Sam Sparro has just turned 30, and the talented singer-songwriter is in a great place. With a new album in the pipeline he sat down with Garrett Bithell.
Kicking back with Sam Sparro in the boardroom of EMI’s Sydney offices, we’re laughing about a recent interview he did with GQ. In line with the fashion focus of the magazine, accompanying the Q&A on the GQ website is a pie-chart breakdown of ‘the Sam Sparro look’: 20% precision side-parting, 10% eternal movember, 5% welded-on sunnies, 25% fluoro outfits, and 40% 80s disco cowboy. It’s this last piece of the pie Sam and I can’t abide.
“80s disco cowboy?! What is that?” Sam exclaims. “Fluoro outfits? That’s like 2008 Sam. Then by 2009 I was going through a phase of only wearing black and white. I don’t know about this 80s disco cowboy. That is really weird! 40%? Maybe 2%. I don’t think I’ve ever been disco cowboy! Who’s a disco cowboy?”
“The Village People?” I offer.
“The Village People!” Sam laughs through his disgust.
When I first met Sam at a photo shoot in 2009, he was – as he says – going through his black-and-white phase. There were residual elements of his fluoro, technicolour-vomit phase, but I remember his exaggerated black-framed specs, clashing black-and-white geometric designs, bedazzled customised leather and fingerless gloves, idiosyncratic pendants, and a penchant for oversized tanks.
Fast-forward three years, and the Sam of today is more closely aligned stylistically to a 1940s Old Hollywood pin-up – everything is tailored and sophisticated. The look is Gatsby-meets-Blade Runner, giving Sparro the visage of a modern-day flâneur. He’s still sporting a cheeky 70s-porn-star moustache, which gives the whole aesthetic a vaguely perverse air – as though he’s wearing chaps under his vintage Commes des Garcon.
Sam, who is now based in LA, is in Australia this week for a brief tour.
His last album, Return to Paradise, which dropped back in May, was a breath of fresh air on the pop music landscape. Fusing late-70s, early-80s grooves with an impressive juggernaut of instrumentals – including a transcendent sax solo from Chicago house musician Steve Graeber on lead single ‘The Shallow End’ – it is buttressed by soulful, raw, almost lo-fi production. At a time when sonic homogeneity often rules, Sam’s abandonment of slick polish was a welcome reprieve from the opiate of the masses, otherwise known as Autotune.
Sam has just released Re-Return to Paradise, a special digital only repackage of the album featuring seven bonus tracks of his favourite remixes, including the Stereogamous (Paul Mac and Jonnie Seymour) remix of ‘I Wish I Never Met You’, the Plastic Plates remix of ‘Shades of Grey’, and Mike Simonetti’s take on ‘Hearts Like Us’.
Beyond working with Brooklyn-based nu-disco and R&B trio Jessica 6 on their new album, Sam has also been in the studio working on his own new material, and we can expect another release in the new year. “It’s much more produced actually,” Sam says. “With Return to Paradise I definitely wanted to make an album that was about everything being live and loose and less polished and more nostalgic – but this one I wanted to get back into programming again. I had a real itch for beat programming, almost like when I made [second single] ‘Black and Gold’ and programmed all those drums, and layered those distorted percussive sounds to create that drumbeat, which I think is really unique. I got so much satisfaction out of doing that. I’m taking a slice out of the Janet Jackson/Jam & Lewis book of rhythm for the Control album and Rhythm Nation, and maybe a slice of Björk’s Homogenic album, and a slice out of 90s R&B. I love pie!”
Sam recently turned 30, but he insists he’s so far avoided the existential crisis. “I think the older I get, the more relaxed I get,” he muses. “I’m in a good place, I’m happy. My 20s were very tumultuous. A friend of mine said the 20s are for learning and the 30s are earning, and I think that could be true.”
Indeed, where much of Sam’s earlier output is defined by him looking outwards for meaning or answers, his recent material is squarely introspective and viscerally personal. But he will always be a pop philosopher – something that dates back even to ‘Black and Gold’. While many thought he was talking to a lover, he was actually talking to higher power: the universe, a god, a force, whatever you want it to be.
“I think when I do a best-of compilation, I’ll call it ‘Existential Pop’,” Sam laughs. “A consistent thread throughout my work is this philosophical, existential, spiritual tone. There is a belief in a higher power. I’m always referring to planets and moons and stars – I think of the world as big expansive realms. I’m always talking about quantum physics!”
Re-Return to Paradise is out now through iTunes.