Interview by Ian Dearden
Sam is a seasoned traveller, not only touring around Australia in a range of formats, but also overseas. However, as she readily acknowledges, it was a big step, and perhaps not the smartest career move, to head overseas just as her music career was taking off. She admits being terrified, but at the same time, stressing that it was something that she needed to do. As she puts it, ‘The way in which my particular career works, and the way that I approach it, is that I have to follow what makes sense at the time, because I am my own subject, to a certain degree.’
As Sam sees it, it is her life experience that informs her songwriting, whether the song is about her or not – and life experience requires getting out and experiencing life!! She felt, in making the decision to travel, that she was missing some dimensions in herself and her understanding of the world – she didn’t necessarily know what it was that she was missing, but ‘stepping outside of life as I knew it was a necessary step to uncover what I knew it was that I had to find.’
Sam readily concedes that in some ways, the decision had negative implications, and changed the course of her career quite dramatically, because she wasn’t touring as much and focusing on building that career in the same way. On the other hand, Sam points to the positives that have flowed from the travel, in particular, that it lead her to be more grounded and focused about how she wanted her career to move forward, and who she wanted to be inside of that career. In particular, it focused Sam on the core aspects of her values, how those values fitted with her career and then enabled her to be the artist she wanted to be.
Although Sam had previously travelled to other parts of the world, this trip was to Central America, drawn as she was by the appeal of Latin American culture and music, and a parallel desire to explore her yoga practice, with opportunities that were available in that region. The upside of the trip was writing an entire album while travelling. Sam’s sojourn over some 18 months took her through Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico, with the added bonus of spending time in the United States, in particular, New York and Philadelphia. The final part of the trip saw Sam undertaking yoga teacher training in Mexico.
Sam did manage two trips back to Australia for short tours during that 18 month period overseas, including the ‘Songs That Made Me’ tour with Katie Noonan, Angie Hart and Melody Poole, and then 4 or 5 months later, a solo tour in order to remain connected with her audience, having done only one tour promoting her ‘I’m A Bird’ album, before heading off on this long overseas trek.
Sam felt the opportunity to appear with Katie, Angie and Melody on the ‘Songs That Made Me’ tour was hugely important – so much so, that she flew from Honduras up to New York specifically to record a song (‘Another Day In Paradise’) for the compilation CD that was released for the tour. Sam had met Katie and formed a friendship a year or so previously in Canada at a music conference, had admired her work in ‘george’ (Katie’s band with her brother Tyrone which was active from 1996 to 2005) – and so felt this opportunity to return and tour was too good to miss.
Sam also identifies another important aspect of the offer to undertake the tour – it was not dependent on her living in Australia at the time, and was an indicator that it was possible for her to run a career in music and not be bound to one location. The opportunities, in particular, offered by the internet, have meant that although her current residence is in the Byron Shire, and she loves living there, everything is transferrable, and if she decided to be somewhere else, her music career could continue, so long as she had internet access. Importantly, Sam notes, she is now aware that she can run a music business model that will work almost anywhere – which gives her both creative freedom and freedom in her life.
Sam used the travel opportunity to access studying with a range of different yoga teachers in different countries, before completing a formal certificate course in Mexico, which has not only given her a side hustle teaching yoga when she’s not touring, but her yoga practice has become fundamentally important for her physical, spiritual and mental health.
Equally importantly, although she had previously travelled through a range of developing countries, Sam credits the opportunity to spend so much time living and working with people in Central America, with ‘really opening my eyes to how much I have,’ and providing her with an understanding of her ‘inherited privilege’ that she didn’t even know she had. The outcome was a complete change in Sam’s views of what is wealth, what is health, and has left her with a deep gratitude for the life she is living. As Sam puts it, ‘There’s not one day that I look at my bank balance as an independent musician and say “I am poor”’. In particular, with eyes opened to her privilege, Sam now asks herself what she is going to do with the privilege that she has. Fundamentally, she says, she wants to continue to do more with what she has.
Coming back to Australia at the end of 2015 after that lengthy stint overseas, with a swag of songs already written, meant that Sam could immediately dive into a new album project – what became ‘The Water’. Once again, Sam crowdfunded the album – which she now sees as the way forward for all of her recorded work.
Moving forward then to 2020, Sam has managed, in the year of the pandemic, to undertake two major musical projects, the four song EP ‘Woman’ with Sarah Humphries, and her latest full length album (as yet untitled), which is slated for release in 2021. The key to both projects has been the ability of Sam, as an artist, to take control of her musical projects.
