Four years on from his debut LP, idiosyncratic pop maestro Sam Sparro is back with Return To Paradise. Heavily inspired by the soul and funk music of the late '70s and early '80s, it's the product of two and a half years work in Los Angeles, London and New York.
I caught up with Sam to talk happiness, fashion, LA, identity, homophobia and why he's not afraid to be derivative.
Hey Sam, how’s your day been?
Good, thanks, how are you doing?
Pretty good, thanks. Everybody’s psyched for Return To Paradise. Between the album title and the single, ‘Happiness’, it kind of sounds like a guy who’s forcing himself to be happy again. Is it autobiographical?
Yeah. I mean, I wouldn’t necessarily use the word ‘forcing’, because it sounds like I’m faking it. But it’s definitely about overcoming some personal things and realising that happiness is a choice that you make. It’s not something that just happens to you. Does that make sense?
Yeah, sure. If happiness is a choice, I guess the obvious question is… why don’t more people choose to be happy?
I think it’s the ultimate human trial. Life is a big question mark, and the path to enlightenment, if you will, is an individual’s journey to discovering what life is about. Some people realise sooner than others that they have the power within themselves to create the life they want. Some people never realise that, and I think they suffer a lot. But human suffering all comes from within ourselves, I think.
How did you go about flicking that switch and choosing to be happy again? Did you just wake up one day and go, ‘hey, things aren’t so bad’, or was it a process?
It was a process. It’s still a process. I mean, I’m a human being. I’m not some Zen Buddhist that never has any problems. I still need reminders all the time. For me, it’s just trial and error. Learning by making a lot of mistakes. I’ve made a lot of personal mistakes, just like everyone else in the world, and I’ve learnt through that what works for me and what doesn’t. When I’m really at my happiest is just when I’m accepting where I am and what’s going on in my life, and not trying to control everything.
Were there particular things that, once you accepted you couldn’t control, things got easier? Mmm-hmm. One example is the creative process. I really thought this was album was going to be done and ready and out quite a long time ago. I had put a lot of pressure on myself to make this record a certain way, and it wasn’t really happening. I felt really blocked and I wasn’t doing my best work. As soon as I really stopped putting this pressure and expectation on myself, I started to feel creative again.
I think the best things in life happen when you just let them happen. If I’m trying too hard, it’s because I’m resisting something that’s meant to be natural.
Yeah. It seems like the album is heavily influenced by ‘70s and ‘80s soul and funk records. Was listening to a lot of that stuff part of the process of cheering yourself up?
Definitely! I love that era of music, and I feel like there’s such an optimism about it. Even the album title, Return To Paradise, has a notion of returning to a sense of innocence, as well. That music in the late ‘70s captured a sense of optimism and hope about the future and humanity that I feel has withered a bit, because we’re just so aware of how challenging life can be through all these different media outlets. We’re constantly being reminded of how shit the world is.
It’s funny. In the ‘70s, the rebellious thing to do was to be angry and rail against ‘the man’. But it seems like now, the most subversive thing you could do would be to be happy and not stress about things.
Totally! I absolutely agree! I think the most punk thing you could possibly do nowadays is to choose to be happy and ignore all the crap. Which is really hard! There are so many things in the world today that want you to feel afraid, overwhelmed, confused… it’s all just coming at you non-stop. It’s crazy. Even the last three years, just how much the internet’s changed…
I was going to ask about that. You’re 29 now; when you last put out an album you were 25. Have you noticed a change in the industry because of the internet?
Definitely! I mean, the internet was a big part of how I got my career started in the first place. It’s just sped up a great deal, and I think it’s gotten a little bit meaner. It seems like the internet is a place for really frustrated people to air their grievances and frustrations. It can be quite hostile. It’s sort of like a microcosm, or a macrocosm, of a high school playground. There’s just so much bullying and so much bitchiness on the internet.
But the great thing is that we get our news more directly from where it’s actually happening, and it’s harder to have the wool pulled over our eyes. If there’s something happening on a street level, and it’s on their phone, everyone can see it and see firsthand what really went on, rather than waiting for the 6o’clock news to tell us what happened. It’s changed the way people communicate.
As someone who obviously relies on developing a groundswell of support on the internet, people’s default position being 'snark' must be something that annoys you. Have you had much attitude directed at your new stuff?
The majority of the feedback that I’ve seen online has been really positive. But there’s always some nasty comment. It’s mostly just childish… if you go and look at YouTube comments, which I don’t recommend you do, because you’ll always read something you don’t want to, most of it is really childish stuff like, ‘he’s gay, that’s gross’. I think it’s just young people that haven’t developed a mature enough view of the world yet.
When you first started hearing comments like that, when the first album came out, did they ever bother you? Was there ever a point where you were like, ‘maybe I shouldn’t be so open’?
No. I’d heard those comments since I was really young, and I’d already dealt with it. I’m quite comfortable with myself and I’m proud of myself and who I am. I don’t have any problems with myself in that way. It rolls over my back, but I guess it’s a reminder that the world is still the same place it always was. There’s enlightened people, and there’s ignorant people, and there’s nice people, and there’s mean people… they’re all out there!
Speaking of nice people, mean people, enlightened people and ignorant people... you’ll find all of them in LA. ‘The Shallow End’ is a song about LA; how would you describe your relationship with that city?
