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Duo married to music, each other

Samsel and the Skirt to headline Soundcheck Nov. 23


by: COURTESY OF PORTLAND SOUNDCHECK - Musical talent - and now young love - brought Samsel and the Skirt together, and the group will perform at the Portland Soundcheck event, Nov. 23 at the Aladdin Theater.Cary Samsel took one look at her and was smitten.

“I was like, ‘Man! I want to marry her!’ ”

“Her” was Kelsey Easterbrooks, who became Mrs. Samsel exactly one year ago Nov. 24.

Not only did Cary fall in love with her face and soul, he also fell in love with her singing voice.

“I’ve never heard a voice like that,” he says. “It gives me chills because it’s so pure.”

The couple met four years ago at a church in Happy Valley, where both play music. Slowly, over the first two years after they met, their friendship blossomed into romance.

In fact, Kelsey, 21, says she didn’t even realize Cary, 25, was in love with her till they were playing a show together, and he decided to break out a new song called “Win You Over.”

“There was this whole middle section where he was talking about her ‘green eyes,’ which I have,” she says with a smile. “I was like, ‘Holy crap! This is about me.’ ”

Now the couple are not just fully in love, they’re also committed to becoming a full-time act as leaders of Samsel and the Skirt, a folk rock group that anchors the second annual Soundcheck concert Saturday, Nov. 23, at the Aladdin Theater.

The band includes Alex Sneath on guitar, Spencer Buckle on bass, and Nathan Powell on drums.

Samsel and the Skirt recently secured a top 100 spot in the national Guitar Center Singer/Songwriter contest. They will be reviewed by producers and may have a chance to record with Don Was of Was Not Was and producer for Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and John Mayer.

Mellow mates

The Samsels share a low-key Christian faith — although they’re both active in church, they’re not exactly preachy, and Cary confesses to a checkered rock ‘n’ roll past that pretty much kills any desire to judge others. They prefer people learn about their faith because of how they act, not what they say, they both note. They also share a fiercely strong love for music.

“Music is the one thing we fight about,” Cary says. “I try and pull rank too much because I’m like ‘I’ve been doing this since I was 14.’ ”

Indeed, Cary cut his teeth playing backup guitar for his dad, Ry Cooder/Meredith Brooks alumnus Jesse Samsel, at age 16 on the Portland blues scene. Cary toured with blues soul legend Terry Evans, playing bass and singing backup, and also has jammed with The Coasters.

Kelsey, however, makes it clear she doesn’t let Cary win all the musical arguments, despite his street cred.

“I say, ‘I’m in the band — I got the job’ ” she says as they both chuckle.

Soundcheck features nine Portland acts whose styles incorporate rock, hip hop, folk, indie, soul and jazz. In addition to the Samsels, the Tribune talked to Haley Johnsen and Sarah Billings about the upcoming show.

by: COURTESY OF PORTLAND SOUNDCHECK - Haley Johnsen, wholl be part of Portland Soundcheck, looks back fondly on her time on American Idol. She hopes to release a new album next year.

Haley Johnsen

If there’s one thing you can say about guitarist-singer Haley Johnsen, it’s that she’s no coward. Lesser performers would’ve probably been too scared to take the stage again after her experience in 2012, when she struggled with the Eurythmics’ song “Sweet Dreams” on the TV show “American Idol.”

“It was the most exhilarating moment of my life, but my nerves definitely got the best of me, and my voice just couldn’t keep up with the piercing reality that I was singing for millions of people,” she says. “Not to mention, (‘Idol’ Judge) Randy Jackson’s response, saying it was more like a ‘nightmare’ than a sweet dream. I laugh about it now, and am completely grateful for the experience in its entirety.”

You’d be very foolish to judge Johnsen on that performance alone. She possesses a rich, world-class voice, and the folks at “Idol” liked her enough to invite her on their “Military Idol” tour, which consisted of the show’s contestants performing on military bases around the world. Not to mention the Seattle Seahawks hosted her singing the national anthem before a game.

Johnson will take the stage at Soundcheck with Dustin Erhardt, who will play guitar, drums, tambourine and cajon.

Johnsen will perform mostly originals at Soundcheck and is recording a new album she hopes to release next year.

“I tend to write most of my songs based on how a melody resonates with my voice, ultimately shaping the style of the composition,” she says. “I have a deep appreciation for all kinds of music, making it difficult to embody just one genre. I am also always on the hunt for new music, and am constantly pulling different ideas from pop, folk, blues, soul, electronica.”

Sarah Billings

by: COURTESY OF PORTLAND SOUNDCHECK - Sarah Billings will share the Portland Soundcheck stage with her band La Familia. She plans a new album in 2014; meanwhile, you can hear her on PRP.fm, the Portland Radio Project site.A pop, soul and R ‘n’ B singer, Sarah Billings will share the stage with her band, La Familia, featuring Sam Larson on guitar, Jackie Miclau on keys, Chris Pitoyo on bass, Nick Luchterhand on saxophone and Brian Foxworth on drums.

Billings says she’ll debut a new single, “Left With Yesterday,” she co-wrote with Miclau, and will release a new album next year (you can hear some of her stuff on PRP.fm, the online site of Portland Radio Project).

Billings hosts a weekly show with vocalist Jacob Merlin at the Gemini, 456 N. State St., in Lake Oswego. The singer says 1970s rock shaped her sound.

“I grew up on very, very, very loud classic rock — Led Zeppelin, Journey, Queen, Kansas, Chicago,” she says. Such bands “led me to the beginnings of my love for horns, blues and grit.

“More recently, I’ve been hugely influenced by sounds from Fitz and The Tantrums, Alabama Shakes, Grace Potter and Mayer Hawthorne, to list a few.”

Billings says she’s been struck by how her own tunes have touched fans’ hearts.

“I received an email one day from a fan letting me know that day marked the year anniversary of her divorce,” she says. “She had been listening to my song ‘Free to Live’ on repeat and let me know that this song helped her get through the year. If that is my one victory for the year, I would have been completely satisfied.”

Other acts

In addition to Samsel and the Skirt, Johnsen and Billings, Soundcheck will feature folk popsters Joseph (formerly Dearborn), made up of sisters Natalie, Allie and Meegan Closner; neo-soul singer Sanjaya Malakar, who also appeared on “American Idol”; Beautiful Eulogy, hip-hop group made up of Braille, Odd Thomas and Courtland Urbano; JPoetic, aka as James Calkins, mc beat maker, and spoken word artist, who won the Relevant Magazine Spoken Word Slam on the main stage at the Justice Conference in Philadelphia; Brant Colella, a melodic guitarist and singer who incorporates rock, R ‘n’ B and other genres in his tunes; and Pending Black, a duo featuring dubstep beat with pop vocals.


Check check

What: Portland Soundcheck

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 23

Where: Aladdin Theater, 3017

S.E. Milwaukie Ave

Cost: $15 in advance, $16 day

of show, all ages

Info: 503-234-9694, www.aladdin-theater.com