As a songwriter, Sam identifies her starting point as writing about ‘whatever is real for me’, whether that be drawing on her own life experiences, or her observations of the experiences of others.
Sam and Sarah have been friends for more than 15 years, each with a deep understanding of each other’s life stories. Because of their closeness, Sam felt ‘so safe to write these songs with Sarah’. Sam and Sarah made a clear decision that they wanted to write an EP, for women, and telling women’s stories. Sitting down in a writing session with Sarah, Sam felt immediately that she could tell the truth about her experiences, because she was with someone ‘so safe’.
Out of this session came ‘First Time’, the EP’s opening track – a scarifying and cathartic first person song addressing an abusive relationship. Sam attributes the writing of this song as an important step on a path of documenting her own experiences, along the same theme, in song, as she grew into where she wanted to be, as a person. As she perceives it, not without a lot of self-doubt along the way, the songs pushed her to face what she needed to face, in herself and in her experiences in the relationship the song addresses. Or in other words, the song represents an extraordinary exercise in courage.
Sam identifies that the power of the song not only motivated her to record and release it, but also to shoot a video, and to talk about the experiences behind the song in the live stream EP launch concerts that followed the release. As Sam perceives it, ‘the song serves as some kind of evidence that it actually happened’, and it became ‘a tool to heal and to accept the truth of my own experience’. Having reached that level of insight, despite initial doubts, it then became very important to Sam to release ‘First Time’, and to talk, sing and understand more about the issues of domestic abuse and the systems that perpetuate it. Sam now identifies that a very important part of her work as an artist is to be bold and speak and sing about these things. As she notes, she wrote the song because she needed to, and then went through a process of reckoning, which gave her the strength to make a choice about where she wanted to go on the domestic abuse issue.
Sam has long had a commitment in her musical life to truth telling and connection, rather than dealing in niceties and tiptoeing around what’s really happening. She did have some hesitancy about telling someone else’s story in the process, but as Sarah assured her, ‘if he didn’t want songs written about his shitty behaviour, he shouldn’t have been such an arsehole’. However, Sam hastens to add that it’s actually not about the male in the song, it’s about Sam herself and her experiences, both as a human and as a woman, and it’s about telling this story on behalf of other women as well. Sam’s aim in writing and performing songs such as ‘First Time’, is to stand on stage and tell her story, what she’s learnt, how she is growing from that experience and ‘show up for myself in better ways’.
As part of the raw honesty in writing songs such as ‘First Time’ and the equally challenging ‘Dear John’ (a song destined for the new album), Sam sees herself taking responsibility for having ‘a life and relationship that I want, free of that person’, and in the process, throwing a light on what is, and what isn’t acceptable behaviour, not only for herself, but for others in the same situation. In fact, Sam expresses gratitude for learning lessons that she needed to learn, and having grown in the process. In particular, she believes that she now understands that it is time to work for, and make decisions, personal, career and otherwise, for herself – and that’s a place that she’s happy to be.
The extraordinary aspect of Sam and Sarah’s ‘Woman’ EP is that it was literally recorded in a day – four tracks, which in turn were written by the pair in four hours, ‘before lunch’!! There had been an exchange of ideas between them beforehand, but the actual writing session involved picking out four ideas, and hammering out the songs, one after the other. The EP was recorded by Josh Schuberth at his Endomusia Studio in the Blue Mountains, NSW – Josh contributed electric guitar, organ and bass drum to various of the tracks, but the bulk of the vocal and instrumental contributions came from Sam and Sarah, in a very organic process, with few overdubs. The raw footage for the promotional videos was captured by a friend of Sarah’s, Rachel Brady, whom Sam recalls, just hang around with her video camera and caught us ‘just laughing, singing and crying.’
The whole project was undertaken on a very modest budget, and the original plan was to tour the EP as a duo – but like so many plans in COVID affected 2020, the touring part of the project had to be scrapped, and instead, Sam and Sarah presented the EP in two on-line concerts, which proved remarkably popular. The challenge, without a tour, and the associated merchandise, CD and door sales, was to find alternative income streams.
As an aside, Sam makes the point that the economics of touring have changed significantly over the past 10 years, given how the current generation of music lovers consume music. In 2017, Sam toured with Kasey Chambers, and at that stage, still only had CDs for sale at her merch desk. Sam quickly realised that she had to diversify, and she has subsequently branched out into T-shirts and beeswax wraps, which sell in significantly better numbers than her CDs, which fans now easily access digitally, and are far less likely to buy at a gig.
