Interview: Sam Morrow

Since he first came to the UK Sam Morrow has been winning increasing numbers of fans for the quality of his live performances, with our recent review hailing Morrow and his band as “an outstanding live turn. Combining the best elements of the Allman Brothers, Little Feat and Rusty Weir… they manage to channel all that’s good about their predecessors, while still retaining a sound uniquely their own.” Over in the UK for a brief series of dates – and to help promote his third album, ‘Concrete and Mud’ which we felt was deserving of a hefty 9/10 score – Mark Underwood and Barry Warren sat down with Sam for a chat.

How’s the tour going Sam?
Overall the tour’s been great. We did Red Rooster and that was really fun. We landed in the UK and played Red Rooster almost straight away with a drummer we’d never played with before (Ben Gonzalez whose joined them for the UK leg of their European tour). It was a fun set and Red Rooster is a great festival.

In terms of your background, I know you grew up in Houston – the son of a financial planner and a stay-at-home Mom, playing guitar in a Southern Methodist church. What spurred you to move to Los Angeles?
I just reached a point in my life where I was partying too much – way too much – and I just ended up there. I actually went to New York first for six months and I hated it. So LA just seemed like the next thing to do; just kind of the opposite to New York. I moved out there and got my life back on track and that’s where I got more serious about songwriting and music as well, as I think for a few years I was just using being a musician as a reason to not have a real job. Not only did I get serious about songwriting properly in LA but I also found a scene there and one that’s fun to be a part of and watch it grow. There’s a small country and Americana scene there, but it’s cool. 

Is it a more diverse scene in Los Angeles?
Yes, it’s probably a lot like London where you can find your scene if you want to find it – there’s so much different stuff going on, so it’s definitely more diverse – but I would also say there’s plenty of music there I don’t relate to as well. But I travel the country about 7 or 8 months a year so I’m hardly ever there.

And the Bakersfield sound. Has that been an influence?
Yes, there are still bands that respect that sound and there are a couple of songs on my last album that are a nod to that – like ‘Skinny Elvis’ – and while it’s not necessarily what I play I definitely consider it to be a part of me.

What led you to decide to write and record with producer Eric Corne (renowned for working with John Mayall, Joe Walsh, Edgar Winter, C.J. Chenier, Kim Deal (The Pixies), Glen Campbell, Lucinda Williams, Nancy Wilson (Heart), Joe Bonamassa)?
We met in LA and just clicked. He was starting up a label at the time – 40 Below – and he had only one artist on it at the time – KaiL Baxley. And we just sort of vibed and he understood what I was trying to do. He has a passion for developing and finding new artists – and helping them find their sound. We just sort of hit it off. I’ve now put out three records on 40 Below and I’ve learnt a lot from him – and maybe he’s learnt a little bit from me. We just have a good working relationship, where as an engineer and a producer, he knows all the technical terms for stuff and that’s great for helping me translate what I hear in my head into music. He sort of speaks my language. We’re in the process of recording another record too.

Concrete and Mud’ seems more adventurous than the previous two albums and more of a band album – tracks like ‘Paid by the Mile,’ and ‘Quick Fix’ could almost be jam band staples. What led to that change of approach – did you get more involved in the recording?
I definitely got more involved and that’s due to having more of an understanding of the recording process and that’s just from having more experience doing it. So I was able to get down onto pro tools or tape or whatever I hear in my head – and also during the couple of years between ‘There Is No Map’ and ‘Concrete and Mud’ I did a lot more research – just listening to all different kinds of music. My drummer Matt Tecu who’s quite a bit older than me has shown me a lot of different kinds of music. So I went on a kind of musical education, or journey, given the ease with which so much music is accessible nowadays. That’s been both something of a blessing and a curse.

The Spotify playlist that you put together recently, which included the likes of Sir Woman and D’Angelo, will still surprise some people for the diversity of songs on it – even those who relate to the more funky elements of your music.
Yeah, I love funk like that. Dangelo is amazing. There’s a lot to learn from his band – what with Pino Palladino. And Sir Woman – they’re actually friends of mine in Dallas that are doing really cool things like Texas Gentlemen and working out of a studio called Modern Electric. The producer’s name is Jason Bird and he’s doing a lot of cool stuff incorporating country and funk – along with The Band kind of elements, Little Feat, even hip hop. I like melding genres like that – I like not having to work within the constraints of “I’m a country artist, or I’m a rock artist, or I’m a rap artist” whatever. Even within the same song, I like to reflect all those different influences. It keeps it interesting for me – perhaps it’s a selfish thing.

And I understand that it was recorded live?
Yeah, we do as much live as we can, so we had drums, keys, two guitars and bass all live in the studio and then everything else we would just sort of add on later – but there really wasn’t much else. But that’s just I how like to do it – you can get a really tight band together when everyone’s in a studio together and you can tell the difference. We’re doing the same again for the latest record – I can’t imagine doing it any other way now.

