Nashville Americana/Soul/Blues artist Sam Lewis has been garnering plenty of praise for his third LP entitled Loversity, which was released on May 4th via his own label, Loversity Records. He made the move from Knoxville to Nashville in 2009 and immersed himself in the local scene, recording his first LP and traveling from Nashville to NY by train to tour his music, even spending a month of his tour in England. He's collaborated with everyone from Leon Russell to The Wood Brothers and was asked in 2015 to open for Chris Stapleton's Traveler-release show. Lewis toured with Stapleton for the remainder of the summer of 2015, with Stapleton referring to him as "a modern Townes Van Zandt", exposing Lewis to a wider audience and broadening his exposure. Loversity is the closest that Lewis says he will probably ever come to writing a concept album, in response to current events. Although the world is divided now more then ever based on differences, he is hopeful that his latest collection of songs can be a reminder that diversity and unity can co-exist. Emily May recently spoke with Lewis by phone, in which he talked about the new album, the lessons he's learned from the artists he's performed and collaborated with and what's next for him. You can stay up-to-date with Lewis and all upcoming tour information on his website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You can stream his music on Spotify and SoundCloud. You can purchase his music from his website, Amazon Music, and Apple Music. Check out the video below for Loversity!
How are you today?
I'm doing good...a little groggy today. I saw Paul Simon last night and decided it would be a great idea to drink until 1AM, in his honor, as if he would really appreciate something like that (laughs).
He might (laughs)! I'm sure it was a great concert!
It was great!
You've been playing music in Nashville since 2009 and have released 2 prior LPs. How has your musical journey been over the years?
A piece of cake! It's been easy. Everyday I wake up and it just gets easier and easier. The industry changes every day, so that's always fun. The experts are only right for like a second and then they're wrong. Ummm...I think the hardest thing has been to just make the music that I want to make and listen to, you know? There are a lot of people who can bend your ear and fill you with ideas and things that they think you should or should not be doing be doing. Fortunately, I've had different people in my ear encouraging me to make music that I want to listen to, and I think that has made things easier and harder, if that makes any sense. I'm proud of what I've done. It's not the best music in the world, but I believe it and am able to perform it without any kind of reservation. Unfortunately it's a little too, at times, left of center, at least for Nashville. Nashville's intentionally small minded, and I say that very lightly because it is an industry that's more of a business than an art form. At least it's become that way. Their ultimate job is to get you inside the smallest box as possible, and if you are unable to help them with that or unable to fit inside something like that then they just don't waste their time. I find that a lot of artists battle with that until they finally just move away.
That's a shame!
Yeah, well it's just, you know...that's good and bad, I guess. That's putting a lot of pressure on one city to define you. I think as an artist that one needs to remain in charge and remind people that “without me there's no music and actually, I tell you what's up”. Unfortunately, you don't have enough people really trying to make that the case, at least in Nashville. That's why a lot of people just find themselves beating their head against the wall. And I hear this a lot from people who relocate here from LA and NY. We've had a massive influx of people, at least as long as I've been here. Every time I go out and I meet someone, the odds are high that I'm going to meet someone who's moved here from one of those two places and they're like “what the fuck is the deal with this place” (laughs). I'm like, for one thing it's the South and we're a little slower, and two we can only handle so much culture at a time, so please be patient (laughs).
You're latest album Loversity was released last month. What can you tell me about the inspiration behind the album? I saw it referred to as kind-of your breakout moment. What do you think it was about this album that made it different from your other albums?
Ummm...I don't know. I mean, that's just something to say to get people's attention I guess. It's my third record and usually that's around the time that an artist is either going to break out or they should probably look at getting another job (laughs). I'm hopeful that one of those is the case but I'm probably still going to need some type of part time job because music doesn't sell the way it used to sell. I think the biggest thing is that I've progressed a little as far as my sound. I picked up an electric guitar and wrote some new songs, a lot of which happen to be fairly topical with kind-of where I find society right now and our leadership. That kind-of just naturally came to me and half of the album was written before Trump even campaigned in 2016, so it was very weird where my head was at and what also came after that.
Your songs ended up fitting into what happened after they were written, in a sense?
Yeah, I think there's some people that can...and I don't claim to be one...I was just channeling something. I'm not really going to talk much more about my songs because they are what they are. I was just tapped into something, as were many people. There are a lot of great records right now that have similar things, but I'm just not one to attack. It's more of an invitation to help me actually better understand what it is my role should be. Loversity is a term...to me it means love without boundaries...not without rules but without boundaries. I believe that we are all on one line and are either running towards something or away from something. There's a lot that can be done while waiting in that line, and that's my question to my audience-what more can I give you other than Instagram posts and social marketing? Like something substantial, something with sustenance. What is it that I need, because I have a microphone and a stage and you don't, so I need to be held accountable for that. Knowledge is responsibility and so on and so forth, but I think it's really being accepted by the industry as much as it can be, just for the progressiveness of the sound. It's a really great band and a big record-there are 14 tracks. It's probably the closest thing to a concept album that I will ever make. That was all unintentional, but once I wrote Loversity all of these songs kind-of fell underneath that umbrella. It just made sense to kind-of get behind that one idea and push it forward.
