Words Kirk Truman
Photography Etienne Gilfillan
“We started something together that we were wholly in control of – it was the beginning of a new adventure.”
A transatlantic duo blazing their way through Soho’s music venues, clubs and bars, spinning Northern Soul, 60s rhythm & blues and old school rock-n-roll, Iraina Mancini and Samantha Michelle are an unlikely success story in an often male-dominated world. I talked to them about how The Smoking Guns got started, their Soho roots and the reasons behind their DJ venture.
Growing up in West London, Iraina Mancini has spent her life in the company of music. “My Dad was in a band with David Bowie,” she explains, “so I’ve always had something of a musical upbringing. He raised me on soul, and its been ingrained in me since I was a kid.” When she was just 18 she approached a band after a gig, telling them that their singer wasn’t the best and that she would make a better vocalist for the group. “I think I was very confident in those days for an 18 year old girl,” she says. “They turned around and invited me in for an audition. After that, I started a band called Mancini and toured around for a number of years, made an album and went on the road. I’ve been doing music ever since. As I’ve gotten a little older, I’ve become more of a songwriter for other artists. At the moment I’m recording an EP.”
Samantha Michelle, the other half of the duo, grew up in Toronto, spending much of her youth in Canada and the US, eventually settling in New York for sometime before moving to London. “Mine and Irania’s upbringings are polar opposites,” says Sam. “I didn’t grow up in a musical household at all. My father is a businessman, and my mother is a doctor. A creative life as an artist or musician was definitely not something that my family expected of me – it wasn’t a viable option. As a kid, I was always very artistically inclined. I would often paint, and I was a competitive dancer, but these were merely hobbies. I didn’t like the options that were presented to me in the world that I grew up in, so I wanted to build a new life for myself. The gateway into that for me was university. I worked hard to get into a good school, eventually studying in New York. My whole world became an incredibly different place for me as I explored the nightlife of the city, which had a strong influence over my taste in music. I felt like some of the music I was listening to was part of some kind of unspoken tribe. When I moved to London, I was instantly fascinated. It’s strange for me really, as I have no ties to the place at all, yet I’ve adopted it as my home.”
Sam and Iraina first met in Soho nearly five years ago at Dean Street’s Groucho Club. They quickly became friends, and their friendship became centred on their careers, with both of them working as actresses and DJing separately. One evening they discussed the possibility of starting their own project together. With their combined love of soul, rock and roll, and the music of the 60s and 70s, the two of them decided to pool their talents, forming The Smoking Guns late last year. “We thought maybe we could do something that we could be in control of, something fun,” says Iraina, “so we decided to DJ together. We made a pact: this time next year we’ll have really made this thing take off.”
“We were so fearless, and we believed in ourselves wholeheartedly,” says Sam. “In life, shit doesn’t go your way for whatever reason. At first it builds this distrust and lack of faith in yourself, and then something comes to you to make you realise your true potential. So together Iraina and I turned a new leaf – we started something together that we were wholly in control of. It was the beginning of a new adventure. We wanted to get to a point in our lives of primitive artistic pursuit.” And so The Smoking Guns was born. Once they’d decided to work together, Iraina and Sam wasted no time: in fact, they managed to land their first booking within five minutes. With their easy and approachable manner, perhaps it’s no surprise that the two quickly began to work with dozens of venues, particularly around Soho; and given their taste in music, The Smoking Guns carved out their own specialised niche. A female duo spinning Northern Soul, 60s rhythm & blues and old school rock-n-roll? Unheard of!
What might have been seen as a handicap in a musical scene that’s always been heavily male-dominated actually proved pivotal to their success, helping them to begin working alongside some of the most exclusive nightspots in the Soho neighbourhood, such as The Groucho Club, Soho House and Lights of Soho, with a number of weekly residencies all over London. “We were very lucky that we already had a core group of people that we’d already worked with in the past, so we had a good starting point. So much of my life has been spent here on the streets of the neighbourhood. It’s an incredibly important place to me. Its a personal experience, DJing for people we’ve grown up around and who are part of our lives,” says Iraina. “At the start, many of the people that we began working with or being booked by were people we already knew pretty well – it was a success on the back of our connection to Soho. The neighbourhood is dear to our hearts, and The Smoking Guns is a lovechild of Soho!”
What Sam and Iraina have created is refreshing and original, a shot in the arm for a music scene that has been losing some of its momentum in recent years. In just over 12 months, their friendship has blossomed into a successful musical collaboration covering all corners of Soho. Standing tall in their Joshua Kane bespoke men’s suits they give off an image of confidence and beauty that defies both expectations and odds, even in an ever changing and diversifying neighbourhood. The Smoking Guns have already begun to gain a strong following, creating a positive and uplifting atmosphere that echoes the neighbourhood’s yesteryear: crowds revel in the basement of Lights of Soho to the sounds of Bob Dylan and the Small Faces, while at the Groucho they scream with joy to the sound of The Doors and The Rolling Stones. Perhaps these two talented young ladies were destined to meet and combine to spread their musical message. As they continue to go from strength to strength, Sam and Iraina are two young guns to watch closely.