Ahead of his tour of Australia (which is happening right now), we caught up with Los Angeles based country musician Sam Outlaw to find out a little bit more about his debut album Angeleno (a favourite of mine), working with legendary musician and producer Ry Cooder, not to mention finding out his experiences of touring Australia with Justin Townes Earle.
First of, congratulations on the release of Angeleno – I absolutely love that record.
Thanks so much, thank you!
What was the inspiration behind it? Was there a particular song or idea that really kicked it all off?
You know, I knew I wanted the record to capture the Southern California flavour. I had started working on the song “Angeleno” a few months before I went into the studio and I think it was the song that I was the most intentional about; I had this idea about writing about a cowboy in Los Angeles and so I knew I wanted the record to be called Angeleno and kind of based around that song.
So, I guess the inspiration was, you know, was country music, it was Mexican music and culture, it was the singer-songwriter tradition in Southern California, you know like the troubadour greats James Taylor and Crosby, Stills, and Nash and all that. So, I think it was kind of all those things coming together, hopefully trying to make a cohesive record and something that is also a bit of a romantic look at Los Angeles.
Yes, because I was going to say – when you think of country music, you don’t necessarily think of Los Angeles. What’s the scene like there in terms of country music?
It’s interesting because you’ll have nights where you feel like there’s a scene in L.A. for country music and there’s nights where you’re like ‘oh no, nothing’s happening,’ so I think I would say, like anything, when you’re dealing with something as ‘in waves’ kind of fringe culture, it’s a small but certainly mighty bunch.
The folks that I know that do country music in L.A. are really passionate about it. The promoters that put on the shows, the bands that play the shows, the fans that come to the shows – they really love country music. And beyond even being close to the city, or to Hollywood, you’ve got a lot of country music fans in the Valley as well.
Most of those folks are still probably getting fed commercial radio pop country – but that doesn’t mean that they don’t like what I would call ‘good country music’ when they hear it. There’s certainly a huge love for country music in Southern California and there’s a history there, but I’ll admit it’s not the kind of natural, endemic understanding of country music that you find in places like Nashville or Austin, Texas.
So on this record you worked with Ry Cooder, how did that come about?
It was really simple, actually. I was trying to put a plan together for making a record. I figured I’d probably end up having to produce it myself. I knew certain musicians that I wanted to play on it so one of the guys I called to hire was Ry Cooder’s son, Joachim Cooder.
I called Joachim and asked him if he’d like to play drums on the record, he said yes and came over and, with the band, started workshopping songs in my living room in L.A., and I just so happened to be recording the rehearsal on my iPhone and then a few days later Joachim hit me up. He said, ‘Hey, I know you’re still looking for a producer, if it’s okay with you I’d like to send those iPhone demos to Ry.’ And I was kind of flabbergasted, like ‘Why the hell would Ry Cooder want to hear this crap we recorded in my living room?’ but he kind of convinced me: ‘Don’t worry about it, I don’t want to get your hopes up but either way you should send it.’
And then the next thing I knew Ry wants to have breakfast in Los Angeles so we went out and we talked about country music and our favourite songs and songwriters and singers and he said he would very enthusiastically wanted to help me make the record, so the rest, as they say, is history and I still kind of pinch myself when I think about the fact that I got to make a record with this guy.
So what was it like working with him, was he sort of hands-on or hands-off when it comes to producing?
So before we went into the studio to make the record, Ry offered to play guitar in my band for a few shows in Southern California and in Nashville. So I played some live shows, probably 3 or 4 shows, with Ry Cooder playing guitar in my band. So he got familiar with the music, I got closer to him and we just got more familiar with each other.
That really put me at ease. You kind of have to quickly get over the ‘He’s a celebrity playing guitar in my band right now’ kind of thing. If you’re thinking about that, you’re probably not going to be churning out takes in the studio. So before we got to the studio a lot of the potential unease was alleviated because we got to play the songs together. And then, when we got into the studio he was very hands-on.
I mean, someone like that with that big of a name, and kind of renown, you can imagine maybe they would kind of phone-in certain aspects – but he was absolutely on top of every nook and cranny and detail of the record. So it was fascinating to not only get to watch him direct the mariachis, to get to work with him on my vocal takes, to get to watch him go in and overdub a bajo sexto, which was an instrument I hadn’t even heard of until he decided to play it on one of the tracks.
