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Greyhound Dreams: An Interview With Sam Russo

12/10/2015 15:27 BST | Updated 11/10/2016 10:12 BST

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Specialist Subject Records

Sam Russo is a songwriter I have often returned to. His songs have soundtracked my journeys running to catch the last tube, and when inevitably it turns out I've missed it, catching the night bus home. They capture a vulnerability that suits late nights. Greyhound Dreams, his new record, has this distinct feel. Like the best black coffee, autumn walks and Hemingway novels, Greyhound Dreams beats with a familiarity that is both comforting and exhilarating.

But it's an album that hasn't come easy. With setbacks and falsestarts, Greyhound Dreams has been 3 years in the making. It was worth waiting for.

1) It's been 3 years since you recorded your debut album Storm. Coming back to record this new album, what do you feel has changed and what have you learned second time around?

Recording Storm was a pretty intense experience. JG Harding, one of my oldest friends, recorded it and we just piled in there and went crazy for five days. Some of it felt perfect to me, some of it felt a little rushed, but all in all I love how it came out because it captures the spirit of the songs perfectly. It sounds broken down when it needs to, and it sounds calm when it needs to. Little things really made it for me, like the wind chimes you can hear in the background - we picked those up outside the window by accident and left them on because they sound really beautiful, there's breaks in my voice where I was getting upset and some of the drums sound completely crazy because my friend Marty recorded them after I'd recorded guitars without a click track, and all of that contributes to the roughness that I really love on that album, but it's taken time for me to learn to love those imperfections.

Going into Greyhound Dreams I wanted to take a stripped back approach and I decided I'd try and keep it sparse and trust the songwriting to hold it's own. Time is always against me too, we only had 3 days to nail the new record so I went in very well rehearsed and ready in my head to let it flow more and have a less rigid idea of how it should sound. Just more ready to let things roll. I get very nervous and I let the pressure get to me at times - I've talked to lots of my friends who sing and I've got a lot of advice over the last couple of years about how to handle recording. Most people tell me I just need to relax a little! I try and use every emotion I'm feeling behind the mic and I found myself delivering more subtle vocal takes on Greyhound Dreams, I was taking a different approach to what I'd intended the song to sound like and at times I had no idea what was going to come out of my mouth and I really found it exciting just trusting my gut and seeing what happened.

Sometimes I ended up holding back, but on the whole it came out really natural sounding and a lot more true to the lyrics. it's really hard to explain, but I think if you listen to the two records you can hear that I'm enjoying singing much more on Greyhound Dreams.. When I recorded Storm I was pretty broken up and down, nowadays I feel like I understand myself a bit better. There's a little more light in my heart. That's not to say that Greyhound Dreams is a 'happy' record, people keep asking me that as if Storm was really negative; I don't believe that there's any such thing as a sad song, it's all about how you hear it and I just hear these songs with more hope.

2) Greyhound Dreams has taken quite a while to get right. I think I remember you mentioning that you had to completely re-record it. Why was that and what tone were you trying to capture with the album?

I got it so wrong the first time. I went into an ancient church with Jules and we recorded the album live, single takes, freezing cold with a load of broken gear and it just sounded too harsh. I don't know why I thought it would work, I think I wanted so badly to make sure it would sound lonely and stripped down that I went overboard and put myself and Jules in a pretty impossible situation.

Jules gave it his all, I did too, it just didn't feel right. We were freezing cold and miserable in there and that really affected the performance and the sound. That's why I was so glad Tim Greaves was up for taking the record on. Tim recorded it in his house in Southsea, he was a completely calming influence, he has an incredible ear for the kind of sound I was after, he understood that I wanted to work hard and fast and he made absolutely everything easier for me. He worked all night and really pushed himself and we became really close. It's a pretty intimate record and I felt really comfortable handing it over to Tim right away, it takes a special kind of trust to be able to do that I think. I owe a lot to Tim for what he gave to the record.

After the first failed shot I was even more nervous than usual and he made me feel right at home, he let me try new things with my voice and he knew when to draw the line if I was freaking out over something minor. His partner El Morgan sings on a lot of the new tunes, and we got Kelly Kemp over to sing on some tracks too - she plays violin on the record as well and all three of them pulled together to get everything sounding the way it does. El is one of the most amazing technical singers I've ever heard - she can hear 3 harmonies in her head at once and then record each one first take. It's mind blowing to someone like me. Kelly has been a hero of mine since I was about 16 and having her finally sing on my songs is a complete dream - her voice has always been one of my all time favourites and just watching her going at it, singing my words and throwing her whole body into it was incredible. I can't wait for people to hear what those ladies brought to the record. Roo Pescod plays some piano too - I've wanted to make music with Roo since the second I met him so I'm really looking forward to people hearing what we came up with. He's on a really sad love song called Moving North that I took about two years to write. James Hull sings on Western Union too - that's an old tune we wrote together and I think it sounds so good with his voice on it. I think if I'd put that first version of the record out I'd have missed out on so much. Lucky escape.

