybe they'll hear at a party on Spotify. It’s my way of communicating, and even if it lets the bad feelings out and makes me feel better, ethically it can be hard to grapple with. I really struggle to do right by everyone in my stories and always ask permission where I can. Writing songs that involve feelings and conflict, you sometimes create more conflict.”
It was not my instinct to embellish Honey’s feelings and conflicts further. Maybe if we had been discussing her 2020 debut, The Baby, I’d have more readily plumbed Samia for autobiographical details. Befitting an album that earned its artist touring spots with Lucy Dacus and Maggie Rogers (putting her in front of crowds that made her think “a lot of people didn’t ask for this, and I’m about to share some crazy things”), that album was full of songs emboldened by the truths they divulged, riding difficult admissions into crowd-swelling anthems.
Her latest — an album no less drawn from life but pointedly bookended by dreams — leans into confusion, emphasizing the difficulty of getting to the point where understanding becomes catharsis (that would be the titular Honey, a state of carefree euphoria which Samia suggests can be reached by either “working through conflict” or “getting so drunk you don’t care”). This is a record far pricklier in its construction, less inclined to foreground Samia’s most significant statements through big choruses or candy their impact with TikTok-friendly genre fluency. Opener and lead single “Kill Her Freak Out” sets the bracing precedent — a keyboard stutter, frigid synth warps, and a melody that crams words in to fit the meter. When Samia sings, “Can I tell you something,” the sudden multitracking of her vocals instructs fans to listen closer than they might have before: No matter what Samia discloses on Honey, the real truth always runs deeper.
“There's a difference between sharing a lot about yourself and being vulnerable. So while I’ve always been an open book to an extent, my songs are really only the space I feel safe being truly unguarded, usually up until the point I have to share them,” Samia says. “More than any other record, Honey is me trying to zoom out from myself, but at the same time say stuff that I would get uncomfortable talking about with my friends in a room full of people. That’s the reason the album is so spare and minimalist — with the pandemic, it didn't feel right to dramatize my pain out of proportion again. We wanted to let the songs stand alone as best they could.”
One of Samia’s aforementioned 10 names is Honey producer and co-songwriter Caleb Wright (you’ll spot him on “Amelia,” perched at dusk by a crackling bonfire, “scaling the infinite” as the sprightly track shoots gentle sparks of its own). The former frontman of one of Samia’s favorite bands, Minneapolis trio The Happy Children, Wright was just one of several key contributors to The Baby. But as the producer often found himself at the “un-cozy center” of whatever relationship network her songs straddled, their creative partnership quickly deepened past the mixing board. Samia speaks about her collaboration with Wright in quasi-therapeutic language, using words like “trust,” “support,” and “comfort.”
“It's a testament to her inclusiveness, because I’ve never worked with anybody who is so adamant about displaying my role in their album process,” Wright says. “Especially because, like, 80 percent of what we do is just talk through her intentions and perspective. The actual music part is easy, such a comparatively small amount of time. The writing sessions for Honey started with us chatting about life for five days straight, chugging coffee, and then going off at night to tinker separately. Suddenly we had four songs.”
“Separately” is a relative term. Honey was recorded and largely written in close confines, after the duo decamped to Sylvan Esso’s deep-forest North Carolina recording studio, Betty’s. Though the bulk of the process was intensely one-on-one, with Wright and Samia going on wooded walks whenever their shared interpersonal web grew too tangled to navigate, no one got cabin fever. Instead, the recording party was fleshed out by a rotating cast made up exclusively of friends and loved ones, including Phoebe Bridgers collaborator Christian Lee Hutson, Nashville singer-songwriter Briston Maroney, and Hippo Campus frontman Jake Luppen. The pandemic had realized a fear of isolation and given subtext to The Baby’s brash extroversion; this time, Samia says her ad-hoc community felt like “an amazing reward” for all the reflection she’d done under lockdown — very much an embodiment of the “Honey” her title track effuses in strummy sing-along form (the putting in reflective work kind, not the blacking out after six drinks kind).
“How do we get this honey without relying on substances and without hiding from reality, from the unhealthy relationships and the confrontation?” Samia says. “I don’t claim to have anything figured out, but hopefully this record is honest and optimistic about working towards euphoria.”