Singer-Songwriter Sam Sparro Still Soars, His Music Still Shimmers

It’s possible this sentiment is exclusive to me, but it feels like forever since I got down to a romantic dance ballad that I was head-over-heels happy about. But a catchy tune like “Black & Gold,” with a campy video to match, off of 30-year-old Sam Sparro’s eponymous debut album, is sort of what I’m referring to. 2008 welcomed this Aussie-born, L.A.-raised singer-songwriter to the stage with the record’s release—though he was no stranger to the limelight. Indeed, Sparro got his start as a youngster, singing in the choir and appearing in fast food ads, among other things. The way I see it, this sweet diva was born to be a star.

2012 witnessed his reemergence on music store shelves (oh, who am I kidding—iTunes and Spotify) with Return to Paradise, a sonically upbeat but lyrically somber collection of new originals and remixes. In fact, though the pop disc dropped months ago the globe-over, just yesterday it came out in the states. Unlike his previous outpouring—which was an isolated electronic event comprising Sparro, a producer, and a computer—his sophomore effort hears him break out in a big way with multi-instrumental, layered, and enormous-sounding songs. As he says with a hint of sophisticated cheek, “I like to imagine I make dance music you can think to."

The natural born belter was in New York last week, performing an intimate set at Soho House on Thursday, followed by a headlining gig at Webster Hall Friday. I caught up with Sparro backstage during sound check, interviewing him whilst percussion reverberated throughout the East 11th Street venue. If the talented man weren’t already a riot to talk to, he sported a do-rag and baseball cap, “to flatten my hair so it’s really flat,” he reasoned, so a smile was never far from my face. We discussed a host of things, from his adolescent airs to having his heart broken, from discovering his sexuality, to the eclectic individuals who make up his planet-plodding crew.

Read on for more from one of the most down-to-earth entertainers I’ve ever had the pleasure of sitting down with. Then keep an ear out, as he’s poised to punctuate 2013 with still more new numbers.

Congratulations on the record at long last releasing in America.
I’m excited it’s finally out. It was pushed back and pushed back and pushed back. Elsewhere, this album’s been out for six months already and I finished it over a year ago. We’ve just been dealing with a lot of red tape. My label, EMI, was sold to Universal, and that sort of affected the release in the states. The business at the moment is a bunch of ups and downs. Like it always was…

So, in what ways do you feel like Return to Paradise is a departure from the previous album?
I think there are similarities between them. But, I definitely feel like it’s a more grown-up album—a more introspective record. The first album is very much me and a producer in a small studio on a computer, and this one is a lot of musicians playing in different studios around the world making live music. So, it was a very different process. And a really fun one. A fantasy of mine was to record horns and strings and piano and bass. A lot of the music I grew up listening to was that.

Speaking of growing up, you were raised in a musical family…
When I was a kid my father was a gospel musician. He was signed to a Christian label and toured with his Christian rock band. He actually wrote a lot of songs that people sing in churches still today. We used to travel with him a lot and I would sing backing vocals and in choir at church. That was my childhood. I think you can still hear that influence in my music.

Oh for sure. Minus the Christian message…
I’m a spiritual person and I’m pretty open-minded about what that means. I don’t practice a religion, but I believe in a higher power.

In addition to church choir, I understand you sort of got your start in commercials…
I wouldn’t say it was the start of my career as a recording artist, but it was something I did as a child. I was always hungry for attention and my grandmother, an actress, was very supportive and encouraging. She insisted that my parents get me an agent.

How old were you?
Probably about 7. My mom hated it. Eventually, after I did about three or four commercials and some modeling jobs, she got tired of my attitude and pulled me out.

So you were a diva.
Apparently, yeah. Apparently some friends came to the house and I had just been in a McDonald’s commercial and I said, You must recognize me from some of my TV work.

You were, like, 8?
Probably. I think it was for the best that I didn’t continue doing that.

