March saw the return of Sam Outlaw to these shores. Hot off the release of Popular Mechanics, an 80s pop infused country record, Sam has been wowing audiences up and down the country with his new songs and beloved hits.
Sam was kind enough to spare some time on a gloriously sunny day off in Oxford to chat with me about his album, his new direction and more!
You’re finally back in the UK. It’s been about three years since you were last here. How has it been so far?
We’ve done four out of the nine shows. I have amazing musicians in my band, we have a lovely driver, and we’ve had like Californian weather so I think this is about as much as you could really ask for in terms of getting back in the saddle of touring and especially getting to play the UK again. We’ve had a nice week.
This isn’t just your first UK tour in so many years, it’s also your first tour in general. What was it like to finally get back out there? Excitement? Nerves? Both?
Both. Definitely both. Probably more excitement because I said to myself, ‘things will probably not go perfectly’. I mean, as always on tour, things don’t go ultimately smoothly so I surrendered myself to ‘whatever happens, happens and let’s hope that we have at least a few people remember that I exist’. And we’ve had totally wonderful crowds every night. We’ve had people singing along to the old songs as well as the new songs which always feels nice when anybody checks out your new music. It’s been really exciting and also kinda emotional. The wait has been so long that I think myself, the musicians and the audiences feel the strange sense of ‘wow, we get to do this again’. Maybe we took it for granted before and now we don’t.
Speaking of new music, your new album, Popular Mechanics, has a different sound from your previous releases. There’s the familiar country elements but you’ve also embraced 80s pop to create a new sound for yourself. How did you feel putting this new direction out there for the world to hear? Were you nervous or, again, was it more that whole feeling of whatever happens, happens?
It’s both. I think everybody wants to be liked. No matter how much you tell yourself that you’re motivated by making art and music that interests you, you still want to be liked – or, at the very least, you don’t want to be disliked. And country fans, they’ve often got a lot of requirements for what country should sound like and what Americana should be and all these strings attached. I knew I would be alienating a fair percentage of the people that got on board when I made Angeleno in 2015. That was a very different sounding record. So, yeah, I was nervous but I was also like ‘oh well’. I don’t want people to come to my shows because they’re country fans. I want people to come to my shows because they’re Sam Outlaw fans. That might sound like an egotistical statement but I mean, truly, I’m not doing this because I want to follow the rules of a genre. I’m doing this because I want to be myself – I want to explore that, the music that I really love. And the music that I love is so much more than just country music. Growing up, I was exposed to all genres of music and I loved all of them. Popular Mechanics is me getting to show off some of the more diverse sides of my musical influences.
Ahead of the tour, you released a few new tracks that will be on the extended and physical release of the album. One of them is a cover of Enya’s ‘Wild Child’ which I love, not just because it sounds great but also because it’s so unexpected. Why did you choose that song in particular?
I like to do things that are unexpected because it keeps me interested. If I was making pop hits on pop-country radio then you’re more limited to just doing whatever you did the last time that made all the money. It’s because of my incredible lack of success that I have the freedom to do whatever I want.
My producer and I were going to go into the studio in Nashville and we were going to track with a live band. We had two original songs that we wanted to do and we were like ‘we could probably do three’ during the time we had allotted. So they’re like ‘maybe we do a cover’. My producer and myself are big Enya fans so, at the same moment, I think we both thought Enya but my brain immediately was like ‘no, her songs are really kinda complex and challenging’ and they’re so distinctly specific to her voice that I didn’t think that I’d be able to do it. But then he verbalized it, he was like ‘you should do an Enya song’. I explained to him what I just explained to you, that I couldn’t do it then he said ‘well, maybe’. We started talking about some of our favorite songs of hers and ‘Wild Child’ went to the top of the list. I listened through and I said ‘yeah, this is closer to a standard pop song than her other stuff’. I brought in my friend Molly Parden to sing it with me and we made it a duet of sorts. And I think her lending her beautiful voice, beautiful melodies and harmonies, it’s not just a country dude covering Enya. It’s all elevated by Molly’s performance. I’m really proud of it and, again, I pretty much want to be unexpected. I’d rather be a failure than boring.
I was going to ask you about Molly, actually. She’s someone that you’ve toured and performed with before. Was this an excuse to finally get to record with her? Or, like you said, was it because you felt like it would be missing that special touch without her?
Both. I wanted to bring in a female vocalist and I’ll take any excuse to get to record with Molly Parden. She has such a special voice and she’s one of my best friends. It’s crazy, I’ve toured with her so much, and I’ve probably had her on tour more than any other person so the fact that we’d never recorded together seemed stupid. It was a way to correct that.
Popular Mechanics came out almost five years after Tenderheart (2017). Obviously there was a pandemic happening for a good part of that but did the sort of time you took ultimately lead to this new direction for you?
