Jon Samson speaks with intensity. He spits fire with his words, chosen carefully, sharp and commanding. He never misses a beat – even when he tosses in a “Star Wars” or Austin Powers reference to punctuate his meaning. He’s a newly-minted Grammy winner, and even such a distinction never diminishes his charm, his warmth, his desire to express and make sure everyone has a voice.
This year, his fourth album, Ageless: Songs for the Child Archetype, took home the golden gramophone for Best Children’s Album – a first for a board-certified music therapist. It’s a historical moment for many reasons, not only personally but for the music therapy world. “What I teach is not mainstream,” he tells American Songwriter over a recent phone call.
Originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, Samson was drawn to music therapy from an interest in healing arts, personal growth, spirituality, and music. Producer Joel Thome (Frank Zappa), who suffered a stroke in 1998, was a great source of inspiration for him early on. “He was told by western medicine that he wouldn’t walk or teach again,” he says. “He recovered from it eventually through music therapy [with therapist and educator Benedikte Scheiby]. I found it so inspiring that music therapy could facilitate a transformation.”
Scheiby, most known for her work in Analytical Music Therapy (AMT), initially developed by Mary Priestley in England, later became Samson’s mentor and a vital piece of his journey.
Samson went on to study music composition at SUNY Purchase and later music therapy at NYU. Afterward, he was at a crossroads and had a tough decision to make. “It was a choice between pursuing this career of gigging at bars and touring or using my own creativity and talent to facilitate that in others,” he says.
He chose the latter, and it sent him on a path to heal the world.
Through his work, inside his home studio in Brooklyn, he works with a range of individuals who have been properly diagnosed on a spectrum, from autism to special needs, and those who have not (but struggle with anxiety or depression). “I use music and creative mentoring to bring out the best in people of all ages. It’s been really powerful in addressing clinical goals and objectives,” he explains of his work, also turning attention to the country’s broken education system.
“It’s really time to branch out and realize that a lot of kids are not getting their needs met at school,” he says. “The blueprint of the education system is not really set up to bring out the highest creative potential in a child and in many students.”
With Pro-Tools and a green screen, and when he’s not mentoring or life coaching, he produces thousands of improvised songs for kids. The setup allows every student a vehicle of expression, always met with understanding and encouragement. They choose a beat and a background and dive right in. “I have a massive archive of themes to help empower people and bring out their own unique expression of that. They’re really in the driver’s seat,” he notes.
His approach has opened the floodgates, and he’s witnessed children’s imaginations reignite, further confirming the education system may not be nearly as sufficient as it should. “I believe that we’re seeing an increase in depression and anxiety – and even suicidal ideation in children – because they are spending much of their time learning things that they’re probably not going to use,” he says. “Or they’re learning things they do need but they’re not learning it in an empowering way. They’re learning it in a stress-inducing way. They’re having to take standardized tests and curriculums that don’t really focus on the important qualities of a person – like kindness, love, compassion, and empathy, which is really highlighted with Valerie Kosson’s TEDX Talk about her disabilities. They make it such a goal-oriented thing. Get to this grade so you can get to this grade – then you can go to this good school and maybe get this good job. And that’s called life.”
He quickly adds, “I think we all know that’s usually not how it works.”
Ageless: Songs for the Child Archetype was the result of years of work, but it all reached a fever pitch during the 2016 presidential election. “Once I realized how divided the world and country really are, I had to pull back from promotion until I could really refine my messaging,” he says.
That’s where album opener “Predicament” comes into the picture. He sings: “I’m not going to lie to you, this world is a little bit broken / I wish I could say I was joking / But it’s not as bad as it sounds.” A heavenly production envelopes him, and while he certainly offers up a fair warning about the coldness of the world, he makes sure to extend a comforting hand.
“I had to focus on helping people one at a time. That’s why I receded back. I wasn’t going to go out there and become a politician. Some people are destined to be on the front lines of activism. That’s not me,” he continues. “I’m not conflicted about that. That’s not my calling. My calling is to work with individuals and help them find their own empowerment and contribute in ways they feel called to do.”
Furthermore, as he takes a moment to breathe, he gives something even meatier on which to chew. “One thing I wish I could impart in a way that’s palatable to people is as many valid reasons as there are to feel jaded or angry about what’s going on politically and with all the injustice, there’s a line between what you can do productively and the point where people ignore their own side of the street and project all this anger and toxicity onto Trump or Betsy DeVos.”
“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Just because there are these injustices doesn’t give a person permission to reinfect the collective with their toxicity,” he says. “There is a point when it’s useful. If you’re a truth speaker and truth seeker, and it’s your job to really whistleblow and say what’s going on, then you better do that.”
