by: Thomas D. Mooney
We caught up with up-and-coming Texas music songwriter Sam Riggs last week. Riggs is only one album and couple of EPs into his music career, but has been able to blend mature songwriting elements with unfiltered youth aggression that few have been able to. At the core, it’s refined rock and roll with some country and roots added for good measure.
At this point, Riggs has been able to really capture life as a twenty-year-old in Modern America. Life in the fast lane. On the flip side, there’s the songwriter’s songwriter in there. The Tall Texan (by this point, the Florida native is at the very least, an honorary Texan) is easily one of the rising stars in modern country rock music.
Sam Riggs & The Night People are playing The Office (Friday, Nov 21). Watch/Listen to the official music video for “Hold On And Let Go” below.
New Slang: You guys have been pounding pavement basically all year. It feels like you’ve been on tour for forever. Have you had a chance to catch your breath and take it all end? Maybe a moment of appreciation? Outrun The Sun has been a pretty good record for you.
Sam Riggs: It’s funny you should ask that. I was just talking with someone about that whole “looking back over your shoulder” and seeing where you came from and how important that is. It’s not to toot your own horn, but it’s important to see the dynamics and the road you’ve come down so you won’t forget. This whole thing is a slippery slope and it’s easy to slip back down. It has been a long road to here and it’s been more explosive than I ever imagined it being. It feels like we tweaked Outrun the Sun a thousand times and it’s a thousand times better than I imagined it could have been. Catching your breath out on the road, it’s almost impossible. I’ve been flying around and doing a lot of writing and getting ready to start on this next record. You step off the plane and step in the van to do the next show. I’ll do laundry in the next town. I have a few days off this week. Sometimes I feel like I’m losing my mind and that’s when it’s great to have those days off. Yesterday, I felt like I was coming down with an upper respiratory thing so today I’ve made some homemade chicken soup and been watching Harry Potter all day [laughs]. Somedays, you have to just say you’re not doing anything.
NS: [Laughs]. I know what you mean. Are you one of those guys who is able to write out on the road? You able to work on something in the van or do you just take notes and have to work at home?
SR: If the inspiration is strong enough, I’m able to write something out on the road, but most of the time when I come up with a chorus, a line, or premise, I have to sit down and really focus. I have to close the door to the world really. It’s hard to do that on the road.
NS: Yeah. This has been one of the questions I’ve been throwing out to a bunch of people lately. It feels as though there’s so many distractions on the road–not even crazy after party rock star shit either. Just soundcheck, checking in the motel, eating dinner, stopping here for gas. It’s the guys with families who are more so able to find a way to write on the road.
SR: Yeah. It’s funny you say that. Cory Morrow, we’ve become closer over the last year or so and he’s in that situation now. He invited me to write with him up on the bus on the way to Steamboat. We’ve been trying to plan a writing day for the last three months. If I’m not doing something, he’s somewhere or vice versa. But we’re going to step to the back of the bus and try to carve out a couple of songs. For him, that’s a place where he can get that done. You know, we’re in a van–and will be for a while–but I can see in the back of a bus being a lot easier than trying to write in the backseat of a van [laughs]. At home, for me, I find that I do the best when I go somewhere else. So my management and booking is through Red 11 in Austin. They have an office so I’ll call up there and ask if the conference room is being used and I’ll go up there with some stuff and lock the door. It kind of helps me when I do seclude myself away from the world. You don’t feel the pressure of time. You kind of write yourself a blank check for time.
NS: How do you prepare for a co-write session? You someone who likes to bring half-written songs you’re struggling to finish or more let’s create something from a blank slate. What’s your typical approach?
