Not to be overly dramatic, but music kind of chose me. I couldn’t not do it. I kept doing it, and I sucked really bad, but I kept getting better…
Sitting across from Sam Burchfield – along with his bandmate, Zach Wells, and manager, Andy Kahn – in Ted’s Most Best, it occurs to me that I’m looking at an artist who is undoubtedly going to make it big (and that’s not just because Ted’s bacon and egg pizza makes everything perfect).
Sam Burchfield is a “full soul funk” (see below interview) artist based out of Atlanta, Georgia. After hearing the buzz about him around town and grabbing hold of some of his tunes, I knew there was something unique here that needed to explored, so I reached out for an interview.
Because Burchfield ‘s music is soulful. That is the perfect word for it. It doesn’t just describe his genre – it describes the heart of the artist himself. He is unwavering in his passion for music, yes, but he is also strategic and intentional about his path, insisting on doing things his way – even if that means it’s not necessarily the easy way.
Check out our interview below, where we talk about his time on American Idol and why he ultimately decided it wasn’t for him, as well as his plans for the future and his songwriting process.
Also be sure to catch Burchfield at The Fox Theatre opening for St. Paul & the Broken Bones this Saturday, December 27 in Atlanta!
Vinyl Mag: You went to UGA; what did you study?
Sam Burchfield: I went to Grady College and studied Public Relations. I graduated last fall, so it’s cool coming back to Athens. I have since then moved to Atlanta. I have a lot of good friends that do UGA HEROs, and it’s great to come back and partner with them.
VM: How did living in Athens affect your music?
SB: The reason I came to Athens was because of the music – the Music Business program to be exact. Honestly, not to hate on my major, but I didn’t really like PR. The Music Business program here was all that I was interested in, all that I wanted to do. David Barbe [Director and Lecturer for the Music Business Certificate Program] kind of just lit a fire under me to go after it. I think at the end of my sophomore year I realized, “I’m going to graduate, and I’m going to do music. What does that look like? What do I need to be doing now to get ready for that, to get ready for recording?”
Athens cultivated everything I was doing; it gave me a pretty well-sized city to develop a sound and a show…coming to Athens was just this huge cultural experience of all of these incredible bands that have come out of here, and a lot of people that are full time musicians. It’s something that I’ve never been exposed to really. Athens has a huge part in my career and definitely was where it started.
VM: Do you think studying PR has helped with promotion, because people sometimes do that to learn how to promote themselves?
SB: Yeah, I think that was my justification of doing it. I came in Pre-Business, because it was tied to the Music Business program, and that was just too corporate and sterile for me and my creative side. With PR, there’s a little more creativity to that, like writing and graphic design. I think subconsciously, it helps. I don’t think about it, but yes – I think it was a useful thing. I wouldn’t say to someone who is in music to put all of your eggs in the basket of studying PR. There’s a lot of other things that could be useful.
VM: I do feel like it does change the way you think about things even if you don’t realize it, because I took a lot of PR classes, and I [worked in PR] for awhile. It helped me promote what I’m doing.
SB: I think one of the best things that I got from it was professionalism. I think a lot of musicians and people in music don’t have that, and I’m not aware of it at all…I think a lot of PR seemed common sense to me…that is a good point though; it’s definitely a useful thing, and it paired well with Music Business.
VM: Do you do all of the writing?
SB: Zach [Wells] recently, has started [writing]. I have done all of my writing. In August, Zach moved to Atlanta. I convinced him finally. I had been working on it for a little while, and he graduated in the spring, so I convinced him to move to Atlanta to do music full time as a project. He plays when we do the full band shows, and pretty much everything since August we’ve done as a duo at least. We started co-writing finally, and I’m super picky about co-writing, because I’m so possessive of songs that I’m a part of, but Zach is like this wall of criticism.
Zach Wells: I don’t really respond with “yes” or “no.” The ideas just bounce back until Sam makes it better.
SB: It’s like I’m running constantly into a wall, and eventually the wall turns into a comfy bed, and I’m like, “Okay, this is good.” Zach is like, “Eh, this sucks. That sucks. That sucks. That’s okay.” When he says, “That’s okay,” that’s when I feel good. We’ve actually co-written, more recently, some pretty active songs, and some of them are just me refining lyrics with him. I know one, we totally wrote together on a car trip. It’s been cool, but for the most part it’s been me writing. Also on the EP was me writing.
VM: What’s your process?
SB: I typically start off of a vibe. I have a guitar; I’ll be somewhere mentally, and just play something until I settle on something I like. I’ll just be vibing on a song or a musical idea, which most of the time is something on the guitar, but sometimes if I’m driving I’ll come up with melodies, and I’ll base it off of that. It starts off with just gibberish. Going off of the sound, the words starts to settle.
VM: So, it’s music first?
SB: Yeah! I don’t think I ever just sit down and write lyrics first, but the lyrics become a huge part once I’ve got the music. Then I really hone in on it. Also, there will be times when it just all comes out.
Not to get too real, but from both ends of the spectrum, one time I wrote this love song. All of a sudden, I had this idea and a few words, and then “boom” in an hour or less it was totally done, and I was happy with it. On the other end, I got broken up with recently. Same thing; I was driving and wrestling with this idea, and I got back to the apartment and had to get it out. I had been working on part of it, and it kind of clicked and broke through the wall, and it was all there. I think with writing, it’s total freedom, trying not to have a routine, because then it turns into not a creative process.
VM: What did you grow up listening to?
