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Tamar Mitchell Is Bringing SAMO Back

Written by on April 26, 2023

Fresh off the release of his EP SAMOs RETURN, Tamar Mitchell sat down with Vocalo’s afternoon host Nudia Hernandez and production intern Joshua X. Miller to talk about performing, his creative influences and writing music. 

Coming from a musical family, Indiana-based artist Tamar Mitchell has always been drawn to writing and performing. Having spent his high school years performing onstage in theatrical productions like The Music Man, Mitchell has since shifted gears to performing his original music at venues all over Chicago. He recently took the stage at Columbia College’s Biggest Mouth Showcase at the Metro, and is slated for a Sofar Sounds performance in May. 

Though he knows how to sing, play the keyboard and organ and is learning the guitar, Mitchell noted he’s always been a writer at heart. 

“I really felt that I was a great writer,” Mitchell explained. “I always want to talk about something different … just expanding my brain to different worlds and stuff like that.”

Tamar Mitchell said he knows “just” three instruments — keyboard, organ and vocals. He’s also learning guitar. Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo Radio

His single “One & Only,” featured in Vocalo’s April “In Rotation” playlist, pays homage to ‘90s R&B by blending smooth vocals with high-energy hip-hop. Mitchell said he crafted the single to sound like an “old school” jam with modern influences, all while singing about the cycles people go through in love.

“[The song is] about taking a chance on love. Really just going into it … headfirst and not knowing what you’re gonna get out of it,” Mitchell described. “It’s a little bit of nervousness, like, ‘I don’t know if I should do this.’ And then once you’re in it, you in it … You just on for the ride.” 

Mitchell also takes inspiration from visual artists — especially neo-expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who Mitchell pays homage to with his EP SAMOs RETURN, borrowing specific artistic elements like the work’s title and his signature floating crown. SAMO started as a private joke between Basquiat and collaborator Al Diaz, originally meaning “Same Old Shit,” later turning the phrase into a fictional “guilt free religion” and using it as a graffiti tag and social commentary. Motivated by Basquiat’s dedication to his work, Mitchell is determined to showcase that same dedication to his music. 

In a conversation with Vocalo afternoon host Nudia Hernandez and production intern Joshua X. Miller, Mitchell shares the influences behind new EP, his single “One & Only,” making music that makes a difference and Basquiat’s influence on his artistry.

Nudia Hernandez: Hey it’s Vocalo Radio, Chicago’s Urban Alternative. We are bringing you some news about an event! We like to tell you what’s going on. We got intern Josh here, with a special guest. I want to tell you about what’s happening tonight, this is the Biggest Mouth Showcase, you can check out your fellow Columbia students battle for a chance to open for the Manifest headliner. And we have someone, a very special guest that’s gonna be there. We got Tamar Mitchell in the building, hello!

Tamar Mitchell: What’s up, y’all? Peace and love. 

NH: I’m so excited to have you in, not only because you’re going to be in the showcase, but also, we got your song in rotation, right? 

Joshua X. Miller: Yeah, so you’re one of our featured “In Rotation” playlist artists. And when I tell you, the music you make, it hit different. It really does. Because … the song is “ONE & ONLY.” And we’ll get into it a little later, but the whole EP … what were you, mentally, trying to prepare us for with this EP? Can you talk about it? 

Tamar Mitchell: Yeah, definitely. Me writing this, I was going through cycles in my life. I was trying to get out of these cycles. I was trying to portray … how, as humans, we go through cycles, and how sometimes we’re trapped in cycles, and want to get out. That was my way of showcasing that. 

NH: We were having a listening party yesterday, during my show. Josh just had the laptop on, he was playing a bunch of your songs. And we were going through it, because we knew we were going to have you in today. Can you tell us about the song, in particular? The one that’s in rotation, “ONE & ONLY”? What is it about? 

TM: So it’s about … 

NH: It’s about love?

TM: It’s about taking a chance on love. Really just going into it … headfirst and not knowing what you’re gonna get out of it. But it’s a little bit of nervousness, like, “I don’t know if I should do this.” And then once you’re in it, you in it … You just on for the ride. 