I love LA. I really do. I find it to be a really safe place to be, and I feel really supported here. I also feel free to do whatever I want to do. It’s quite spacious. It’s not like New York, or even Sydney, where I think people are up in your business all the time. You can just isolate and do your own thing and make your own rules here, which I really like. I also like the pace of it; it moves really slowly.
Yeah. Do you think people are happy to let you do your own thing because there are so many famous people in LA, so people just stop giving a fuck after a while?
I think so. People are mostly preoccupied with themselves here, so they’re not that interested in what you’re doing. But there’s also a lot of great people to collaborate with here in different mediums. I just shot a new video and I got to work with a lot of dancers I’ve been friends with for a long time, a great photographer who directed the clip, a stylist I really enjoy working with, lighting people I really respect. There’s a big pool of talent here and everybody works to achieve excellence. I like the work ethic here.
Yeah. You’ve been moving between LA and London for a while now. You left Sydney when you were 10. When Australians describe you as our Sam Sparro, ‘Aussie Sam Sparro’, does that still ring true to you?
Yeah, I definitely identify as Australian and I think being Australian has shaped me in a lot of ways. But so have all the other experiences and places I’ve lived, too. So I always feel a bit more ‘of the world’, but I’m more than happy to be Australian and to be claimed as Australian. I like it. I mean, you’ve gotta be from somewhere, and if I wasn’t from there I’d be from nowhere!
Exactly. Something else that’s interesting about ‘The Shallow End’ is it seems like you’re embracing superficiality, if that makes any sense. Basically embracing your status as one of the beautiful people. Is that something you’ve struggled to embrace?
I think so! I think it’s more of a poke at what people think about LA, as opposed to what LA really is. I think there’s actually a lot of substance here, and a lot of subversive thinkers and creators and doers and interesting characters, as well as all the other fluff you read about.
It’s such a diverse city. There’s a lot of amazing Mexican culture here, all different sorts of people, and great food… it’s like a melting pot of ideas. You’ve got the mountains and you’ve got the ocean; it’s an hour to the snow… it’s more multi-faceted than people realise. So I think it’s definitely playing into the stereotypes but poking fun at them, too.
Yeah. In the clip for ‘The Shallow End’, and just a lot of your promo material that’s been out lately, it seems like your personal style has matured a lot since your last album. Do you think that’s fair to say?
Yeah, totally! It’s definitely matured. I’ve always been a chameleon. I’ve always changed my appearance a lot throughout my life. There’s a lot of awkward pictures of me as a teenager trying out a lot of different looks that didn’t work. I think, just as I’ve gotten more comfortable as a man and as a person, I’m less interested in the pomp and circumstance of clothing and more interested in the sophistication and subtle nuances of style. I think that’s reflected in my appearance now.
I’ve also become really fascinated with classic menswear, which is something I always shied away from as a younger person. I was always wearing leggings or tights or some sort of coat or something over the top, and now I really enjoy putting on a suit.
Do you have particular inspirations, in that regard?
I think it started with me being invited to more fashion events and becoming more a part of that community, and going to shows and becoming a bit more knowledgeable about fashion history. Seeing how the silhouettes change over the decades, and how one decade influences another.
I’m also interested in the zeitgeist of fashion and trends, and how the silhouettes all seem to reoccur over time. There’s a definite movement in fashion reflecting strong, bold silhouettes, like baggy trousers, which were sort of ‘in’ in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, which really were inspired by the 1940s. And I became inspired by old film stars who were wearing those clothes back then. I don’t know, it’s this trail of connecting the dots which interests me.
It’s the same with music! The style of the music I’m doing is so different to the style of the fashion, but it’s been another process in making this record of connecting the musical dots. Of going, well, the music I listened to as a kid in the early ‘90s was inspired by this music from the late ‘70s, which was inspired by rock’n’roll from the ‘50s… it’s interesting how stuff is so cyclical.
Are there almost too many influences to take in? Musically, if the stuff from the ‘50s leads to the stuff from the ‘70s to the stuff from the ‘90s, does that make it hard to develop your own style? Or are you good at tuning a lot of the shit out?
I don’t know… I don’t mind being derivative at all. I don’t have a problem with that. I like having a point of view that’s clear, and I think so much pop music today is so self-referential. So much music that’s on the radio now is referencing itself and music that happened a year, two years ago. The cycle is so short, it’s almost like we’re in a vacuum. I also think time is such a great illusion that nostalgia for me is like… there is no present without the past. I don’t mind being a musical historian, or being referential in that way.
When you debuted, I remember people lumped you in with this new genre, ‘wonky pop’. What happened to that?
I never really understood that and I don’t know what that really means. I get asked about that a lot, and… I don’t know. I think some A&R man tried to make something happen and it just wasn’t even a real thing. I never claimed to be ‘wonky pop’.
Did you like…
No! I hate that word! I think it’s absurd!
Did you like the other artists that were grouped in there?
I definitely liked some of them. Who else was grouped into that? It was Alphabeat and Mika and Robyn and…
Yeah, those are the only ones I remember, to be honest.
I don’t know what it was, but it didn’t really stick. I don’t like being classified in that way. I think over the course of my career, I’m going to continue to break down any boxes that people put me in. I’m so much more… I’m more interesting and widespread than one thing like that.
Yeah. We’ll leave it there, but thanks for taking the time to talk to us today. Best of luck with the album.
Thanks a lot! I appreciate it. Bye.
Return To Paradise is out May 25.