I’ve read previously that ‘Concrete and Mud’ is about the fabric of America, and that the Mississippi is a metaphor for what binds very different people together. Do you see the album as building a metaphorical bridge between different musical styles such as country and soul – as well as being a reference to locations such as the West Coast and the American South?
Well, when we recorded ‘Mississippi River’ which was mostly written by Eric Corne, the only constant on the album is my voice so we sort of needed something to tie it together and that was the song ‘Mississippi River’ which also nodded to my previous two records which are maybe a little bit more acoustic and folk, singer-songwritery. And we were also going through a time in America – as we still are – where it seemed that everyone was at each other’s necks. I think it’s not only a reference to the genres melding and all the different things on the record but also just trying to bring together people just like we are in the genres themselves. It was something of an attempt to find a common thread throughout the record.

Whereas the ‘Ephemeral’ album is quite sombre in tone, ‘Concrete and Mud’ feels really well balanced i.e. for every rockier number there’s a more considered, heartfelt song that sits alongside it. Tell us a bit more about the songwriting process. I understand that once you got sober it was pretty much an outpouring – more or less a stream of lyrics – which you then set to music. Is that still a template for you now?
Actually, it’s more or less the opposite now. Then it was kind of lyrics and then music, and now it’s music and then lyrics. And that goes with the kind of music that I’ve started creating where I’m just more focused on guitar riffs and grooves – and I’ll write a guitar riff or come up with a groove and then go with the lyrics after that. Not to say that the lyrics are secondary necessarily, but that’s the process that makes sense for me right now. We just recorded six songs in the studio and there are still two songs that I don’t even have lyrics for yet. I have a vocal melody for them and I know what the vocal will sound like but as far as what I’m going to say I’m still trying to figure that out. That might be unconventional for some but for me it’s just a matter of whatever works. I think everyone has their own process but perhaps my approach isn’t as disciplined as others.

The song ‘Heartbreak Man’ which opens the new album has you singing from the role of a third person – a rambling man who won’t love get in the way of following his dreams. Does writing from the perspective of a different character appeal to you?
Yeah, I think a lot of songs on this record are kind of like that way; I’d just gone through a break up and I was pretty crushed by it and ‘Heartbreak Man’ is just a kind of character that I wish was – this kind of badass – which is totally not who I am. I wanted to create that character and be a bit satirical about me and how I was feeling at the time. And I think ‘Quick Fix’ is a bit satirical too, like I have a very addictive personality – if I find something that I like it’s all I can think about or that’s all I can do, and I think ‘Quick Fix is poking at my vices a little bit. So I think in general the lyrics to ‘Concrete and Mud’ are satirical – making fun of me a little bit.

You’re writing outside of yourself almost?
Exactly, the last two records were more personal and vulnerable – and I think a lot of that too is down to the co-writing on ‘Concrete and Mud’ which I’d never done before and writing with someone else gives you the opportunity to create something that’s not in the room; or at least it was a little easier for me to do that.

Storytelling is still clearly the basis for much of your songwriting.  Is it a case of “the journey that writes the song” as you sing on ‘True North’?
Yes, for me I try and relate as much in the present moment as I can. I’m not perfect at it but it’s important for me to remember all the journeys I’ve taken rather than the destination, because I haven’t got a clue where I’m going.

You seem to be featuring a few interesting covers in your set nowadays. Last week you played ‘Shotgun Willie’ by Willie Nelson, ZZ Top’s ‘Sharp Dressed Man’ and ‘Lonesome Onr’y and Mean’ by Waylon. Can we expect anything different tonight or do you mix up the covers?
With different bands I’ll do different covers. My band will switch around depending on where I am in the world or in the country – but I’ve been playing those songs for a little while now and they fit well in the set.

Although ‘Concrete and Mud’ isn’t a particularly political album, the song ‘Good Ole Days’ doesn’t pull any punches. Was that something you felt you just had to get off your chest?
Yes, obviously it goes with the ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan. What I was trying to get across was that we’re evolving and maybe a lot of stuff back then wasn’t so great. Maybe we need to just try and make America great rather than making it great again – to focus instead on evolving and being progressive about things. Not forgetting our past but living in the now and moving forwards. But it’s hard to convey that in lyrics. Eric helped me with that one – he’s a political science major, so he helped me quite a bit with those lyrics.

I was listening to ‘Hurts Like Hell’ yesterday and it reminded me a bit of ‘Telephone Lovers’ by David Ramirez. I wonder whether your song may have influenced him.
I love David Ramirez. I just saw him perform in LA where he was playing two records each night in different cities. He was great. He’s definitely been an influence on me. For my first album, though, I was listening to a lot of singer-songwriters – more folkie guys like Noah Gunderson, Townes and Justin Townes Earle.

So tell us a bit about the new album.
We’ve already recorded about half of it and aim to finish it when I get back, so hopefully it will be done by August and then we hope to release it towards the back end of January/February 2020.

Is the approach any different from the last one?
I don’t know if the approach is different. I think the influences are slightly different – maybe it’s a little funkier. It resembles the live show a little bit more. The live experience is more rock ‘n’ roll than ‘Concrete and Mud’ and ‘There Is No Map’. I think the new record is more inclined towards the live show. There’s also a song that’s kind of Peter Gabriel-eque, a song that’s kind of Bowiesque and something that’s kind of Pettyesque. I’m just kind of writing whatever comes out of me or while we’re recording. I don’t think the approach has changed; we’re just more focused on what we want it to be. It’s sounding really fucking good so far.

‘Concrete And Mud’ is out now on Forty Below Records

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