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Sam Outlaw interview

The singer-songwriter reveals all about his new album Tenderheart.

Sam Outlaw
Credit: Joseph Llanes

South California-based singer-songwriter Sam Outlaw releases his new album Tenderheart today.

The follow-up to his award-winning debut Angeleno, Tenderheart is a collection of heartfelt and honest songs with storytelling at their heart. Sam recently previewed songs from the record at Oslo in Hackney and the new material went down a storm with the audience.

I caught up with Sam in London to discuss the new record, find out what he’s learned since the release of Angeleno, and to talk about the meaning behind Tenderheart’s title.

Your new album is called Tenderheart. Why did you decide to call it that?

It’s the title of one of the songs. Instead of making it ‘Tender Heart’ as two words, I’ve made it Tenderheart one word. I think that what happened was the day we recorded that song, the engineer and co-producer Martin Pradler, texted me and it just said ‘Tenderheart is the stuff man’, which was his way of saying like I’m digging this tune and he spelled as one word. I just thought that was really cool and kind of catchy, and a little weird and also just grammatically incorrect (laughs) but I feel like it kind of somehow makes it pop a little bit.

From that moment on it kind of stood out to me and I said I think that’s going to be the name of the record. When we finished the track, I really liked how it turned out and it also in some ways it’s kind of the least country song on the whole record; it’s just a rock song really, maybe more specifically a soft rock song. I think it’s nice to have a song like that and called Tenderheart to kind of combat the word ‘Outlaw’. I think there’s been a lot of misconceptions initially that people think they are going to get straight ahead honky tonk or something because of the name. I liked that that maybe the Tenderheart title could help further confuse people or just make them maybe curious – ‘what’s with this Outlaw thing but he has this record called tender heart?’ Who knows if that instinct is right or not. I loved the way the song turned out and I love the way Martin spelled it.

The artwork for Tenderheart is colourful compared to the last record Angeleno. It’s not what you’d really expect from a country record. Was it a conscious decision, like with the album title, to do something completely different?

Yes. The guy who designed the artwork. His name is Andrea Calabresi and he lives out in Italy. The photographer Joseph Llanes who shot it is a friend of mine and a lot of stuff that he does as more pop or even rock. All I knew for the album art this time around is I wanted to do something distinctly modern. I did the photo shoot with Joseph and said, ‘are you sure you’re cool with doing the studio thing with a studio background?’ and I was like ‘yes, I’ve done every other thing. I’ve done the stuff that feels more throwback’. That was maybe six seven years ago when my aesthetic was more vintagey.

Once you get through all that, I think you start looking for your own identity. My only instructions to Andrea were to send hims some examples of my favorite album are like Beck’s Sea Change or that Fiona (Apple) record that’s just her face. Almost all of the stuff I liked was simple but also like you said kind of bright and colourful, and most importantly it should be modern. I just said keep it modern. I don’t want anything retro or throwback or any of that nonsense. Let’s make something that’s our own. We went through about 100 different mocks of the record cover. When I saw that one I just said, ‘it feels kind of right’. It also felt just not like every other album cover I’ve seen over the last four years. I think I love it.

Sam Outlaw

Credit: Joseph Llanes

It feels like it would be a great vinyl cover…

Oh it looks so good on vinyl. I just got the vinyl in the other day and it looks amazing. What I like about it is I feel like the image also kind of pops even when it’s like a small little graphic on your computer. That’s how most people are scrolling through stuff on iTunes or Spotify or Apple Music. You you do hope that the album art will somehow translate even when it’s on that minuscule level. I love the way it turned out.

Let’s talk about the content of the album. Did you write and record with a specific concept in mind?

When I was recording it, I don’t think I had this like overarching theme, where I had some big concepts in mind like a concept record. Once it started coming together, it became clear that all these songs are about matters of the heart. I think that further made the title Tenderheart more appropriate. Some of these songs, like with my debut album Angeleno, I’ve had for a number of years and some of them were more recent. Some were so brand new that I had to finish them yn that moment when we went in to record them.

