Sam Outlaw Interview: We chat touring, being away from family and more with the California-raised artist
Over the last few years Sam Outlaw has become a frequent and welcome visitor to the UK, building a reputation as a hard working musician with a great live show. His “SoCal” style of country music with a Southern California vibe and certain pop influences has found a ready audience, while his lyrics sometimes need repeated listens to appreciate the range of wry humour, sadness and often gentle realism within.
The success of, and acclaim for, his albums “Angelino” and “Tenderheart” have led to a busy touring schedule both at home and abroad – something that’s good for his career but can be challenging on a personal level. For his current European tour Sam has packed in 28 shows in 31 days, across 6 countries. Manchester, where we met up, was show number 24. A month away from home and family, separated by thousands of miles and several time zones, is the flip side of the lifestyle that is the domain of the working musician. While his wife was able to join him briefly in Sweden, Sam won’t have hugged his young children for over a month by the time he returns Nashville. That’s a hard thing to contemplate, and to commit to. It’s not all about the thrill of the stage and the roar of the crowd, as rewarding and exciting as that all might be.
At the place on the scale where Sam Outlaw operates, it’s very much “hands-on” and “back to basics”. He travels light, by necessity. There’s no grand tour bus to carry everything and everyone. There’s no Personal Assistant attending to his every need. There’s no major label support to underwrite all the expenses. If he needs something while he’s on the road, he’s got to find the time to go out and get it himself – and pay out of his own pocket too. So it was when I met up with Sam, as you’ll see from our conversation below…
Sam, we’re talking while walking through the busy streets of Manchester…
We’re on a quest for socks and underwear, this is going to be your weirdest interview!
(Laughing) Speaking of busy, you’ve had a busy 18 months
I feel always busy! But yeah, we’ve been creating babies, moving to new cities, buying new homes, becoming adults, and trying to reconcile that with me being a touring musician which just seems like a hilarious thing to try. But yeah man, we’ve been busy, and also it’s been good.
So your move to Nashville was in a large part for your family, is that right?
It really was, yeah. I wish that I could say it was, like, for the music industry but it really wasn’t. It was just because we found out we were having a second kid, and I couldn’t afford to stay in L.A. It’s expensive to live there and, you know, we wanted a home. The family is growing, we didn’t want to be in some small apartment, and so we found kind of our dream home in East Nashville. By some miracle we were actually able to buy it, and we really love it. I think it was a good decision.
Is it feeling like home now?
No. Well, ok. The town doesn’t feel like home, but wherever my wife and kids are is home, right?So, no, it doesn’t really feel like…. But even in L.A. it never quite felt like home . Southern California maybe feels like home. But I don’t need that. I don’t need to be somewhere that feels like home, I don’t think. I don’t know that I ever will. It’s something that we all pine for but I don’t know that it’s really a reality.
Do you still get back to California regularly?
I do. I made 2 records there last year. I started on my record and I’m not done with it yet. I think it’s going to turn into a totally different record. I’ve started doing some work for my Dad’s company as well, because he has a really cool company out in San Diego and he wanted some marketing help and I knew how to do it. So it gives me a chance to spend with him, and kinda flex a different muscle when I’m not on the road. So yeah, I’m still there regularly. Thank God. The weather is still a lot better!
How has moving to Nashville affected, or impacted, your creative process?
It puts so many more talented people right at your fingertips, you know? So, I’m currently on the hunt for who I think would be a good producer to help me figure out how to do these new rock songs I’ve been writing. There’s just such an immense amount of talent. World class studios for much more reasonable prices. I think it’s just all right there. And the trick is, like, being home when you’re home and not always feeling like you’re working. It’s like you go out to a bar, I don’t want to “network”, you know what I mean? I just want to have a drink. So, I think, it’s just the people. There’s a lot of really cool, talented people there.
Would you say you’re more of a spontaneous person, creatively? Or do you need that order and structure?
Yes, I’m not spontaneous. I mean, I can be spontaneous like, “Hey, let’s buy this thing”. I like to spend money and I like to take trips here and there. But in terms of creating things, making things, I like to have a plan. I like to know what I’m doing in 6 months, in a year, 2 years, and some sort of sense of goals.
You’re known for your “SoCal” brand of country music…
Yep, thanks to me labeling myself with that (laughs)
Well, why not? You make your own brand!
Yes, I self-branded myself! (laughs)
Did you have any concern that moving to Nashville might dilute that at all, or do you think it will enhance it?
I think it’ll enhance it. I mean, frankly, the stuff that I’m leaning towards now is kinda more in line with, like, 80’s pop and 80’s rock and 90’s alt rock. I think, again, it’s like… If you’re any sort of an artist that’s worth anything at all, you’re going to get bored with your own stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that maybe people want to hear a certain thing, and I’m always going to love the songs that I’ve already put out and I’m thankful for those records. But I’m definitely excited to try new things.
