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Sam Shinazzi has delivered his strongest set of songs so far with the release of his fifth solo album, ‘Forever and Now’. In a rare interview with him, Malcolm Carter talks with Sydney-based Shinazzi
Sydney’s Sam Shinazzi deserves so much more than the singer/songwriter tag he’s often labelled with. Having recently released his fifth album, ‘Forever & For Now’, it’s more obvious than ever that Shinazzi is a storyteller who sets his words to music. Even though people and places close to his own heart inspire many of Shinazzi’s tales, his honest way of writing and describing events can’t fail to register with us all. Then there’s the feeling that Shinazzi is addressing his stories directly to you and only you. Again the honesty shows through in Shinazzi’s vocals> It’s like you’re in the room with Shinazzi, enthralled as his latest story unfolds.
It’s not just Shinazzi’s lyrics that define his talent; over the course of those five albums he has also developed something of a unique sound. Shinazzi has a singing voice that it’s impossible not to feel at ease with. While it’s not a voice that will stop you in your tracks, the warmth and sincerity that naturally flows whenever Shinazzi sings draws you into his tales instantly. Shinazzi, along with long-time producer Adam Wes Gregorace, have also created their own unique sound that perfectly compliments the singer’s vocals. There are sections during the opening song on Shinazzi’s latest album, a track titled ‘Go’, where the distinctive guitar sound that Shinazzi and Gregorace capture tells more of the story than Shinazzi’s lyrics can. That song also features another of Shinazzi’s traits. Almost the last minute and a half of the song is purely instrumental. It’s like Shinazzi expresses all he can vocally before he lets the music take over and finish his story. It is touches like that which make Shinazzi stand out from the crowd.
Through his songs we felt that we already had some kind of connection with Shinazzi, but in reality we knew little about the man other than he has, over the course of the last decade (and a little more) made some of the most inspiring, honest and beautiful music we’ve ever heard. So when given the opportunity to put a few questions to Shinazzi we jumped at the chance, as in his songs he’s given us an honest and fascinating glimpse into the world of Sam Shinazzi.
PB: Before 2005’s ‘Stories You Wouldn’t Believe’, which was where we came in, you released a couple of albums under the C-Minus Project name, yet they are sometimes referred to as your first solo albums. Did you regard them as solo works and, if so, why drop the name for future releases?
SS: I certainly do think of those two releases as solo work. I started playing solo shows under the name the C-Minus Project. The first recording is the mini-album 'Long Drive Home', pretty much just myself and some guitars, a very minimal sounding release. The debut album is 'Less Than Perfect Day', a much more layered and somewhat band sounding full-length album. Both are available on our BandCamp page.
On the debut, it's actually labelled Sam Shinazzi's C-Minus Project, which was me saying, "This is the name I've been playing under, but, hey, this is really my name." I knew I'd be going under my own name in the future, so I was thinking about that whilst also recognising a few years of previous musical history. I liked the name but I think it had outgrown my sound and everyone was obsessed with my real name anyway, so it seemed like the right thing to do.
PB: Were those albums, ‘Long Drive Home’ and ‘Less Than Perfect Day’, the first time your music was released or were you in other bands before?
SS: I grew up playing drums, from age 13. I actually consider myself a better drummer than guitarist. My first real band was just out of high school called Landspeed, a 3-piece indie-fuzz-slowcore kind of band. It lasted a jam packed two years, and we released a well-received EP and 7", as well as an unreleased second EP. We were young, a little wild and probably before our time.
As that was ending I was starting to write a lot of songs for the first time ever, and I started playing them as a three-piece with me on guitar and vocals, which was a huge change in my life and life changing too I should add. We called ourselves C-Minus. We released a split 7" with my heroes Smudge, and I released a few home recorded cassettes which was a dying platform but obviously a lo-fi movement institution and a great way for me to make my initial audience without having a record label behind me.
For a few years, not that long ago,I also played drums and tinkered with sounds in an act called Seaworthy, which is Cameron Webb's music. He writes brilliant instrumental soundscapes which I thoroughly recommend listening to, on the 12K label.
PB: Where do you find the inspiration for your songs, which are more like short stories set to music. Do you take a lot of your lyrics from personal experience?
SS: Yes, the vast majority of my songs are from personal experiences. That is not to say that some are not exaggerated in some instances, and some are about people I know or things that I see, but yes, the majority are all true stories. A lot of them are reminders of my life, and where I have been in life. In 'Scotty Come Home', I sing, "A special little song/Some words that linger and inspire/A reminder," and that kind of sums my songwriting up for me; memory is a huge part in how I write. It's also what makes the live shows so emotional, drawing back on these memories.
PB: You’ve co-written with Jenny Queen on three albums now. Are there any other collaborations we’ve not heard about?
SS: The co-writes with Jenny Queen are the main ones I have done when not writing for myself. I've had unreleased projects which I've written with talented friends and I have some unreleased songs I've got in mind for others ,but Jenny's songs are my main co-writes thus far. I had no interest in doing that sort of work. Then she changed my mind and since then I've always been keen to do more but am yet to do so. That time may come though.
PB: When writing with Jenny Queen do you start from scratch on a song or trade ideas you both might have had previously?
SS: With Jenny it has happened both ways. The first album I was pretty much involved with every song, so we really were putting music to her words and then on 'Lullabye for a Ghost' and 'Between the Riverbank and the Highway.' I'd bring her a complete song I'd written with her in mind and she'd add her touch to it. The rest of the albums she's been more direct with her melodies, so it's been more playing along and throwing in any ideas. We do have a knack for writing quick, and it's always fun. I love her like a sister.
