Catchin’ Up With… Sam Outlaw

When Sam Outlaw was announced as the opener for Aaron Watson’s 2016 UK Tour and I was offered62 the chance to interview him I will be the first to admit I was dubious. Outlaw? Really? I listened to his album Angeleno and immediately knew that this was genuine, heart wrenching country music. We sat down with Sam just before his debut UK show in Manchester…

Welcome to England Sam. Is this your first time over here playing?

Yeah. I’m very excited and kind of curious as to what to expect. I’ve gotten to go to Australia twice since I started doing this whole thing. The Australian audience was pretty pumped on country music and like “Woah! Vinyl! Cool! We wanna buy vinyl!” It’s funny I think everybody has their own thing that they dig. We got here on Sunday and we are back on Saturday so it’s literally just the three shows and we are doing an in-store at Rough Trade. Randomly my older brother is in England, he’s one day off from me
so he’s in Birmingham the day after I am then he’s in London the day after me.

You’ll probably find a big difference between playing up here in the North of England than in the South in London…

Well I think Aaron Watson has a full band for these shows and whenever we play kind of rowdy bar shows I like to have a full band just so you can cut through and get peoples attention and/or mask the fact that you don’t have anybody’s attention. These are all going to be me and my guitar player acoustic so we’ll see how it goes.

You usually find, from a lot of my experiences, for example we saw Andrew Combs last year with Justin Townes Earle and if it’s good enough people will listen…

I love Andrew! He’s amazing!

Well it was very strange, I was chatting to him after the show then a month or two later it was announced that he’s playing the main stage at the O2 Arena for C2C…

What?! Are you kidding me?! Good for him! Let’s hope that happens to me! I always pretend that I’m just happy for people but I’m like “f#ck you”! No, seriously, it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. He really is the sweetest dude.

You released your debut album ‘Angeleno’ last year. How have you found the reaction to it?

It’s good. We released the record in the US in June and then it came out here in January, which is funny. When I found out it wasn’t out here I was like “why the f#ck not?!” It’s been good though. It’s been tiring and crazy, I think my wife and I have both gone through a lot. She went and worked on a ranch all Summer whilst I was touring so we’ve been getting used to the new normal. From me being gone and not being home then having to figure out what it’s like being home, to set schedules for myself to write and work on the new record, it’s been challenging but fun.

How exciting is it to be taking your music across the world less than a year after the release of your debut album?

It’s weird but at the same time even by the time the record came out in June in the US I already felt like I’d put it out a year before any way. I’d finished making it in October so it already feels like it’s been too long and I should be way famouser! You always just hope that people like it.

A lot of people seem to have picked up on it. I know Rolling Stone and, over here in the UK, The Guardian put it in their top 10 albums of 2015…

I know! That was crazy I was like “what the f#ck?!” I think I was number seven and I had no idea they’d even heard of it so that was weird.

Up until the age of 30 I understand you were working in advertising. How did you suddenly decide to make the switch into trying a career in music?

Yeah I was doing that for almost ten years mostly selling to the music industry. I think it was good having a job that allowed me the flexibility to do music as a hobby but if you really want to it at some point you have to go all in. My 30th birthday was definitely a deciding moment of “I’m going to move in the general direction of music because I believe in myself enough to try more than I’m trying now” then I think, probably only a year and a half a go, I finally got to Nashville and played for some people there then that was when things started moving quicker. I found Michelle, who is now my manager, she was running the AMA out there and helped me get a good booking agent and lawyer and started helping me put the pieces together. Once you have a good team of people who want to help you and then they set me off to go tour Australia with Justin Townes Earle I figured I probably have to quit my job for that so I quit my job about 10 months a go.

So it wasn’t the biggest risk in the world…

No, it wasn’t as if I had zero dollars and no prospects… well I still basically had zero dollars and no prospects but here I am! But it wasn’t quite completely a blind leap. Still every day it feels that way though, going from a steady job with the semi monthly money whether you do a good job or not to having to go out and earn it.

Who are your influences musically?

