A Conversation with Sam Talmadge

Sam Talmadge is a songwriter, fingerpicker, and occasional piano player based in Boston. With musical influences ranging from Beethoven to Elizabeth Cotten, Sam’s candid lyrics add a humorous flare that is uniquely his own. You may have seen Sam around town playing with his bands Ruthless Moon and DOGART.

But recently, Sam has also been recording and performing solo. After seeing Sam play a solo show a couple of months ago, I was struck by his set of the most mundane and depressing lyrics. It’s refreshing to hear songs that are relatable in an everyday sense. Sam has a way of both making meaning and finding humor in the routine. I chatted with Sam about how he wrote the songs on his new album I lived in a basement.

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Gabi Mendick: What does your writing process look like?

Sam Talmadge: It usually is pretty much the same every time, I’ll come up with a melody based off of the sound of what’s on the guitar or sometimes the piano. And there’s one moment that I’ll sort of be waiting for when the words will just kind of come. Not a whole song, for “Randall” it was, “Randall half man, half superstition,” and then I knew what the rest of the song was going to be about. And just from saying those words I knew this would be a fairy tale about this guy who’s a prick who will live in a castle, then he’ll die and go to heaven and then get sent to hell. That’s pretty much it; I have an idea in the beginning and I quickly in my mind sketch out what the whole song is going to be. I like writing songs that have a feeling of time passing, like writing stories as opposed to just writing vaguely about a moment. Most of the songs on the album are stories.

GM: Is “Randall” based on a real person?

Sam: It was. I don’t usually turn real experiences into something like a fairy tale. I usually just keep the real experience. But “Randall”- I was at my friend’s house and my friend’s brother was a Northeastern student that was getting a job at BP and he was reading a textbook that was part of BP’s internship program and it had some stuff about climate change and they were really stressing that it’s possible that it’s a correlation or how it’s an improvable thing, blah blah blah, that it’s not real. I got in an argument with him and we just yelled at each other for a long time about this. And then I went home, picked up the guitar, played a chord, and then said those words and it was like, “That’s it.”

GM: Is his name really Randall?

Sam: It’s not. His name isn’t really conducive to a good name to a song. I don’t know why Randall.

GM: It’s a good choice. Did you send it to him after?

Sam: I didn’t. I’ve played it for him. I don’t think he knows it’s about him. Well, I haven’t played it for him- he’s been at shows where I’ve played that song, and I don’t think he knows it’s about him. But “Randall” is definitely different for me; it’s one of like two political songs that I’ve written. I usually just like writing about stupid sad things that happen everyday.

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GM: Speaking of stupid sad things that happen everyday, where does that writing come from?

Sam: I don’t know, it wasn’t always that way. Two years ago I was writing songs that were very vague and kind of poetic or mysterious or whatever, but at some point I wrote one song that was about going into a coffee shop and really wanting to talk to someone but not talking to them and that happening over and over again. I did that once and I was like, “that felt really good. I feel like this is the best thing I’ve done,” so I kept doing it. Songs started happening faster because there are way more real life experiences that I have available to me than crazy, poetic, fantastic ideas. And so I wrote a song about that, and then one about breaking up with someone, one about being in a basement, one about being hungover.

GM: Are there songwriters who have influenced you to move in that direction?

Sam: The most influential songwriters in my life right now are the two people I’m in a band with that write songs, Caroline Kuhn and Elise Leavy. I’m not sure that they necessarily made me want to write things that are more realistic and specific to day-to-day life, but they definitely made me want to write songs that are more honest. I felt like I was writing a lot of songs that had nothing to do with my life. One songwriter that I based “Randall” off of is John Prine. The structure is based on the song Sam Stone, a song about a heroin addict dying after coming home from serving in Vietnam. He wrote songs about feeling alone, or about failing relationships, writing about the elderly and how they see the world. He was the big inspiration to write songs that are kind of funny and kind of tongue in cheek.

The songs I’ve been doing for a while have been very word for word, direct, and usually very accessible. I think things are changing a little bit right now. The ideas I’m having for songs are starting to move back towards writing a little more, not vaguely- I never want to write a vague song- but a little less direct. So, that’s exciting, I feel like this is a big phase. After I played all of those songs on Friday, I just wanted to start writing differently.

GM: Is that a natural shift that’s happening?

Sam: Usually some kind of life event happens that initiates some kind of transformation. There was one summer I was writing a lot of weird, poetic, almost literary and kind of dumb songs. I don’t like them anymore. But I wrote all of these songs and then I went on this really long road trip with a stranger all the way around the country from Burlington to Kentucky to Wyoming to Seattle and back. It was this really crazy thing that I did. I’ve never done anything that interesting, and after I came back my writing was completely different. Something about that trip made me want to write about mundane shit. And something is probably going to happen in the next few months that is going to make me do something different.

GM: It’s interesting that such a big event made you write in a more mundane way, not in a bigger way.

