“When I perform in France, I’ll say: ‘This next song is all about my beautiful vagina’ and everyone in the crowd looks so confused!” laughs Sam Quealy, an Australian-born electronic pop artist who has turned the sweaty, neon-lit clubs of Pigalle, Paris, into a second home. “But confusion and chaos are strong emotions that I enjoy tapping into.”
Growing more and more animated, the Paris-based artist beams down our crackly phone line: “I really don’t care if people hate me. I’d sooner my music made people feel hate than nothing at all, right? The worst thing art can do is create apathy in an audience. That’s something I never want to do.”
The deliriously silly song she’s referring to, ‘Big Cat’, contains a titillated yet sadistic synth line that mirrors a purring cat ready to pounce from the shadows at a bird’s neck. It also contains bizarre, TikTok-friendly lyrics (including “I don’t mind tuna, I don’t mind fish / put it on a silver platter, make it my dish”) that play out like an NSFW episode of Garfield.
The far twitchier and darker rush of ‘Klepto’ – where Quealy repeats the intoxicating call-to-action: “Need it, want it, see it, take it!” over and over – can’t decide whether it wants to emulate Madonna’s 'Vogue’ or be the catalyst for an unhinged, ketamine-fuelled techno rave. You feel empowered one minute, dirty the next.
Whatever your reaction to these two provocative pop songs, Quealy believes her manic confidence will ultimately shine through. “With my music, I want my confidence to be contagious, so people can feed off it and finally let go of all their hang-ups,” the former cabaret dancer clarifies. “Not caring what other people think really is my superpower.”
She adds: “Recently, I learned there was a women’s march in LA and some sex workers did a protest there while they played ‘Big Cat’ out of a loudspeaker. I want to make dance anthems that leave you feeling empowered [like those sex workers were], but also a little confused: like, what the fuck did I just listen to?”
If this really is Quealy’s mission statement, then few would argue against her nailing the brief. Since breaking out with 2021’s ‘Sad Summer Daze’ – an infectious swirling bop that celebrates both the euphoria of late-nights in Ibiza and the intimate, beach-based comedown that follows the next day – Quealy has turned heads with a series of surrealist, X-rated earworms. They’ve all been produced in conjunction with Marlon Magnée of underrated French psych-rock band La Femme.
Following the word-of-mouth buzz generated from supporting La Femme on a recent global tour, where Quealy tended to steal the show with a routine that involved hyperactively swinging katana swords while dripping with sweat, the Paris-based musician now wants to shake up mainstream pop as a solo artist, inspiring audiences to lose control of their limbs after years of repressive lockdowns.
“For me, the dance and the music have to co-exist!” Quealy says. “Your body has to be an instrument. If I am hunched over, it might show there’s a knife in my stomach, or if I’m marching, it’s because I feel invincible and an extension of the drums. My favourite artists are the ones who speak with their bodies. I would like to do that too! Live performance really is a big part of this project.”
Quealy says the nutty escapism that fuels her music is an extension of feeling like an outsider during a childhood spent in the relatively sleepy, conservative surfer town of Cronulla on the New South Wales coast. “I felt a little out of place there,” she admits, “so I was always showing off to get attention. I snuck into Sydney for the Defqon.1 rave, even though I was underage. I was always dancing and trying to be provocative. Going to gay clubs was where I felt really accepted.”
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After graduating from art school, the idea of being an artist became more and more alluring. Quealy says she truly found her voice after moving to Paris, where she modelled for brands like Weinsanto and Koche at Fashion Week, earning extra cash doing drag performances on the side. When she wasn’t voguing, Quealy was writing poetry fixated by the idea of experiencing a “divine intoxication”.
“I am a big fan of Old Hollywood glamour but through the lens and rush of a modern dancefloor,” she says of her unique in-your-face style and sound. Pointing to the bonkers music video of ‘Night Shade’, where Quealy (who did all the choreography herself) gyrates like a cross between ‘Artpop’-era Lady Gaga and a black widow spider, she continues: “Marlene Dietrich is a big influence on me, the way she was masculine and feminine at the same time. I want to show people that it’s okay to be both. You can be sexy, but also quite terrifying too.”
Quealy’s art school background means she is well versed in the idea of dramatic license. She spends hours and hours creating characters to go with each of her songs. For ‘Klepto’, she wanted to play a glamorous Hitchcock blonde high off the rush of setting fire to her overly-controlling husband.
“Another one of the characters has a backstory inspired by the plant belladonna,” Quealy reveals, “which is this beautiful night shade that’s cool to look at, but can also be lethal. That’s how I want to feel! Every song you hear is an introduction to a new personality.”
Currently working on her debut album, Quealy’s latest single, ‘Groovy Jungle’, might just be her best yet. The clap of hi-hats slaps you in the face with the force of André The Giant, as Quealy half-jokes about holding her “tits up with pride” amid waves of distorted funk. “It’s a song designed for a party at the end of the world!” Quealy boasts. “You don’t know whether you want to enjoy yourself or get the fuck out of there. It sits somewhere between a dream and a nightmare. I like operating in that space.”
Whether the independent artist’s eccentric take on techno and pop remains relatively hidden underground or catches the attention of major labels remains to be seen. But if one person feels less shy by seeing Sam Quealy perform, she says she would have succeeded in her aims. “I love that ‘you’re not fucking me, I am fucking you’ type of energy,” Quealy concludes. “If that can transfer that over to one person who is shy in the audience and make them feel more powerful, then that’s a success.”
Thomas Hobbs is a freelance writer, follow him on Twitter