On the country side it’s really the sixties pop country stuff so George Jones, even the Bakersfield stuff, like I love Buck and Merle but I’m a huge Wynn Stewart fan. Emmylou Harris to me is as good as it gets. Her records really helped turn me on to other songwriters. On her first record you have The Beatles and Merle Haggard but then you’ve got a song about Gram Parsons and a song written by Rodney Crowell. When you start looking up all those people it kind of takes you down this wormhole. It wasn’t until a few years a go that I allowed myself to enjoy country music made after 1975! My wife helped me find the good neo-traditionalists that I listen to now like Clint Black, George Strait, Randy Travis and Alan Jackson. I was really only raised on one proper country band and that’s Asleep At The Wheel. I came online about music in the same way that most people did and that was The Beatles. When I was about 13 or 14 I really realised what music meant to me by listening to The Beatles, even in the late 90s when a lot of my favourite bands were the Britpop rockers like Oasis and Blur.

Well Oasis of course are from Manchester where you’re playing tonight…

That’s right. We are in Oasisland!

Are you going to attempt an Oasis cover?

I would say the answer to that is “f#ck no!” I could barely play music in high school but me and some buddies put together this band that was basically an Oasis cover band. I’m not going to embarrass myself! Well, if I am going to embarrass myself it’ll be with my own songs!

That seems fair enough…

I remember seeing my first interview with those guys and I finally realised that Liam Gallagher is the biggest asshole that ever walked the planet… that kind of turned me off a little bit.

Well Noel isn’t much better…

Yeah, at least he kind of had the skills. I don’t know, we don’t need to go down that route too much. I still love the band! I think it was recently did an interview on one of my favourite podcasts and listening to him talk now, he’s a little more evened out and grown up, so now he’s about as mature as I was when I was sixteen!

Having Ry Cooder produce ‘Angeleno’ must have brought a huge wealth of knowledge to the table?

Yeah he brought his guitar playing and played on every track! 80 or 90% of what you hear on the record is what me and the band made in the room together playing the songs so he was playing a Stratocaster on the basic tracking then we would go and overdub the basic stuff because the guy plays anything with strings on it. It was very special and he knew who to bring in for the mariachi songs so he brought them in and arranged the mariachi stuff on the spot. He’s a killer producer and he loves doing it, he’s like a kid when he’s in that studio which is cool. I mean, he lived the history on country rock in the States so the stuff that I have to read about – he was there!

You describe your sound as ‘SoCal Country’. How would you describe what that means?

It basically just lends me the opportunity to make music that sounds however I want then I can say that it’s ‘SoCal Country’. I think what I was trying to do with calling it something was to make a distinction from the term California country because that term is usually just meant to apply to the Bakersfield sound from the 60’s and that solidly Bakersfield honky tonk thing so to me Southern California country is more three parts. It’s the honky tonk from Bakersfield, it’s the influence of Mexican music and culture in LA and it’s also the influence of the early 70’s troubadour era singer/songwriter stuff. A lot of the songs to me sound like they could be a Jackson Browne song or Crosby, Stills and Nash or James Taylor. James Taylor for me is just as influential and important as George Jones.

The mariachi stuff is really cool. It gives it a totally different sound…

Yeah and when we were making the songs I remember the day the mariachi band were in there I went for a coffee and came back to see what they were up to and I remember when I heard the playback of what Ry and the mariachi’s were cooking up I was like “Woah! This is so next level!”

You changed names to go by your mothers maiden name, Outlaw, why did you make this decision? You couldn’t really ask for a more country surname…

The truth is it is a fake name in the sense that my given name is Morgan which is a plenty good last name for country music. Obviously, when I first started using the name it was for more superficial reasons I was like “oh there’s this family name that sounds country so I’ll use it” then life goes on and my Mom passed away and things take on more meaning. Now it gives me a chance to talk about my Mom and my family. If the catchiness of the name helps somebody remember me that otherwise wouldn’t then cool. I usually address that during the show because, especially if you’re somewhere that people haven’t heard of you, most people are like “who the f#ck is this guy being from LA and using Outlaw?!”

Are the songs that are on the album ones that you’ve been writing over the years or did you write them specifically for the record?

It was kind of a combination. A few of the tracks were finished that day that we recorded them and some of the songs had been kicking around for 3,4,5 years. It’s kind of a nice representation of my songwriting and how it developed over the years.

Where did the inspiration for the songs come from?

I think you’ve got sad songs from a previous relationship. You’ve got happy songs from my current relationship. Stuff about family, some songs with a sense of humour, which is something I love about country music, and some stuff that’s a little more serious and prayerful. I guess it’s just a little of everything. The title track Angeleno, I use the word cowboy in that, but I think to me a cowboy is just anybody who lives life on his own terms and does something that’s not the expected route. I guess it’s just a little of everything.