I’ll say! Who knows where you’d be today?! So, fast forward, how did you spend the time between these records?
I was working on this album for two-and-a-half years, spent a year-and-a-half on the road for the first record, and I was sort of paralyzed for a while after that, creatively. I was feeling very lost and stuck and sort of blocked. It took a while for this album to take shape. But, I feel like I’ve picked up momentum again. I’ve been writing so much new stuff. There was a lot going on in my personal life, too. I went through the most major breakup of my life, which really influenced this record. It was a pivotal thing in my life and it took a lot of my energy and my time.

Is it safe to assume “I Wish I Never Met You” is about said relationship, which ended in heartbreak?
Yeah. I don’t really mean that, but I felt like that for a while at the time.

Has the individual reached out since hearing your song?
We’re in touch. It’s not good to hold grudges.

And you’ve found love again.
Yes. I’m in love.

May I ask, did you always have a hunch you were interested in men?
Yes and no. I think I was in denial for a long time, but I always knew I was different. I came out when I was 17, 18. I’ve always been gay, that’s for sure. I was born this way!

Preach! So, how did you assemble this super skilled team?
Some have been with me almost five years. Some are newer. Vula [Malinga, backing vocals] and Charlie [Willcocks, keyboard], they’ve been in the band five years. Everyone lives all over the place, too.

Where?
I live in L.A. My drummer Guy Licata lives in Brooklyn. The other four live in London. But, Brendan [Reilly, backing vocals and sax] is from L.A., Vula is South African, born in Texas, grew up in London. Naz [Adamson, bass] is from London. I’m from Australia. We’re like the United Colors of Benetton. [Said with sass]

Does everyone get along?
Yeah, we hang out together. We really enjoy each other’s company. We have so many inside jokes; it’s hard for people to follow what’s going on. We just laugh and laugh and laugh.

Is that what you did last night after your set?
We just stayed at Soho House and giggled and ate.

Sounds lovely. Is there a diva in the group? Ahem…
The other two singers more than me! We call them L’Oreal and Maybel-mean.

[Laughs] Is the latter hyphenated? How would you spell that?
We’ve never written it down. It’s an oral tradition only.

I’ll be the first to put it in print. I saw you and Vula had a dance-off last night.
We have fun on stage.

Where did you learn your moves?
Oh my god. Vula says I’m a frustrated dancer from way back. She’s like, Oh, you wanna be in a boy band!

Do you?
No, but I do love dancing. I grew up obsessed with Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson and Madonna and all the great pop stars of the eighties and nineties. I used to take tap and jazz as a kid. I wanted to be a hip-hop dancer. I just think it’s in my veins or something. I don’t know.

What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?
Probably nothing good. [Laughs]

[Gesturing to what looks like a stripper pole] What does that mean? Using the pole?![Laughs] Possibly! I don’t think it would be pretty. I think this is what I was born to do and this is what I’m grateful to be able to do. I honestly don’t know what I would be doing. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I mean, I would like to work in other mediums of art. But, who knows. I’ve worked in a factory, I’ve done office jobs, I’ve been a waiter. It’s just not a life I want. I have to be creative.

A factory?
I worked in Surrey in a Toshiba spare parts factory. It was grim. I was about 17. I mean, it’s that dirt-poor-struggling-to-survive-waiting-for-someone-to-hear-my-demo…and working in a fucking factory…cliché. It was short-lived, but it did happen.

And now look at you! You’re in New York, with a show last night and a show tonight. How do you like it here?
I love New York. I’ve been talking about moving here for a while and I think next year my partner [and I] are gonna live here part time. I love New York City. I think it’s the best city in the world. It’s a huge inspiration. It’s such an exciting place. I love being caught up in the pace of it. It gives me a bolt of energy.

As compared to L.A.?
They’re very different cities. I love living in L.A. It has its own interesting history and influence in the world. I think it’s misunderstood a lot—misrepresented. It does have depth and soul, but you have to find it. It’s there. I love California. I think it’s a beautiful place.