SB: I was the kid that listened to pretty much whatever my parents listened to, which I guess most kids were at the beginning. My dad was country radio and classic rock radio all the time. He had a kick of just Johnny Cash for a while, too. My mom was a 70’s funk disco child. I remember she would have these stair-stepping workout days in the basement, and I was home from preschool, and I would be down there, and she would swing me around, and she’d be listening to Earth, Wind & Fire, Michael Jackson, the Bee Gees. As far as the funk and the soul, that’s really come back for me. I listen to a lot of that stuff now, like Stevie Wonder and a lot of Motown artists, but then there’s this southern-folk side from my dad and everything he listened to. Those are the two juxtapositions of where the music I’m playing now is. There’s some folk and southern and this soul/funk bridging together.
I went through a singer/songwriter acoustic guy phase in high school, like Damien Rice and Jack Johnson and Ray LaMontagne.
Recently, I’ve been getting into a lot of new soul artists, like Allen Stone and Emily King. Zach and I have been falling in love with Emily King. Another cool thing, doing wedding bands, I’m learning new songs every week, like new jazz standards for cocktail hours and new funk Motown, or just pop, to keep that fresh. I think I’m pretty well rounded with the stuff I listen to, and I do like all of it.
It’s tricky to write a lot of different styles and then try to figure out how you turn that into what your sound is. I think we’ve really started to lock it in, playing together, which is really fun, and finding the people that can do that; finding people that can go from a shuffle beat to a groove and four on the floor.
VM: In three words, how would you describe your music to someone who hasn’t heard you before?
SB: Soulful folk.
VM: Three words or less.
SB: [Laughs] We like to separate the words “soul” and “full”…full soul folk.
VM: Tell me about being on American Idol.
SB: Ah, the cat’s out of the bag. I thought you would’ve lead with that one. Yes, I tried out for American Idol last summer. I’ll try to do the abbreviated version of this. I did it on a whim, because people wanted me to check it out. It was really fun, I did it, and I got through, and I kept getting through the rounds and realized, “Oh wow, this is a thing now.” I finally found myself in front of the judges, because it takes many times before what you see on TV actually happens. So, I got the ticket to Hollywood; it was this crazy, crazy time while I was in my last semester of college…
I turned down American Idol for many reasons, one being they wouldn’t let me put out my EP until a year after American Idol. I was just finishing up around that time, because I released it in February. So I thought, “That’s really uncool. I don’t want to do that.” So, I turned them down…this whole three-month span, I had to think about why I was doing music and what was important to me. It was tough. I had my council of wise people, talking to them about it. I talked to David Barbe a lot about it. I figured out what’s important is the organic nature of it, the personal connections of playing for somebody and having them really affected by what you’re doing, or having them connected to what you’re doing. Also, the behind the scenes connection of playing with people who are your friends and the relationships that music is about.
That was another thing – everybody that I played with, and that I wanted to play with, and all of my friends, family – everyone was here on the east coast, Atlanta, and South Carolina. It was this difficult realization, but it’s also really given me so much direction and grounding now. Now, we’re not signed to some label, we’re not doing any crazy things compared to [what we could have done], but we’re doing it our way.
I found Andy [Kahn] around the time this was going on, and we really connected. He wanted to be a part of this and help out, so he’s been managing. Zach decided to move to Atlanta, and these things are falling into place that are slow but right, and it feels great. No regrets about all that stuff.
I’m not trying to be like, “I nobly did this.” I really had no idea, and I was lucky to have people in my life that did have an idea. Honestly, it kind of wasn’t up to me. I feel like God lead me down this path.
VM: Tell me about your show [at Georgia Theatre in Athens] and UGA HEROs.
SB: UGA HEROs is an organization that is basically trying to improve the quality of life and help treat HIV/AIDS children in Georgia, which there are around 12,000 I think is the statistic for that. That’s really crazy, because you think of it as a third-world thing, and it’s important to help that, too, but this is immediate; these are our neighbors. They’re awesome, and if that’s not enough to get people to come out…it’s going to be a fun show…I’m excited to be a part of it and just to always play the Georgia Theatre. It’s my favorite place I’ve played; it’s a really special venue.
VM: It’s a great venue. What’s next for you after this?
SB: We’re excited. Like I was saying earlier, we’ve just locked in this full band group. Not everyone is going to be there tonight at the theater just because some guys couldn’t make it. We’ve got the people and the friends that are part of this full band thing, so we’re trying to figure out what to define that as. I think we’re all open to anything, but we’re going to move forward with that group of people, making a full-length record in 2015. There are no details on that. We’re talking to producers right now, and we’re developing a lot of new songs, which we’re super-pumped about. We’re playing a couple new songs tonight. We’ll be touring in the spring, just doing it the old-fashioned way, slowly but surely.
VM: How did you develop your voice? It’s a pretty unique singing style.
Thank you! I discovered it through a lot of fumbling around in the dark. The first way I started singing was just to sing like whatever I was listening to, whether it was the BeeGees, Jack Johnson, or Johnny Cash. Eventually, I realized what music I sucked at singing, and my voice settled into where it was comfortable. It’s an ongoing journey of course, and I’m really trying to continue to learn my voice and develop my craft of singing. There is always room to improve, which has kind of been my approach to singing.
VM: Do you have any other creative outlets besides music?
I never get to, but I like to work with my hands building things, too…Both of my grandparents were incredible carpenters. For me, LEGOs was my childhood passion until I picked up a guitar. Carpentry is a creative outlet I have yet to develop, but I could see my self whittling on a front porch and being really happy down the road. For now, music pretty much takes up all of the creative space in my life, which is the perfectly fine by me.
Emily is an over-enthusiastic lover of music, books, movies, fashion, and culture in general. Her love of music spans across all genres (what is a genre anymore? she waxes poetic to herself), though she was nursed on true punk and will never understand “redneck country” music – tractors are not and cannot be sexy. Emily currently lives in Brooklyn, NY and considers herself to be a great wit, though she is still waiting on validation from a credible source.
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