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Path Best Travelled: SoCal Country Troubadour Sam Outlaw's Unique Journey

Monday, 30 October 2017 Written by Simon Ramsay

You wouldn’t expect a country artist named Outlaw to follow a conventional trajectory, would you? He’s a former business high-flyer who didn’t become a professional musician until he’d turned 30.

He's a singer-songwriter who, in spite of being inspired by the greats, didn’t fall in love with country until his early 20s. And he resides in Los Angeles, not Nashville. This is the story of Sam Outlaw, a neo-traditional troubadour whose melancholy SoCal sound belies his rebellious moniker.

With touchstones as distinct and varied as George Jones, the Eagles, Mariachi music, Gram Parsons, 1980s soft rockers, Jackson Browne and much more, his 2015 debut album ‘Angeleno’ – produced by the legendary Ry Cooder - received plenty of critical acclaim.

Earlier this year Outlaw released his eagerly anticipated sophomore effort ‘Tenderheart’ and, prior to the songwriter’s current UK tour, we spoke with him about his fascinating story, that sublime new record and why contemporary country music doesn’t float his boat.

After the critical acclaim that greeted ‘Angeleno’, how did you want your style to develop on ‘Tenderheart’?

I always want to try to represent the eclectic mix of musical influences I enjoy. I call myself a country singer, obviously we have a fair influence of honky tonk and country music, but I love lots of other kinds of music too. So I’m happy with the variety of sounds represented on the record.  

It starts with the introspective Everyone’s Looking For Home, which builds to a gorgeous cinematic climax. Why did you begin with that song?

The part that gets to the big, loud, boisterous instrumental is, in some ways, a musical metaphor for the chaotic journey that has been created by me leaving my advertising career to do music and making a huge change in my life that’s often confusing and terrifying, but also fun and exciting.

So that represented where I’m at in terms of a mindset of ‘I’ve taken this first step to try to put myself out there musically and artistically’. But no matter what you do with your work, you’re always pining for some sense of belonging and it will probably never come, but you pine for it anyway.

I love the Mexican influence that works its way into your music. Where does it come from?

Living in LA, it’s such a pervasive part of the landscape and, for me, probably the gateway drug were Linda Ronstadt records from the ‘80s, those kind of Mariachi records she made. I think that gets in your blood a little bit, living in southern California. My dad owns businesses in Mexico so I remember growing up, visiting Tijuana, and getting more exposure to Mexican culture than you would by living in San Diego or LA. It’s a part of my life and I wanted that to come out.   

Your sound is unhurried, spacious and feels like a lovely antidote to a modern world where everything is so fast paced. Do you find comfort in that vintage west coast aesthetic?

Writing and performing music is, to everyone I’d imagine, almost self-inflicted therapy. It’s funny [that] people have decided I’m the mellow country singer because my attitude and stance in life is often exactly what you were saying: hurried, busy and fast-paced. So getting to explore that side of myself is extremely helpful. That said, for all I know the next record will be 12 straight rock ‘n’ roll songs. I haven’t made a decision to permanently go down that path but, on ‘Tenderheart’ especially, those are the tracks that shine.  

On the title track we can hear the influence of Tom Petty.

I didn’t realise this, unless it was subconscious, but I was listening to a song from ‘Into The Great Wide Open’ called For All The Wrong Reasons. That almost sounds like I copied it…but I didn’t.  I think his music is the blueprint of how to do modern rock ‘n’ roll. And the stuff he made with Jeff Lynne…if you look back a lot of people are saying it’s over produced. I’m like ‘what the fuck are you talking about?’.

This guy was making the music he wanted to make, they produced it the way they produced it and it’s fucking awesome. But I’m a huge Petty fan and a huge fan of other ‘80s and ‘90s rockers like Bryan Adams, with a B. So with ‘Tenderheart’ I had a chance to stretch out with some of that soft rock vibe and I really love how that song turned out.

How does Bottomless Mimosas reflect your experiences?

I think it’s me poking fun at a superficial side of LA culture. All these haggard party goers stumbling into the overpriced café in West Hollywood on Saturday morning. But I’ve definitely been that person as well. It’s kind of like a self-critique at the same moment it’s a little poke at the thing I see. I’ve definitely been laughing at the people with their face in their phones and I’ve been the guy with my face in the phone.

