Kashena Sampson ain’t the first unknown singer to move to Nashville with stars in her eyes, but Music City’s most powerful new voice may be the first to have toured the world and partied like a rock star before doing so.
Though the Las Vegas native grew up singing three-part harmonies in a band with her sisters, Sampson found herself post-college living in Los Angeles, waiting tables, and doing the struggling actor thing.
She also was doing a lot of drugs.
“I kinda stopped doing music because I was doing nothing but drinking and doing drugs,” she laughs. “People didn’t know I was a singer.”
Sampson is now known as a shimmering enchantress of a performer, whom Rolling Stone recently named one of the magazine’s “10 New Country Artists You Need to Know,” comparing her to Bobbie Gentry and Stevie Nicks.
Effortlessly expanding a 70’s rock aesthetic with an elegant wardrobe and lungs that could shake the walls of an opera house, it is hard to believe Sampson was once a self-confessed “trainwreck,” who had lost sight of her musical roots.
It was only after belligerently getting thrown out of a party that her friends staged an intervention, setting her on the path to sobriety. After a little soul searching, it was also the path which led her back to music.
“I was doing a lot of meditating, trying to figure out what I should be doing, and the answer was music,” she said.
After a few years of focusing on paying the bills and staying sober, at a friend’s urging, Sampson began singing at an L.A. bar’s open jam night. She chose songs from artists she admired, including Dolly Parton, Stevie Nicks, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt and others.
“It was like a 70’s country music club,” she said.
Then, one day, she got an email informing her that the music director from a top Las Vegas show had seen her singing on Youtube, and wanted her for a gig on a high-end cruise ship. She got the gig without an audition.
It was as if some of that Irish bar’s luck had rubbed off on her.
“The day I left for rehearsals was the day the lease was up on my apartment,” she says. “I was supposed to be gone for seven months doing this cruise ship, and I ended up doing it for three years.”
While traveling what she says was “the whole world,” Sampson performed everything from 60’s and 70’s folk and country, to The Beatles, to Motown, and even opera. But despite her diverse repertoire, she was often told that she would do well in Nashville.
The plan all along was to make enough money working on the ships that she could record an album of her own songs, but the money didn’t last. After three years at sea, she decided to go home to Las Vegas, where she got a job bartending and singing at a downtown piano bar.
Again, while singing there, people told her she oughta give Nashville a shot.
It wasn’t long before luck found her again — this time, Lady Luck.
In a most “Las Vegas” scenario, she was contacted by a cast member of the musical Million Dollar Quartet, who invited her to sing lead vocals on a song written by Miss Nevada USA. The studio band was Olivia Newton-John’s band, who happened to be in Vegas performing, and were all from Nashville.
“I kinda listen to signs. I try to do what the universe is telling me,” Sampson said.
When Miss Nevada told Sampson she was moving to Nashville and needed a roommate, it was the final sign she needed.
Without enough money to pay the rent, let alone make an album, Sampson put up her sails and set out for Music City in the winter of 2015. She landed at The Nashville Biscuit House, a popular East Nashville breakfast spot, but no luxury cruise ship.
“I was broke. I hated it,” she laughs. “I lasted three weeks there.”
The experience is hilariously recounted in her song “Greasy Spoon,” a clever, coming-to-Nashville country romp, which, if there’s any justice in the world, will one day be a honky tonk standard. But despite moving to Nashville and immediately penning a perfect country song, Sampson doesn’t consider herself a country singer.
“I don’t consider my music country. I think if anything it’s more folk, and a little soul,” she says. “Really, what I like is rock and roll, but my music comes out the way it comes out.”
Her debut album, Wild Heart, released in August 2017 and recorded live to tape in just a couple days at popular East Nashville recording studio, The Bomb Shelter, is an intimate reflection of the voyage she has been on, seamlessly drawing from the musical styles she loves, while also forging her own identity.
“I wanted it to sound real, raw. We didn’t do any auto-tuning or anything like that. I wanted it to have feeling, especially with my vocal,” she said. “That’s why people sing. It’s supposed to make you feel something.”
The empowering, “She Shines,” which Sampson says is about “knowing your self worth and holding on to your power in the face of rejection,” tips its hat to Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” before soaring into new territory on the back of a lush string arrangement.
The haunting “Come Back to Me,” about an ex-lover who died tragically in a car accident while Sampson was at sea, emotes as strongly as The Animals’ 1964 classic “House of the Rising Sun,” and features powerful swells recalling The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.”
Rolling Stone said Wild Heart carves out “a sound that smooths and softens the neon-bright polish of Top 40 country to a warm, analog glow,” praising Sampson’s music as “an East Nashville salute to the glory days of California country-rock, shot through with Seventies swoon and swagger.”
Along with her stunning debut album, Sampson’s reputation for her powerful live performances has landed her many standout bookings, including an invitation to perform at AmericanaFest UK 2018 in London, and a slot supporting country legend Merle Haggard’s sons, Ben & Noel Haggard, at East Nashville’s largest venue, The Basement East.
She may appear to be the new kid on the block, but Sampson’s mature artistic vision and embrace by one of the world’s best music scenes is not surprising, considering that she’s been around much more than the block, and she is no kid.
“At sea, it was three years of performing every night for a live audience,” she said. “When I left California, I was a girl. And when I returned home from the ships, I was a woman. I just matured. I grew up.”
-Jack Evan Johnson