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Specialist Subject Records

3) In that interim between your debut album and Greyhound Dreams, you've toured hard and shared many a stage with Tim Barry and Cory Branan. Tim and Cory are known as a road warriors and part of that Revival Tour family. What was it like touring with them and being included in that circle of acoustic hard touring songwriters?

Feels great. They're two of my favourite songwriters of all time and to get to share so much time and so many miles and to be able to call them friends is a huge honour. You learn a lot touring with guys like Tim and Cory. Not to mention, as a fan, just getting to see them play every night is such a treat. I love opening for those guys and I feel very lucky to know them. Touring the south east of the US with Tim was wild. He guided me through so much crazy weirdness and told me so many stories, showed me so many places and really took me under his wing. He gives so much. Just being around Tim while he does his day to day shit is inspiring. He puts more soul into stringing his guitar than most people do playing theirs. He's truly one of the most loyal, hardworking and honest people I've ever known.

When I first met Cory he was getting engaged and I've toured with him since he's been married and since his son was born and since he's had some success, so being around all that has been pretty wonderful. It's just great to see a friend find happiness. He's a hell of a lot of fun to be around on the road and he has this genius streak that just flies out of him. Watching him play guitar is just a daily joy and the way he writes lyrics just blows my mind. I can't wait for his next record, having heard the ideas he's kicking around I think it's going to be a masterpiece. I'm lucky to know them both.

4) You've toured the US a few times, collaborated with American musicians and American culture seems to feature a lot on this new record. As an English songwriter what's it like touring America? Are there noticeable cultural differences or does being a musician transcend them?

Touring America is like a dream. I'm a big fan of Americana and it's great being able to tour over there and see it all for myself. I've made friends over there now too so it's always such a joy to get to see people and catch up. I love dive bars, I love seeing the desert, the long drives suit me, I could live forever in motels and I really get lost in the romantic side of the culture that I think you can only really see if you're a foreigner - it seems a little lost on a lot of Americans these days!

As a kid I always fantasised about travelling across the USA and to have been able to do it through music has been amazing. The cultural differences are so funny, everything seems exaggerated in the US; bigger, louder, crazier, and that can be tiring, but it' so worth it. There's nothing like a 46oz Bud-Lite Lime-a-Rita and a Denny's Lumberjack Slam to get you ready for the day! I'm kidding. A bit. My experiences over there have been almost completely positive, I can't even describe how lucky I feel to have been able to do the things I've done and see the things I've seen, and I think that comes through on the record. Most obviously in Forever West which is about this time I woke up in the van at 5am as we pulled into a motel in Rawlins, Wyoming. everyone else went to bed but I was wide awake and excited to be there so I went to the motel bar and drank with some crazy old Indians and a Mexican race horse owner for a few hours. I walked to the Frontier prison and I jumped on a freight train for a mile or so and walked back - all before anyone had even woke up yet. You don't get to do that in Haverhill, Suffolk, so when I'm there I want to soak up everything.

All the local bars, the food, the people and their stories it all bleeds into my writing. Western Union is about New York and Holloway. Being down and out in both. Me and James Hull just mixed up our notes and lyrics until there was a narrative and then I came up with a chorus and a sing along. It was a lot of fun mixing up the two places and comparing the feelings of being lost in New York and being locked out in Holloway. Runaways is about being on the road and wanting it to last forever, being in love and never wanting to let go. I don't think being a musician transcends anything for me - mainly because I don't define myself as a musician when I'm touring, or ever really, I just try to be myself and approach the whole thing with an open mind. Which usually works out well, sometimes you get in a tight spot but most of the time it works out fine! If anything being there because of music just makes it more romantic.

Sam Russo-Western Union

5) There are a few motifs that seem to creep into your songs quite frequently, like being on the move, underdog spirit and escaping small towns. The songs feel very personal, when you write them is it a process of catharsis and why do those themes seem to pop up a lot?

It's really cathartic when you get it right, when you fail it's awful. I think I rely on writing a little too much. I know that sounds wet but it's true. If I don't write all week I'm a mess and if I write really badly I beat myself up over it, but when something clicks and it comes out right - I've never found a feeling that matches it.

Sometimes what comes out is a total surprise. Like when I wrote Nobody's Fool I just had no idea what I was trying to say I just knew I wanted to talk about how people in love hurt eachother and I wrote down 'nothing ever heals you're just lucky if the pain fades.' That wasn't a thought or an opinion I'd formed, it just came out and I realised that I'd been feeling that for a long time - that you get over things because the feeling fades to a manageable level, not because you've healed. The pain's always with you, just not as bad. Things like that keep me writing. Knowing that if I keep going and going I'll say something I consider meaningful. I rarely sit down to write a song about something in particular and I think what happens is a theme comes up, and I just run with it.