JXM: Yeah, it’s a slippery slope. 

TM: So that’s what it is, yeah. 

JXM: Wow. 

NH: I think I think that’s normal, right? Everyone’s had that feeling where you’re like, “I don’t know, because I feel like I’m gonna fall deep. So I don’t know, do I want to? Do I want to jump or not?” 

JXM: And you have vocals on the track, but do you rap as well? 

TM: No, no, no, that was my friend. 

JXM: Okay, because I was like, “Is he also rapping?” Because the rap, I mean, it was a beautiful balance of both — it almost reminded me of the ’90s, where you have the R&B vibes to it, but then you kind of have the hip-hop underneath. Was that purposeful when you made that song? 

TM: Yeah, definitely. When we was in the studio, we was aiming for something that was old school but still tapping into the new era. DarrionDadon, that’s somebody to definitely look out for, he co-artists for it. 

JXM: Come on, Darrion! I love it.

NH: I also love — I know, when Josh … we had our own little listening session to all your stuff, he brought up your YouTube, and he played the “Be Mine” song. You did it acoustic, right?

TM: Yeah.

NH: It reminded me very much of a Tiny Desk concert. 

JXM: It was giving very much Tiny Desk vibes. 

NH: The way you were doing it. I was like, “What’s … ?” And that’s how I know a song’s good, I’ll look to Josh and be like, “What’s the name of that?” I was like, “Send that to me! Send me the link right now.” And so, you know how to play instruments. How many instruments do you know how to play? 

TM: Just three right now. 

NH: He said “just.” 

JXM: It was the “just” for me.

NH: “Just three.”

TM: I’m still tapping into guitar, but I play organ, keyboard and then voice, so yeah.

JXM: What’s the biggest difference between — because you’ll hear people differentiate between the organ and the keyboard a lot. What’s the biggest difference between those two instruments? 

TM: I want to say … melodically, when you playing a song, you mainly hold the keys on the organ, so it’s like you mainly just hovering over the song. And there’s more changes that you can do, and you staying in that space. Keyboard is like staying — you can move everywhere. And I’m more of a keyboardist, but I’m a singer that plays so … I’m not considered a pianist. I definitely respect the craft, so I’m not in that lane.

NH: And then all your siblings also play instruments as well, right? 

TM: Yeah. 

NH: Okay, who’s the nicest though?

TM: The nicest? 

JXM: Uh-oh! You can’t do that to siblings.

NH: Because, look, it takes a lot to admit you’re not the nicest … who’s the nicest?

TM: It’s either my youngest brother or the one that plays bass, because he just got off tour. But he played more gospel … Yeah, he nice with it. But I don’t know, my youngest brother, he coming up. And he’s like 16 right now.

NH: Don’t you see people in their teenage years, and they’re so talented. You’re like, “I hate you.” If it was me … And also, Josh, you have a connection to Tamar?

JXM: Yeah! So this is just a fun fact. I didn’t know this, but I was kind of doing a deep dive on you. And we actually have a mutual friend … Ken Marie, I think, is her Instagram. Her name is Kennedy, you were in a production of hers, which I also wanted to talk to you about. Because you also are a performer, both in the vocal sense but also on the kind of stage performance.

NH: You trying to get an EGOT one day?

JXM: Talk to us about that!

TM: That’s something I always was doing, when I was younger, was acting. I was in plays, ‘The Music Man’ was my first play. I was the conductor, it was fun. I always wanted to just tap back into acting. And that’s something that I’m gonna, eventually, go back to, once I’ve reached a certain level and stuff like that. And it’s definitely always fun working with Ken. I definitely want to hit her up for music videos and stuff. Because her concepts is crazy.

JXM: She’s great. She’s another person that I’m like, “Maybe we should have her in!” Because she’s doing a lot of great work in Chicago … So speaking of musicals, you also have a special connection to the song “Tomorrow” from Annie. Can you talk about what that special connection is?

NH: Can I just say, one of my favorite songs of all time. When I was 12, you could not tell me nothing about Annie, “Tomorrow.”

JXM: [Sings] “It’s the hard-knock life!”