Sam: After that I just started writing differently. Before that my writing was kind of spiritual. I was in a place where I was really interested in religion and scripture. I was writing songs that were very wishy washy and about God and stuff. It was about this universal experience, the experience of everyone and everything. And then after this trip, you go to these small towns in Kentucky or Montana and you just meet people that work and they want to talk to you and tell you their story. It made me want to write smaller; I really wanted to narrow down what it was I wanted to say.

I’ve always been obsessed with just one thing, I get really obsessed and don’t do anything else until I’ve worn it out or some big life event happens. I feel overdue for a change, so I’m waiting for some big thing that will make me reevaluate everything.
 

Our First Year in Review!

I can hardly believe it, but today marks a year of Cornerscape. It has been a year of excitement, growth, hard work, great music and (of course) some challenges and setbacks. There were the highlights: creating fun events that give a new platform to artists, collaborating with incredible thinkers, working with artists who inspire us daily, and adding two people to the Cornerscape team. And then there were the challenges: first-year growing pains, tweaking what kinds of projects we focus on, the inevitable mistake here and there. A year in, I’m even more excited to keep growing this company, collaborating with other people and organizations, and bringing new creative experiences to the Boston area.

In honor of Cornerscape’s first year, here are some photos from the last twelve months, including a bunch from our first year of creative events:

Outside of these events, I've been working with artists to help them prepare for crowdfunding campaigns, booking music for some corporate events, and consulting with local arts organizations. This spring I started managing musician Mark Erelli, after working with him on his 2017 Kickstarter campaign. It's been a wide-ranging year, and each experience has helped me figure out where to best focus our energies. 

So what's next? 2018 will see way more original events, including Local Behavior Music Festival, a new, multi-genre music festival of all women artists coming this October. This spring we're launching Music on the Menu, a series connecting three of our favorite things: music, food, and conversation. And we've got some collaborations and partnerships in the works that I'm really excited about. :)

Year 2, here we come!

Cornerscape's Top Tracks and Albums of 2017

Alex Eggleston tells you what we've been digging

This past year was a pretty big one for me - I finished my Master’s degree in Music Business at Northeastern University, and just wrapped up a gig with Island Records in their A&R research department. The work was tough but awesome, and it felt like I was moving at a breakneck speed all year that mirrored the pace of the news landscape. Between ever-breaking scandals and perpetual political turmoil, it could be a challenge to stay on top of pop culture and musical happenings this year. However, there were quite a few gems, and I feel lucky to have gotten to dig some of them up as part of my job. Here are a few of the artists, songs, and albums we were digging at Cornerscape this year: 

Phoebe Bridgers - Stranger in the Alps
Kristina and I absolutely gush over this 23-year-old singer-songwriter’s debut LP Stranger in the Alps. A beautiful collection of delicate songs about intimacy and consequences that manage to feel at once conversational and deeply significant, Stranger gathers together the moments that make up a relationship, beginning to end and beyond. The nostalgic “Motion Sickness” is one of the loveliest breakup songs of 2017, and “Scott Street” is a rambling anthem of 20-somethingdom that I find completely bewitching. Check out the “Motion Sickness” video below.

Francis and the Lights - “May I Have This Dance (Remix)”
One of the most infectious and groove-able tracks of the year, this superb remix featuring 2017’s Certified Golden Boy, Chance the Rapper, “May I Have This Dance” is getting exquisite oddball producer, songwriter, and frontman Francis Farewell Starlite (performing under the moniker Francis and the Lights) some well deserved critical attention and airplay. Francis, with Chance’s help, enchants with frenetic professions of love and one of the most endearingly choreographed music videos of the year, which you have to check out.

SZA - CTRL
If I thought I had a pretty big year, SZA’s 2017 must have felt unbelievably massive. In the R&B singer’s first major label offering, SZA, born Solana Rowe, pushes the boundaries of her genre while pulling the audience into the emotional and messy intricacies of her love life. And this year, the whole world sat up and took notice. Taking on the late night circuit, a feature on Maroon 5’s “What Lovers Do” (which is never not stuck in my head, by the way), a headlining North American tour, and performing on SNL, SZA went from underground favorite to a member of the vanguard of a new, R&B-infused movement in mainstream pop. On CTRL, SZA turns inwards and mines her experiences in love and growing up for songs that combine stylistic influences as diverse as Mary J. Blige and Jimmy Eat World to create a grimy, effervescent, boundary-pushing album. Watch the video for “The Weekend”, directed by Solange, below.

Maggie Rogers - Now That the Light is Fading
Another delightful debut by a young female singer-songwriter, Now That the Light is Fading by 23-year-old Maggie Rogers is the culmination of a fairytale discovery story that began when pop producer extraordinaire Pharrell Williams first heard her song “Alaska” in an NYU listening session. Pharrell fell in love with it, and so followed a bidding war over the young performer that landed her at Capitol Records. Standouts from the EP are the ballad of self-discovery “Alaska”, and the cool and buoyant “Dog Years”. Watch the “Alaska” video here and check out Pharrell digging on an early version of it below.

