The past five years have been nothing short of a rollercoaster for Aussie singer songwriter Sam Sparro. He was catapulted into the pop spotlight in 2008 via his international smash ‘Black And Gold’, subsequently had to deal with the sudden onset of fame, suffered the breakdown of a relationship, then rediscovered his ‘Happiness’ and grew a moustache. That’s obviously a severely abridged version.
With his new album ‘Return To Paradise’ in-store today, we chat to the affable star, who tells us that he’s learned a lot, both personally and professionally, since he first seduced us with those honeyed vocals and movie star looks five years ago.
“It was quite overwhelming for me at the time,” he admits. “I’d always imagined great success for myself and my life – or I’d hoped for it – but that was so sudden and really caught me by surprise. I always imagined my career would be much more of a slow and steady build. I was always going to be making music, but that was like a total shock to my system.”
It would only be natural to get caught up in the hype, particularly when you’ve been signed to the prestigious Polydor Records and your breakout single is an international top ten smash. However, Sam tells us that despite all the early attention and industry accolades, his perceptions of fame have changed immensely in recent years.
“I think fame is totally an illusion and I think my priorities have really become a lot clearer in the last couple of years,” he tells us. “For me, I’ve really resigned myself to being an artist and to keep as much focus as I can on the work and to constantly make work that I’m really proud of. Just staying really grounded. I think it’s really important to know who your true friends are, have them around and not get caught up in the façade of it all.”
Sam’s new album ‘Return To Paradise’ comes a full four years after the release of his eponymously-titled debut, but despite the seemingly insatiable appetite of his fans, he was in no hurry for it to finally see the light of day.
“I did feel a lot of pressure initially,” he admits. “I think that’s why I really took my time. I’ve never been one to buckle under pressure or give in to it, so I really stubbornly took my time making this record. There were things I felt were really rushed with the first album, so I really wanted to be completely satisfied with ‘Return To Paradise’ and know that I’d done everything exactly the way that I’d wanted to do it.
“I love to take risks. I love to follow my own instincts and listen to that artistic voice in my head that I feel is guiding my inspirations and decisions as opposed to just doing what other people expect me to do or want me to do.”
Sam’s certainly not afraid to take risks. His cover of Estelle’s ‘American Boy’ on BBC Radio 1’s ‘Live Lounge’ while at the height of his fame was bold, inspired and incredibly brave. He was rebelling against the pre-conceived notions of what it was to be a pop star.
“I think I’ve definitely tried to please other people in the past,” he says. “But it was ultimately never very satisfying and it never seems to be quite the right move. Anything I’ve done that I didn’t feel comfortable doing that I did for someone else’s sake…” he pauses, choosing his words carefully. “Well, I’ve always thought I should have listened to myself.”
Sam came bounding back onto the music scene earlier this year via a new single called ‘Happiness’. It was a funky disco/soul number that the singer had penned in an effort to drag himself out of a low point in his personal life.
“Content-wise, I was going through a rough patch of depression and heartbreak and going through a really bad break-up and I was writing about that. But then I rediscovered the music that I’d grown up listening to that I really loved,” he tells us. “The funk and soul music of the ‘70s and ‘80s. I loved it so much that I wanted to make music like it. That was inspired by it. That was sentimental and romantic and earnest.”
That was soulful too, we add.
“Yes. Soul is something I feel has really been missing from pop music for a while. It’s gone a bit feral,” he says. We couldn’t agree more.
If the audial was inspired by the ’70s and ’80s, the visual was inspired by a different era altogether – the black and white film noir stylings of the 1940s.
“I think I was growing up and feeling more like an adult and wanting to be more elegant and refined,” he tells us. “I was really inspired by Busby Berkeley for some reason, who choreographed and directed things like ’42nd Street’, and that period. I just became really infatuated with art deco and film noir and also the men of that period and the way that they were so distinguished. They were gentlemen, but they were also sort of macho and cold in a way. Totally desirable.”
After rediscovering his ‘Happiness’, Sam followed up with a track that apparently saw him rediscovering his middle finger – the rather frank ‘I Wish I Never Met You’.
“Well I thought I was writing that song for somebody else at the time,” he admits. “I was working with a Swedish singer/songwriter called Erik Hassle. We wrote that song together. He’s very talented – I love his voice and his style. A really smart kid and a great musician.
“I thought I was writing this for his album and he said, ‘you know what? This is your beef. You need to sing this song’. I’d come up with the chorus idea, because I was feeling really angry at the time – obviously – and it ended up being my song with my feelings. It’s definitely the harshest song on the album.”
‘Return To Paradise’ is filled with good vibes, splashes of soul, funk and disco, all emanating from a love for the music of the five year period between 1978 and 1983 – a time musically that, as previously mentioned, Sam has found himself rather inspired by.
“A lot of it has to do with the sounds that we used and the resins that were being used,” he tells us. “I love disco from that era and the late disco period, then when it started to become more electronic and more synthesizers were being used and more drum machines. Particularly the funk of that early ‘80s period. I love Prince’s early work from that era. I love Chaka Khan from that period. ‘Ain’t Nobody’ is my favourite song of all time. So you just have a lot of great music in that five year period that I really love for some reason. Earth Wind & Fire, Chic, early Prince, Chaka Khan.”
Chaka Khan, of course, is a gay icon. It’s a term that might also be used to describe Sam, who’s been refreshingly open about his sexuality throughout his career. We wondered if he felt any sort of responsibility to the gay community due to his high profile.
“I feel a responsibility to be a voice of reason in the gay community,” he says. “I sometimes feel really disconnected from this gay identity that I feel is being shoved down our throats. We are a big, wide community full of individuals. We’re not all the same. We’re all totally unique. We don’t have the same spiritual beliefs, we don’t have the same sexual practises.
“We all want the same thing – we all want to be respected and loved and be treated as equals, but we’re a lot more interesting and diverse and complex than people are allowing us to be. And I think if I can be part of a movement that allows us to be as complex as we are, then that’s interesting to me.”
Sam performed at this year’s Sydney Gay And Lesbian Mardi Gras party, along with headline shows in Sydney and Melbourne, and tells us he “can’t wait to come back” to play more live dates in Australia after the European summer, where he’s booked for various shows and festival appearances.
But back to that new album. Sam has gone on the record as saying of ‘Return To Paradise’ that he thinks “it’s good” and that he “worked really really hard” and “sang a lot of songs” (check the rather cheeky ‘Return To Paradise’ EPK HERE to see what we’re alluding to).
But in closing, given there’s obviously so much to like about about the new LP, we ask him to name his favourite thing about it.
“There’s not a single song on it that I don’t love. Which I can’t say for the first album, unfortunately,” he says, honestly. “This one is a much better situation for me. I feel much more comfortable and more able to spread my wings as an artist and follow my own vision, which is really important for me.
“So it’s a complete package of work that I’m really really proud of. It’s the most cathartic work that I’ve ever done. It’s just really honest and clear what I’ve done with this record, so regardless what happens with it, I’m really proud of it.”
Sam’s album ‘Return To Paradise’ is released digitally and physically today.
The singles ‘Happiness’ and ‘I Wish I Never Met You’ are available digitally now.