It did. I started making my third full length record in early 2018 and I didn’t shelve it necessarily, but I just took a pause and stepped back. I was like ‘okay, I feel like on some of these tracks I’m playing it safe, and on some of these tracks I’m getting more into the sound that I think I want to explore’. The time gave me more chances to question my own goals, you know? It was a luxury that I was afforded that extra time to explore. It also gave me more time to learn to make the sounds and to do the kind of production that I was aiming for. I’d only barely just gotten good at doing country music *laughs*. Then I’d decided to do this other thing, and it takes a lot of time. And some of the 80s pop music that we were influenced by and we were trying to rip off and copy, it takes time to make that music because oftentimes you’re programming things, or you’re experimenting a lot
Do you look back at your older stuff now and have that temptation to mix them up that little bit?
That’s a temptation for any musician, and that there’s a self-delusion that you can improve it. And maybe to you [the musician] that would be an improvement but to the people who those songs have become meaningful to, I don’t think there’s a lot of improvement that can be made. I’d rather let the songs that I have released in the past be the artifacts that they are with all their sweetness and imperfections, and I’ll reserve my ability to explore new sounds on the new songs. I have no plans to go back and do a BritPop version of ‘Ghost Town’ or an electro version of ‘Angeleno’ – although that does sound fun now that I’ve verbalized it! I think it’s cool to let those songs be what they are. And to the folks that heard clips of the new songs and were like ‘this isn’t country music, this isn’t for me’, I love that response. I think that’s great. If you want a certain genre then those old recordings are always there waiting for you.
Shortly after releasing Tenderheart, you moved from LA to Nashville. Was that a creative decision or simply a personal one?
It was a logistical move. My wife and I had found out we were having our second baby and we were tired of being crammed into a small two bedroom apartment in LA. We wanted to own a home, we wanted our own space, it had more to do with a quality of life thing. Nashville hasn’t really done a single thing for my career before or now. I’m not part of the Nashville scene. Perhaps I’d be more successful if I try to be more in the scene but I’ve never cared and I just can’t force myself to pretend I care.
The one thing that moving to Nashville really helped with, was that it introduced me to my producer Cheyenne Medders. I wrote and recorded a duet with Sarah Darling. As I was going through her music on Spotify, I found some of her songs that really stood out and said ‘hey, who produced this stuff?’ She said ‘Cheyenne Medders and he’ll be playing in my band at the Grand Ole Opry when we do our song together’ so I knew he was going to be there and I was looking forward to meeting him. After we performed our first set, we were in the dressing room and I heard someone talking to my wife about Enya and my head swiveled around like ‘what? Somebody else loves Enya?’ So I met Cheyenne at the Grand Ole Opry and said ‘hey, I would love to talk with you about this record’. He came over and I shared some demos and next thing I know he was making working tracks of my songs and getting the ball rolling. I thought it was so cool that somebody took the acoustic demos that I sent him and without – not that he’d have to ask – asking permission, just started building something,
Cheyenne helped me land the plane from the 2018 sessions that I wanted to keep and finish; he also helped me take some of the songs from 2018 and rework them for the new aesthetic; and he also helped me take all the new songs that I had written and produce and record them. He had a really big and complex job with the record and I’m just amazed at the way that it turned out.
Thinking ahead to the next single or the next record…do you know how you want it to sound yet? Or do you think you’ll only know when you sit down and get to work on it?
I can promise you that I will keep people guessing. I’m not trying to intentionally build in a sense of whiplash to my releases where it’s like: ‘Country! Pop! This! That!’ I’m not doing it to try and amaze people with my variety or anything. I don’t know if I’ll make another full length record. I actually really like the format of releasing one single at a time with artwork that goes with that single. Making a full length record is a very archaic format that obviously dates back to a time when there was this thing called physical product. And while there still is, I did just make a CD version and we have vinyl about to come out, the vast majority of music listeners today are going on their favorite digital service provider and streaming. That’s cool with me and, in terms of making music, I write one song at a time. I don’t like being forced to have like twenty songs written together so you can go to a studio and cut them. With Angeleno, I had a plan, it was a record. But since then, I’ve just been writing singles. I like that opportunity to just write a song, record it and while you’re still excited about it, release it. I love the idea of just releasing singles and, again, if that hurts my commercial prospects then nothing’s changed. I’ve never really made money doing music and probably never will.
Final question and let’s circle back to your music tastes. We know you’re a big Enya fan but what other artists could we find on your playlist? Who are you listening to right now?
I’ve been listening to a lot of electronic music and these are usually European artists. As far as pop stuff, Ella Mai and, man, I’m obsessed with her; and I’m still obsessed with Kendrick Lamar. I listen to my friends. I listen to Molly Parden recordings as I find them to be totally tremendous. Ruthie Collins, who I’m touring with, she’s an example to me of someone who’s doing pop-country in a really interesting way. They’re pop songs but they’ve got big hooks and they’ve got interesting emotions behind the lyrics – it’s not just a stupid list of things or a dumbed down version of some bro culture nightmare. But, to be honest, I don’t actively listen to my colleagues. That said, the second I say that, probably my favorite record of 2021 was the Aaron Lee Tasjan record (Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!), the last one he put out which every song is just so freaking good. So yeah, I’d say Aaron Lee Tasjan’s record blew my mind; anything Ella Mai puts out; and whenever we are blessed with any little creative nuggets from Kendrick Lamar, that definitely gets my juices flowing.