Photos courtesy of Sam Dew
Sam Dew has a voice that stops you in your tracks. He’s the kind of guy who performs as the opening act, and people stop milling about with their beers and move closer to the stage to figure just where the hell that sound is coming from—at least that’s what happened during a recent show opening for TV on the Radio in New York. On his first EP, Damn Sue, released earlier this year on RCA, he flies straight to the highest register and then only gradually floats down and becomes more matter-of-fact.
But Sam Dew’s talent shouldn’t be a surprise: He’s been making music for years, and he’s gotten good at it. After growing up in Chicago, Dew moved to Atlanta to attend Morehouse College but above all to find his way into the music industry. He formed an experimental rock band, Cloud Eater, that saw some minor acclaim, but he was soon pulled out of that world when Wale snatched him up to work as a songwriter. His credits since include Wale and Miguel’s “Lotus Flower Bomb,” Wale and Usher’s recent hit “Matrimony,” and Rihanna’s “Numb,” featuring Eminem. Point being: Dude knows how to write a pop song.
Damn Sue marks Dew’s first proper foray as a solo artist, although the songs on it—along with 60 or so in the vault—were written and recorded in close collaboration with Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio, mostly at Sitek’s home in LA. It’s a scattered collection, with opener “Desperately,” a soaring vocal exercise of a breakup song, and closer “Victor,” a straightforward examination of personal identity, standing out as the clear highlights. While his voice sounds pristine recorded, it truly shines live, where the instrumentation and songwriting of his songs take on a fuller, more dynamic life. After I watched Dew play that set opening for TV on the Radio, I headed backstage to get a fuller picture of how these songs came together (with weed, mostly) and chat with the dude bridging the world between chart-topping R&B and genre-pioneering indie rock.
Tell me about your band before this, Cloud Eater.
It was like alternative, like rock—I mean I was like worshipping Thom Yorke on a regular basis, so that had a lot to do with it. It was like somewhere between Radiohead and Beck and Nine Inch Nails. So we tried that for a while, and it was pretty cool. Then I think my job as a writer started kind of getting in the way. You go fly out, and you come fly back in to a dive bar—people start wondering if take it seriously.
Right. Yeah. Understandably.
It just naturally started to feel like I didn’t belong there. I was getting to this place where I just saw clarity in music where I could just speak plainly. I wrote metaphors for like the past six years of my life, and then what started as this EP was kind of like a gear shift where it just kind of becomes clear, direct, cutting into the soul. I got really entranced with being able to write very plainly but still being able to mess with people’s hearts and heads a little bit. I realized that hits everyone the same. So I got obsessed with that, and that didn’t got over well with my band, and it just made its natural separation.
How did you get started songwriting for other people?
There was this one place, Wish, in Atlanta—it was a clothing store—where this guy, Frank Cook, who was the manager there, always was playing our shit. And this one song, “Sabotage”—Wale used to come in all the time and check out new shoes, and “Sabotage” would always be playing in there. Eventually he just asked, and without even thinking Frank just ripped it off the CD player and gave it to him like “You take that.” He was looking out for me.
I was on my Thom Yorke shit, so at the time rap hadn’t even come into the equation yet. I was actually afraid. I was running for the hills, and they were calling me about it. They were like “Let us work with you, let us work with you.” And I was like, “Noooooooo, that’s not where I am!” The first song I ever did, I showed up in the studio, and it was Wale and Roscoe Dash, and we came up with “Lotus Flower Bomb,” with him and Miguel.
That was the very beginning of the songwriting, and it just kind of spiraled out of control after that because the way the machine is, it’s one of those things where you can just be there in an Atlanta studio one day, and then I was in London in a Rihanna camp and they picked one of my songs. You’ve just got to do good work. I had no idea that they even wanted me to do, to work with me. They were just taking a chance when they brought me out to London. I was writing like five, ten songs a day.
Yeah, what’s the Rihanna camp like?