SR: I’ve done all of that. I’ve walked in with a half-written song and we knock it out. I’ve gone in with just a few ideas and we pick one. Sometimes without anything. Normally with that, we’ll just talk for a while. You just have to know there’s not any pressure to write a song. At the very least, you’ve become better friends with someone and maybe that’ll help down the line. That happened recently with a guy named Joel Shewmake. He co-wrote “Baby’s Blue” with Cody Johnson. We’d both been up and out the night before at places and came in a little haggard. We just sat there and talked about writing and how it can both feel like a chore and the best feeling in the world. I said that it can feel like chasing a ghost and that line, it led to us writing a song called “Ghost.” The hook of the song, it kind of talks about her memory hanging around the house. There’s all these different elements you can bring in, but the most important when it comes to a co-write is being able to hit the ball back–if that makes sense. Example, if I’m writing with Cory and I this line, he can come back with the next line or part of the stanza that’s just as good as what I said–or even better. You want to be able to bounce things back and forth. Another thing is direction. Like when I sit down with Trent Willmon, one of the things he and I like to do is define story. We talk about the character, what they’re feeling, where they’re heading, where they’ve been.
NS: Yeah. To me, that’s important. It’s great to really know what this person is doing outside the song. Who are they before and after this song. Obviously it doesn’t mean any of that stuff needs to be in the song, but you’re able to understand the character more. You’ll be working on the next album pretty soon. About how many songs do you feel like you have already?
SR: I’d say in the chamber, I have about six good ones. There’s one or two that I feel really good about and the rest I just really like. I want to do something that I’ve never done before. I want to go in with a surplus. I want this album to be as good as it possibly can be. I’m no willing to sacrifice that. I’m not wanting to be bias towards my own writing either. There’s a couple of songs I’m looking at. One is from a guy named Adam James. He wrote a song called “Dixie Crystal” and it’s about meth and destruction it causes in these small towns. You know, I grew up in Florida and that was a huge thing back in my hometown. Ruins so many people and families. That kind of hit home for me and I asked him if I could record it for the next album. There may be a few others that I didn’t write, but I really want to go in with about 20 songs that I feel are contenders and see which kind of come out in the lead.
NS: Well with that, do you not want to have a time limit on when it comes out? You feel like you’ll wait until you have those 20 songs or you feel any pressure to start cutting it as soon as possible?
SR: No not really. If I don’t get to 20, I’m still going to go in and cut 10 or 11 of those songs I have. We’re looking at doing so in the spring. You know, with Outrun the Sun, I had 15 or 16 songs, but some of them were obviously not going to make it. I feel like an album should be looked at like a collection of short stories. They don’t have to all be intertwined, but they should flow well top to bottom. It’s a fine line to walk.
NS: So of those six songs you’re really excited about now, you playing any of them live right now or you holding back?
SR: Yeah. We’re big believers in road testing. You’ve got to feel out a song. You have to try it out on stage and see how it feels. That really does help out in the recording process too. You’ve already started shaping it. There’s a song we play right now called “Secondhand Smoke.” We’ve come a long way since the first time we started playing it.
NS: So you got The Night People from a line in a Ray Wylie Hubbard song. Obviously, those lines struck a chord with you. So if someone were to name their band after a line from a Sam Riggs song, what’re the best options?
SR: [Laughs]. I don’t even know. I have no idea. I’d probably look at them the same way Ray looked at me when I told him, “Well…it’s your band…I hope you don’t regret it[laughs].”
NS: [Laughs]. I really thought you were going to suggest Secondhand Smoke. Blah Blah Blah and The Secondhand Smoke.
SR: Oh yeah. That’d be great. For us, The Night People really did fit. It’s about musicians and it’s like a nice reminder. Ray’s been this guy who’s had such an impact on what we’re doing. His songwriting, it’s almost like a handbook or textbook for me. It’s almost biblical. When I’m looking to get back to true originality, I look at Ray. He knows so much about good and honest rock and roll. This new record he’s working on, it’s just incredible. He never stays in one place too long and he just never seems to run out of ideas. He’s got that one chord thing, but that works for him. He likes to say “I may be a one trick pony, but it’s a damn good trick [laughs].”