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Music Journeys: Sam Roberts

Nov 19, 2020

Sam Roberts from a 2014 performance at the Basement in Columbus.
Credit Foley

Canadian singer-songwriter Sam Roberts has remained busy during the pandemic. His group, Sam Roberts Band, released new music last month.

Earlier this year like many parents during the spring shutdown, Roberts and his wife had to be school teachers to their young children. Roberts and his kids also came together musically, performing one of his band's songs to inspire others.

Roberts talks about all those things with Music Journeys - the new music from his band, fatherhood, and that family session, which we learned unfortunately will be the last. You'll find out why.

You'll also hear about the first instrument he chose to play and how it's resurfacing again through his kids. Roberts also shares how important his hometown of Montreal has been to his music career. And he takes part in the Fast Five. Thanks for listening.

Take Me Away plays...

Take Me Away comes 5 tracks into All Of Us, the new release from Sam Roberts Band. But it's top-of-mind as we all grow weary of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though the record may be inseparable from life in 2020, that's not how Roberts intended.  

"It came from the same impulses to look into your life and write music about what you find in there and knowing that that music will serve in some way to help you move forward," Roberts reflected. "It's one of those amazing things, almost a chameleon-like aspect of music itself. It will take on the complexion of whatever else happens to be going on in the world. The songs are born out of a very personal and private place. But somewhere in there too people will latch on and say that sounds a lot like my life. You kind of know that you are throwing out these lifelines in your songs, and sooner or later someone else is going to grab them and say you're speaking to me. It's in that common experience you find we are so much more alike, so much more connected than we give ourselves credit for, and music is a great way to find that out about yourself and other people."  

Ghost Town plays...

Born and raised in Montreal, Roberts drew inspiration and admittedly a little angst from the violin.

"I think a lot of love for music starts with coercion at the hands of your parents, and that's no exception for myself," Roberts said. "When I was about four, they told me I had to choose an instrument. In retrospect I foolishly chose the violin, which I gained so much from but it was a rough ride at the beginning. Somewhere in there, the first spark was lit for sure. I did grow to love it very much and still take lessons with the same teacher who taught me back then. As so often happens you have to go on a roundabout journey to find that thing you call love. My dad had this great stack of Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, Beatles, and Kinks records. I started listening to them and trying to take it all in. The combination of those two things laid the foundation for me that playing music was an inevitability. Whether in a professional capacity was never the question, but certainly that it was going to play a big role in how I lived."

In 2002, Roberts released his debut EP The Inhuman Condition, which became a bestseller in Canada. He followed with three full length albums, the last coming in 2008. For the 2011 release of Collider, he amended the artist name to Sam Roberts Band. All of Us, the band's fourth release under that moniker, came out just last month.

All of Us plays...

"I think Montreal has a great love and respect for people who choose to take a creative path and make it their way of life," Roberts said of his hometown. "That helped. It can be a daunting task to say I want to play in a rock band the rest of my life. Here in Montreal, it's a kind of decision that is respected and that helped. And it's such a culturally driven city. There was something compelling enough about starting a band and trying to go all the way with it that really stuck with me and my early friends and bandmates. Somehow I was surrounded by people who kept the flame lit to get through those three or four dozen bad songs and finally start writing a good one or two."

Case in point, a song from the new record titled War Chest.

War Chest plays...

While the term evokes thoughts of stockpiling money for a campaign or munitions for battle, Roberts encourages filling it with something else.

"If you look for the things in your life that are positive and the things that have shaped you as a person and make you want to fight for a better future and put those in that chest and save those for a rainy day when you'll need them the most, maybe there's a chance to break that cycle," Roberts added. 

War Chest continues...

"I have 3 kids and obviously you can't have a favorite," Roberts said with a laugh. "That's just not true. I do. I have a favorite. I'll never say which one, but I think they know deep down. It's the same thing with songs. You feel so personally connected and emotionally invested in them all. I think instead of saying favorite, there are songs that I'm most protective of. One of them would be a song like Ghost Town and Spellbound on this new record where it feels like you're revealing the most of yourself." 

Spellbound plays...

"I do write about memories, and I do write about myself," Roberts reflected. "I've always tried to filter them almost through a third person character. It's not all that often that I can sit back and look at any of the songs I've written and say - here's me speaking directly about my experiences. The protectiveness is knowing that there is no filter. There is no buffer. There is no character in between me as the songwriter and you as the listener."

Youth plays...
 
"That song kind of took on a mind of its own," Roberts recalled. "It started off reflecting, but it became and grabbed itself and said use it as an opportunity to remind your own kids that these are the most important days. There's this overwhelming urge to say these are the days - drink them all as deeply as you possibly can and remember them because you're going to need them at some point. Even saying that to you, it's like I'm saying that to myself. The kids are so in the moment that they don't necessarily need their dad to tell them that, but I just felt compelled to say it out there as loud as I could."  

Ascension plays...

"From a musician standpoint, you walk this line between being able to help people through music which is a great gift to have but also feeling helpless yourself because your way of life has been completely upended," Roberts said. "I guess that goes to say for just about anybody in any walk of life. There's some comfort in knowing that you're not completely alone in that. But knowing that our reality is based on people coming together in large groups to celebrate life and music means that we'll be about the last people back when this is all said and done. You have to turn to the things you can affect and control and one is to keep writing and be ready to go when the green light comes on."

"The same goes for parenting," Roberts continued. "The first thing we did as parents was to have to school our kids in math, science, and French. That's something I'm not trained for, and I realized that in the most frightening possible way. We faced four months of homeschooling our kids and realized how ill-prepared I am for that. I've been brushing up on my grade 8, grade 6, and grade 4 Geography in case I'm called back to duty again. On a more serious note, how do you answer your kids questions and make sense of something you can't make sense of yourself and put it in as comforting a way as possible. Sometimes it's them. They will have that concise, perfect to-the-point answer. I find myself listening to my kids as much as anyone when it comes to trying to make this make sense."  

We're All In This Together plays...

That's from 2014's Lo-Fantasy release. The pandemic has led to many inspiring remote and virtual performances. Sam Roberts and his family provided a quarantine version of that song back in March with his two daughters on violin (yes the violin resurfaces) and his son on the piano. They called it the Isolation Jubilation Sensation Edition of We're All In This Together. Here's how it sounded.

We're All In This Together family version plays...

"We found ourselves at the beginning of our first lockdown wondering what we could do to lift people's spirits too," Roberts recalled. "I have now taken on the parental role of forcing my kids to take violin lessons, and I hope they do the same for their kids. We thought - what can we do to contribute? We decided to get the family band together for the first and now I can say the last time. Somehow after 375 takes, we managed to get a version out there. Hopefully it did what we wanted to do which was lift people's spirits if only briefly."

"Never say never, but with family bands sometimes you have to choose between the band and the family's general well-being," Roberts continued "We decided to keep the peace here and break up the family band. I pay them in cookies, so that was the bribe it took to get the whole thing orchestrated. There aren't enough Oreos in the world to get another version of another song out right now. It was a lot of fun and the first time we did anything like that together. It was a nice culmination of crying all those years over violin lessons."

Here's a link to the family version of We're All In This Together