I was a bit starstruck the first time I met Sam Russo. I’m not sure why. I don’t typically get so around warehouse workers from sleepy English towns like Haverhill, a small market city 20 miles outside Cambridge and even further from London. But this one in particular, with his bleary eyes and light blonde beard that came to a point well below his chin, happened to have written one of the saddest albums I’d ever heard.
“I did a lot of living on that record,” Russo told me somewhat proudly after taking a sip from his pint of beer, a line of foam dusting the smirk of his mustache. We were at a bar after a show in New York on an American tour where the folk singer was shoehorned in among three punk bands, supporting the album, called Storm. Russo was in his early twenties when he wrote it as a means of getting over what he describes as a devastating breakup. He was living in a friend’s garage at the time, perpetually in between jobs, drinking heavily.
Storm advances chronologically, telling the story of a couple’s separation from start to finish, much of it autobiographical. Not exactly groundbreaking musical territory, sure, but there was something about the way he sang it, like it was written for an audience of one. While songwriters have a tendency to put on a production of showcasing their sadness—look at me and my pain!—with Russo, it felt like you were allowed access to this very private, very personal conversation he was having with the person he’d just lost. And it just broke your heart.
Musically, Storm was more intimate as well. Unlike his acoustic guitar-strummin’ peers who often rely on sorrowful violins or backing pianos to tug at the heartstrings, Russo stripped away everything until the songs were at their bare bones. Just a man, his guitar, and a sad story to tell.
Eventually we left the bar and his drunken punk caravan dropped me off at home. We stayed in touch here and there after that and things have changed for him in the two years since. He’s 30 now, working at a brewery doing maintenance—the first “proper office job” he says he’s ever had. He has a girlfriend, Clare, who he seems hopelessly in love with, and a dog they share.
“My life is very different than when I wrote Storm,” he tells me when I call him one night to talk about his follow-up album, Greyhound Dreams. “But it’s all in the fine details. I still live in the same town, still doing the same kind of work, still got the same friends, still go to the same places. But I’m a lot happier in myself. I’m still working out the kinks like everyone is.”
Oddly enough, he says touring helped exorcise some of his post-breakup demons. “Getting on the road after that was a massive help. Touring hard and touring long, it really did help figure out some of the shit that I’d been drowning in when I was writing Storm. When I wrote those songs, I didn’t necessarily understand what I was going through. Playing them live, I felt like I was slowly learning what I was talking about. I was moving my mouth but not understanding what was coming out. I’m sure this sounds massively pretentious, but I was figuring out my own story.”
I ask him if a happier Sam Russo means a happier songwriter, and he laughs. “You don’t have to worry about happiness getting in the way of a good song when it comes to my stuff,” he assures me. Russo has a way of seeing—if not the melancholy side of life—then certainly the realistic side. “I can sit down with the best intentions to write a happy song but it always ends up coming out truthful. I think this record on the whole is a bit more on the upbeat.”
True to his word, Greyhound Dreams offers a few more traces of hope than Storm, though Russo isn’t one to let optimism waste some perfectly good negativity. A great example of Russo’s perpetual, crushing realism is the song “Dream All You Want” which he started writing from a positive place, but, well, it found its way elsewhere. “It was supposed to be a song to encourage people to find hope and chase their dreams, but it ended up being a song about how other people look down on you for chasing your dreams and how it’s virtually impossible to live your life in that way,” he says. The result is a beautiful mix of the two conflicting sentiments, with lyrics like “You either chase your dreams or you chase your dreams away.”
Even on the subject of falling in love, Russo still can’t help but dip into a darker place. Greyhound Dreams kicks off with an opener about the beauty in embracing the pains of relationships. “Sometimes I know I make things worse / And sometimes I just want to hurt,” he sings.
“It’s bit masochistic maybe,” he tells me, “but I don’t want to be a hollow shell of a life. I want everything that comes with living life. I want to feel pain so that I can feel alive as well. That’s a cliché I guess but it’s true. You don’t understand your capacity for love until you’ve been completely broken by it. You can’t love with everything that you are unless you give yourself away. You’ve got to break before you give someone everything.”
Before we hang up, I tell Russo that there’s a line from that song that keeps kicking around in my head: “It ain’t love if it don’t hurt.” I ask him what it means to him. “I just get so sick of saccharine, sweet relationship songs,” he sighs. “I genuinely believe it’s not true love if it doesn’t fucking hurt like hell.”
Dan Ozzi is on Twitter - @danozzi