It’s like everything and nothing. It’s at the point now where I know a lot of people. I’ll run into the same people over and over again like “Hey, nice seeing you out here too.” But once you actually get there it’s cool because everyone’s just trying to work. You show up, and it gets mixed and matched. Every day, you go in with a different producer. So for me it was just about like, How can I just zone out and have as much fun writing as much music in one day, as humanly possible, for seven days straight?
So you were writing ten songs a day basically?
On average it was like five or six, but I got to ten a couple of times. It was like ten was one of the days that I had written one of the songs that made the album (Unapologetic’s “Numb”). I was burned out, I had written like nine. I hadn’t even expected to write that one. Then Omar walks in—he’s this A&R with Roc Nation—and is like “just do one more before you go home.” It was like a test: “I want to see if you got anything more in you. I want to see what happens when you have nothing left.” But we were cool, and we had been hanging out for the whole week, so it was chill. I was like “sure, I’ll do it for you.” I did one more, and it was like, “that was it. that was the one.” I was literally numb. My brain just shut down, and Rihanna took over.
So with this EP, you were talking about trying to be more direct in your songwriting. What else is there behind it? What are the big themes you’re wrestling with these days?
I mean it’s always been self. I feel like if I deal with self everyone’s dealing with themselves as well, so the way I relate to other people is relating through myself. I think that that’s always going to be some kind of consistency for me. And self has been kind of like doubt, denial. I’ve been like talking to a lot of people who are just tired a lot.
I’m exhausted all the time.
Not just tired! Like you’re—how old are you?
Twenty-six. Are you excited about 27?
“I guess”—you know what I mean? I know this girl, she just turned 20. And she was talking about how like she’s already over it. She’s ready to go be on a farm.
I just see it as like there is a degree of unattainability that we put on our goals. And I realized that for me I’ve kind of like seen ambition in a different light lately. I see the need for success in a different light. And it sounds hilariously zen—up to the point where it doesn’t even sound genuine—but I really do believe that, like, I don’t actually care about success anymore. I just care about like making the right thing. Like the right things for me at the right time.
What are your doubts? You said you had a lot of doubts.
That’s everything. Should I have pizza today? That all the way to the existential shit.
Do you feel like that’s coming through in the songs that you have out?
I think a lot of the new stuff is. We never really stop working, and the stuff the team is really excited about now lyrically and contextually reflects like a good spot. I think it’s a place where a lot of people are. It’s like the purgatory between caring so much where you go insane and then just saying fuck it you don’t care about anything. Just like teetering on that line and like how everything, like love, relationships, friendships, like personal abilities teeters on that like inner-self sufficiency. I’m kind of obsessed with that.
That’s a cool idea. I feel like I’m constantly between those two poles of wanting to work 12 hours a day and then thinking like “oh man I just need to not do anything.”
It’s like when people just tell you to smile because literally if you just start smiling you’ll be happy. It’s totally true. But like who the fuck wants to make themselves smile? You’re sitting there like on the couch like do I want to fucking smile right now? Do I want to make myself? And then like the quantum mechanics of knowing you made that happen it didn’t happen on its own.
Yeah, and then you’re overthinking it, and it gets weird.
I don’t know if you were ready for this interview.
This is what I would prefer to be talking about. I’d rather question my life than talk about guitar pedals for half an hour. What’s it like writing with Dave Sitek? You were joking onstage that you just smoke a lot of weed, which probably is not a joke.
That’s not a joke it’s just a question of who’s got it and how much and are we meeting at one time. I didn’t start smoking actually until I was 27, like about a year ago. So this is the first project I’ve ever actually worked on high. I’m coming from a world of metaphors and conversations, so for me it actually kind of did help me simplify, it did help me become more straightforward.
Weed is dope. All Noisey interviews have to end with the phrase “weed is dope.” That’s the rule.
“Reincarnation” is probably the most stoned I’ve ever been. It was just like I was literally like seeing prism colors. I was just like staring—he has a bunch of like crystals and prisms around him, so there was light shining through one of them.
Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.