An incredible, classic photo-story with a man who makes incredible, classic pop music: SAM SPARRO returns with his second album and, in conversation with Seb Law, unpicks the meaning of the music we call pop. Taken from Notion Magazine Issue 58.
Pop music, it’s the elixir of musical life: the random combination of elements that make a perfect pop song remain frustratingly elusive. Its meaning and its incalculable formula are the Holy Grail for a team of Cowell-fronted monkeys, but it doesn’t take more money (or smugness) than God to make a great pop song. It just takes someone with a passion for music who can take pop’s elemental parts and rearrange them with a fresh twist. Enter Sam Sparro.
Not far shy of being a household name, Sparro’s 2008 single ‘Black & Gold’ was – and indeed is – a pop masterpiece, rising from out of nowhere (literally: he was working at a café in LA, trying like so many other wannabes to make it and slaving for tips in the meantime) to conquer the global pop charts. The rest of the record spawned a couple more singles and a series of brilliantly-composed album tracks that sadly remain ‘firm fan favourites’. Since then, Sam has been collabing with everyone from Mark Ronson to Cathy Dennis, working on new material and picking a careful path back towards the pop mêlée.
And what a path to pick. Sam has gone back to the roots of contemporary pop music (disco, of course) for his sophomore record ‘Return to Paradise’, resurrecting the sounds, instrumentation and song treatments that characterise an era. It’s one to file alongside those other whiteboy funk boys Jamie Lidell, Mayer Hawthorne and (less en vogue, but very much similar) Jamiroquai. But why go down this route? Just what is it about disco and its influences that retains such an enduring and enticing lure to pop musicians and producers?
Coincidentally, I speak to Sam the day after disco legend Donna Summer dies. “I think she’s been a lot more influential than a lot of younger people realise,” he tells me, straight off the bat. “Donna changed things forever, and songs wouldn’t be played on the radio like they are now without her.” Post-Summer (and of course Gibb), there has been a lot of chatter about disco and its influence, and especially its recent rediscovery by a younger generation of artists as a musical touchpoint. Sam explains: “It seems like a much more innocent time, even though it was so hedonistic in a lot of ways. There was a purity about that hedonism; it was about discovery, it was about fighting for freedom and exploring new cultural melting pots and I think dance music and popular culture nowadays has gotten really far away from that sentiment. I think it’s gotten really narcissistic and cold. People ask me what kind of music I make, and I always say pop music, but it’s kind of a cop out really.”
The era’s feel is absolutely clear on the record, especially its latter half: ‘The Shallow End’ channels Marvin Gaye’s ‘Got To Give it Up’ right down to the background chatter; both ‘Closer’ and ‘We Could Fly’ play with almost-cheesy Charlie Angel’s-esque soaring strings. It’s these tracks that Sam feel the most comfortable on – they have a joyous, celebratory atmosphere that tallies precisely with the sentiments of disco, and this album as a post-breakup record. “What I was going through when I made this album was heartbreak, depression, confusion and a whole bunch of other things that I was trying to remedy with music.” It seems disco’s inextricable intertwinement with gay self-discovery is as inextricable as Sam’s own history from music.
“I feel like working in NYC with Mark Ronson [on musical side-project Chauffeur] was the pivotal point when I realised I wanted to make a more soulful album using more live instruments,” Sam explains. Of course, Ronson’s omnipotent influence is undeniable, but for Sam there’s something fundamental about this music that appeals. “It was the joy of recording live music and how great the music of the ’78-’85 era makes me feel that I wanted to recreate, and so I decided to put aside any notion of chasing a commercial pop sound that I didn’t feel any love for.”
Thing is, Sam can afford to take a more impulsive approach this time about. After a contentious deal with Island for his first album, he signed with EMI who gave him carte blanche to create a follow-up entirely in his own vision. “My first experience with a record label was not a good one. I was very sceptical going into another deal, but it sounded so good that I felt much happier. Everything I’m doing now I just delivered to the label, pretty much finished.”
This creative control is always refreshing for any artist, and it’s a testament to Sam that he successfully channelled his personal life through the disco glitterball into such a cohesive and focused record. The freedom enabled to him by EMI also allowed Sam to play with his image, moving from the cleaner-cut look of the ‘Black & Gold’ era to something smoother, swarthier and reminiscent of a 1930s movie star. But how did that work with the undeniably different musical themes? “I don’t know yet!”, Sam laughs, “for me it was all about nostalgic confusion – I kind of jumbled up the nostalgia to bring it into the now.”
Refreshingly for a pop star, Sam takes a proper interest in visuals, especially fashion; not just an ‘oooh it’s shiny and expensive’ kinda way, he’s got serious lust from proper, intellectual fashion and knows his Gaultier from his Lanvin. A regular on the Paris Fashion Week FROW, Sam tries to delve into the other side of LA’s fashion scene and that where we shot the images across these pages. “I used to go into Joey [Grana, owner of the boutique Scout LA, where we sourced the pieces]’s shop because it was about the only place that stocked Henrik Vibskov, which I was really into at the time.” Vibskov, the rebellious and slightly obscure Danish fashion designer, is not a commonplace reference when interviewing global popstars. It makes me smile genuinely; it’s always brilliant to hear an unexpected reference, and he continues. “I have this Gaultier leather cape from 1990 which is one of my favourite pieces, and a silk Issey Miyake jumpsuit too, which I really really love.”
We chat more about our worryingly similar shopping habits “I love a bargain!” he says, as we reminisce about sale shopping. “I go to weird discount places, vintage designer places and I’ll shop really carefully then at some point go ‘Oh fuck it!’ and splurge!” I realise that what I like about Sam, what we like about Sam as a magazine, isn’t just that we share musical taste and fashion opinions, but he seems like someone who has a real ‘London’ approach to creativity. He borrows widely and melds everything together his way, wrapping it in brilliant pop music.
‘Return to Paradise’ isn’t a record that was designed to push Sam to the heights of the pop charts, but that’s not why he’s made it; he’s just happy to have the music out there. It’s a genuine record that he’s made because he likes it. “I’m just going to continue to make music for the rest of my life, regardless of whether it sells or not,” he tells me, “I’m an artist and that’s a commitment that means not always doing what’s popular.”
Words: Seb Law
Photography: Justin Elliot Lacher
Stylist: Michelle Tomaszewski @ The Magnet Agency
Produced by Meghan Gallagher @ Connect the Dots Inc.
Thanks to Joey Grana and Gerard Dislaire
All Clothing from the private collection of Joey Grana from Scout LA www.scoutla.net