Bougainvillea, I Think also sounds very personal.

Yeah, it is and was a story I wanted to write for a long time and knew it was in there somewhere. The heart of the sadness in that song is also about the faded glory of LA, the city herself is a strange place of being beautiful at times but also like a silent film star from the 20s who’s lost her reflection in the mirror. It’s literal and symbolic.

You often talk about the special sadness in LA and how it seeps into the music that comes from there. How would you explain it?

Well, no one knows when they’re living in the golden age of the place they’re living in and you could even argue that golden ageism is an intellectually impossible argument to make in any place. But I think it’s widely regarded that the heyday of Los Angeles was the MGM golden era of film. So the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s. And then in the ‘40s, by then everybody had an automobile, and the city was completely overrun with people, pollution and hare brain urban development tactics.

There’s that sense, maybe, that was the best time to be an Angeleno. I don’t necessarily believe that, but somehow that feeling, to me, is there. I don’t know what it is about LA, it’s a whole bunch of actors serving coffee. There’s a certain kind of desperation in that and some people keep their heads above water and some don’t.

And how would you describe what you’ve termed your ‘So-Cal’ country sound?

I think my style of country music is less like hard edged honky tonk. I don’t think it’s a straight ahead Bakersfield influence, the kind of music that Buck and Merle and a lot of those guys were doing. That was pretty hardcore loud bar music. My recordings don’t represent that. We get a little closer in the live show because that’s just the nature of live music. My recordings are a little softer, maybe shinier.  

Have you been tempted to move to Nashville?

Yeah, we get that temptation semi-annually. As much as California will always be my home and my experiences there will always play into my music, I’m gone so much on tour I don’t feel like I live anywhere. It’s hard for me to feel terribly motivated to move to Nashville on an industry basis because the industry is modern dog shit radio pop-country.

Songs written by a committee of people on Music Row with the sole purpose of getting on radio and having that be the mechanism for moving arenas full of fans for particular artists. That said, with anything where there’s something horrible happening there’s always people on the outside making great, emotionally honest, personal music. But, my God, the Music Row thing is so emotionally bankrupt you have to hope that that can’t last much longer.  

By being separate from Nashville, are you under less pressure to follow that Music Row formula?

I’m separate from it but all my team is in Nashville and I visit a lot. Every time you get there everyone has big ideas for you to co-write with blah blah fucking blah so and so, which I don’t have too much of an interest in. But I don’t feel that pressure. There’s nothing anyone could do to get me to change the kind of music I make for some monetary gain.

I already had a career in which the whole point was making money and got out of it because it was no longer satisfying. So I’m not motivated by money. If I was I could have just stayed in my fucking ad job. I will always try to make the music that I want to perform. You have to do it for yourself, because any motivation to please anyone else, or even to please your bank account, doesn’t work for me.

You’ve said “authentic country” is more a construct than a truth. What did you mean by that?

Everybody getting into this authenticity debate should check out a really good book called Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity. Because by the time there was a medium to record in the teens and the ‘20s, hillbilly music was already hundreds of years old. So this sense of what makes something authentic, to me, is hilarious.

You can take your favourite country singer, Hank Williams or Johnny Paycheck or whoever, and find some way to argue they’re inauthentic. I mean, Johnny Paycheck’s last name was obviously not Paycheck. There’s so much about this authenticity debate that is mostly a huge distraction. The only question is ‘is the art good or is the art not good?’.

I believe your surname has caused a few problems along those lines too?

When we first hired a PR company I found out, even though I never tried to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes, they were sending out stuff like ‘Outlaw’s his real last name’. And I’ve always said ‘Outlaw’s my mother’s maiden name’. My last name is Morgan. I would never lie about that, that’s an absurd thing, to lie about something that’s so easy to figure out.

I’ve seen how quickly the most innocent of intentions of an artist to simply go ‘Hey, I’m Sam. Here are some songs, I hope you like them’ can get turned into this bullshit witch hunt. I saw stuff printed about how I had all this money from advertising, a war chest of money, just hilarious stuff. And you read it and you’re like ‘why didn’t that person just call me to ask me these things? I’m a pretty open book. So the authenticity thing is a bore.

