Guitar Hero 

Why musician Samantha Pearl left California for Richmond and its self-sufficient art scene.

click to enlarge Samantha Pearl, who’s been making fans through her regular gigs at Crossroads Coffee and Ice Cream, busked across the country before moving to Richmond.

Ash Daniel

Samantha Pearl, who’s been making fans through her regular gigs at Crossroads Coffee and Ice Cream, busked across the country before moving to Richmond.

People don’t just stop to listen, they hand over money when Samantha Pearl plays guitar and sings on the streets.

In Washington’s Dupont Circle during the gay pride parade, two guys offered to take her out for a fabulous dinner, an offer she accepted, before tipping her $80.

Playing in front of the White House, a Secret Service agent told her she had a beautiful voice and thanked her for sharing it. Then he tipped her.

In front of Carytown’s Mott Gallery, a man approached her about writing a jingle for his product and stroked her a deposit check. The following week, she created a 25-second commercial spot and was given the balance of payment.

“Anything can happen when you street perform,” Pearl says.

Her first guitar, a scaled-down children’s model, was a gift at age 5 but she acknowledges without irony that she didn’t become committed to the guitar until 10. Between music, drawing and painting classes, and a mother who didn’t want her to compromise her life for a career she didn’t want, she realized early on that she was the artistic type.

“I developed very disciplined habits. Instead of partying as a teenager, I’d be playing guitar for hours,” she says. “I’d go to shows and then come home and play more. That’s how I chose to prioritize my art.”

The result is a fantastically full musical presence, demonstrating competency with and without a pick, on electric or acoustic, a polished style that clearly came from much practice and further developed on the streets.

A California native, her guitar chops were honed playing on the Santa Monica promenade and for four years as a session guitarist for metal and experimental and folk bands. But her goal was to be her own performer, not back up someone else. Deciding to expand her horizons, she bought a one-way ticket to New Orleans.

After her flight got in at 9 p.m., she took a cab to the French Quarter where Jazz Fest 2014 was in full flower. “I made $160 playing that night,” she says. “That’s when I knew I could do it. It felt really good as an artist.”

The month she spent in New Orleans playing on the streets and booking herself into local clubs netted $3,000. While she was impressed with the city’s unwritten musicians’ laws — “People there go out of their way to take care of the artists who play,” she says — she knew tourist season was finite.

Northern Virginia, where her grandfather lived, beckoned, and she began challenging herself to play at every Metro stop. The sidewalk in front of the White House became a regular gig.

Pearl credits starting to sing more in her early 20s as strengthening her songwriting chops. “My emotions are all put through the music,” she says. “It’s true, meaningful things that have happened to me. The streets made my songwriting better. I started skipping a step, practicing in front of people instead of my room and getting paid for it.”

When a friend introduced her to Richmond, she initially was captivated by the diversity of the local vegan scene, and then the potential of the music scene.

“There are a lot more self-sufficient artists here,” she says. “The awesome scene that got pushed out of California when it got too expensive ended up on the East Coast.”

Finishing up some scheduled tour dates in New York and Nashville, followed by a trip back to California, only solidified her decision to move to Richmond.

She’d go to Cary Street Café to play. A friend recommended Crossroads Coffee and Ice Cream as a prime performance spot, leading to a monthly second Sunday residency. Gigs followed at Firehouse Theatre and Strange Matter.

Through the years, her musical taste broadened from alternative to a pastiche of soul, blues, folk and European swing. “I wouldn’t have grown as a musician if I’d stayed in L.A.,” she says. “It was stagnant for me. I’m ready to up my game again.”

Her next goal is to plan a proper tour, but in the meantime she’s doing guitar duty in eclectic punk project Ultra Flake, as well as in duo Victorious Trees with dulcitar player extraordinaire Dave Watkins.

“I left to explore more, to grow up as an artist,” she says. “I was ready to do my own thing because I have the potential to do a lot.”

Samantha Pearl performs Sept. 13, 5:30 p.m., at Crossroads Coffee and Ice Cream, 3600 Forest Hill Ave.



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