PB: You’ve built up a strong local following and toured the USA. Have you ever toured in Europe? Do you have any plans for future touring outside of Australia?
SS. I've never been to Europe, let alone played shows sadly. I've been playing Australia my whole adult life one way or another. I've been very fortunate to play shows in American cities on four separate trips now, which have been great experiences.
The 'Stories You Wouldn’t Believe' album was well-received in Europe and I was close to touring several times. I certainly haven't ruled out coming over; I don't know if I'll make it on this album, but I won't rule anything out and I will always travel to play shows. We have some loyal listeners over there, from Spain through to England and all over parts of Europe. We are busy on social media and there's always clips of shows and exclusives for our worldwide supporters to absorb, so, although it's not the same as me showing up in your town, these days we are more connected as artists than ever before.
PB: There is definitely a Sam Shinazzi sound. That twangy guitar that decorates some of your songs is as much a part of your sound as your heartfelt vocals. Did you have that vision in your head originally or did it come from co-producer Adam Wes Gregorace?
SS: I've always wanted my own sound. I've tried extremely hard not to be overly influenced by an artist or genre to the point of it being a copy of someone else. I dislike that in other acts and swore I wouldn't let it happen to me. I know I sound like acts that I like, but nothing is ever a copy of those acts.
The twangy guitar harks back to the debut album, and really my love of country inspired music (alt-country, Americana, folk-rock: however you want to label it). It's been a standard for me since day one. I've had different guitarists on three of the five albums, but I think they've all respected that sound which suits my songs.
Wes and I share a lot of the same ideas and he does know my music inside out. He's co-produced and engineered almost everything except the debut album, so he absolutely should get any credit or praise for our recordings.
PB: There is always about 3 years between your albums. Do you ever revisit old songs to include on whatever album you are currently working on or are you constantly writing new songs towards the next one?
SS: It depends on the album. I definitely have included old songs but generally no. They are new songs written for a new album. The third album 'Then I Held My Breath' was written over a three week period, which was a successful experiment. But the last two albums were written over periods of time with the aim of recording an album. So on the latest one, the first track 'Go' was the first completed song and shaped the theme of the album. Track 9 'Lights Dim' was started years ago, but finished almost last for the album. But that was a rarity. With the other nine songs all were started and finished when writing for this album.
PB: Considering that your songs are little stories how long does it usually take for you to complete each one lyrically?
SS: Historically I've been a quick writer. I had the luxury of time and I could always finish a tune. Sometimes in an hour, sometimes a sixteen hour day. But as I've grown up, time gets rarer and I do find, much to my dislike, writing over months and in the case of 'Lights Dim', years. But that's okay. That's just how life is at the moment. For me, unless I'm 100% comfortable and happy with a lyric and/or the music, I won't call it finished.
PB: Lyrically the music that comes from Australia and makes an impression in Europe tends to be more descriptive, painting a more vivid picture than most of your European contemporaries. It’s like you absorb more from your surroundings than we do. Do you feel that your environment influences your music?
SS: For me environment is everything, but not necessarily perhaps the way I think you may be asking me. The people in the songs, their environment is extremely important in the way I write. And I do like to describe surroundings. Is it an Australian thing? I'm not sure. I've certainly sung about Australia ('Wyoming'), and we do have a unique place down here. But as a general theme, environment is important in setting a scene and telling a story, absolutely.
PB: Although we’ve probably dropped in a few names in our reviews of your albums, there’s not one overtly obvious influence in there. Which artists inspire you?
SS: I always go back to music that I adored, and still do, when I started writing songs. A lot of the Boston bands like Buffalo Tom, Lemonheads, Dinosaur Jr...they were a huge inspirations and still are. And the artists who influenced them, like the Replacements and Husker Du, also really inspired me years after they were around. A lot of them, in hindsight, had the twangy country sound in small doses. The Cure were big for me too, but really it's one guy and that is Bruce Springsteen. My first ever album in life was ‘Born in the USA’ and to this day, he's my favourite artist and still dominates my world. But I'm flattered you think I have my own sound; it is really important to me, so thank you for saying so.
PB: ‘Until Sunrise’ from ‘Stories You Wouldn’t Believe’ was featured in the TV series ‘The Unit’. How did that materialise? Did it help your career in any way do you feel?
SS: Laughing Outlaw Records were in touch with an American television sync person, and it happened through that connection. I am obsessed with TV, always have been, so it was a huge thrill for me. I've seen the stats on where it has been shown, so a lot of folks in a lot of cities worldwide have seen that show.
It didn't change my life or anything, but it was an aim (and still is) to have my music in TV and film, so it was rewarding. The publishing has also helped fund more recordings and so forth, so it was certainly a worthwhile experience and one I am thankful for.
PB: Will there be a three year wait for the next album?
SS: I hope not. It just tends to be that way - A release date, a year and a half promoting it, writing and recording new songs, and then the release details. But I already have ideas for new songs so I am hoping it won't be three years. Having said that, I'm a great believer in promoting an album as best, and as long, as I can. They deserve as long a life span as possible.
PB: What plans do you have for the rest of 2015 regarding your music?
SS: The priority is playing shows anywhere I can, as best I can. Our live show these days gets good praise and we feel it when we play. We love doing it. For me it's an amazingly emotional release and generally a really fun thing to do. But I would like to work on new ideas too. The focus though, will be promoting this album. Shows, videos, social media ...whatever we can do to help get out album out to the world.
I encourage you to join us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, as we are always doing exclusive things on there. Our website looks new and shiny too, and all our music is available on our BandCamp page.
PB: Thank you.
Photos by Brett Fusedale/FADE