I read that you led a pretty transient life as a kid, attending 20 different schools. How do you think your experience growing up influenced your music as an adult?
It definitely prepared me to travel without hesitation. I sometimes prefer to be on the road meeting new people just from the conditioning. As far as creation, it's definitely let me know that none of us are really that different from one another. Every place has the same problems, or at least very similar issues and things that affect everybody as a whole. I went to India in November and have never seen anything like that before. I was not prepared for what I saw and experienced, but I'm glad I did and that I have that experience. You come back home and it really puts things in perspective for you and you realize that you live in a country that is basically the youngest child in a family, and if it doesn't get it's way watch out. Everywhere else is just basically where all of our residue goes. I think that type of conditioning and then traveling and playing music and meeting people just makes everything that much smaller and I feel a connection to almost everyone I meet or come into contact with. That's a lot of interaction and in order for me to create I really have to have silence and stillness. When the tank is full, it has to empty out and I need to empty it out in private. So yeah, it definitely seeps into the music and again, with the whole Loversity record...these are just my observations and collections and my reporting to you, to make sure you are seeing what I'm seeing. That's really what's going on. Like, if I have this confused with something else then let me know, but more importantly, what more can I do other than just write some songs and do this shit, ya know (laughs).
You produced Loversity yourself and released it on your label Loversity Records. What prompted you to start your own label and when did you start it?
Loversity Records was made...it's an LLC company that I was kind-of forced to create. I was getting very little interest from labels that we were...the proverbial we that includes my management...we were pitching a lot of these songs and the album to a few different labels and they just really weren't biting. That's common, though. It's hard right now to get that kind of company behind something like that. With the way music is made now and the way it's delivered and the way it's shopped, most labels want you to basically make the record, package it up, get it sealed and then work some kind of distribution deal with you. That was not what I wanted. I wanted to work with a family entity, a company...whatever the hell you wanna call it. I wanted to work with a label that wanted to work with me right out of the gate and go “here's the body of songs, demo versions or whatever, and we're gonna get them somewhere but you're just going to have to trust me.” And whether these people trusted me or not I don't really know, but I just know that's the new platform for where we're at right now with records. They want you to do all the work, finance all the work and then work out some kind-of distribution on the back end. That's just not what I wanted. So once I figured out that this wasn't going to be what I wanted, then I went and privately raised some money and started my own company and paid for it myself and own it outright. And that's where we're at.
Do you think you'll release music from any other artists or was this just for you?
It's really for anything. You know, it's not like a stake in the ground and I'm gonna build a brick and mortar label or anything like that. I don't even have a website for Loversity Records. It was just basically something that my lawyers said that I should put under it's own umbrella, which is very common procedure, so I did (laughs). It's there and it's not going anywhere. If something happens with this record and it takes off and it pays for itself, which is my biggest hope, that it pays for itself (laughs)...if it does that and then some and I have the ability to help another artist other than myself then absolutely. I'd love to make it a home for people that want label accountability right out of the gate, which is something that I think every artist needs. That's what we're not really seeing right now, we're not really seeing a lot of artist development even anymore. The artist is now the entrepreneur and unfortunately they are spending more time on how to market themselves versus how to write a good song.
That kind of leads into my next question! You place a great emphasis on songwriting. What do you think goes into writing a good song?
Writing a whole lot of songs that suck! It's like anything. You can almost get good at anything if you do it enough. I believe anyone can write a song...I really do. Is it going to be a good song? Probably not, ya know, but they're easy to write. Now, structure-wise anyways, I mean it's something that can easily be taught and learned. To write a really good song that takes you somewhere or explains something to you, and not just in an abstract way...anything that's perceived as simple is really hard to do. I write really simple songs and most of them are really, really hard to write. They might not be great, but they're really hard to write because you're breaking something down. One of the hardest things that I've had to do with this entire release was when American Songwriter wanted a feature. They wanted me to explain each song in about two sentences and it was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do (laughs). I was like “you want me to paraphrase a paraphrase?” because that's all songs are. I mean, it starts there and ends there and I think a lot of time should be spent in that, if that's what you claim to be or if you're recording your own songs. You should definitely make them as great as you can. I mean, you have people like Ray Charles who could write songs, but when he couldn't he would find the best songs he could possibly find. Willie Nelson did the same thing, and still does the same thing. If he can't write them, he knows how to find them and they find him and they are great songs. That's the whole thing that I get really fired up about, is just that there a lot of great songs out there. You just have to find them. People have learned now, over the past couple of decades, that most, if not all, of the money is getting that way. It's all in the publishing, so artists are encouraged to write and record their own music. I think we're learning that maybe not all artists should be writing and recording their own music. A lot of people would not really want to hear that or admit that, but I think that's the truth. I think that's why it's a bit stagnant right now, because everyone's making sure they're making as much as they possibly can make.
What led to your decision to include the songs “Accidental Harmony” and “Natural Disaster” on your album, as those are the only two songs you didn't write.
