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Turning inwards with Sam Evian

21 March 2024, 20:00
Words by Jamie Wilde

Original Photography by CJ Harvey

A prolific producer nestled in the woody tranquillity of his home and studio in upstate New York, Sam Evian has worked with the likes of Big Thief, Palehound, Blonde Redhead and Cass McCombs, and is also a brilliant artist in his own right.

Sam Evian knows a thing or two about making good records, however things haven’t always been plain sailing.

Sam Evian doubted whether he would ever perform again after Covid, finding it challenging to unpack personal themes in his music. While tinges of uncertainty began to creep into his artistry, this precarious period became the catalyst for him to tread into new waters and create his most assured, vulnerable and cathartic album to date, Plunge.

We chat with Evian ahead of his sold-out London show at Oslo in Hackney. Before that, there’s a brief chance to catch a glimpse of his band’s final soundcheck preparations. Already, Evian looks uber cool, like a cross between Julian Casablancas and Paul McCartney with his stylish black jacket, jeans and mop top hair. His white Stratocaster beams under the stage light and their run-through of “Why Does It Take So Long?”, a track from the new album, is as crisp and cohesive as its recorded version – if not more so. Down at the bar, Evian mentions how Adrianne Lenker (Big Thief) not only played a pivotal part in the song’s creation, but the entire spirit of Plunge. “Adrianne and I have known each other since 2012, I’ve always just loved her to death,” says Evian. “She came through at the top of the session and just brought her little magic spell. When Adrianne says things like, ‘hey, you should sing this live right now, it sounds good, do it’ – you can’t say no. She shaped the way the song came together by pushing me out of my comfort zone, and provided that kick in the butt to commit to what I was striving for with the whole album session.”


It wasn’t just Lenker who came to cast her spells. More of Evian’s close friends and musical collaborators including Sufjan Stevens, Liam Kazar, Sean Mullins and El Kempner all gathered at Evian’s Catskills-based studio to record his new album. They kicked it off with a cold plunge into a nearby creek at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, welcoming 2023 a bit chillier than they left the last. But more importantly, they all embraced the same fun, loose and freewheeling approach when it came to the studio, which gives a raw magic to the simple, unfiltered directness of the recordings. “It feels like a band in the room record, and I love that,” says Evian. “Nobody knew the songs or what the plan was. We kept it loose and fun, and it was freeing in a way to have a curation of personalities and musicians that I adore bring so much energy and creativity.”

Watching The Beatles’ own trial, error and divine inspiration approaches to writing in their “Get Back” documentary series further reinforced his vision for Plunge. Yet, beyond all of this, there were also more personal factors for Evian that influenced the album’s makeup. He says: “To be honest, I thought my career would take a little bit of a dip post-Covid after I released my last record Time to Melt in 2021. I didn’t have a label, I wasn’t really sure if I was going to tour again or recover my career in any capacity. But the one thing I knew was that I just wanted to make another record. That’s how Plunge was born. I just thought ‘let’s see what happens.’”

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When it comes to the lyrics, Evian wears his heart on his sleeve – to a degree that’s still difficult for him to talk about. He opted to write the album through the eyes of his creative musician parents, which in turn encouraged him to look inward. “My parents are really inspiring to me,” Evian smiles. “They’re musicians and we had a family band growing up. There’s been ups and downs of course, but they’re amazing people and it was just what I needed to write about at that moment. I guess it was a way to see myself.” His dad, a two-time cancer survivor who still makes music at 74, and mum decided to part ways later in life before later coming back together to reaffirm their relationship. Love, empathy, clarity and family lie at the core of the album. Tracks like “Stay” hark back to Evian’s memories of playing Beatles songs on guitar with his dad, while “Jacket” homes in on his parents’ reconnection. “Runaway” sees Evian projecting his vocals more than ever while “Rollin’ In” captures the laid-back essence of the record with its breezy reverbs and lush soundscapes. Compared to Evian’s previous solo works, the “band in the room” feel is at its most noticeable here. But, instead of it compromising on post-production effects, there’s a brightness to the album that sets it apart from Evian’s back catalogue, and his braveness to open up more than ever before is what gives Plunge its pulsing heartbeat.

Understandably, Evian says that he struggled with the vulnerability of the writing process. As we talk more about the subject, his demeanour becomes more cautious. “I still feel vulnerable about it. Even just including those mentions in the press release was a struggle for me,” he adds. When I ask about the themes behind the track “Stay”, this becomes a step too far for Evian to share. There’s clearly still internal processing taking place. Yet, as he explains, penning more personal lyrics was a cathartic process for him and a step forward that he needed to make. “As someone who practises songwriting, I just hope to become more honest, direct and visceral with my writing the older I get,” he says. “The subject matter felt heavy to me, it was really difficult to address. But ultimately, I think it yielded honest writing. I guess I’m nervous about sharing the album, but everyone just wants to be accepted for what they do. I want it to connect with people. If it doesn’t, that’s totally okay. But that is my desire.”

We clink drinks as the conversation winds up and Evian whisks away to prepare for his headline show. It’s his first in London for five years and having sold out well in advance, there’s a sense of anticipation as the crowd starts to gather. “I’ve been looking forward to coming back to play in the UK for a long time,” says Evian. “I feel like the fans are just engaged in a different way over here. I attribute that to many things, but the fact that you still have a national radio system that plays curated music is pretty incredible. The music culture in the US is weaning; people’s attention spans are shorter than ever, it’s harder to connect with people who will actively listen to your music.” On a short run of UK tour dates, that connection was put to the test in Leeds the week previously, where Evian says his new material was met with such attentiveness that even a pin drop would’ve interrupted the flow.

marsy open up proceedings at Oslo. Their Big-Thief-esque sound resonates with the audience and their track “Who’s Got My Package” is a standout in their set. A medley of classic tracks from the likes of The Beach Boys entertain in the mid-point, before the packed room cheers as Evian and his band walk onto the stage. Though Plunge may harness a direct sound, Evian is even more enthusiastic about performing his new material live, mentioning beforehand that “if anything it’s more direct in that it’s not being recorded, it can only happen once and can only be conceived once.” He’s right.

From breaking a string on the opening track to whipping out saxophone solos to rapturous roars from the crowd, there’s certainly a one-off feel to the occasion. Opening on a high note with “Why Does It Take So Long?” and gliding between new and old numbers throughout, the crowd are firmly in Evian’s grasp. Letting the music do the talking initially, he opens up more as the performance progresses by engaging with the audience and even welling up towards the tender closing tracks. “I almost didn’t make it through that last song, thinking about lots of stuff…” he shares to the gathered crowd, to which he’s hit with an immediate reply of “We love you, Sam!” A cathartic moment for Evian, undoubtedly. And topped with an encore featuring a stunning cover of Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years”, the show oozes class from an artist who has no need to doubt what may lie ahead. If Plunge is anything to go by, Evian’s artistry remains in very capable hands.

Plunge is released on 22 March on Flying Cloud Recordings via Thirty Tigers.

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