HAIM - Something to Tell You
With this long-awaited follow up to their 2013 debut, the Haim sisters don’t just escape the sophomore slump, they leave any notion of it in the dust. The percussive melodies that drive this album and make it so easy to jam along are a nod to the fact that all three sisters got their musical start behind a drum kit, and the dreamy, poppy storytelling on tracks like “Kept Me Crying” and “Want You Back” tell of a diary kept via song. To me, HAIM is one of the most exciting bands to watch because of the way they so effortlessly belay the mantle of “girl band” - they are feminine, fiercely intelligent rock stars who write hooks so catchy they bounce around my head for days. Check out the entirely charming video for “Want You Back”. 

Kendrick Lamar - DAMN.
It seems like Kendrick can’t put out an album without it landing on almost every “best of” list around, and for good reason. Kendrick has proven himself as mainstream rap’s master storyteller, and this time around, the story he’s telling is his own. With a more personal lens than he used on 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar raps about love, loyalty, and what it’s like to grow up having to constantly defend yourself from the threats of your daily surroundings. He swings effortlessly from muted, crooney flows on songs like “LOVE.” to sharp, fast, punchy bars on “HUMBLE.” and “D.N.A.” DAMN. is a raw, emotional, gorgeous, and completely addicting statement of self. Check out the video that spawned a million snapchat copycats for “HUMBLE.” here, and the video for “D.N.A.” that’s really gonna put this Don Cheadle guy on the map below. 

Kristina speaks with Gender Avenger about Boston's Music Scene

A few weeks ago, I had the real pleasure of speaking with Jen Vento at Gender Avenger about the exciting (and sometimes frustrating) things happening in Boston's music scene these days. What Gender Avenger does is extremely cool - they work to make sure that women are equally represented in the public dialogue, and they use data to make their points. Speaking with Jen immediately put me at ease, as we discussed local festivals, my work, and how everyone can contribute to making sure artists are supported for their work. 

Her post, "The Boston Music Scene's Burgeoning Sisterhood of Badassery," is live now - give it a read and let me know what you think!

 

 

Hometowns: Worcester, MA

I grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts. It’s a city of many names: "Heart of the Commonwealth," "Wormtown," "The Woo," and “Paris of the 80s,” to name a few. I loved growing up in Worcester, but learned quickly that most other people did not share my positive view of the city. Over the years I’ve become an expert at countering negative comments about Worcester with a bit of “Woo-town” trivia and a smile. 

 Union Station in Worcester, MA. Photo from Destination Worcester.

Union Station in Worcester, MA. Photo from Destination Worcester.

In Worcester, I was raised by a single mother who instilled in me a love for learning and a deep appreciation for the advantages I had been given. We didn’t have much money growing up, but my mother made sure that my brother and I had everything we needed for school, and supplemented that with lessons from Worcester itself. She would take us driving around the city to look at the historic buildings in town. We visited the Worcester Art Museum and went to summer concerts in the parks. When my mother volunteered to serve on the Cultural Commission, we learned about which buildings were being defended by Preservation Worcester. My high school was a microcosm of the city itself; it was filled with different languages and cultures from which I learned daily. Doherty Memorial High School, like Worcester itself, had a rough reputation but seemed to me a beautiful place once you looked past some of the dirt or faded paint.

When I arrived as a freshman at Harvard, I experienced a bit of culture shock. I did not know what The New Yorker was, or that Supreme Court Justice Ginsberg was a woman (quick tip: try not to accidentally reveal that in a constitutional law class). I had lived my whole life in Massachusetts and suddenly was surrounded by people who seen much more of the world than I had. Like the many others who have found themselves in this situation, I quickly learned a new vocabulary and began to settle in to new habits. Over my four years, I had a great experience at Harvard. I made wonderful friends, traveled internationally for the first time, and had my worldview broadened more than I thought possible. 

Over my years in Cambridge, I kept a lot of Worcester in my heart. Early in my time at Harvard, I heard the jokes my classmates made about Worcester as a put-down. I felt anxious that my family would make too much of a fuss over the University when they visited. Now it is strange to remember feeling that way. Contrary to viewing my background as a weakness, I view it as a strength. Growing up in Worcester taught me to see opportunity in raw spaces and be innovative with respect to education. Worcester taught me to seek out and celebrate diverse viewpoints and cultures. Worcester taught me how to reveal beauty to people where they can't yet see it. Worcester taught me that sometimes you can find the best things hidden in plain sight if you keep an open mind. 

Most days, I carry my things around in a Worcester tote bag. It serves to let others know where I’m from, but more importantly, it reminds me of these lessons and keeps me moving toward my goals in a Worcester frame of mind.

Posted by: Kristina Latino