“Natural Disaster” has haunted me for a really long time. It's a Loudon Wainwright song and I discovered that song when I was living in Knoxville, I think in 2006. It's a great song, a brilliant song and the version I fell in love with is an acoustic version from his live record from, I think, 1976. It just stuck with me for a long time and then I started picking up the electric guitar and kind-of rediscovered that song in a different kind of way, through electricity, I guess. I presented it to the recording band when we first started tracking the record and said “Hey, let's just jam on this for a minute”. That was actually the first thing we cut. It was originally a 12 minute jam that we scaled back, but it unintentionally got recorded. Once we recorded it and I got to live with it for a little while, I thought man, that's a really, really different approach to this song but that's the way I hear it and the way I feel it and kept it because it was a really fun memory. It's just a great song that I felt fit really well under the Loversity umbrella of the album and it was something a little different and a bit more avant garde then your typical verse-chorus-verse-chorus. It's more of a poem. “Accidental Harmony” was written by John Mann. He's one of the first guys I met when I moved to Nashville in 2009 at an open mic night. I really fell in love with his songs and how he writes. I didn't go to many more open mics after that. I just prefer to hang out with people like that and learn a little bit of how to write a good song. He wrote that for his first born as a lullaby and it's a lot slower and little bit more like a lullaby...his version is. I just think it's a beautiful concept, that one day maybe we can all live in some type of harmony, even if it's by accident. I just thought that the record cried for something that was very simplistic and beautiful and innocent, so it definitely made its way into the studio and we took it to where we got it. I think it fits nicely there.
You've performed with a lot of great artists over the years, such as Kacey Musgraves, John Prine and Chris Stapleton. What do you feel that you have learned from the artists you've worked with and are there any artists going forward that you'd love to work with that you haven't yet?
Oh, yeah! Always. I've learned to strive to be as humble as I possibly can, because all of the people you just named are pretty much the same people they were before. They were probably discovered or found out and that's really impressive to remain that humble and real, and not just one the surface. Really good stuff comes out of that and you want your music and your art to be born out of something that's real and true, and you can hear it and feel it. Yeah, just professionalism and how to perform and continue to engage an audience. The Stapleton stuff started...I mean, I was with them when they just had one bus that pulled a trailer. They weren't selling out the theaters that they were playing in and then things just switched gears immediately and within months they were in amphitheaters and now they are in arenas. I got to learn pretty quickly how to try to entertain a few thousand people with just an acoustic guitar for 30-45 minutes, so that way the venue can sell more beer (laughs) . I was like “Hey guys, I gotta tap out. I need to bring a band”. They were like “Sure! We can't believe you've been doing this for this long. Play with a band” (laughs). So yeah, I think it helped me and I think being a supporting artist helps me and other artists really learn how to share, how to properly share. We remember and we know when we're taken good care of as an opener and, if all goes well, I'm going to have openers one day and I wanna be invested in them and make sure that they're not just being taken care of, but that they're at the right show. There is a lot of really strange, incorrect billing that drives me mad, when you don't understand why someone is supporting this one show and how it's just become a joke like “There's an opener. Well cool. We'll be there a little later then”. It's like, what's the point you know? It's so unfair. It's definitely taught me to be about as appreciative as I possibly can be and to make the best of it, but also take notes and all of that stuff. I've picked up a lot of fans from being a “happy accident” as a lot of these people will call it. “We didn't know there was an opener! We usually don't come and see the opener, but you surprised us”. That's one of the best things you can possibly hear. If I was headlining that show, that's what I would want to hear about the opener. It's an important position. It's something that requires attention and a lot of thought to properly bill your artists supporting someone and not just going after whatever is available. You can talk to my team about that shit. I wear them out about it (laughs).
What's next for you? What do you have coming up?
Ummm...just a lot of summer dates. I'm doing a lot of solo stuff this summer...more solo stuff then I'd like to, given that I just made basically a rock and roll album. I'm doing some solo supporting dates with Donovan Frankenreiter and JD McPherson starting next month. I just finished a big Northeast run from here to Boston and back, including Philly and Richmond, VA and NY. Next week I'm playing St Louis. I'm just playing these 250 seater rooms and hoping that people come out. The summertime is a really tough time to be playing indoors, with a lot of the festivals.
Do you have any festival dates coming up?
Not as many as I had hoped to have but there's a couple. There's one in Chicago that I'm looking forward to. It's their annual...they call it like an Americana 4th of July thing and it's at Fitzgerald's, which is one of my favorite places to play so I'm looking forward to that. That's next Friday, June 29th. I'm also doing a festival in Memphis called Mempho Fest in October, which I'm really excited about! I've never played in Memphis before, which is really odd because it's just down the road. I'm really looking forward to playing that festival. Beck will be playing at that festival and I'm really excited to get to see him. I'm probably going to try to get back overseas again in the new year. This is the first year that I've not toured any of England or Europe in, I think, 5 years. It feels really strange to have not gone over there. I might be going up to Canada, hopefully before it gets cold (laughs). I just plan to tour this record for as long as I possibly can. We're all thinking about the next project, which is really difficult to do since we just birthed this record and I'd like to enjoy the fruits of those efforts before we slip into another pair of jeans, you know?
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me!
The pleasure was all mine Emily! Thank you for asking great questions.