Arts & Culture

Cameo: Sam Sessa

We talk to the WTMD radio host and Baltimore music coordinator.

You started at WTMD in 2006 as the host of Baltimore Unsigned, not long after you started covering arts and entertainment at The Sun. How old were you at the time?
I was 22, so I was basically making it up as I went. The bands I was talking to in those first years of the show were all of these talented Baltimore musicians, like Monarch, who became Wye Oak, and J. Roddy Walston & The Business. It was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I’ve been really lucky to watch and report on the Baltimore music scene for the last 10 years, because it’s exploded. Right now, the Baltimore music scene is the most popular and most influential it’s ever been.

What’s led to that?
I think it’s a couple things. When I first started covering music here, there was a trend, especially in hip-hop, where a really promising rapper would attract some mainstream label interest, sign a record deal, move away, and chances are you’d never hear from them again. Baltimore bands had a similar pattern—they’d move to New York or L.A. to try and chase fame. Sometimes it would work out; sometimes it wouldn’t. So there was this drain in the arts and music scene.

What changed was when the Wham City arts collective moved here in 2005 or 2006. They started making some noise and you started to see other bands get interested. Rolling Stone did a piece saying that Baltimore’s music scene was the best in the country, and all of a sudden, people were coming here to be part of it. No one was leaving. Future Islands still lives here. Beach House still lives here. Dan Deacon still lives here. And because people refuse to leave, you’ve got this music scene unlike what we’ve had in the past.

Those big artists create a nest egg for all the up-and-comers.
You’re seeing that in hip-hop, too. You’ve got this extremely talented younger generation of rappers—Bond St. District, Abdu Ali, TT The Artist—who are proud that they’re from Baltimore. They’re staying here, and that sends a message.

Something else has changed, too, and some people will say this is for the worst, but when I first started covering Baltimore music, there were not a lot of legitimate places to see live shows.

And many of those DIY venues would get busted and be shut down.
But since Station North has started to come online, you see legitimate clubs like Metro Gallery, The Windup Space, The Crown, Joe Squared, and that’s been really good for the scene. I was talking to Abdu Ali about this recently—for the first time in a long time, it feels like we’re living in a city, because competition has gotten really fierce. Some nights, you don’t know which club to go to, and that’s really exciting. Fells Point was a similar setup in the 1970s, with live music on just about every corner. It was a lot of bar bands, a lot of blues bands; that’s what we were known for at the time. So it’s happened before, but not in a while.

What’s exciting about a lot of the Station North venues is that they are so open to a variety of genres.
One of the characteristics that sets Baltimore’s music scene apart, and I think that makes it one of the best in the country, is the willingness to experiment. Across genres, Baltimore musicians are fearless, and you don’t always know what you’re going to get. These musicians are doing something new, and you can’t say that about a lot of other cities.

Some of the bands that came up when you started are now selling out shows at major venues across the country.
But they’re still approachable. Future Islands can play a festival in front of thousands of people in England and then you run into them at The Crown. Oh, and there’s Alex and Victoria from Beach House. And there’s Dan Deacon, just having a drink. That doesn’t happen in other cities. You don’t just walk up to some of the most popular musicians at a bar or club in Seattle, but you do here, because like the rest of Baltimore, they are unpretentious. Baltimore is too small of a town for people to get big egos.

What was WTMD like when you first started?
We were in the basement of the media center at Towson University. There were no windows. The studios would occasionally have minor flooding. National touring musicians would come in and ask us what year we were in college, which was kind of a bummer. So when we moved into this gorgeous new space, where we’ve been since 2013, it changed everything. We’ve been able to do these live radio shows with studio audiences, which I’m pretty sure doesn’t really happen anywhere else.

Radio stations have not had performance studios since, like, the 1930s, and if they do have performances, they don’t broadcast them live. There’s a level of energy and excitement that you get because you’re live on the radio. There might be a couple hundred people in the room, but there are tens of thousands of people listening in.

It’s been 10 years since the beginning of Baltimore Unsigned, which eventually evolved into today’s Baltimore Hit Parade.
The problem with Baltimore Unsigned was that, as the music scene grew, the artists started getting signed. We changed the name around the same time we moved into our new space in 2013. We’re trying to introduce Baltimore listeners to the diverse voices of Baltimore’s music scene, not only live on the radio but at our performance space. We’re trying to bring people together, in different ways, in different parts of the city, in different musical genres. That’s what I hope I’ll be able to do for another 10 years.

Who are some of the artists you’re most excited about right now who are just emerging?
Every year I say to myself, this year couldn’t possibly be any better than last year, and each year, the Baltimore music scene proves me wrong. Just when you start to wonder if it might be starting to peak, or fall off, another Bond St. District comes along. I think they have the best chance of being the next breakout star from Baltimore. They are singular, nobody sounds quite like them, and DDm is a star in the making. You can feel his presence in the room.

How was it seeing events like WTMD’s BSO Pulse indie-orchestra concerts at the Meyerhoff and BWI Live baggage claim concerts come to life?
I was on the verge of tears for most of Wye Oak’s Pulse show. Ten years ago, they were guests on Baltimore Unsigned for one of their first radio interviews ever, and then they sold out the Meyerhoff! And performed with the BSO! It felt like everything had come full circle. And then Jenn Wasner goes from that to playing a free show in the baggage claim of the BWI airport, which goes back to the open-mindedness and unpretentiousness of the Baltimore music scene. Where else are you going to see that?

What’s next for WTMD in 2017?
There’s a generation of young people who have grown up listening to WTMD. They started when they were in or right out of college, then they got married, and now a lot of them have young kids. In my travels, I kept hearing people say, ‘I love WTMD but I can’t come to any of your shows because they’re not at kid-friendly times.’ Live Lunch is really close to naptime, and while you see a lot of kids at First Thursdays, that’s also the witching hour. We’re going to be offering a kid-friendly concert series, once a month for the first three months of 2017, at 10 on Saturday mornings. Milkshake did our first one last year. We had snacks and milk and it was a huge success.

Well here’s to the next year, or ten.
In 10 years, the station has gone from being perceived as a college radio station to being part of the fabric of Baltimore’s arts and music community. It really feels like we’re starting to hit our stride. But there are still plenty of people to reach.