Sam Jones -Vocalist

Sam Jones - He/Him

Sam Graham is an accomplished queer vocalist-songwriter with a passion for composing about his crippling existential dread… and boys. Having just received his Master’s Degree in Contemporary Improvisation from New England Conservatory, he is already making great artistic strides by winning the competitive “Spark” Grant Award to launch his debut album, as well as NEC’s Entrepreneurial Musician Grant to direct, produce and star in a same-sex rendition of Jason Robert Brown’s “The Last 5 Years”, benefiting the local Boston nonprofit BAGLY to support LGBTQ+ youths. He is also the former president and founder of New England Conservatory’s queer student union Q.U.E.S.T.

I was introduced to Sam via Andrew Boudreau (who’s interview you should also have a look at). In Andrew’s interview he mentioned that the New England Conservatory had started a Queer student union that focused on bringing together the queer+ musical community at the school to perform concerts, get together socially, and act as an advocacy group for those students among the larger NEC community. Sam Jones is one of the founders of that group. I was fascinated by the idea of a queer network within the school and instantly began wondering why more schools didn’t foster these groups among smaller disciplines within the gargantuan university systems. Certainly, the university I work for, Dalhousie University in Halifax Nova Scotia, has a queer student community and an LGBTQ+ branch of the student union. But why not a group within the Fountain School of Performing Arts? Dalhousie as a whole has nearly 20 000 students. Surely, a smaller group within the performing arts centre would love to build that relationship among performers. Perhaps it is something to be proposed! Although I originally contacted him to talk about the Queer Student Union, we ended up talking about influences, gender-bending, and drag. Enjoy our chat!

{Jacob} - So, before we talk about QUEST (the queer student union at NEC), I’d love to hear about how you ended up in music and where you grew up.  

{Sam} - I grew up in suburban Connecticut. Honestly, I had a great upbringing all things considered. My parents are wonderful and I loved the town I grew up in. I was kind of picked on in school, but more because I was always a bit weird rather than being gay. Music was never my end goal through high school. I always sang in choir and enjoyed it, but it was always more of a pastime. But then, closer to the end of grade twelve I realized that I had not really planned for what I wanted to do after grade school. My marks were shit, but I started to gravitate toward this career path that had always been a hobby of mine, but I realized could very well be what I’m meant to do in life. In senior year, I started taking voice lessons to prepare for auditions. So, I auditioned for NEC as a classical vocalist and got in. I think that I started in classical voice purely because my scope was so limited as to what I thought you could do at an institution like NEC. I thought that classical voice was the only option. After three semesters of classical, I really felt that I was only doing it because someone told me I could. I don’t hate that repertoire, but it always felt forced. Like it wasn’t my voice. So I switched to the jazz program. After I switched, I instantly realized how much more you need to know as a jazz performer. There is absolutely something true about the old story of classical musicians getting pretty far with limited knowledge. That just isn’t possible in jazz. The theory alone kicked my ass. Then I had to learn the dozens of different styles and sub-genres. But I always felt like I was playing catch-up. By the time I graduated, I felt like I was just beginning to have a grasp on everything, but it was time to go!

So, I took a couple years off. I had all this training in both the classical and jazz worlds, but no fire, no drive, and untreated depression. It was a wild two years. But then in 2014, I decided to go back and do a masters degree in contemporary improvisation to really bring together everything I had learned. Try to see where I could really take it. The contemporary improvisation stream is a really interesting degree at NEC. It is essentially a make-your-own-degree system where they let you do whatever you want as a performer, but the caveat is that you have to be doing it at an insanely high level. Whatever you choose to be doing needs to be at a level that exceeds a more structured program.

Through this program, I really started to hone-in on who my influences were. What type of music I really loved performing. It was around this time that I realized that the bulk of those people are women. Jazz chanteuse singers like Peggy Lee, and Julie London. I had always had a hard time finding music that I resonated with when it was sung or written by men. This program encouraged me to write my own music. To take the influences I connected well with, and write music that broke free of the binary and allowed me to sing and perform music that worked for me, my voice, and what I wanted to say. I started to understand my own strengths and work on projects I genuinely wanted to work on. I produced a same-sex production of The Last Five Years as a benefit for a local Boston LGBT center. My master’s recital was complete with lights, staging, all original music, a costume change, and a curated through-line of the whole show. And I stared QUEST (Queer Union for the Equity of Students and Teachers.)