In some cases I was writing the lyrics up until the day I tracked the vocals. I think the record while not intentionally having a theme, kind of took on its own theme while we were making it. It really has to do with like I said matters of the heart, in all of its different forms.

The song I’m always drawn to on the record is Bottomless Mimosas. What’s the story behind that one?

It’s a fun song. It’s kind of serious but kind of weird. It’s my way of poking fun at L.A. brunch culture. You get a restaurant every two feet. It’s poking fun at that but also I’ve been there so I’m poking fun at myself. You go out on Friday or a Saturday night and hit it a little too hard and so. The next day you go in hungover and you’re trying to sort out what you did the night before. You’re trying to buck the hangover by having some champagne with your orange juice. The lyrics are also meant to question that lifestyle, not judging it because I’ve partaken in that as much as anybody else I guess. It’s not meant to be self-serious but it does ask the question ‘why are we doing this? What’s the goal here?’ If it’s just maintenance for trying to have a good time then that’s ok.

California is unlike any other place in the world and you have pretty much everything on your doorstep. As a songwriter who is very observational, how much has living there impacted on your music?

I think there’s only one song on the record that the whole song is about an experience of my own. The rest of the songs combines my own experiences with what some of my friends or people I know have gone through and then other parts of the story is completely made up. I love people watching and I’m obsessed with like true crime stories. I think we’re all fascinated by reality. I was watching Planet Earth II the other day and you just can’t believe that these natural dramas are unfolding all around us. We have no idea of these universes within our own universe. I’m definitely fascinated by reality and I observe, I see things and sometimes every once in a while I can find some way to get that into a song. Hopefully in a way that’s catchy and interesting and you know not total bore.

What would you say you learned between the release of Angeleno and making Tenderheart?

When I made Angeleno I wasn’t even a full time musician so I’ve been singing my butt off and playing my butt off for the last two years. I think I’ve learned a lot about trying to find my own voice. I think I’ve become a better singer. I think I’ve become a better songwriter. Basically once you decide on a profession and then you fully merge yourself in that you obviously evolve and develop because you’re working at it day in and day out.

This time around I chose to produce it myself, so that obviously means I must have had some sort of sense of direction, more than I had before. I think just simple progress. I don’t really consider myself a singer or a guitar player but I do those things every day. I really consider myself a songwriter. It felt good to get in the studio and to feel a little more confidence. Maybe swagger is the right word about my own ability to see a song through from beginning to end and to bring in the right players. I mostly used my road band but I was also there directing their steps and relying on Martin when I didn’t know what to do, to help me figure it out.

Did you find it hard to be objective having so much control over the process?

No. I feel honestly pretty objective about myself. The reviews and the stuff written about Angeleno was mostly really positive but the couple times there were some criticisms – I always connected with the criticisms more because I’d probably already thought of that myself. I’m pretty critical of my own shit. I feel like I’m good at being honest with myself about the stuff that I can do and the stuff I can’t do well. I try to be clear about that in the studio. I’m not going to be taking the guitar solos because I suck at playing guitar.

I can play rhythm acoustic pretty good and I can play that in the way so that people feel like they’re connecting with me. They still feel like they’re hearing me play and sing songs with other things surrounding it. Even though I don’t know anything about the nuts and bolts of engineering, I can tell if something sounds good or not. If we would try one mic on the vocals versus another mic, I can tell which one I like better. It might take Martin knowing which different mics to bring out but then I can usually have an instinct like probably most people would.

One of the most famous producers of all time George Martin, The Beatles dude, he has a book called All You Need Is Ears. His basic premise is that we all have instincts about when art is working and when it’s not but that doesn’t mean that experience doesn’t help. It was great to have Martin there to guide the ship but it was also totally collaborative. I don’t think at any point did we really feel stuck.

Sam Outlaw

Credit: Joseph Llanes

Are you the kind of artist that likes to try out new material on an audience before you record it?

Oh yeah. Absolutely.

How much does that feedback matter?

