On her 24th birthday, Samantha Rios was at a house watching a performance of a 20-minute play she wrote called No Guts. Rios sat in the back, visibly nervous and staring at the ground. At the same time over at SMU, another play she wrote was being performed, one of several one-minute plays. But neither of those were Rios' main performance that night: The real main attraction was saved for Rat Rios, singer and songwriter.
Rios — who performs her music under a nickname, "Rat" — only started performing her music publicly this year, and she's made an immediate impression on the Dallas music scene. But with a background in theater, she takes her fiercely DIY sensibilities to their extreme, spreading her creativity across many platforms. "There’s only so much you can do as a writer and you have to just trust that it gets interpreted correctly,” she says, speaking with a properness that almost comes across as an English accent.
The room was packed on the night of her birthday performance. During No Guts the audience was enthusiastic, laughing at the dark humor and trying to make sense of her surreal play. The play is based on a nightmare Rios had five years ago. It exists in another reality, with a woman meeting a bartender who literally stole her heart. “I was watching a lot of David Lynch at the time,” she says.
With a diverse background in music and theater, the only thing that seems to make Rios nervous is collaborating with people. She admits to having issues with being controlling, preferring to learn how to do something by doing it rather than collaborating with someone and making any compromises. The nightmare that inspired No Guts has a lot to do with loss of control; the protagonist even becomes paralyzed.
Rios produces her own music, too, using her ear while she still figures out the technicalities. “There’s a gritty quality to some of my songs just because I am still learning,” she says, with a shrug. She cringes at the thought of working with a producer. “I need to learn how to work with people on that level,” she admits. But then she changes her mind and decides she wants to keep it “a one-girl thing.”
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Music started early for Rios; she played cello in an orchestra starting at age 9. Towards the end of high school, she started performing in plays and decided to major in theater at SMU. Theater was something her parents enjoyed and she had fun with it too, quickly learning how to direct, write, act and provide costume design. But after earning her degree, Rios went back to music. While being graded in theater classes, she started to appreciate music as, “My time just for myself, just to create.”
Back in January, Rios played her first show at Three Links. Her parents played '80s music when she was a kid and she enjoyed it. “It’s what excites me,” she says. “In a weird way, it’s almost painful.” She describes her '80s pop as a sound that’s very easy to screw up, but she seems drawn to the challenge.
Rios is planning to record an album soon and would also like to put a full band together. “I need to step up my game and make my music more live,” she says. “Right now it gets a little stagnant for me just to sing to a track.” She has played a few shows with other musicians and it produces a sound entirely different than the tracks she composed and recorded. Not married to any one sound, her music could take off in a different direction at any time.
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In terms of live performances, Rios has kept theater and music completely separate. There is no act. Rios sings about personal loss with a beautiful voice. “I feel more vulnerable doing music than acting,” she explains. “I need to rewire the way my brain works and think of music as just another performance piece.”
But her lyrics are sometimes influenced by screenwriting, telling stories that are sometimes fictional, non-linear and open to interpretation. Once again she speaks of Lynch, whose films are an inspiration to her plays as well as her music. She cites Angelo Badalamenti, the longtime composer of Lynch's scores, as a primary influence. Rios wants to find other ways to work theater into her music as well, including adding visuals into the mix for her show opening for Dezi 5 at Public Trust's Vice Palace Tapes show this Saturday.
“I want to find ways to implement the two together,” Rios says, of music and theater. Not a fan of musicals, she ultimately wants to make performance art. Her idea is to use a stockpile of instrumentals for a one-woman show. “I’m trying to find a consistent narrative so that I can attach conflict,” she says. “I’m trying to figure it out.” She laughs. “I still have a bunch of things to figure out.”