{Jacob} - I love hearing that. It makes me so excited to hear when a performer has those revelations about repertoire, performance, and creation. When someone realizes that they can legitimately do whatever they want and create queer art within a world or program that doesn’t necessarily present that as an option. So, how hard was it to start QUEST? Was there administrative complexities that were hard to work around? Were people on board from the start?

{Sam} - It was actually surprisingly easy! I also thought that I would have to fight for it, but I walked into the student union center and filled out a form and it existed from that point onward. They provide funding, help with admin, posters, and set-up. Very easy. For the first few meetings while we were building our group, we would just meet bi-weekly to get the word out. We’d watch Paris is Burning or something, discuss it, and set our next meeting. But, we started getting more and more people.

{Jacob} - I hear that in the short time that QUEST has existed, you’ve now had panel discussions, concerts of queer music by queer musicians, and fundraising events! How many people are now part of the group? What are you planning next?

{Sam} - There are about 80 people on the facebook group at this point. These things always grow by word of mouth. No matter how many posters I put up, it is always better to have people bring their friends and talk about it - promote it. But we’ve started hosting drag shows as well as concerts. They’re very well attended, which is also great.

{Jacob} - We need more classical music and drag cross-overs! Good job, QUEST! This past summer at our local pride, Symphony Nova Scotia brought in Thorgy Thor to perform the Thorchestra show. It was the first time she had the chance to perform with an orchestra. They sold out two shows within hours. What was amazing about it though was the intersection of communities. You had the normal symphony going crowd paired with the queer community. Talking with the symphony musicians after the show, they were stunned by the energy of the audience. They were playing Beethoven, Shostakovich, and Madonna, with Thorgy as violin and cello soloist, and they could barely hear over the screams and cheers. So there is clearly a hungry audience for classical music among the queer community. There is also an audience for genderfuck and classical arts. It’s so gratifying to see that classical music isn’t dead, and that queer audiences are ready to support it, but that we need the right avenues and performances to facilitate that. It’s heartwarming that an NEC drag show is also popular and well received.

{Sam} - Absolutely! The drag show actually started just as an opera was finishing in an adjacent hall at NEC. A crowd of people who had just seen a very classical, traditional opera, walked by our hall and came in to watch. They loved it. There is something so melodramatic and operatic about drag anyway. Watching a queen dance and deathdrop is basically opera at its finest.

I would love to see QUEST continue to be an avenue for queer performance in any form. Classical concerts, drag shows, discussions, community building. Anything that brings together people and creates art is a good goal for the group. It also has the potential to be a safe space for people to talk about their struggles and triumphs. We’ve had members talk about being told they don’t present as feminine enough to play the harp, or that their septum ring will ruin their career. We talk about heavily gendered instruments and the struggles people have had playing them. I shouldn’t have to change the pronouns in a song to refer to myself as male if I don’t want to. The guitar player shouldn’t be told she has to wear something else to be sexier in concert. Those things are fucked and incorrect, but hopefully this group can serve as a place to discuss those things and work through them. It isn’t that these performances don’t exist, but they don’t often exist in institutions. They don’t exist in our concert halls.

{Jacob} - Which is something that I hear again and again from queer performers. That they are thinking about how to subvert classical, or jazz, or theatre. Somewhere inherent in the queer experience is this drive to break away from the status quo. Which, of course is an obvious thing to say, but it is so interesting the ways that manifests. Sometimes it is the pronouns in a song, or the concert outfit. Sometimes it is by consciously gathering together queer people to perform, or by actively encouraging a group to buck against the norm in whatever way possible.

{Sam} - I think as a community we’ve always found a lot of solace in art. That subverted, multidisciplinary, transectional, fully curated, staged, lighting designed, and completely queered performance is something that we need as a community and something we do very well. It is also the norm to experience queer culture through art. It certainly isn’t in the news, or in most people’s day to day lives, so we find it in music, theater, dance, fashion, painting, and whatever other forms we can. But, we digest our whole world through art. At least I do! Every bit of the queer experience for me can be tied to art somewhere. And I hope that continues to be the case. I want every piece of art and music I create to be dripping in queerness.

{Jacob} - Here here!