Online, she goes by Princess Shaw, but Samantha Montgomery’s story is nothing short of an inspiring rise from struggling nurse to YouTube viral sensation. Her rise to fame is documented in a brand new documentary, Presenting Princess Shaw, by Ido Haar. Haar follows musician Kutiman and Montgomery as the former takes the latter’s vocals, without her knowledge, as he often does, and mixing in jazz, soul and other sounds, he creates a whole new sound. By day, Princess Shaw is a nurse, and by night, she works the open mic scene and uploads videos to her YouTube channel. What happens after Kutiman discovers her video and creates this new sound is the subject of the documentary. I caught up with Montgomery who’s currently working both coasts to promote the new documentary that screened at the Toronto Film Festival to find out more about working with Haar and Kutiman and how she found the confidence to find her voice.
AD: Congratulations on the story. It’s so beautiful and inspiring to watch this and then talk to you afterwards. Did you always want to be a singer? I have to ask that question. Your voice is so soulful.
SM: I started off when I was younger wanting to sing and wanting to go out and have the confidence. I’ve always wanted to sing, even when I was younger, but I didn’t have the confidence to sing in public. I would sing by myself and then I started to sing more. I didn’t really venture out into the world of singing until I moved to New Orleans. At 29 or 30 or maybe even 32 I really started to venture out and sing. In 2012 I started my YouTube channel and I said, “Let me just do it.” It started from there and has been that way ever since.
AD: You also say you didn’t have the confidence. When did you suddenly sit there and be like, “Okay, I’m going to use YouTube as a platform”?
SM: You know, before I had braces my teeth were really crooked. Like, really awful (laughs). So I was not in front of anyone singing any songs. That’s the main focal point when you sing so like that was another issue. But, I found my voice in New Orleans. It wasn’t a voice I heard other people singing, it was my voice, my tone, and it was me. That’s when the confidence came. It was like, “Oh my God, I’m just me and I feel comfortable in that setting.” That’s the reason I came forth and started to sing on YouTube.
AD: I want to also talk about your journey because it’s inspirational. That’s what makes it so magical. Tell us about your journey as to how you got from where you were to where you are.
SM: It all started with Kutiman making my song go viral on YouTube. Give it up! He took a song I had up there for like a year. It was just a regular version of a song with me singing and he took that and he put it with this collaboration mashup with music. He already had the musical arrangement, but needed a vocalist and he found me on YouTube and put me in there. He never lets anyone know when he’s doing it, he just does it and then you only know when he publishes it. When he did that, it went viral. Now, it’s at 2.5 million views and it just keeps going up and up and up. From that point, Ido [Haar, the director], his friend who [Kutiman’s] known for a while, saw me through him doing the mashup and decided he wanted a documentary on YouTube. I wasn’t the only person he followed around; he followed other people around too. It just slowly got smaller and smaller until it was me and Kutiman in the documentary. But, it all started as a documentary about YouTube. I think I can still look at it on YouTube and now, look where I am now: I’m sitting by the pool in LA [laughs].
AD: You said you went from a YouTube video where you get a couple of hundred or thousand views and then, all of the sudden, the next day, you have a million views when you go viral. What was that moment, when you’re checking the notifications, when you’re seeing this, and it was like, “oh my God.” How did that feel?
SM: It was breathtaking. It made my confidence soar. It made my heart beat faster. I had so many comments coming in. I don’t really keep up with the number of views, but people would tell me, “you’re about to go viral, you’re at this number,” but I didn’t really keep up with it. I felt so honored and so blessed that I was the one he had picked to do that for and that he put me in that. There were some stupid comments, but I laughed that off because who cares? There were comments that were really, really beautiful and wonderful that kept pouring in and made me feel better. At that time, I was going through a lot of stuff in my heart and head; my demons were chasing me and I was trying to fight everything off. But those comments helped me.
AD: Also, how was that first meeting with the documentary maker, Ido Haar, saying we’re going to turn your life into a documentary for the world to see?
SM: His wife contacted me and said, “Ido wants to do a documentary about YouTubers.” I said sure, and met him in his hotel lobby and as soon as I sat down with him, I felt a kindred spirit. I felt like he was a wonderful person and didn’t feel any harsh feelings with him which was why I was so open with him. I felt so comfortable in his presence. He’s a sweet, sweet person with kind heart. I just wanted to be as open as I could. Kutiman is awesome too. Both of them are rockstars.
AD: And you collaborated again with Kutiman for “Stay Here” so you guys are becoming good friends.
SM: Yeah! I call [Ido] Papa Bear, his wife Mama Bear, and I call Kutiman my brother. And we’re working on my first official album, he’s producing the whole thing.
AD: Oh, how exciting!
SM: Yeah, to be in the city with him is so unbelievable. He’s so funny and keeps you calm and opens you up and makes you push harder.
AD: Something that’s so incredible when you watch that documentary is like, what was it like for you when you saw that for the first time? That’s your story.
SM: I’m very critical of myself so I was like, “oh my God, that’s the wrong angle! Hold your stomach in! Why are you looking like that? Oh, God, look at my hair.” I’m very critical. But, beyond all that, it was a beautiful documentary. I’ve only seen it twice. I don’t want to see it any more than that. Some parts are hard to watch for me because it brings me back to places I just don’t want to go to anymore. I think he knows he did a wonderful job on it. It was like, I was sitting and looking around and thinking in my head, “Everybody hates it! Look at me!” Then, when I got out, everybody was like I inspired them. I loved that. People who walk up to me, like young girls and people who’ve been through experiences like I’ve been through or even going through something, I get to talk to and help them through stuff. It’s a beautiful thing.
AD: I love hearing your story. What do you say when those girls come up to you and tell you that they find you inspiring? What advice would you give them?
SM: I always tell everybody to be yourself and be your own person. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If you want to wear shoes from the ’70s, wear shoes from the ’70s and rock them. You go for it. I want them to realize that it doesn’t always work out the way you wanted it to. But, be proud that you got out there and did something that nobody else and maybe even you didn’t think you could do. When I talk to young kids, I always get close with them and bring them up and look directly at them to let them know that they can make it. I talked at a screening with nothing but young kids, it was like preteens and teenagers. When you walk into a room with kids and they rush you and start taking all these pictures, I felt so great because I felt like they understood and are okay with me. Kids are different. They were so happy to see me and I was happy to see them. I told them to reach beyond the stars, don’t even reach for the stars.
AD: Who you inspired you growing up and even today?
SM: My inspirations are the BeeGees, Cat Stevens, Elton John, Hall and Oates, Kings of Leon, John Legend, Etta James, and Billie Holiday has a song I like. I like all the old greats. Music moves me a certain way and makes me feel a certain way. Music nowadays is all over the place. You don’t even know what they’re saying half the time, it’s like “what they hell are they talking about?” I think music is beautiful when it makes you really feel.
AD: That’s amazing. You said now you’re working on your first album. Do we have a release date for that? And, what sort of sound can we expect?
SM: The Kutiman and Princess Shaw compilation is kind of a bluesy, jazzy sound. But, it’s a different taste music for your palate with just a taste of everything. Right now, Kutiman’s working on his part of it, I’m done with my vocals. Hopefully it’ll be released close to after the documentary comes out.
Presenting Princess Shaw is released on May 27