There are a lot of different types of song on Greyhound Dreams, but the theme of dreaming to escape something kept coming up so I just kept letting it. It was on my mind and the more room I gave it the more it grew. I've always written about the underdogs, on Greyhound Dreams there's a song about a girl who's boyfriend beat her up and left her - she's terrified he'll come back and even more terrified he won't. She's a mess and she wants to be strong but she's struggling. I'm inspired by that type of person far more than someone with their shit together. That's why I write about them because I feel better when I'm around them. if I write them, I'm there and every time I sing the song I get to go back, which can be painful but it's also very comforting. I also very rarely write something that's total fiction. almost everything I write comes straight from my life. For better or for worse! I always daydream about escaping, I think most people do - that's why I love the first drive of tour when you leave town - you feel free and that's a very powerful feeling if you spend a lot of time not feeling that way. It all makes it's way into my note book and eventually into a song.

6) You're about to hit the road with Dan Andriano. How did you guys learn of each other and plot this tour?

We met years ago at a Revival tour show in London - I think it was 2011 - and I'd obviously always been a huge fan and I knew all the words to his tunes so I kept jumping up and singing with him and we talked for ages afterwards and when he offered me the tour with him and Brendan I jumped at the chance. We just hit it off on that tour and stayed in touch since - he and Brendan asked me to join the Falcon as an honorary member onstage at the London show which was a pretty huge deal for me and ever since I've just been waiting to hit the road with him again. This time around I'm supporting and playing guitar in The Emergency Room with Andrew Horne on bass and Hamish Adams on drums [both from Bangers], plus we have Garth from BRO on keys and BRO are opening all the shows. It's going to be so fun - I'm learning all the tunes as we speak and it's a big challenge for me because I'm not a lead player - I've barely touched an electric guitar in 2 years so it's a real crash course but I'm getting there slowly! I can't wait, it really is going to be such a great show. Dan's new record is so good - it has this amazing Smiths esque cadence but it's such a solid rock record. It's great, a bit of a classic in my book.

7) You're fairly heavily tattooed. Do all your tattoos have meaning, what style do you prefer and is there a specific artist you like?

They all mean something yes. I don't really know much about tattoos but I know I like quite bold and simple imagery. I really like Mike and Chris Stockings, Oliver Peck, Jemma Jones, actually I like a lot of artists, too many to name probably. I like to be impulsive with my tattoos - Jon Daly gave me a sad girl smoking a cigarette, sitting with a bottle and a sunset recently which I love. He did it in the kitchen at a show in Norwich - doesn't get much greasier than that does it! It's solid black and I love that style. I got my brother's name recently, a harp from a trip to Dublin, I have several to do with various heartbreaks. I love tattoos, I know it's dumb and everything but I can't help myself - ever since I was a kid I just wanted a load of blown out green bad ass tattoos all over me! I admire tattoo artists and I spend a lot of time at my friend Mike Stocking's shop - it's great being around so much creativity and talent and daring. My favourite tattoo is my 'L-star' that Brian Venable from Lucero gave me in London - when he showed it to Ben he said 'Man, Sam that is one sad, sad sparkle.' I gave myself an Apologies, I Have None tattoo too, that means a lot. It looks like complete shit but I love it. That's my philosophy on tattoos summed up!

Sam Russo-Forever West

8) What's been your experience of the DIY circuit and how has it impacted you as a musician?

It's great - I'm a big fan of DIY. I've done an awful lot for myself over the years! I do worry that something being DIY has become an excuse to not put a lot of effort in, and I worry even more that 'punk' has become a scapegoat for anything half arsed and crap - but at it's core, and when it's done with the passion and enthusiasm it deserves, it's very powerful and extremely rewarding.

9) Instrumentally, your songs usually have little fanfare. Often it's just an acoustic guitar, your vocals and some backing vocals. Why do you choose to strip things back to their most intimate state?

Yeah by that measure it's very DIY! I don't have a band and everything I write is just me and my guitar because that's all I have. When I get some more time and who knows even some money I might be able to do some full band stuff but right now it's just me and my guitar! I do like the sound and I like being able to dictate the pace and it affords you a lot of freedom - but it gets lonely and it's a bit limiting dynamically. I'm hoping to do some full band songs on the Dan tour. That would be great fun.

10) Finally, with Greyhound Dreams about to be released can we expect a UK tour soon and if so when?

After the Dan tour I'll be looking to book more shows. I have four release shows booked for the 17th of October in Haverhill, the 28th in London, 30th in Manchester and the 31st in Cambridge. Beyond that, I don't know, but I'm living for it!

Greyhound Dreams is out now on Specialist Subject Records. You can, and indeed should, get ithere