The marketing of ‘Woman’, without a tour, involved going straight to their fans on social media and by mailing lists, which Sam points out, is ‘pretty much how I do everything these days anyway’. Sam and Sarah created a limited edition T-shirt, which was intended to be sold on tour, but was instead sold online, and the EP was released on Bandcamp, where fans could buy it before it was placed on streaming platforms.
Sam identifies that her next challenge is to the grow the incredibly supportive fan base she already has, courtesy of her mailing list, social media and Patreon. Her aim is ‘to get more, bigger, better creative projects off the ground’, and it is clear to Sam that her model works. Going straight to her fans, Sam says, just makes a lot of sense – even though community radio offers a lot in terms of getting her music out there, and earning royalties from airplay, it is the direct connection with the fan base that is what ‘always seems natural’ and has been ‘most effective in getting people to buy tickets to her tours, be part of crowdfunding campaigns for her albums and getting people to buy merch.’ In short, Sam credits the success of her career, currently, to the support she receives through Facebook, Instagram and a mailing list – and COVID has demonstrated the opportunity for growth and providing a bigger platform to share her music.
The new album
Sam credits her acquisition of a Mini Maton guitar ten years ago with changing her songwriting overnight –a new instrument creating a huge change in her approach to the craft of writing songs. And the same thing has happened, she says, with the new album, which was in production when this interview was conducted, but is now completed and ready for release.. Working with her co-producer, Kent Eastwood, a gifted guitarist and keyboard player, in pre-production, enabled her to experiment via MIDI with a ‘whole bunch of different instruments’, which gave her a completely new perspective on how the songs would sound. After working in this new way with a couple of the songs, Sam rapidly realised that most of the songs that she had written and chosen for the album ‘didn’t cut the mustard –I had this whole playground I didn’t know I had before, I needed to write more songs’. Which she promptly did, writing a new clutch of songs ‘with instruments in mind, in a completely different way’. As she explains, the songs she’s now written for the new album are ‘still folk singer/songwriter songs, but the production took them to a pop place…with different choices.’
With the new album ready for release, Sam has mapped out a timetable for the release of singles ahead of the full album release and COVID-safe touring in the latter half of 2021. Sam is very aware that, with this new album about to drop, she needs to scale her business model to meet the challenge of promoting what she describes as ‘an incredible new product’. She has ‘a strong vision of what she wants to achieve’ and ‘a voice that I’m using…but I don’t want to shout into the void, I want to share it with more and more people.’ The combination of mailing lists, social media and the capacity to host whatever she wants on her website is ‘so amazing’ and Sam just wants to get even better at connecting with people, using the tools at her disposal.
Sam has particularly enjoyed presenting online performances, which, for much of 2020, was the only way to connect live with her audience. Being able to read the comments of listeners in real time and respond has been an important aspect of those performances, which have been not only a delightful musical experience, but an opportunity to connect in a very real and personal way with her audience. Speaking for myself, having watched a number of these performances, I can attest that Sam’s online concerts were charming, direct and heartwarming. These concerts demonstrated just how it is possible in this day and age for performers to connect directly with their fan base, and with the benefit of a voluntary contribution, enable those watching to contribute what they could afford for the show. Sam credits the income from her online performances as a particularly important and valued contribution during the stress of the loss of income caused by the pandemic.
One of the insights Sam has gained from the pandemic experience is that the loss of a significant part of her portfolio income (local café gigs in the Byron Bay area), offset in 2020 by JobKeeper, has helped her recognise that she needs to corral as much time and energy as possible to input into her primary career, which is writing, recording and performing original music.
There has always been a difficult juggle between earning an income to survive, and investing in the primary goal of succeeding as a songwriter and touring performer. Sam has worked very hard in 2020 to bring herself forward into the next stage of her career, and in that sense, the pandemic, with all its downsides, has also been an opportunity to make substantial gains, and set up a new foundation to progress that career. As Sam notes, ‘the juggle [to earn an income from local gigs] works, but ultimately it’s not sustainable, and it’s not as fulfilling. I’m a songwriter and I’m a producer and I’m a touring artist and that’s my genius zone…and although I’m good at other things, I want to work in my genius zone, and I need to work out how to make it work!!’ The key, Sam identifies, is ‘being smart with marketing’ and scaling up what she already has that does work for her. In particular, Sam is keen to scale up her Patreon support, because it ‘enables me to do creative projects that I would otherwise not be able to do.’ With a clear eye to the future, Sam makes it clear that she is laser focused on investing time and money in her career, ‘rather than buying a new pair of shoes’.