TM: My connection to that song is really my auntie. I remember her singing it to me when I was younger at a very young age. They would say, “Tomorrow, tomorrow.” And that was just something that I always had in my head, and then people call me “Tomorrow,” by accident. I was like, “Okay, cool.”

NH: I mean, that’s a pretty cool stage [name] … But I do like your name. Tamar Mitchell is a great name. But it’s also a cool stage name. 

TM: Yeah, it is. 

Tamar Mitchell explains he finds inspiration from Jean-Michel Basquiat, and pays homage to the artist with new EP SAMOs RETURN. Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo Radio

NH: And you just had a show, right?

JXM: Yeah, like Avondale, you were playing there? What was that like?

TM: That was cool. It was with Next Showcase. I was just opening up the show.

NH: Booked and busy!

JXM: Okay, we love to see it.

TM: Definitely a great experience, working with Mark Hubbard. Yeah, just vibes all the way around. And I love the musicians that were there, too.

JXM: Now I’m interested because, you perform, you also write music, you’re also a composer. Where do you feel like you are the most comfortable?

TM: Writing, definitely.

JXM: Why do you say that?

NH: Because it makes the most money. That part!

TM: Nah, I really felt that I was a great writer. Before Columbia, before I went to school for it. And I took a songwriting class, and then that’s when I really realized this is my strong suit.

NH: He’s like, “I got the rizz.”

TM: I always want to talk about something different, so me just expanding my brain to different worlds and stuff like that.

JXM: Well, I’ll say kudos to you, because I couldn’t write a song to save my life. If anything, I’d be like, “Roses are red, violets are blue.”

NH: It’d just be a diss track. A horrible diss track. “I hate you. You’re ugly. JK, I was in love with you.” Something crazy.

JXM: I also want to talk to you about the name of the EP. It’s called SAMO’s RETURN. If anyone knows anything about art, they know that “Samo” is something that Basquiat … it’s almost like a calling card of his. What is Baquiat’s influence on you?

TM: So, SAMO’s RETURN … [Basquiat] made a religion called SAMO, and people was believing in it. So he killed his religion, and my way of bringing it back was, “This the Chicago version.” Because he was from New York. So me, just staying in that lane, like this is my art. This is my way of showing … my rebellion period. And just how I move throughout Chicago. So it was my way of just saying that SAMO is back. This is the religion of love. Not necessarily changing the way he had it, but still keeping that same concept.

RELATED: Basquiat Decorates Time and Space In Virtual Showcase From The Broad

JXM: Putting your own spin on it. I appreciate that, because even looking at your album cover, I was like, “Okay, for the crown in the back!” I said, “Alright!” We love people who do their research into history and making sure that they’re paying homage to the greats … that’s something that’s really near and dear to me. So kudos to you for that.

TM: Thank you. 

NH: I love that. So you are just a full-around artist, musically, theater art, it’s all combined here. Is it crazy up in here? How many ideas are up in here?

TM: It is a little crazy. I got to play the game sometimes to just calm my brain.

NH: Well, I love that. I mean, it’s always better to be full of creativity than to be lacking it, I’m sure. We’ve all had those points where there’s been nothing and … you need to be inspired. So it is nice to have content up there! So, again, if you are just tuning in to the interview, we have Tamar Mitchell in here. And also, where can people find you? Instagram, Twitter?

TM: Y’all can find me at @tamarthe1 everywhere. And then Tamar Mitchell on Spotify, everything.

NH: We’ve been talking about your song, “ONE & ONLY,” so we’d love to play it now and have you introduce it.

TM: This is “ONE & ONLY.” Shoutout to Vocalo. Shoutout to y’all. Peace and love. Thank y’all so much.

(Left to right) Vocalo production intern Joshua X. Miller, Tamar Mitchell and Vocalo afternoon host Nudia Hernandez outside the station, after breaking down Mitchell’s latest releases and performance background. Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo Radio

Keep up with Tamar Mitchell on Instagram, and listen to SAMOs RETURN on Spotify below.

Introduction written by Joshua X. Miller and Morgan Ciocca

Interview, audio editing and production by Nudia Hernandez and Joshua X. Miller

Photography by Morgan Ciocca

Transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca

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