Interview: With Love and Happiness in His Life, Sam Outlaw Reflects on ‘Angeleno’, Looks Ahead to New Music
"I'm happy, and I'm thankful to have love in my life. That changes the way you write songs."
Sam Outlaw is at a much different place than he was a year ago, when he released his debut full-length album, Angeleno. At that time, he was balancing a day job in ad sales with his hobby of writing country music -- a hobby that he began to take seriously in 2009, the same year that he dropped his given name, Sam Morgan, and picked up Sam Outlaw, a nod to his mother's maiden name and South Dakotan heritage.
"I've been doing it as a hobby for years," Outlaw tells The Boot backstage at New York City's Mercury Lounge. "I just saw all my friends that were 'successful' musicians, and they were all f--king poor. I didn't want to be poor, so I kept doing it as a hobby."
Eventually, though, that feeling changed: "It got to a point where that wasn't good enough, and I thought, 'Maybe I'd rather be poor,'" Outlaw recalls. "Without sounding melodramatic, I feel like it's the thing I'm supposed to do."
Since Angeleno hit the streets in 2015, Outlaw has seen a steady -- or as he puts it, "slow" -- rise in his notoriety and the attention he receives. It's that growing spotlight that has helped bring him to a place where he can be happy and thankful ... but that's not to say it's been an easy year.
"The quickest description would be that it's been busy," Outlaw acknowledges. "I went from having a full-time job and doing music as a hobby to being on the road for a year straight. Last summer was one of the hardest times of my life: My wife was working on a ranch in Wyoming ... We moved out of our place, put our stuff in storage, and I was on the road the whole time.
"It's hard enough to be away from loved ones when you're on the road, but now your wife is virtually unreachable, on a ranch, with no reception, and you're at Square Zero, touring in some sh--ty van," he continues. "The cliche thing that most people do when they're 23, I started doing when I was 33."
On top of being away from his family, Outlaw quickly learned that life on the road did not bring with it a steady income stream; all of a sudden, the salesman-turned-country singer left his "middle-class, yuppie existence" and had to start worrying about money (among other things).
This last year has been one of the greatest challenges of my life.
"I became vulnerable," Outlaw admits while changing the strings on his Gibson acoustic guitar. "This last year has been one of the greatest challenges of my life, to be honest. But, it's also been incredibly gratifying. Even last night ... I had never been to Boston, I've never played a show in Boston, and to even have 60 people show up because they like my record and were pumped to hear my songs, well, that means the world to me."
Though he can look back on the last 12 months with a fresh perspective -- recognizing the trials and tribulations he's dealt with as having led to where he is at today -- Outlaw is quick to add that he still struggles with certain things.
"I'm more vulnerable now than ever," he says. "I've had a lot of people come up to me and say, 'Oh man, congratulations on everything.' They don't know that I'm broke. If they see you get talked about on any website, they think you've somehow made it.
"Somehow, I'm alive, with money in my checking account, and my wife and baby are safe and secure, and we can afford rent, but who knows if that will be the case next month," Outlaw adds. "I still feel incredibly vulnerable."
The term "outlaw" conjures up a tough, brooding, chain-smoking cowboy, but Outlaw realizes that he represents something different: "It's a complete juxtaposition," he notes, with a slight laugh to back up his statement. "I think people expect to hear a Waylon Jennings type of thing, and I'm doing soft-rock country. A lot of the new stuff is even more in that vein, coming from a place of tenderness and vulnerability. It's kind of scary and kind of sh--ty, but also really great."
When Outlaw mentions his "new stuff," it's hard not to get excited thinking about what could follow Angeleno, especially when one contemplates the trajectory that Outlaw has been on. He's excited to talk about it -- but, he notes, "I'm sure it'll be forever until I can put it out."
As it stands right now, Outlaw is nearing the finishing stages of his new record, working on the final mixes. But if fans are expecting a carbon copy of Angeleno, it sounds like they might be in for a surprise.
"For this record, I was looking to bottle the rock show that I bring to the stage," Outlaw says. "A lot of these songs are a little more rock-leaning, kind of more like Tom Petty than Merle Haggard. It's more rock, but there are also some of the most intimate tunes I've done, that are more like James Taylor."
