Monday, October 26

Out of Ohio: JD Samson (Le Tigre / MEN)

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by Ken Schneck, Editor

Out of Ohio” is our interview series featuring notable LGBTQ+ individuals born and raised in Ohio who are now out there in the wider world using their voice and talents to make a difference. 

If you ever strolled through Cleveland’s Coventry neighborhood in the mid-90s, odds are you saw a bunch of kids hanging out in the courtyard outside of Arabica Coffee Shop. Little did you know that sitting in the midst of that crowd was an individual who would soon become one of the most admired musical and creative forces in the worlds of songwriting, producing, visual art, dj-ing, and everything in between.

JD Samson may be best known internationally for her incredible work with Le Tigre, MEN, and now Crickets, but those roots trace back far more locally, right here to northeast Ohio. Even in pre-internet times, Samson said the queer kids were somehow able to come together.

“I came out when I was in high school and I didn’t know anybody else was queer,” remembers Samson. “But somehow, without being online, the punk queer goth kids were able to find each other and I’ll never forget being connected to those other freaks.”

We chatted with Samson about Ohio inspiration, sage advice for budding songwriters, and where Ohio visitors should check out…even during a pandemic.

How would you describe your Ohio upbringing?
I love Ohio and I felt that it was such an incredible mix of city, country, suburban, liberal politics, conservative politic, and everything in between. Everything was there.

Socially, I spent a lot of time in Coventry. A little bit of history for people who might not know: everyone would hang out in that Arabica courtyard area and we would sit there all night long in the cold, in the heat, through it all. I remember playing Spin the Bottle out there and just laughing and talking. Life was always just driving to Coventry, going to Record Revolution, seeing a show at the Grog Shop, and then hanging out at Arabica and ordering a café mocha <laughs>.

Is there an Ohio sensibility that has made its way into your music?
Some people consider a midwestern sensibility to be this kind, empathetic, open-hearted, calm sensibility. I do feel like I have those qualities generally in my public-facing persona. I think that it does lend itself to my empathetic, emotional lyrics.

There’s also like a melancholy, honestly. <laughs> You’ve probably watched that ESPN documentary Believeland and I do think there is a deep emotional tie for Clevelanders that exists in the framework of “we will never succeed.” Even if we’re very good, we will always fail at the last minute. There’s insecurity there. I remember when I watched that documentary I thought, “Everything makes sense now.”

It’s almost like conjoining my gender queerness and the insecurity around that with being a Clevelander. I often think about the parallels and I do think in some ways, “It’s ok but I’ll always fail.” <laughs> That’s part of who we are and that’s ok.

What do you think is the most Ohio or Cleveland song in your catalogue?
It’s hard not to say “Keep on Livin'” by Le Tigre, because that’s about my experience growing up in Cleveland, being queer and not understanding how much there was outside of my house and outside of my town. I was trying to project to other kids all over the world that life is bigger. It really does get better.

Do you come back and visit?
I do! I was just there a few weeks ago. My grandmother is my best friend. She’s 94 ½. My mom lives there in the house I grew up in and my sister is on the west side with her husband and two kids. I’m very close with my family, so I try to get there as much as I can.

On behalf of the Cleveland tourism bureau, where would you recommend that people visit?
It’s interesting. I came during lockdown, so it was funny to think about what to do without being able to go inside anywhere. I reconnected with the Metroparks on my last trip. That felt really beautiful because I had kind of forgotten about how many incredible, beautiful spaces there are that I never really went to. growing up When I was a kid, I lived on the east side, so we never went to the west side. I didn’t even really know the west side existed. And that included places like the lake! <laughs> I went to my nephew’s baseball game and right across the street, there was the lake and I couldn’t get over how beautiful it was. I also went to Squire’s Castle and went on a hike, and it was just great.

What advice do you have for our young Ohioan LGBTQ+ singer-songwriters who want to make their mark on the world?
I think so much about it is finding your community through performing. So as soon as we have that ability to sing in public, even if it’s outside, taking the opportunity to play, invite people, and put yourself out there is big. Right now, we’re looking for people to innovate the medium, whether that’s via performance or production. I just think it’s exciting to think about ways to queer what we know and love already. That’s who makes it in the world: people who tell their story unapologetically. 🔥

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