You do have an interesting back story though. What was the road to your current career?

At high school I started playing guitar, writing songs, but when it came time to graduate from college and pick a career I didn’t feel I was at the point where music made sense for me. I was friends with bands in college and saw that lifestyle and said ‘no thanks’. My first job out of college was at a record label, then I worked at a marketing company. I liked music so tried being in the music industry, but that’s pretty much the worst industry on earth.

So eventually I travelled and when I came back took a job doing promotions. A month into that they said ‘we can’t sell promotions so either learn to sell advertising or you don’t have a job’. So I started selling advertising, got quite good at it and had a successful career for about a decade. I started writing songs in the middle of that, but didn’t really play out until ‘09 and definitely didn’t get noticed until I finally played in Nashville in ‘14.

Was there an epiphany that changed your life and led you down this career path?

I don’t know if I could say there was an epiphany. When it dawned on me I was about to make a record with Ry Cooder that seemed like a pretty big deal. I had to take a week off work to track that and then I got booked to do an Australian tour a few months before my album was going to come out in the US. I figured ‘I don’t know if my boss is gonna let me take off another two weeks to go to Australia’. So I put in my notice and said ‘let’s try this’. That was two and a half years ago.

So many people get trapped in situations they don’t want to be in but don’t have the strength to make that kind of change.

It’s incredibly scary, man, and I don’t think I’d have been able to do it if it wasn’t for the support of my wife, the fact she believed in me. Because when she first started dating me I had serious dough and now we’re barely able to move money around on credit cards to survive until the next month. It’s definitely a big lifestyle change so I guess it’s a carpe diem thing but, believe me, the day to day of it is still scary.

It’s not like I’m famous, I haven’t become the next big thing. The Americana community can only handle championing about one person a year and so far that’s not been me. And even once that happens, there’s no guarantee it will last into the next year and the next year and the next. So the art thing is like some kind of interesting boxing match with yourself. I’m thankful I did it, but it’s a daily struggle for sure.

With your experience in the world of advertising and life in general, was it easier to negotiate the music business when you did than it may have been if you’d strived to make it as a naïve kid who could be taken advantage of?  

Yeah. And the songs I was writing in my early 20s were inferior to what I’m doing now. I think I was in a more realised place in my early 30s. The bigger problem is so many people in the music industry are so inept and it’s tough sometimes feeling like people in charge of important things couldn’t do their jobs if their lives depended on it.

It’s funny because I went from having to run a multi-million dollar show and that teaches you how to be efficient, work hard and that there are consequences to a job well done and doing a shitty job. I’m thankful that I’m one of the musicians that came out of a career where I had to learn how to write an email. All those experiences have benefited me greatly.

You’ve had quite a lot of acclaim already. Has that exceeded your expectations?

I would love to humbly say ‘what an honour this thing’s happened’. But the truth is all I think about is the stuff I haven’t got and how slow everything feels. When you’re slugging it out in a fucking van basically selling your songs door to door, city to city, country to country, it feels like a very long and arduous process.

I understand that I’m in the top 0.1% of people that are getting to make a living at it relatively quickly, but when you’re away from your family, and the sacrifices they make for you to do this, all you’re thinking is ‘goddammit, can we just get to a fucking point where I’m not stressed about money and I’m not the guy having to write the email saying we ran out of t-shirts, please send more t-shirts’.

It’s not glamorous but, again, we’re not doing it for that anyway. So if the perception is that then great, I hope everyone looks at me and thinks of me as a huge success and I must just be delighted, but the honest answer is it feels like it’s been a lot of work.

And, finally, with you back in the UK, how have you found playing country music over here?

The UK has been awesome, that’s why we come back regularly. They’re hungry for the music, an incredibly warm, generous audience and getting to be in the UK has always been an incredible experience.  Even when I was doing acoustic duo tours, the audience has been extremely receptive so it’s fun now to have a full band out here and bring the full show.

Sam Outlaw Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Mon October 30 2017 - EDINBURGH Caves
Wed November 01 2017 - LEICESTER Musician
Thu November 02 2017 - LONDON Dingwalls
Fri November 03 2017 - YORK Pocklington Arts Centre

Click here to compare & buy Sam Outlaw Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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