As for the more "classic" side of Outlaw's music, he assures fans that there will be some of those songs on the LP, too. Currently, the singer is "trying to decide which ones to include."
"You have to think about your own expectations and what other people think of you; you want to do something different, but it can't be too different. But then there's a part of me that's like, 'F--k that. Just put it together however you want,'" Outlaw muses. "Don't get me wrong -- it's country music. No matter who you are, though, if you love a genre and you get sent out in a van play it every night, you will get sick of it, sick of doing the same thing. That's a good thing, because the next record you make will be different, it'll have a different flavor."
That "different flavor" is soaked with the growing vulnerability that Outlaw finds in his life, but it's not something that will keep him from doing what he loves and providing for those he loves. "I'm lucky to be doing what I'm doing," he says, "but if I have to get another job next week, I'll just do it, and I'll tour however I can."
I'm lucky to be doing what I'm doing, but if I have to get another job next week, I'll just do it, and I'll tour however I can.
Though he's lived most of his life in southern California -- "I don't fit in because if you think you do fit in in LA, I can't imagine what kind of soul you'd have. LA is a place people go to when they don't fit in ... and there's something special about not fitting in." -- Outlaw's attitude and work ethic stem from his time growing up in the Midwest, a part of his life in which he finds quite a bit of pride.
"Those roots are real things," he remarks. "The sentiments you experience there ... watching my dad work his a-- off and being an entrepreneur and making something of himself, you know? My parents couldn't have been more supportive, but every morning, I still have those voices that tell me I can't do it and I'm not good enough so why try, and you just have to fight them. Hopefully you get that 50 minutes every night amidst all the mountains of bulls--t throughout the day, and you get to stand up in front of people and do something you believe."
It's at this point in the conversation that Outlaw waxes the most nostalgic, as he thinks about Alan Jackson's tune "Chasin' That Neon Rainbow" as a sort of crystal-clear explanation for what he's trying to say.
"Hopefully the fans like it," Outlaw says, "and when they do, that matters."
With that, he starts singing, attempting his best Jackson impression: "Well, this overhead is killing me / Half the time I sing for free / But when the crowd's into it / Lord, it makes this thing I'm doing seem right."
Along with this ethos, Outlaw's roots in the Midwest are firmly paced in the church. Though he isn't nearly as "active" as he once was, he admits that religion still has a place in his life -- "in the sense that I have a general belief in Christ, it certainly does."
"I've tried to find churches that I can kind of hang with in LA, and haven't had any success," he says, adding, "Even though I swear and drink and do things that are generally not considered 'okay,' I absolutely still believe."
Regardless of where others might land in their faith, Outlaw appreciates the group setting in which many worship.
"I think that's what I miss the most in church," he admits. "I grew up singing in church, and I still think that's a beautiful thing: You get together each week with people and affirm a faith that you share."
One of Outlaw's earliest memories actually involves him singing at church: "That was my first exposure to music," he remembers. "I was probably three years old, and I tried singing along. I felt some kind of 'light' -- I don't want to say it was God or whatever, but I felt some kind of something happen to me in that moment. I couldn't have been older than three, because I was so little I was standing on a chair with a hand puppet that I was making sing along with me."
Not only was it Outlaw's first experience singing, but he also says it was a "lightning bolt moment" that proved to him that he could participate in music with others. In fact, he thinks it's because of this congregational singing that he doesn't like to tour or perform solo if he can help it.
"I've got God to thank for that," he says. "And, of course, Satan. If it wasn't for Satan, we wouldn't have much to talk about. You have to be saved from something."
Whether talking about growing up in the church, selling advertising in Los Angeles or touring the world in support of his self-described "SoCal country," it's hard to chat with Outlaw without getting the impression that he speaks the truth when he talks about the love and happiness in his life.
"It's fun, it really is," he says about his new "career." "I'm happy now.
"And, like anybody else, I'm also stressed out and conflicted all the time," Outlaw concludes. "But, for a conflicted, anxious, stressed-out person, I'm happy ..."
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