JD Samson talks “Labor” and queer icon status

JD Samson is one of those performers that you put on your “must-see” list when they come to town. Whether it’s doing a DJ gig at your local dance party or performing as part of her musical group MEN, JD is a well-respected and loved part of the queer music community, as she has been since 2000 when she joined Le Tigre. Since then she’s made calendars with out photographer Cass Bird, written songs for Christina Aguilera and made appearances in films like Shortbus and The Punk Singer.

Her performances always have some kind of political bent, some activism that accompanies the pop-dance, oft-choreographed fun. JD’s work comments on feminism, equality and gender expression, and the personal has always been political when it comes to her writing and stage performance. But on MEN’s new album, Labor (out tomorrow), there’s a little more of JD, the person, than we’ve heard in the past.


MEN’s second album has JD doing more storytelling than she’d done on Talk About Body. On Labor‘s first single “All the Way Through,” she sings, “I love you so deeply it goes all the way through,” and even her use of “I” is radical and a change from past work.

We spoke with JD about the making of Labor, the downside of being a queer icon and if we can expect another calendar anytime soon.

AfterEllen.com: I was just reminded while doing some research that you’re from the Cleveland area. Having lived in New York for years, is there anything in your work that is still Midwest? Because you seem very New York to me!

JD Samson: Yeah, in general I think I have a deep Midwest sensibility, I think that’s what some people call it. Which is like somehow this politeness—deep harmony with nature, also, I think. I think I still have that for sure. I don’t feel like I always belong in New York or something. And I try and be super sincere and I think that’s a Midwestern trait as well. For the most part I feel like I’m still totally a Midwesterner but I’ve lived in the New York area since ’96. So I’ve lived here a very long time.

AE: This record is a lot more personal, which I’ve read that you aware of. Is that something you wanted to do or was it just something inherent in the writing?

JS: You know it wasn’t something I wanted to do. In fact we kind of set out to write a record that could be kind of appreciated by a broader accent. When listening to the last record after the release of it, I think I kind of realized how exclusive we were to our community in a way. And I thought it would be interesting to try and bring certain ideas to a larger audience and I think by doing that, somehow, I became more personal and wrote from a more personal place. I think it also had to do with the things I was interested in at the time. I was reading a lot of psychoanalytical texts and critical theory and then I also, we had rented a house upstate to write the record and just, by the way that time was flying, I ended up writing a lot of the record by myself and being in this kind of introspective place by myself in the country. So I think definitely I was in that kind of a moment.

AE: What do you think it is about writing from the “I” perspective that makes music more accessible to people?

JS: I don’t know, it’s so funny. I didn’t think that was ever something—even the reason I found out I’d done that in the past was through an interview. I was doing an interview with a woman in Paris and she suggested I hadn’t used the word “I.” I think I used it a couple times on Talk about Body and I was totally shocked by it and it kind of made me sad or something, it made me feel like I was experiencing my relationships and my career really separate from myself. So that became something that I was kind of interested in tackling since that record came out, both for myself and also within the process of writing this new record. And so yeah I think I tried to and became fixated on the word “I.”


AE: What do you think is the ideal situation or scenario for your music to be playing?

JS: I think it’s something that we really came up against while writing this record was like, different band members had different ideas of what that was. For me I just kind of wanted to not even think about the audience and create work that felt like it was true to me and experiment with new ideas and concepts and also ways of creating texture musically. And then there were times when Michael was like “I want to make a pop record for kids to listen to in their bedrooms, thinking  ‘this is the best thing ever! It’s changing my life.'” SO I think we really tried to hit both of those dreams and it definitely became a topic of conversation throughout writing the record of like, “Wait what are we doing here? Are we making a pop record or are we making a piece of artwork?” And so I think you can kind of feel that journey throughout this record a little bit which I think is cool because that’s what it’s like to make work and that’s the process of birthing this baby is all about. “What do we want to do? How are we doing this? We’re doing it wrong! We’re doing it right!” So definitely who’s listening to it changes from song to song.