Summer of Sam
Sam Sparro is transformed: a new label, a new sound, a new album and a new wardrobe. Ahead of his return to Australia, he speaks to Garrett Bithell about revolutionising his outlook, and the break-up that made it happen.
When I first met Sam Sparro at a photo shoot in 2009, he was the epitome of geek chic: a technicolour vomit of colour, print and texture. Exaggerated black-framed specs, clashing geometric designs, bedazzled customised leather and fingerless gloves, idiosyncratic pendants – there were elements of rave, punk and grunge, as well as a penchant for oversized tanks. It was a mish mash, to say the least.
Fast-forward three years, and the Sparro 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 countenance of a modern-day flaneur. He’s also sporting a cheeky 70s-porn-star moustache, which gives the whole aesthetic a slightly perverse air – as though he’s wearing chaps under his vintage Commes des Garcon.
“The moustache seems to be controversial,” the 29 year old tells SX. “Some people really don’t like it – it’s getting hate mail on the internet. Get a life!
“It’s a little bit wrong, but I’m going to commit to this look for the next year and then grow my hair out and look like a hippy. Some blog writer called me Tom of Finland, which is a terrible thing to say! It’s a lot to live up to!”
Sparro has clearly also been hitting the gym – the stocky frame has gone, and in its place is a lithe, muscular specimen. “I started exercising!” he quips. “Now I can wear sample sizes so I get to borrow a lot more chic clothing!”
The video clip for Sparro’s new single ‘The Shallow End’, the first track to be lifted off his forthcoming album Return To Paradise on new label EMI, is a Rock Hudson-esque home movie fantasy. The song itself fuses late-70s/early-80s grooves with an impressive juggernaut of instrumentals, including a transcendent saxophone solo from Chicago house musician Steve Graeber. It’s a breath of fresh air on the pop landscape with its soulful, raw, almost lo-fi production.
“Pop music now has become so slick and polished,” Sparro says. “Every vocal is tuned to within an inch of its life, and that’s not soul music. Soul singers hit bung notes all the time!
“That song is a love letter to LA – a defensive love letter! It’s a piss-take, or a play on the perception that LA is this shallow, vacuous no-man’s land.”
Sparro’s transformation extends way beyond the clothes on his back, which is why it’s taken over four years to get his sophomore album together.
“After coming off the first record and the success of ‘Black and Gold’, I really wanted to just take a minute and think about what I wanted to do, rather than do what I was being told to do, or expected to do.
“I don’t think I’ve told anybody this yet, but I went through a bit of an angry patch. I was just really frustrated – I’d been deserted by some management and label people, and I was sick of this feeling of constantly having to prove myself. Whether or not it was real or imagined, it was very real for me and I lost the joy of making music. I definitely rediscovered that joy by taking a long time to think.”
Indeed, where much of Sparro’s earlier output is defined by him looking outwards for meaning or answers, Return to Paradise is squarely introspective and viscerally personal. “That’s a really good observation, because that’s been another part of this creative process,” he says. “Really turning my attention back towards myself – discovering who I really am. You can say so many things that sound trite and silly, like ‘realising all the answers are inside of me’!
“I was always looking for external things to quench my desires and make me feel better and answer my questions and make me feel happy and secure, but if you don’t have any of those things to begin with, you’re not going to find them elsewhere.”
But the catalyst for Sparro’s existential crisis was the breakdown of his long-term relationship with Adrian Gilliland two years ago. “It was my first broken heart, the end of my first relationship,” he admits. “For both us – I mean I’m not going to speak for him – but it was totally devastating and confusing. I wrote a lot about it on this album, but you said ‘catalyst’, and that’s a good word, because it really was a catalyst for lot of self-reevaluation, a lot of writing, a lot of thinking, a lot of therapy!”
Sparro is returning to Sydney next month to close the Mardi Gras Party. As he freely admits, the prospect is terrifying him. “The homosexuals are so critical,” he laughs. “Gay men are so critical of other gay men. They let their women get away with anything, but with any sort of gay male artist, it’s like ‘who does she think she is?’! We’re can be such self-loathing bitches!”
He will perform a selection of his own songs, plus a “special top secret tribute cover number”.
“But I’m not going to tell you what song it is, so don’t try it!”
For the record, my guess is Whitney.
Sam Sparro will close the Mardi Gras Party, Entertainment Quarter on March 3. He will also play the Oxford Art Factory on March 9. Return to Paradise is scheduled for released in May through EMI. For more information, head to www.samsparro.com.