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.
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!
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.
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.