He was very involved and, most of what you hear on the record, maybe 80-90% of what’s on the record is just what happened in those first 3 days of him, and me, and the band just cranking out the songs and basic tracking. So, although we did obviously do plenty of overdub of instruments, a lot of what you hear is just the band grooving together in that room, in those first 72 hours.
And how did you approach the songwriting, were these songs that you’d already had ready to go?
It was all over the place – probably a third of the record is stuff I’d written maybe in the last five years, a third of it was stuff I’d written in the last year, and then a third of it was stuff I was finishing the day we recorded it. Literally like, ‘Okay I guess here’s the song’.
So it was this kind of cool, in some ways, this representation, a little bit even an evolution of my own songwriting, because although I self-released an EP last year, and technically self-released a record in 2013 which really never saw the light of day, for all intents and purposes this is being treated as my baby record and I think for a good cause because I think in a lot of ways it is like this little photo of that music played by those players in that city at that time and I don’t think these songs could have happened in this way anywhere else.
And you mentioned in another interview that you write a lot of songs, or some of them, at least, while you were still working full time doing ad work and that you were walking to meetings and recording little demos on your phone. Has your approach to the writing changed now, you’ve maybe got a little bit more free time to devote to it?
Well actually the irony in this whole damn thing is that, first of all, I was still working full time when I made that record. So we recorded this record almost a year ago. I didn’t quit my job until March of this year, and then I pretty much got thrown on the tour for the last, forever, since then. In many ways I have less time to do songwriting because I’ve been touring. It’s not like we’re in some big bus – this is not a fancy operation. I’m still driving around in a van and living that life, so, in many ways, I have even less time now.
I’m really looking forward to wrapping up this tour I’m doing with Justin Townes Earle – we’re going to do a couple shows in Southern California then we’re going to do the Australia thing obviously but then when I get back from there at least, right now it looks like I might only have a handful of shows in November and I’m like ‘Oh man, finally, I’ll get to maybe sit down and kind of crank out some demos’ and God willing, I’ve got probably two albums worth of new material that I want to put out.
So hopefully I’ll have time to write. My approach is still basically the same, I pretty much wander around life waiting for lightning to strike my brain and then suddenly something pops into my head and I quickly hum it out onto my iPhone then try to remember to go over it a day later. So my approach is basically still just relying on luck…
Well it seems to be working for you.
Well, we’ll see, I mean I’m 32 years old now, I’m certainly going to get only lazier as the days go on, so hopefully I get at least a couple more good records in before I just retire and do something else.
And for you, what makes the perfect country song? What’s the anatomy of a good country song for you?
You know, I think so much of a good country song is in its delivery. I think what made me fall in love with country music early on was the music of George Jones and Emmylou Harris and that both of those singers were renown for their ability to pick good songs. Both George Jones and Emmylou Harris had an ear for what made a good country song and then they also have this crucial element of soul. I think that if you don’t, in a sense, believe what you’re singing or at least be able to express the belief in what you’re singing then even with a song with clever lyrics or a certain melancholy, it will still fall flat.
How many times do we love a song and then we hear someone else try to cover it and we think ‘oh God, why did they even try?’ So, for me though, in some ways the last six years of my life have been crazy. I watched my parent’s marriage end, I watched my mom suddenly pass away, my dad remarried to a stranger, I got divorced form my first wife. Thank God I was introduced to this wonderful woman who is my wife now, so I’ve gone through a lot of almost soap opera ups and downs in the last several years and I think these life experiences, all the joys and sorrows, those are the things that give you the material to write music.
So I could never say what makes the perfect country song because it’s probably never the same thing, but I will say I know it when I hear it, and certainly night after night singing the same songs, you have to be careful that you don’t get too used to your own stuff, because if you’re not interested in what you’re doing on stage then the audience won’t be interested.
So I’ve been looking for ways to even be able to sing a song about my relationship with my ex wife, which is obviously not going to be a happy song. I’m in many ways completely over that relationship and I thank God for that, but you have to find a new way to reconnect with those lyrics so you can deliver it honestly, and that’s a challenge for me.