With all its pops and gurgles, “Bubble Earth” was a direct response to the political upheaval. “I was just doing housework, and I put my phone on the piano,” he remembers of writing the song. “I basically made up the whole song as improv, but it took a lot longer to arrange and record.”
Samson also calls early Radiohead and Bjork as musical touch points, as he then builds his own sensory experience around the lyrics. “I was thinking about the idea of getting out of our bubbles,” he says. “It can always be worse. If you see the world as beautiful, you can actually enjoy it from that place. Somehow, as bad as things can get, it really can always be worse.”
Samson jokes about being too long winded, but his passion is infectious. The energy quite literally pierces over phone lines.
“Isn’t it weird how we even exist?”
That question, found in “Predicament” between blippy space rays and Samson’s succulent tenor, primes the listener, regardless of age, for a journey inward. It’s also a reference to Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 studio album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and that time the band, sans singer/songwriter/vocalist Jeff Mangum, crashed in Samson’s Port Chester apartment for one night. “Jeff is a big influence for me, vocally and lyrically,” he says.
Ageless knows no bounds, and its cosmic soundscape, also mining indie-pop and singer-songwriter models, seeks to warm the senses. From “Video Game,” featuring Claire Linares, who wrote the song’s original bones back in 2012 (as “Start Stop”), to “Awake,” the record balances hefty themes with whimsical production.
Samson plays in such stark dualities – painting with darkness and light, tragedy and beauty, pain and joy with vibrant, penetrating neons. “Every archetype has a light and a shadow. The child archetype never expires,” he says. “You’re either on the light – where you’re playful and see the hope, or on the shadow – which is tantrums. If you go macro, that’s what a war is.”
“This whole album is about recognizing that duality. Two things can be true at the same time. This world is a little bit broken, and there’s so much love, healing, and generosity in the world.”
“That’s when I get a little scared / That’s when I get litte antsy / That’s when I’m feeling ill-prepared for life,” crows Samson on “Anxiety,” a co-write with Aidan Harben, striking on today’s very real epidemic. “If I say anxiety, everybody knows exactly what I’m talking about from their perspective,” he says. “I wanted to express it in a way that I wasn’t trying to fix it. I was just trying to acknowledge it – the feelings of being scared, wanting to run away, to hide, having a hard time breathing.”
“People suffer the most when they feel alone in their suffering. When people are spiraling in their anxiety, they think they’re the only ones.”
Ageless also touches upon emotional currency, the act of learning to let go of the past and spending more time in the present. “If you have X amounts of points you get to spend to get to the next level, if you’re putting all that into your history, you’re not going to have enough for today and tomorrow,” he says, drawing from spiritual author and teacher Caroline Myss. “Also, that dovetails back into depression. I believe that if a person is stuck in their past, they’re going to be more depressed. If they’re projecting into the future, they’re going to be more anxious. If they’re focusing on the present, they’re going to be more balanced. They’re going to be more clear and able to enjoy life.”
Songs like “Focus on What You Want,” “Focus on A.D.D.,” and “Focus on This Moment,” which “could have been its own EP,” he says, work together to give children a clear, strong, and undeniable voice. “It was really important for me to focus on the F word. It’s ‘focus.’ Kids are told to do that all the time, and it is not helpful. It’s not validating. That’s like telling someone to calm down when they’re having a panic attack. They’re not really going to do that, right? It’s giving a voice to the kids who are constantly told to focus. They’re the most literal songs on the album.”
“We think money is the ultimate currency, but it’s not, our primary resource is time. And what we ‘pay’ attention to is what sparks our ‘interest.’ When teachers tell students to focus they are basically telling them to ‘spend’ their time with things that aren’t always in alignment with their creativity and highest potential for learning. You wouldn’t ask someone to spend their hard earned money on something they don’t need or want to buy, so why would you ask a child to spend time focusing on things that aren’t right for them? There are so many ways to unlock the passion and creativity in people, and music and the creative arts therapies offer a wide array of tools to do so.”
The recognition of Ageless: Songs for the Child Archetype arrives at an appropriate time. As our understanding of anxiety and depression is opening up, we’re likewise seeing a deeper exploration of child-like wander in the world – even as the connotation is still very rooted in negativity. Jon Samson’s work, both in and out of the studio, oozes compassion, hope, and thrilling promise for the future.
But he doesn’t do any of it for the spotlight.
“If you’re doing it out of vanity or just to have a feather in your cap, that’s not the right thing. It’s beautiful to have a feather in your cap,” he observes. “There are artists making beautiful music, and it’s healing and brilliant – and they’re not going to get nominated or win. We have to realize that.”
Samson is currently a semi-finalist in the International Songwriting Competition for his songs “Anxiety” and “Predicament,” among several others.