When Princess Shaw was 13, she wrote her first song. Except, back then, she wasn’t Princess Shaw. She was just Samantha.
New Orleans-based singer-songwriter Samantha Montgomery has been through more in her life than a lot of us can imagine. She speaks openly about her experiences with childhood sexual abuse. But her unwavering resilience has gotten her to places she never thought possible and given her opportunities most artists only dream of: A chance discovery of her music on YouTube by an Israeli producer, Kutiman, turned her into a viral success.
She uploaded her first video to YouTube in 2012, in the hope that a musician would find the raw vocals and add instrumentation to make a full song. After that, it became an online repository for her innermost thoughts.
“I have a lot of songs and I can sing but I can’t play instruments,” she said. “That was my initial reason for doing YouTube, and then it turned into kind of a confessional.”
Since making the film, “I’m trying to move my whole life, focusing more on my music now,” she said. “I’m trying to release my singles and be more into the music and record more and I’m trying to do a small tour.”
Montgomery’s life since “Presenting Princess Shaw” has been a whirlwind. But racking up millions of views on YouTube and being the star of a documentary hasn’t changed everything. Incredibly down to Earth (her stage name was taken from a suspect featured on an episode of “48 Hours,” she laughingly told me), she’s still a nurse’s assistant, a career she loves and that’s “rewarding and disgusting at the same time.” Despite having an album and more in the works, she’s planning to go back to school to become a licensed practical nurse.
“Reality is reality,” she said.
Princess Shaw made time to talk with Rewire about why she sings and what keeps her going.
Rewire: When and why did you start singing?
Princess Shaw: The earliest I can remember is 13 years old. I would, like, get my nephews and nieces younger than me and put them all in a choir and make them sing songs. I would be the director of the choir, there would be dance steps. When you deal with abuse in your life you find ways to escape.
Rewire: What inspires you to write a song?
PS: Life—sometimes it’s what I’m going through, sometimes it’s to make me feel better, because I used to be depressed a lot.
People who think you have to be sad (to write music), no, I can be happy, I can hear somebody’s story, and I just write on the emotion—I can be happy, but I take that emotion (from someone else), that sadness and pull it in and I write a song from that.
I could be outside—it could be a bird that could land on the ground and start drinking water. I find beauty in little things, and I get inspired to write the song. My soul writes the song—I write it in my head.
Rewire: You started your YouTube presence in 2012. What triggered that?
PS: I’m pretty much a loner and so when I would have a bad day, it’s easier to record and spill your soul when it’s just you and your camera and there’s no one else around. It’s just something I did and then I didn’t even think about it after I did it.
I think YouTube is a great platform because you get to reach a lot of people—you might reach someone who is also having a problem when you open up and share your problem. A lot of people are afraid to say stuff these days. They see you on there and they see you opening up and they’re more relaxed and (think), “I’m not alone.”
Rewire: You’ve been to Israel six times since being discovered on YouTube by Kutiman to perform your music live and most recently to record an album. How does it feel when you go over there?
PS: Israel is community. I don’t feel any racial tension being a black woman in Israel… Israel is one of my biggest supporters—once they figured out who I was, I walked down the street and they were like, “Princess!”
I feel like Israel is like my second home. Israel is a beautiful place and people make judgements before they visit places. … I would advise people to experience it for themselves, wipe your mind clear. The pictures and the video don’t capture how beautiful it is.
Rewire: Have you been performing a lot back in the States since the documentary came out?
PS: When I was on the promotional tour for the documentary, I was on planes going everywhere. I love that. I come home and I’m just Samantha, I’m in my little, small house relaxing. I wish I could perform more—I like the go, go, go of the music life because I like to be busy.
(Back in the U.S.) I perform rarely—I just performed Sunday. I love it; when it’s over I hate that it’s over. Everything comes in due time. I actually have a manager now… We’re trying to release some singles.
Rewire: “Presenting Princess Shaw” shows a lot of everyday frustrating moments you experience, like your car breaking down, your tires being stolen and people not showing up to your performance. Was it hard to have those things captured on film?
PS: You know, it’s like, when life throws you something,… you don’t really like the cameras filming you because you’re like, “What else could go wrong in (my) life?” (But) s**t happens in life, this is life, and why be embarrassed about it? I’m not embarrassed about life because there are 10 people somewhere who this happened to them, too. I was going through a hard time… people go through that. Half the time I forgot the camera was there. I forgot he was even there because I was so frustrated with the car breaking down.
Rewire: How do you feel when you’re singing?
PS: People ask me, “Are you nervous?” I’m like, “No, I’m not nervous.” I have this energy going through my body. I hit the stage and when the music starts, I’m so consumed by the music I don’t really know what I do until I watch back a video of me.
To be able to produce sound with your voice… it’s a beautiful thing. Before the music starts, I feel like I’m flying and I’m soaring. Before when I would sing and I would stop I would come crashing down because of my depression. But now… I know I’ll do it again. … I feel like I was born with a mic in my hand and the stage is my home.
Rewire: What’s your advice for young creative people trying to make a career out of their art?
PS: Even before this happened I’ve always been who I was. Before, I was covering who I was because I was worried what people would think of me. (But) it doesn’t matter what you do in this life, somebody’s going to find something wrong with it. You could have this perfect rose that’s perfect in every way… and somebody could look at the rose and find something wrong with it.
Be your creative self… Be who the h**l you are. Because in the end the person that’s looking at you trying to tear you down, their life is passing them by. When people tear you down, it’s because they’re afraid to be themselves. I always say, when life gives you lemons, throw those lemons out and go to the store and buy some lemonade. … Don’t be a caged bird, get out that cage and fly.
Rewire: You’re very open with your mental health journey, both in the film and in conversation. What keeps you happy today?
PS: You know, small things keep me happy. I’m happy every day and I’m alive, I can walk,… I have my mind. I don’t need a lot to be happy, I’m really content. Maybe before I needed someone to help me but now I’m okay. Now I have self-worth and self-love.
I feel like I’m happy—when I wake up and breathe in, that’s good enough for me. And my music, honey, my music makes me soar.
Watch “Presenting Princess Shaw” on “POV” on PBS. Check your local station’s schedule for broadcast dates and times. Or watch online at PBS.org.
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s web editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz and on Instagram @yepilikeit.