I guess I’m still really new at this, I still feel like I’m at square zero so I guess I have nothing, really, to teach anybody and really everything to learn. I will say that I’m trying to learn quickly and that, like anybody, I think we certainly can tell what is authentic when we see it or when we hear it.
And what is your take on the state of country music at the moment? It seems to my eyes, at least, there seems to be a bit of a splintering, or a move away from the commercial style of country music.
Yeah, that’s right. Well, I’ve been careful to try to, in some ways, avoid confrontation because it’s almost impossible to answer that question without condemning someone and I really don’t want to do that.
I will say, for me, here’s my take on it: Anything that is not good, I want to believe eventually has an expiration date. So even if there’s money to be made on disposable-sounding or inauthentic music – or, let’s just say crap, shit music – even if there’s money to be made on that, eventually, I feel like that dies out. And eventually, good stuff comes in to view as a reaction to bad stuff being in view. I’m very thankful to kind of have kindred spirits with certain writers in LA and Nashville and Austin – and we all see where this is going.
I think none of us are necessarily holding our breath for our songs to be on mainstream radio in the next year but that doesn’t mean we don’t have maybe a sporting shot of actually reaching some wider audiences. I think a lot of that will happen by people like yourself talking about music that they think is the real deal. A lot of that happens by people going to a show and then talking about it, tweeting about it, instagramming about it.
So, ultimately I think the good stuff will prevail, but, certainly there’s never been a time in any kind of genre of music where there wasn’t shitty music that’s still popular that everyone says ‘why is this shit music popular’ and with good stuff that’s not getting heard.
I think there was some sort of magical time in the 70s where the stuff that was on the radio was also the best music being made, and I don’t know how that happened but it did. I think though, that now, every day I wake up, my job is to try to be a better songwriter, a better singer, a better guitar player, and a better guy. And if I sit back and think about where all this is going too much, not only do I probably end up getting an ego, which is only going to make my art suffer, but it also probably just kind of distracts me, again, from what I should be doing which is trying to be a better a songwriter and forget about the other shit.
So you were last down in Australia earlier this year touring with Justin Townes Earle and how did you enjoy that tour – and it sounds like it’s still kind of going?
I loved it! I really loved it. After a show or two I emailed my manager and said ‘Get me back to Australia, I love this place’ and I’m actually just about to play a show with Justin Townes Earle tonight in Wyoming, so I’m on tour again with Justin Townes Earle now in the United States, but it’s been great being with him again.
I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to an Australian audience than opening for Justin Townes Earle. He’s been playing out there for years, obviously even before then his father was touring out there. So I really lucked out being introduced to Australia by his fans because, as you know, country music is a beloved thing in Australia. People come out so excited, they like that kind of music, they support it, and your radio – the fact that Australian radio even supports it, to me, is fascinating.
So I would say, in many ways, there’s actually a much, much friendlier welcoming committee for, whatever we want to call this – let’s say real roots, Americana country music – there seems to be a better welcoming committee in Australia, even, than what we have in America for Americana. So I really enjoyed it and again, I can’t wait to get back very soon.
And on this tour are you a solo, or are you bringing a band with you?
The Australian shows I’m doing in October, I’m going to have a band with me – kind of quarterbacked by Robert Ellis, who is one of my favourite singer-songwriters, and we’re going to have all these great players.
So it’s basically Robert Ellis, this fiddle player named Josh Hedley – they’re going to be quarterbacking the band for all of my shows there except for the one, which I don’t think we’ve announced yet – we’re going to do a show in Adelaide and that will probably be me, solo, with maybe a fiddle player accompaniment
Well that will be beautiful.
Yeah, so I’m really looking forward to it and I pretty much can’t wait! It’s going to be so fun, just to try out my songs that I’ve already released with this band, I’m going to try some new material with the band, so I think it’ll be really exciting.
Excellent! I guess I better leave it there because I think I’m running out of time, so thanks a lot for talking with us – it was fantastic.
My pleasure – thank you so much, I can’t wait to see y’all soon.
Sam Outlaw Australian Tour October 2015 (Remaining Dates)
Wednesday 21 October 2015
Grace Emily, Adelaide*
232 Waymouth St, Adelaide SA 5000
Tickets $25 (inc. GST & BF) on sale now from MOSHTIX