"She's the genius," J.D. Samson says of her girlfriend, singer-songwriter Sia Furler. "I'm clueless." Samson, a respected musician behind pioneering electroclash band Le Tigre and the new group Men, is referring to her surprising need to frequently ask for Sia's help in finding the right word to finish her sentences. The busy couple is indulging in a favorite pastime, thrift-store shopping, while on a rare day off together visiting Samson's hometown, Cleveland.
Besides self-deprecation, the mustachioed, gender-blurring Samson, 32, is full of other surprises. Charismatic, magnetic, and forceful onstage and in video, she is unexpectedly gentle and soft-spoken away from the spotlight. Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise to hear her say she relates to another androgynous pop star.
"I totally agree with Michael Jackson, who said he felt more like himself onstage," she says. "I feel safe and comfortable and strong, even if I'm not playing anything; there's something about being that close to music being played that's great for me."
Out since high school, where she learned to play classical guitar, Samson left the Midwest to attend Sarah Lawrence College, just outside New York City, partly to be near a larger gay population. While studying experimental film, she fell in with the city's vast feminist punk scene. Soon she met members of Le Tigre and started working with the band as a video projectionist before being asked to join as a musician. The band's radical political lyrics and urgent dance beats made it one of the most popular and influential of the electro movement of the early 2000s, and Samson became the focus of a lot of press attention. The band is now on hiatus.
Lately, though, Samson's focus is on Men, a two-piece synth-punk band she fronts alongside guitarist Michael O'Neill (a third member, Ginger Brooks Takahashi, recently left the band to pursue a solo project). The band's name, taken from a discussion about being more aggressive after a promoter questioned its mainstream appeal and canceled a show ("What would men do?" Samson asked), is emblematic of the band's softer politics. "Just the nature of who we are and being queer people makes us political," says O'Neill, 30.
Men's first album, Talk About Body (released this month on IAmSound Records), is a postmodern collection of danceable anthems, reminiscent of the Talking Heads, a primary influence on the band, though Men is more concerned with queer lifestyle issues. "It's mostly about money and bodies," Samson says of the album's pervasive theme. O'Neill agrees, adding, "We think a lot about our gender and bodies and how that makes people perceive us in the world."
The first single, the infectious "Off Our Backs," and its accompanying video, featuring hirsute men and lithe women playing tug-of-war and jumping on a trampoline, have already made a splash. Samson says the song is very personal to her, and the lyrics flowed out of her immediately when she began writing. "The song is about romantic relationships and flipping the dynamic," she says. "It's about being a feminist and taking the power back from men."
Another standout, "Who Am I to Feel So Free," emerged as one of the most popular songs in the band's repertoire during its recent U.K. tour. Samson says the song is about obstacles gay people face that force them to create a family and ultimately be who they really are. "It's crazy for me to think about all the reasons I should feel shitty," she says. "Yet those are the same reasons that make me feel good." O'Neill calls it his favorite. "It has such an energy," he says. "We ask the crowd to sing the chorus along with us, and it's just liberating to hear it."
One of the album's most energetic and danceable tracks, "Credit Card Babie$," is, ironically, one of the most somber for Samson. "That song is our most sensitive and emotional, as it's about how complicated it is to try to have a baby when you're queer," she says. "It came out of this place where I was feeling bad about myself, that I'm not rich enough to have a baby with someone. It's weird how it's this dance track and it's about not getting what you want because of who you are."
While the band's music cred is solid, it's Samson's gender-fuck appeal that is a large part of the allure. O'Neill admits to being impressed by the way Samson captivates the audience each night. "She's an amazing performer and has such energy onstage," he says. "It's fun to share a stage with that magnifying presence."
Even The New York Times
has noted Samson's singular appeal, calling her "an icon of nerdy cool" and a "radical sex symbol" back in 2004, but she doesn't let the acclaim go to her head. "I definitely don't put myself above anyone else in this world, but I do enjoy hearing people say that what I've done has helped them," she says. "When fans say my music changed their lives or helped them come out and be who they are, it means a lot to me."