It seems that your style of country, along with maybe the likes of Sturgill Simpson and Andrew Combs, is getting some attention now…

The press is making it seem like, and don’t get me wrong it is growing, but commercial radio still has a stranglehold on things.

There’s some some stuff that just feels like it’s off a production line out there too…

Yeah. Without calling anybody out to me the issue is that these songs are written without any real emotional authenticity behind them. You get three or four knuckleheads together in a room in Nashville and they are sitting around and look at a wall and see a toaster so say “I got an idea about a song about a toaster!” Do you know what I mean? There’s not really any depth. If you’re going to write a song then write about something your going through. I mean I love pop music so I don’t think that country radio sucks because it’s not country enough or because I have some standard for how country something has to be… I just think it should not suck.

It seems to make a big difference, for me any way, when people write their own music. It feels more personal. There’s an argument to say that if you’ve heard one song by certain acts then you’ve heard them all…

Yeah and to some extent if you write a song and hand it off for somebody else to sing it’s like letting someone else handle your money. Nobody is really going to do as good a job of it as you so if you’re going to stand up on stage and be like “hello everyone, here’s a song I wrote” you probably care that it doesn’t suck a little more than if you’re like “Done! Good luck with that one whoever… in an arena”.

Do you find yourself out on a limb being based in California when most country tends to be based around Nashville or Texas?

Yeah, the dust settled from all the summer adventures and we found a new place in Glendale. Sort of, it’s really uphill because nobody really gives a shit about country music in LA, not really! Even in the Valley where you have more shit kicker people, my kind of people, they’re listening to corporate mainstream radio because it’s there. My joke is that I could be just an unpopular in Nashville as I am in Los Angeles so I might as well stay in LA where it’s warm. I think it’s a double edged sword to be in LA, it keeps me on my toes because nobody really likes me, in Nashville would be great because the cost of living is less but my solution is just to go visit. There’s so much good there with a lot of good people making good music then I can take stuff back to Los Angeles and try to improve my home town.

You signed for Six Shooter Records last year. What made you think that they were the label for you?

My plan all along was just to release it by myself via Thirty Tigers. Six Shooter came along after the record was done. I’ve always been pretty independently minded. I mean that whole get a record deal dream is pretty much over. Nobody is still at home dreaming of the days with money in there mind about being signed to a label and you’re in the limo being chased by groupies after the show. I’m very thankful for Six Shooter but even that was a one record deal so even after that who knows where we will go or what we will do.

That’s pretty cool. Well, maybe not for you who is relying on it…

Well I don’t think I deserve anything. I don’t think I’m entitled to anything. I don’t think I’m entitled to fans or success at all so I think, some extent, when you make a record you should have to kind of figure it out on your own. I think it’s good for people to not necessarily be caught up in the system straight away. So, yeah if someone wants to come along and help me release this record then great and if not and I have to put it out on my own maybe that’s ok too.

Your album ‘Angeleno’ has now been released in Europe. Have you had much feedback on it from over here?

The only thing I can really gauge is social media at this point and it’s weirdly enthusiastic so hopefully these shows go good. These will just be acoustic with me and my guitar player – so quite mellow. Even when I come back for the full European tour in April it’ll likely be just me and, Molly, my harmony singer and she plays different stuff as well so it’ll just be more harmonies and stuff. The feedback has been really good and like anything you just hope that when you get up there to play people don’t leave!

What are your plans for the next 12 months?

It’s crazy. So I’m going home from this and finishing writing my second record then trying to record the whole thing in early February then going on a full US tour February/March then doing a full European tour in April, getting home from that, rehearsing for Stagecoach festival, playing Stagecoach then having a baby in May! So I have no days to do anything!

Have you got Ry back to produce again?

The plan right now is to basically self-produce it with Martin Pradler who engineered the record but who knows what could happen in a week. Even with that it’s like, the thing we did with Ry was still very collaborative and I had fun kind of working on it but part of me is like “I wander how I would do with just me and the engineer?”… And of course the musicians. At the end of the day I think that if you go into the studio you’ve got to have two things: good songs and good players. You can have a great producer, great gear, you can even have the album artwork done… but you’ve got to have songs. I think it kind of starts and ends there. I’ll basically be using my road band so we’ll see!

Speaking to Sam was an absolute pleasure. If there’s any justice in the music industry this guy will make his way to the top. Check out our review of Angeleno here.63

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