Samantha Riott Talks the Ever Corrosive Question of Why?
Photo of Samantha Riott by Libby Smith.
Samantha Riott is a spoken word musician out of New York City. She came through Chicago fall 2019 while touring her latest album Bloodletting. Her performance at DIY venue Bohemian Grove in McKinley Park left the audience stunned and wanting for more. Samantha Riott precisely choreographs their spoken word with haunting ambient music, commanding the room’s attention with a nonstop existential exploration of the relationship between sanity, survival, and epistemology. This interview, conducted after their Chicago performance, discusses the context and meaning behind their latest album Bloodletting:
Noah Jones: So you were talking about how you do spoken word—
Samantha Riott: Wait, hold on, how are we starting this? Ha! I am such a control freak. Ok, go on.
Noah: I was just asking the first question I guess?
Samantha: But you start the first question with “so”? … “So tell me how you feel?” . This is like a therapist lounge! … You are supposed to be in the upright chair, and I’m supposed to be lounging.
Noah: Ok I’ll start with a different word then. I will start with the word “you” since the interview is all about you. You do spoken word performance poetry. Do you also write poetry for text?
Samantha: No, if you really want to get down to it, the only real poetry I ever like is song lyrics, there is poetry in the structure of it. But I don’t read poetry for poetry’s sake. Reading poetry does not appeal to me at all, it never has. I tried, it didn’t work, so there you go.
Noah: Matching music to a piece you already written, is that something you have have done before?
Samantha: First time I’ve done it… It has to be as demented as the words are, it has to match the intensity of those words. It’s like a double attack on your senses, which you know I like to do, a little sadism. If I was to do this piece without music, that would tire people out even more, because then you just have to listen to my voice in this very heavyhanded way. The music helps soothe the person listening to it … Some people who play upright might notice some notes, but it sounds like a saxophone, it sounds like a dragon breathing, it sounds like the end of the world, apocalyptic soundtrack.
Noah: Do you usually have to shut people up before you start?
Samantha: I like to joke. It’s a therapist session. You don’t talk over your therapist … I love starting with a giant cacophonous scream, like fucking pay attention, the scream alone makes people shut up …. it shocks the hell out of people —“Why is she screaming?”—“Is she screaming at me?”
Noah: You imagine your spoken word as therapy. Therapy for you or for the audience?
Samantha: For everyone, everyone that can handle it. I feel like a therapist half the time, because I have to articulate my own problems and those of the other people in the room … and there are so many people that come up to me after the show and say, I really needed that. That happened to me four times last night. It’s mostly women, but when the men come up to me, it’s really funny, because they kind of look terrified.
Noah: Is that your goal, voicing things that people don’t usually want to voice?
Samantha: Oh completely. I’m digging so deep it’s emotionally exhausting, even for myself. I’m not in that state of mind where I used to be when I wrote that piece. I mean that piece is about a year old and that’s an accumulation, that’s the aftermath of everything I already dealt with in my life.’
Noah: Through your performance, there was this kind of bildungsroman, this existential angst being sorted out. At the beginning of the piece you are asking the questions “why?” and by the end of the piece you’ve answered it with another question “why bother?”. That transition from “why?” to “why bother?” is that the story you are trying to tell?
Samantha: When you care too much, when you are questioning so much, you end up always finding more questions. When you do that, you always want to know more, you want more answers. So the existential thing, the philosophy on that is madness itself, because you can never know enough. There is not enough time to figure it all out, and when you do think you’ve figured it out, it’s still not enough. So at some point you have to say “No, that’s good enough for me, that’s all I can deal with right now.” … If you are constantly questioning, you are not really living your life.
Noah: But is the insanity the questioning or when you stop questioning?
Samantha: No, the insanity is questioning all the time. People that have neurosis, people that are always in their head, with the doubt and the fear, what do you think they are doing? They are questioning everything. I’m not against questioning, but questioning too much. Where you are saying, “Why? Why me? Why is this happening?”. Just deal with it, embrace the moment, and the answer will present itself to you.
Noah: At one point, you repeat yourself, a refrain of sorts, “let it be, let it flow” and then later “let it go.”
Samantha: I mean just let the moment express itself in its totality. If you are feeling sad, not to say you should go around feeling sad all the time, but if you are feeling sad, embrace that moment, let it happen. But the problem with some people is they attach themselves to that emotion, and it becomes their whole identity, their whole personality.
Noah: You often repeat “The mind is a solitary confinement.” You talk about “Silence as freedom” and say “My silence is loud.” Can you talk about what silence means to you?
Samantha: When I’m in a silent room, I like it to be very silent, not even the fan or a buzzing … It’s a silent environment, a chapel…and that’s why I like churches and we went to that church today. I like churches, I like their sounds. They have their own soundscape. It’s blocked off from all the shit. It is so good to go in a church because you are in a space where the sound echoes, so when it’s silent, you feel that … it transports me to another realm.
Noah: And churches are designed to have the longest echo. This church in Europe, you close the door and you can hear the sound reverberating for 9 seconds.
Samantha: Again, when it comes to churches, it’s a place where you are just with your mind. You have to access another realm. You have to access talking with whatever god that church resonates with … Listen to yourself, listen to how your body reacts to yourself, and if you are sensitive enough, you will know when to stop. There’s a limit to everything, and if you understand that limit then you don’t have to be in fear. There is an end to most things, especially the way you feel. It’s like a circle, it will stop at some point but then start again. It’s a maintenance issue, you have to know when to stop, and then start. It’s never ending, so knowing how to control that is imperative to the way I live. I’ve probably gone clinically insane, but again the silence helped me because I can understand what I’m dealing with, and at least intellectualize it enough to create something out of that—
[In the distance, a plate falls to floor, Samantha begins quoting one of her poems]
Samantha: “The plates are clattering, the loud conversations, the buzzing of a fan”.
Noah: It’s almost like we design these things to interrupt ourselves, they are so loud. I guess you could get a bunch of wooden plates if you were a person that really hated that. Do you have those at your house?
Samantha: No, I still have the porcelain.
Check out the lyrics to read “Eroded”, a piece off Samantha Riott’s latest album Bloodletting (2019)