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.

Video Saves The Radio Star

With the traditional music industry collapsing around us, like a building blown up by so many tons of C4, bands are being forced to do whatever they can to be heard. One of the techniques that has proven most successful for selling albums is getting a song on television—not music television, but commercial television, from advertisements to Grey’s Anatomy.

That a TV ad can do wonders for CD sales isn’t new—Moby’s 1999 album Play sold 10 million copies on the strength of various licensing deals; Nick Drake sold more records than he had in three decades when his song “Pink Moon” appeared in a 2000 Volkswagen commercial; little known band Hoobastank’s song “Crawling in the Dark” appeared in a 2000 Mountain Dew commercial (that also launched the career of Channing Tatum). In 2002 that song peaked at number seven on the mainstream rock charts; see, also, every song to ever appear in an iPod commercial. But in a time of plummeting CD sales, moving units, any amount of units, anyway you can, matters more than ever— and so more and more acts are getting into the TV game. (When musicians like M.I.A and Santogold are schilling for Honda Civic and Bud Light, you know all bets are off.)

Being showcased in a big television show can help a song as much as a car commercial. In 2006 Snow Patrol upped their profile stateside when “Chasing Cars” was used on Grey’s Anatomy, boosting digital sales of the single and CD. The band eventually reworked the video, to feature Grey’s clips, and re-released the album. The Fray had a similar experience after “How To Save A Life” was used to promote Grey’s third season. A week after the promotional music video aired on ABC, the single shot from number 59 to 29 on the Billboard charts, later peaking at number 3. (The woman who selects songs for the doctor dramedy, Alexandra Patsavas, des the same for The O.C. and Gossip Girl. Essentially, she programs iPods all over the country.)

With this trend showing no signs of slowing down, we decided to recap some of the more recent TV-propelled radio breakthroughs.

“1901,” Phoenix Appeared in: The CW’s Gossip Girl and Melrose Place, Cadillac SRX commercial (below). Chart rank: Entered Billboard at #90, won the Best Alternative Music Album Grammy. Sounds like: Having fun, in summer. This single from the French outfit, beloved by everyone, critics included, is so damn good it hasn’t been ruined by being playing incessantly in that bar, mall, shopping center or ubiquitous Cadillac commercial.

“Sweet Disposition,” The Temper Trap Appeared in: ABC’s The Deep End, The CW’s 90210, 500 Days of Summer, Chrysler’s 2010 Vintage commercial, Rhapsody commercial, Peugeot commercial (all below). Chart rank: US Billboard #30/ UK #6. Sounds like: Falling in love, in summer. The lead single from this Australian group’s debut album sounds a whole bunch like “1901,” but a smidge more heartsick, which is why it figured into indie rom-com 500 Days of Summer. Carmakers obviously decided that it was a song that could make you fall in love with an automobile.

“Black & Gold,” Sam Sparro o Appeared in: UK’s Skins. Chart rank: UK #2, Billboard Hot Dance Airplay #8. Sounds like: Seeing someone you want to sleep with across a crowded room, and then maybe having a dance off. The smooth crooner Sparro’s “Black & Gold” was featured on the hit, risqué, British teen-show Skins propelling it up the UK and the Billboard Dance charts.

“Fly Me Away,” Annie Little Appeared in: 2009 Kindle commercial (below). Chart rank: Little was an unsigned act before the Kindle commercial: Going from a nobody to a somebody has to count as about 100 chart spots. Sounds like: Your twee librarian can play guitar. Little was an actress, who had appeared in over 40 commercials, before she entered a video contest to create an ad for Amazon’s Kindle, and won, with this strummy, lala track. Unsigned, she won’t be for long.

“New Soul,” Yael Naim Appeared inL Macbook Air commercial (below). Chart rank: #7 on Billboard hot 100. Sounds like: Your very pretty, artist neighbor can play guitar. This song hit big in 2008 after appearing in a ubiquitous Macbook Air ad. (Apple ads do for musicians’ careers what Ed Sullivan used to.) We’ll see if the Franco-Israeli’s next album does as well without the Steve Jobs’ stamp of approval.

Why Adam Lambert’s Campy Debut May Blow Our Minds

I somehow found myself at the seventh floor of the Thompson LES last night, at a sparkly dubstep love-in. Faced with the options to either linger in the darkness like that creepy chick from Gawker’s Bloodcopy party earlier this year or make myself useful, I reluctantly embraced the latter charge. Which led to a pleasant chat with pop star Sam Sparro who was on hand to spin his first DJ set in New York. Essentially, 2010 will be all about his follow-up to his shimmery debut. But for the time being, not only has he busied himself by infusing a little soul into Basement Jaxx and moonlighting as one-third of Chauffeur (which also counts Mark Ronson as a collaborator), but you’ll recall, Sparro’s lent a little of his Midas touch to Lambert’s debut. Which may be the tip of the iceberg as far as unexpected surprises are concerned for the Idol alum’s album.

And that’s a good thing, too, considering the heat he’s receiving for the campy cover art that comes with For Your Entertainment. Apart from Sparro’s contribution, Lambert also has tunes penned by Brit alt-rock outfit Muse and the former frontman of The Darkness. Add to that that mix the proper lead single is produced by the same guy who gave us about the last five years’ worth of top-shelf pop and what we have with Entertainment is the first album from an Idol graduate since anything by Kelly Clarkson possibly worth listening to in full. What we’ll ignore: the obligatory RedOne and Ryan Tedder tunes. “Just Dance” and “Halo” will sound extraordinarily dated in 2010, when Entertainment is finally entertaining audiences.