It’s not so much the feedback that helps me. It’s just me getting better at it. There are several songs on Tenderheart that I had never played in front of someone. Now that we’re playing a little bit, I’m already making tweaks to little things. I’ve been finding how stuff that works in the studio is great for the studio recorded version of the song but then feels awkward live. I’ve noticed that live it’s really is nice to have my harmony singer Molly (Jenson) just sing more. If you try to do that level of harmonies and that level of close singing for a recorded version of the song, it can come off as heavy handed and distracting.

I’m discovering the difference between what works in a studio environment when recording for record versus what works in front of other people in an actual real life live setting. I like to play out the songs live because I just figure out the arrangement a little better and you just get better at singing the song. You get that muscle memory vocally. When I went in to track some of the songs on this record that I started playing and the ones I already played a lot, the vocal takes went quicker because I had my thing down.

The ones I hadn’t played, I was so frustrated with myself because you just don’t have that muscle memory of where to go. It’s not so much the feedback from the audience that helps me, it’s just getting better at the song.

Country audiences more than any other genre seem to appreciate hearing new material whereas in other genres they just want to hear the hits…

Well that’s the thing, I don’t have any hits. I think I’ve got songs that could be hits, maybe in a different time or place, but that’s the double-edged sword of being a songwriter or a singer whose career is based on even a handful of hit songs. If you were someone who had four big radio hits between 1995 and 2000. Those kinds of people can go hit the road and still probably draw thousands of people to the show but you gotta know that they know that their audience is waiting for those four songs. I think that would be kind of a bummer.

There must be some songs that you know the audience wants to hear when they come to see you?

Oh totally. I also know, as least I believe, that the most important thing is that I like what I’m doing. If I’m bored, nobody else is really going to be taken. Let’s say you’re Eagles and you’ve got your hits. I just recently rewatched that documentary, which is an awesome history of the Eagles. It talks about Randy Meisner, the original bass player, and the first big hit that he wrote which is Take It To The Limit. There are some really high notes at the end and eventually he got insecure about singing it. Glenn Frey is then interviewed and he’s like, ‘we just told him what do you mean? You have to do that song. They’re expecting it. They’re here to hear these songs so you have to do it. Do you think I want to sing Peaceful Easy Feeling every night? I don’t but I go out there and I do it’.

Now I can see that argument as maybe holding a little more water when you’re playing for like 50,000 people but for me, my shows are still club and theatre shows where people can really tell if I’m into it or not. That really translates in that setting. The quality of your show is based more on me bringing the vibe than on me playing hit songs. I can see what Glenn Frey is saying when you’re a band who has massive hits and you’re playing to just huge audiences but for me, I know people will be bummed if I do a show and don’t do the song Ghost Town from Angeleno because right away that was just one of the favourite songs. I know that people want to hear that one but I also think the most important thing is that I’m not bored. I think that once I start doing the shows and I’m just going through the motions, that’s kind of the beginning of the end.

Do you have anything else planned this year besides touring and promoting Tenderheart?

The North American tour is April through June. I’ll be home a little bit in June and then there’s a full European Tour in July. I’ll come back and then probably record my next album in August and then back out touring forever. And then do it again and do it again forever and ever until I wise up and choose a different career (laughs). Maybe I’ll try to make another kid at some point. I’ve got a 10 month old baby and it’s been the most fun awesome thing ever. I know my wife at some point wants to expand the family.

I’m really interested in film and TV so I’ve always had this thought that at some point I could dabble in some. I don’t know if would be writing or directing but something maybe in that realm. For now I’m focused on trying to just be a better songwriter everyday, a better singer and just be good at what I do so that people don’t feel like they’re wasting their money to buy records or come see me.

I am very judgmental about myself, I’m definitely my harshest critic and that doesn’t mean that I’m negative to myself but I just try to be honest with myself. I have high expectations for people in my band and for people on my team. It’s never because I expect them to be better than me. I’m just putting the same expectations on all of us. It’s going to be a good year.

Sam Outlaw’s new album Tenderheart is available now via Six Shooter Records. Watch the video for Everyone’s Looking For Home below:

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