But in terms of, like, a regional influence… I don’t know that it’s really regional. I think it’s just people, you know? So I’m gonna have some notion of what music I want to make, and if the people that I’ve got in the room can help me do that then cool. It’s just like L.A., just because you’re in Nashville it doesn’t mean that all those people are from the south. Half of them are from somewhere else, you know?
Speaking of new things…. We were all delighted to see you make your Opry debut earlier this year.
Oh God, yeah. The coolest experience.
Were you able to enjoy it, or were you just caught up in the whole thing?
That’s a good question… I definitely did enjoy it. When you’re performing, it’s a little bit of a blur because it’s only 2 songs. But I knew it was going to be like that, so I kinda prepared myself. I had family in town, and I just took the time to centre myself and enjoy it. I’ve gotten to play 3 more shows there since the debut. And it’s the coolest show, the people are so incredibly kind, and it’s just run really well. So it’s like, for a musician, there’s no better gig than driving 9 minutes from your house to get to play a couple of songs for, like, four thousand people and you somehow get paid to do that.
I saw you last year when you played Manchester with Molly Parden and your band, and Molly was involved in your Hat Acts EP, wasn’t she?
Ah, yes. She was an actor. It was very kind of her to do that. I wrote this weird little script, and she said she was down to do it. I think she was just, like, humouring me, you know? But yeah, we had fun doing that. She’s one of my best friends. When my wife was out here with me while I was in Sweden, she was at the house taking care of the boys. So she’s kinda become like a part of our family, and we just adore her. She’s a real, real good one.
How did the Hat Acts EP come together, as concept? Did you write the songs with that in mind?
No, I wrote the songs completely separately, and then I just had this silly idea. I think It maybe just started with one skit, and then it just kinda popped into my head that this could be a skit for each song, I could weave the story together. So I just wrote them out, and we did it, and I kinda liked it. So, it’s a weird little record but it was really fun to make.
Were you at all concerned about people consuming, if that’s the right word, the EP as a whole, from beginning to end?
You know, I knew that most people would skip over the skits. I figured for the people that listen to them, great. And for the people that just listen to the songs, great. For the people it annoys, great. For the people that love it, great. I’m not at some level where I’m really sweating… Don’t get me wrong, I want to have fans. Of course you want people to like you and follow you, but I also hope that my fans and people that follow me will understand that I kinda like trying different stuff. That’s kind of part of the fun of being, again, an artist is not just doing the same shit every time. So, fortunately I think people kinda got the joke, they got that it was for fun, so I can’t complain.
I read somewhere that the studio is your happy place…
I came across a quote recently from John Lennon, he’d just come off the stage after performing with Elton John at Madison Square Gardens, and he said “I enjoyed it a lot, but I wouldn’t like to do it for a living”.
(Laughs) Yeah, well that’s kind of the feeling! Playing the show is a small little sliver of your day. Even if I was at that multi-million dollar level, I’m in my own bus and blah blah blah, it’s still, you know… So much of the day is not creating. Just for me personally, I really love making stuff. So, I think the studio is special because that’s a place of focus, also of fun. It’s a place of chaos, it’s a place of organisation.
Too often, touring just feels like you’re just kind of thrown to the wolves. And again, at least in my experience, it also means being away from home, away from family. That’s why for the last couple of years I’ve been trying to find a way to balance it a little more. If there’s a way to do that then I’ll keep doing it, and if there’s not a way to do that then I guess I’ll…. My stupid joke is that I can always fall back on male modelling. No, that’s not true.
Do you tend to work with a regular set of people in the studio?
I’m fluid, absolutely. I know I want to work with good musicians, and when people come highly recommended that usually is because they’re good. I kind of like working with different musicians. I think working with the same engineer can be kinda nice, to give some consistency to the workflow.
You’ve been producing your own material for a while now, but I see that you’ve also started producing for other artists too. Michaela Ann’s new album Desert Dove was released last week.
Yes, yes, I think it’s really good, I’m really proud of it. She wanted to do something kinda similar to me, like not a straight-ahead country thing. I think maybe my favourite thing is not even self-producing, but producing other people. I got to be involved in the song-writing process, and in the arrangement process, instrumentation, I got to play on it a little bit, sing on it a little bit. If I can make a living doing that, that’s something I think I could really enjoy.
So I think everybody who worked on that record just did a great job. When I’m self-producing, I find that sometimes I get close. It’s a lot trickier, because you’re so close to the material. I think it helps to have an editor, it helps to have someone else kinda tell you when you’re going too far, tell you when you’re not going far enough, or whatever.
Was Michaela open to your input? Some artists are very possessive about their material and their vision.
She was very open, yeah. But I think she and I also had a similar idea from the get-go of what we wanted to do, which was something that would push her vocally a little more, something that would bring in some more pop elements that we both liked, while also not completely leaving country music in the dust. To me, the record sounds f#cking phenomenal. And that’s not to pat myself on the back, that’s to say that everyone who was involved really knocked it out.
You stepped into your professional music career in your 30’s, which is later than average.
Yeah, it’s late. The normal story is the kid graduates from high school or college, and then he starts to… yeah
Do you consider that to have been an advantage, or a disadvantage?
