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Samantha Urbani on the New Friends Album, Mental Illness, and Free Sex

Samantha Urbani. Photo: David Wolff - Patrick/Redferns via Getty Images

The Brooklyn band Friends initially made new friends thanks to word-of-mouth praise for their bouncy live shows, buoyed by the jerky beats and seductively smooth vocals in songs such as “I’m His Girl” and “Friend Crush.” That buzz went legit late last year with a glowing review from the New York Times. Since then, singer Samantha Urbani has been earning comparisons to everyone from Teena Marie to Mariah Carey. To mark the release of Friends’ debut album, Manifest!, Vulture rang up the group’s free-spirited front woman to discuss the band’s R&B roots, and also managed to squeeze in somewhat related talk about mental illness, Death Cab for Cutie, and free sex.

“I’m His Girl” has become your calling card. Is it in any way autobiographical?
I’m proud of that song. I’ve been in an on-and-off open relationship for the last year and a half. I don’t think there should be any barriers in the way people perceive a relationship; there’s tons of ways to experiment with romance and love. That song is supposed to be empowering in that way, and it’s also about being autonomous while you’re together with somebody.

Plus, it’s also very danceable, like your live shows. You’ve mentioned you used to have stage fright. How did you surmount stage fright?
It’s really mind over matter. I really had to deconstruct why I was fearful. You can do this with anything — any emotional issue that is distracting you from fulfilling something that is important.

I thought you were just going to say, “I started smoking weed” or something.
I do smoke weed from time to time! I had a really funny day yesterday smoking weed with [rapper] A$AP Rocky. We just met in the hotel where we were staying in [Spain, for the Primavera festival], exchanged information, and got really high.

What did you have in common?
Um, we’re both from New York. And we’ve both done an amazing amount of touring right now. I’ve definitely found I can talk to anybody who’s in the same situation as me. Festivals are a really fun place to meet my peers. Being in a band now is really the only reason why I’ve become conscious of new music.

Can you explain your recent tweet from Primavera about Death Cab for Cutie?
I feel bad now. Nikki [Shapiro, guitar] is just a really hilarious guy. We have this ongoing joke about the Barenaked Ladies. He was making this joke that he didn’t know the difference between Death Cab for Cutie and Barenaked Ladies. We were sitting with [Death Cab front man] Ben Gibbard! He had come over to sit with us and talk, and just kind of laughed and thought Nikki was a crazy guy. Afterwards, it was like, “Dude, that was pretty crazy how you just like went for it, making fun of that guy’s band.” And Nikki’s like, “What?”

Did you make any more friends or frenemies at Primavera?
You know what’s crazy? I met Madeline from Cults last night. She came over to me and was like, “Dude, we had a class together at the New School.” I was like, “Oh shit! Somebody told me that, and I didn’t know if that was true.” It’s also funny, because I had a class with Bethany from Best Coast. Random!

So where do you get your retro-cool wardrobe?
I am very much of the ideology that one should make one’s own clothes or one’s own fashions. I only shop at thrift stores or find my clothes. I think there’s an insane amount of waste in this world because there’s a constant manufacturing of new things. I grew up, like, Dumpster diving, church-basement sales. When I was 16, I met Thurston Moore [of Sonic Youth] after a show. Everyone was bringing him T-shirts to autograph, and I was like, “I didn’t buy one of your shirts. I don’t have the money.” He, like, complimented the [Sonic Youth] shirt I made: a really strange image of two Nubian wrestlers, one on the other one’s shoulders — and both were naked. He autographed it and was like, “Dude, don’t buy our shirts. Make your own. This is, like, cooler than any Sonic Youth shirt.”

You’ve also professed to being a big Adam Ant fan.
I completely love him. It’s really just the one record, Kings of the Wild Frontier — I’ve been obsessed with that for years. But I haven’t met him.

Hasn’t he had mental-heath issues?
Oh yeah, I heard that. But so did I. I definitely have had times in my life, mentally ill moments. I don’t really view things like that as bad. I’m interested in the brain and psychology — it means that he’s a more advanced person for it now. We are playing a festival with him at the end of the summer.

Uh, let’s back up. How did you go insane?
Um, I mean, I don’t necessarily want to talk about it. [Laughs.] It’s not really important, the details. But definitely having a dynamic psychological range is really important. A lot of people try to stay very, very even. But that doesn’t really get you anywhere as far as your own personal evolution goes.

In reviews, most people comment on your pop and R&B references. Whom would those artists be?
There are videos when I was 3 singing and dancing to Mariah Carey. I grew up in the nineties listening to the radio a lot. There’s always been something about bubblegum pop and R&B that really does it for me: Aaliyah, Missy Elliott, TLC — a lot of strong women. I think that pop music gets a bad rap: It’s not that the songs are actually bad, it’s because there’s this association with superficiality and commercial marketing. But I wanna write good pop songs, definitely.

You were raised for a time in Belize, correct?
I lived there for four months when I was 10. It’s funny, because it seems like going there might be a culture shock. But there were a lot less people who were judging each other on superficial things. Whereas American culture just instills a sense of materialism and competition that I’ve just never been able to relate to. So I was home-schooled [mostly] through elementary school. When I came back to the States [from Belize], I decided that I wanted to go to the sixth grade. That was definitely the culture shock. It blew my mind. Kids were so judgmental over stupid shit. It broke my heart.

Isn’t that a Lindsay Lohan movie?
Oh yeah, Mean Girls! Except I didn’t follow the same path that she did in that movie.

That’s right, she became a nasty girl in that movie.
Yeah, I’m nasty in a good way.

You just said that out loud.

You’ve played a lot of odd venues. What’s the most memorable one?
My friends sometimes put on shows at a bodega. That was kind of a funny space, because we were playing in front of a wall of refrigerators that had big beers in them. Last summer was crazy. It was this loud party — crowd surfing and stuff. I was climbing on the speakers and hit my head on the ceiling fan.

Much has been made of Friends forming because of bedg bugs. Explain.
It was Lesley [Hann, bassist] and Oliver [Duncan, drums], both of them. My apartment had totally been trashed by the subletters I had living there. I trusted them and didn’t have them sign anything or give me a security deposit. Which was just stupid. I was so devastated. That was when Lesley and Oliver needed a place to stay. I was like, “Fuck it. I don’t care if you bring bed bugs. It’s a cursed apartment. Just come over.” I don’t feel vengeful towards anyone generally, but we should all do something to let [name redacted] know what a bad guy he is. He’s a photographer in New York.

Your band was initially named Perpetual Crush. Why the name change?
Perpetual Crush felt too confining, too descriptive. You kind of judge the band based on the name before you listen to it.

So you named your group after a super-popular television show?
[Laughs.] Yeah, I know. Obviously, Friends has connotations too. But we didn’t name it after the show. Friends is a statement unto itself.

The Front Woman for Friends on Free Sex and More