It is notable that the new album is the first time in Sam’s career that she has taken complete control of the recording and production process. Sam identifies that in her past experiences in recording, although she may have had some input into the production decisions, ultimately others had the final say. Now, she says, she is confident that she has the skills to take the reins, and she feels that she is in a headspace where she is able to make choices for herself rather than to please others. ‘On a personal level’, Sam says, ‘it felt so important to completely own the process, and to back myself, creatively – to put my money where my mouth was.’ On top of that, Sam also identifies that ‘the project feels more personal than any other album I’ve ever written…and there didn’t feel there was a way I could feel fully expressed [if I was] handing some of that expression to somebody else.’
Sam notes that she worked with Kent Eastwood as co-producer, and she had a team of musicians, all of whom contributed and collaborated on the project. However, Sam says, ‘the difference was [that] I held a very strong vision of how the album could be, aesthetically, and the only way to communicate that vision is by making all the tiny steps along the way.’ From her perspective, Sam believes that it was not possible to identify the vision from the outset – it required her to articulate the vision by building each song piece by piece, using what she knew she could hear and feel and what was possible. As Sam sees it, the nature of the project meant that there wasn’t really an option other than for her to take control as producer.
With clear pride, she says, ‘I can absolutely, one hundred percent say that this album is what I intended it to be. There is not one thing on this album that I did not intentionally place there, and literally nothing slipped by the gatekeeper!!’ Sam is clear that, in the process, ‘there was room for other’s creativity and input, but what I had to do was tune into myself and ask myself, did this feel the way I know it could feel? When I hear or sing this song, is it one hundred percent the expression of this story? When I listen to all the musical parts of the song, do they one hundred percent serve the story or the message of the song? That was my guiding light, and no-one else can answer those questions for me.’
Sam describes her process, leading up to the recording of the album, as ‘working like a slightly crazy person, to write the songs that I knew needed to be written for the album, and to refine the songs that I’d already written, and to refine the pre-production demos we’d made before [entering] the studio – I knew when something exactly hit the mark, and I knew when something didn’t, and I was willing to go in there and pull it apart and put it back together until it exactly hit the mark. I was so committed to that task, and it’s the first time I’ve approached an album in that way, and so I’ve really proved to myself that when I back that process and when I trust myself, when I trust that instinct that says “I know where this is going and I want it to get there”, and I put in the work to get there, then amazing things happen!’ Sam describes the experience as a really valuable lesson as an artist.
Although she is open to the opportunity of working as a producer for other artists, utilising the skills she has learnt during this current album project, she remains razor focused on putting her time and energy into getting her own work into more ears. But she adds, ‘I love working in the studio, and I love working with songs’, and wouldn’t rule out the opportunity if it came along in the future.
Sam feels that she is ‘in a really good place with her career at the moment, backing herself all over the place’, and is aiming to put everything she has at present, in terms of time, energy and resources, into her writing, recording and touring career, while remaining open to other opportunities in the future.
Since conducting these interviews, Sam has finalised the recording, mixing and mastering of her new album, which is due for release in mid-2021. She has enjoyed the collaborative process of working with her recording/mixing engineer on those final stages of the recording process, and more broadly, has enjoyed the entire process, ‘even when it’s been really hard.’ Sam doesn’t want to get bogged down, however, in the minute technical details of the recording process, which she is happy to leave to those who have that expertise. As she readily points out, “I’m so much more interested in the energy, the emotion and the feel, the intricate details of the music and how that all pieces together, it’s like creating this beautiful puzzle…and I need to the people with the technical skills to realise that.’
More broadly, Sam has come to recognise that she can’t personally do everything necessary to further her career, and is assiduously working to put together a team who are able to contribute the skills and expertise she doesn’t have, whether it be in marketing, management, accounting, publishing, venue booking, or any of the myriad of other roles in the complex ecosystem of the music industry. Sam remains, with delightful, charming but determined optimism, committed to cracking the code to achieve success in a notoriously tough industry, in these most difficult of times.
Since conducting the interviews for this two part article, Sam has launched a podcast series titled Song Baker, interviewing a range of fabulous female singer songwriters, including (to date) luminaries such as Mama Kin, Georgia Mooney, Fanny Lumsden, Melody Pool, Anna Cordell and Angie Hart. She plans a return to live touring in the second half of 2021, coinciding with the release of her new album. And you can always find out more by heading to her website at sambuckingham.com (where you can sign up to her mailing list), liking her on Facebook and/or Instagram (she posts regularly), and supporting her at www.patreon.com/sambuckingham.