Jared Leto Declares War On The Record Industry With His Documentary ‘Artifact’

Artifact, a fascinating new documentary directed by actor and 30 Seconds to Mars front man Jared Leto (under the pseudonym Bartholomew Cubbins) made its US premiere at the Doc NYC Fest last night in Chelsea. Focusing on 30 Seconds to Mars’ desire to leave its label, corporate behemoth EMI, the film reveals how the band discovered the seven-year contract termination choice loophole in its contract and the record label’s plans to sue them—for thirty million dollars.

What was meant to be a documentary about the creative process of recording their next album turned into something else entirely: a David-and-Goliath toe-to-toe with Terra Firma, a huge conglomerate owned by billionaire Guy Hands, who had recently taken over EMI with plans to revive the label’s legendary, but crumbling, debt-ridden legacy. It’s also a fascinating look into what is now a very soon–to-be-defunct platform—the record label—and includes commentary from some of the music industry’s leading corporate players and insiders.

Aside from being a gifted actor and musician, Leto also seems to have a definitive career ahead of him as a filmmaker. The film itself is beautifully shot and full of very clean, tender moments between band mates Leto, his brother, drummer Shannon Leto, and guitarist TomoMiličević. Chronicling the recording process with legendary producer Flood as the band hastily hacks a studio in Leto’s spare Hollywood Hills home, the film is filled with insane antic moments and bolts of inspiration as they struggle to create their next album (the aptly named This Is War) amidst raging financial and legal pressures.

Kindly granting me time before introducing the film last night, the charming and utterly sincere Leto told me a bit about where he thinks the record industry is going, his advice to the young musician, and making Artifact, which won the audience award for Best Documentary at the Toronto International Film Festival this year.

Artifact is a really special, DIY project,” Leto said. “It was made by just a handful of people. And we made it because we believed in telling this story. We believe it’ s important for artists and for audiences around the world to know the way things works, so that they can be better informed, and make decisions about how [they] interact with and support artists.”

When I told him my niece and nephew are already clamoring for guitar lessons, I asked him what his advice would be for the aspiring rock star. “I’d tell them to wait as long as possible before they would ever sign a deal,” he admitted. “They’re so many tools now to share your music. You don’t have to be reliant on your record company to share your music. You can make an album, an album that sounds very good, and you can do it very cheaply. Times have changed since I signed our record deal in 1998. But I would tell a young person to wait as long as they can, organically as long as possible, and focus on your craft, your art, and your dreams. The deal will come. But I wouldn’t rush it.”

Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream made Leto not only an indie film icon; it also proved what extreme levels he would go to for his art. (He lost nearly 30 pounds for the role.) It seems that he was really born, though, to make music. “Well, I haven’t made a movie in five years, so, the answer is probably right there,” he says. “But I think the main reason that I haven’t made a film is that I’ve probably been too busy. Part of the success with 30 Seconds to Mars is that you have less time to do some of the other things in life, even the good things.” Leto seems particularly happy with his busy life. “None of us ever expected that it would turn out the way that it has,” he explained. “We’re about to finish our fourth album right now, and that’ll be out sometime next year.”

Asked if he would start his own label, but revealed that he owns and operates an Internet platform that is worthy of a burgeoning media mogul. “I probably wouldn’t [start a label],” he admitted, and revealed he finds it more important for artists to share their work directed with their audiences. “I actually have done this, with three companies that I started on the tech side, to impart solutions for artists,” he explained. “One is a company that does social media management for marketing and commerce, another is a ticketing company, and the third is a social theatre where people can create live experiences and share them with audiences without advertising or sponsorships. These are solutions we’ve developed so artists can really share their work.”

Artifactalso highlights the creative challenges of making art in a way that many documentaries often aspire to, but rarely achieve: “We all shared a part of our lives that we’ve never shared on-screen before, a very intimate and personal part of our lives,” he said. “We take you inside the laboratory! Inside the studio, and in our hearts, and in our minds, to share how difficult this point is in our lives—just battling this massive corporation, and fighting for what we believe in. The record company [guys] are not bad people. They just happen to work in a business that has a lot of challenges.”