It’s definitely both. I think the advantage is you’re a little less stupid at that age, but you’re also just older and more tired. So, all the kinda punches that you can take when you’re in your early 20’s, and your mid 20’s and your late 20’s, hurt a lot harder in your middle and late 30’s. Also, again, the family element. If I was single and 25 years old, doing this shit would be a dream come true. You’re just having a blast. Touring is a dream come true, because it’s just kind of a party, and the chaos doesn’t hurt as bad, and there’s no kids at home to miss and for them to miss you. So, it’s a double edged sword.
It’s 3 years since you first played in the UK, when you supported Aaron Watson.
Yeah, that was in January of 2016, so over 3 years now
How have you seen your UK audience develop over that time?
That’s a good question… I feel like… I don’t really know. I think people have a little bit learned what the show is gonna be. Like, they’re coming expecting a really good band, which they should always. Or if it’s an acoustic thing they’re expecting that to be handled very delicately. And I think people are also… I love playing Manchester ‘cos the energy is good. Some of the shows in the UK, the energy level can be a little lower. And when I’ve got a full band and we’re trying to kinda rock, that can be tough. Even as small as the UK is, I can’t even generalise about the UK. Every city that we go to is very different. So, I don’t know how the audience is developing because it’s almost like town-to-town, you know what I mean.
But I will say that everyone continues to show me a lot of love, and embrace the music old and new. As you’ll hear tonight we’re trying out a handful of brand new songs that have never even been released, and people have been really digging those songs. So that’s been a really good sign, kind of given me a new sense of urgency and excitement to try to make a proper record and put that together so that people can have them and sing along.
So, the new material, do you have some tracks already in the can?
I’ve got a lot… Some that I think are done, some I don’t know if they’re 80 or 90 percent done, but the problem is I’m still writing a lot. So I want to make sure the right songs make the record. I feel the fire under my own ass to finish it, but I also know how important it is to not rush. You don’t want to like give people… The record I put together last year, I feel like it ended up… It felt like 2 or 3 records, and I knew that wasn’t going to work. So I had to pause, and say, “What do I want to do?”.
What I want to do is make more of a rock record, you know? Something, again, that doesn’t leave country music in the dust but also is a real evolution. ‘Cos if I’m not interested in what I’m doing, everyone else is gonna be bored, you know. Unless you’re the Eagles and making a scrillion dollars a show…. I don’t have that problem (laughs), so I can still be a little adventurous.
Now, I saw on your social media earlier today about things disappearing from the stage….?
Oh, you know… I just… I think it’s because I’m getting cranky, it’s like 4 weeks into the tour. But yeah, people still steal little things, and they think they’re like… You know, they’ll come to the merch table with the set list which they clearly took from the stage, and in some places had to like get up onto the stage, go up to my stool and take one. And usually with set lists it’s not a big deal, I’ll sign ‘em. I think I just start getting a little tired of it, like, don’t take my bandana’s, don’t take my picks. I need those f#ckin’ things! I bring a certain amount of stuff for the tour, and I don’t have any down time to go shopping , plus you’re taking money out of my pocket. I mean…
The reason I have, like, cheap stuff at the merch table, like an 8 x 10 photo, is because if someone wants a souvenir but they barely have any money, I get that. I don’t want people to be priced out of a souvenir. Take a poster off the wall! I’ll sign that. I’ll do a photo with you. Whatever, I’ll sit there and get punched all night long, but don’t take stuff from the stage. It’s our stuff! It’s not your stuff, it’s our stuff. I think I just said it ‘cos I was finally, like, you know what? And the truth is that most people understand this. Nearly everyone does. But then when you have a night when like more than one thing is taken, you’re like, alright; maybe I’ll just say something.
I think set lists tend to be a thing…
People think you get to just take it. That one is not that big of a deal. I would say ask, maybe. Ask! Just say, “Hey, can I take a set list off the stage?”, and I might say “Sure, but don’t take mine ‘cos I want to be able to use it tomorrow”. But when it’s more than a set list, when it’s actual gear or it’s wardrobe… You know, I don’t want to have to keep re-buying stuff. Plus, it’s kinda gross! Like I’m sweating into this bandana, it’s disgusting! Who wants that?
Talking about your audience, it’s interesting that you’ve noticed that regional variation. Obviously we’re a much smaller territory compared to the States and you maybe wouldn’t have picked those differences up the first time you were over.
Yeah, it really is from town-to-town. We can play a rollicking show in London and Manchester, and then be faced with a really kind of reserved audience in Nottingham, you know? So even within a couple of hours… Because the show is a chemistry between what is happening on stage and what’s happening in the audience, and we’re all playing off each other. So I sometimes come into a show so pumped and excited, but then if the audience is kind of sleepin’ on me, for whatever reason, it’s hard to kind of pull people up hill, you know? So it’s a team effort. And I love it when it all comes together in this magical way, it’s the best. It’s the best. It’s why you keep coming out and getting your ass kicked doing it! Because when you have those moments that are magic, it’s just so cool.