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.


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.