Companion could be about a relationship with another or Alex Samaras’s relationship with song itself.
I was captivated by Alex Samaras’s voice during one of his live shows with Queer Songbook Orchestra in 2016. The performance was so strong that I felt I had to tell him, so I hung around to say hello and thank you after the show. That’s what kind of voice Alex Samaras has: so strong and magnetic.
In addition to vocal work with duo project Twin Within, Queer Songbook Orchestra, and other collaborations (such as Old Salt), he also writes and produces his own songs under the moniker Tryal and works as an instructor in the jazz vocal program at the University of Toronto. In the summer of 2017, Samaras quietly released Tryal’s debut full-length album, Companion, which was easily among my favourite albums of the year. I finally had a chance to talk to Samaras this June about the release.
Companion‘s first song is recorded almost acapella, serving as a perfect introduction to the album; it is an instantly immersive track titled “I Am”. Samaras sings the words “I am really in love” again and again, building to an emotional, hypnotic, and spine-tingling crescendo against the backdrop of a persistent drone. In an entirely innovative application of a concept used in acting classes, Samaras recorded the song very literally by singing the words into the microphone, again and again, using different melodic inflections and energy until he really felt the weight of the words. I later learned that this song, along with many others on the album, was inspired by a relationship strained by a distance that ultimately ended. Throughout the record, it is as thought Samaras could be talking about a relationship with another or his relationship with song itself.
The album makes reference to familiar jazz and show tune tropes in the title track and the infectious croon of “Road Game”. Jazz elements are artfully blended with a gentle post-rock sensibility that features drifting layers of moody guitar swell and stark choral drones. Perhaps the most powerful sonic elements on the album are voices and guitars. The interplay between the vocals and the dark, brooding guitar (Owen Stewart-Robinson) creates a wave of reassurance and tension that is exhilarating.
“In Trutina”, an interpretation of Carl Orff’s poem sung in Medieval Latin, delivers a feeling of divine lightness, like the recording was lifted from a private concert in an ancient chapel. The poem is said to be about a young girl’s decision to fall in love rather than to become a nun. The closing song, “Providence”, is the only sample-based track, with a pattering beat, cycling synth arpeggio and perhaps my favourite vocal melody of the album. Samaras muses soothingly “Time won’t forget this,” and reassures us “Don’t be afraid, just stay till you’ve made it baby.”
Companion feels like a reflection on first experiences of love. Whether it is love for another or love of song, we witness milestones or rights of passage through a lens that’s half underwater; the details are a little fuzzy, but the feelings and emotions remain intact. First love, longing, deep friendships and the painful experience of loss bubble up through a storm of memory and emotion, breaking the surface and breathing deeply before plunging back under.