nzoa may 2019

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NewTracks New Artist: Sam Cullen

NewTracks New Artist: Sam Cullen

We can’t really call Sam Cullen “one of Invercargill’s finest” anymore because he has relocated to Wellington in recent times, but any chance to put the far south on the musical map is worth a quick shout out. Sam has been on our radar since he placed third at last year’s Smokefree Rockquest against strong competition. NZ On Air Music liked his upbeat debut single Shut The Door so much that they featured it on this month’s NewTracks compilation.

What’s your background brief and what instruments do you play?

My name is Sam Cullen, I’m a multi-instrumentalist, originally from Invercargill but now based in Wellington. My main instruments are guitar and vocals but expand into keyboard/synthesiser/drum pads for a live setting.

What high school or other music training was important to you?

In terms of high school training, being a part of jazz bands for around six years gave me a great base of practical and theoretical knowledge while guitar lessons all the way through provided me with a good set of skills.

What other projects might we know you from?

My first single release was Small Town back in August 2017 – a song about my hometown of Invercargill. Some might also recognise me from the 2018 Smokefree Rockquest National Finals where I was lucky enough to place third.

How has your songwriting evolved from your beginnings to now?

I didn’t start writing my own songs until I was about 16. Up until then I’d been playing solo covers gigs, which I still do very regularly. These are a great way to get yourself out and about. I got to a point where I felt as though an outlet was needed so gave songwriting a crack and fell in love with it pretty quickly! I saved up for my first DAW [digital audio workstation] and started producing my own songs soon after, which has evolved into a one-man band live set which is so much fun.

What makes Shut The Door stand out for you as a single?

The music video for Shut The Door definitely makes the song stand on its own two feet. The video features ’70s themed attire, my wonderful grandparents, cats and a big old dance party to finish it off! Musically, the song has a very strong party vibe to it also. It’s upbeat, features a heavy guitar riff and a hook that can pretty much be shouted by any party-goer.

What’s the story behind Shut The Door?

‘Shut The Door’ is an ode to the one dude in any bar that is just having the time of his life and jamming out on his own. I played with that idea for a long time and wondered how one might get oneself into that situation? This eventually led me down the path of a broken relationship and a discharge of emotions on the dance floor. 

The name Shut The Door came from one of those moments where a couple of lines of the chorus just wrote themselves. Every songwriter knows the feeling and I’m sure we’d all bottle it if we could.

What’s your favourite moment, musical or lyrical, of the single?

From a musical standpoint, I was able to incorporate some cool samples which I recorded through my phone. These include crowd noise in the intro and outro, some high-frequency percussion that I recorded using coins and of course, the slamming doors!

Who did you work on the single with and where? Any fun stories?

Shut The Door was produced with David Baker of Invercargill’s Southern Institute of Technology while the music video is credit to the genius work of director Dave Thomson and his Auckland production company Imaginary Friends. One stand out moment for me during the making of the video was a scene where a mate of mine gets hit in the face with a sponge cake. It all seemed pretty tame until he got hit so hard that his lip was cut open. Dedication to the art!

Describe in one sentence what you want listeners to take from this song.

I’d just love listeners to watch/listen to Shut The Door and be excited for future releases of mine – I’ve got some cool stuff in the works.

In general, how do you work out what song would make a good single?

There are a few things I’ll experiment with to decide on a single. One is definitely getting as many pairs of ears as possible to listen to the song prior to the release. If people resonate with it immediately then that’s a good sign. These days song length is super important as well, so that’s something to consider. At the same time I try to trust myself and if I’ve got a good feeling about a particular song then I’ll try and pursue it as much as possible.

Any other musical endeavours you’re working on, with this act or others?

I’m always working on new tracks and am excited for future releases. I’d love to have an album out and about this year.

Can you tell us three other local tunes that should be on a playlist alongside your song.

Three other local tunes that I am vibing at the minute are Reading Me Wrong by Jed Parsons, A Leo Underwater by Daffodils and Shoot em Once by Lachie Hayes. I’m humbled to be navigating my way through an industry with the likes of these acts.

Have any of your previous applications not been included on NewTracks? Got any advice for people out there? 

I was lucky enough to be granted single funding for my first application – huge thanks is due to the great team at NZ On Air, there’s no better country in the world to make music. In terms of advice, the criteria is a great set of goals to accomplish before a release. For about a year I worked on checking off as many of the checklist as possible before making my application. I felt that it was important to do this so that the appeal was there for NZ On Air to fund the track.

Was there an NZOA criterion you struggled with in the application? 

I found that the most time-consuming checkbox was the tour of at least three national centres. At the stage that I was at, it was tricky to approach venues up and down the country for live slots. But, in saying that, there’s no better way to get yourself out there than to play live and persistence was key in getting venues onboard.

Are there any musical blogs, Youtube channels or podcasts you’re into?

I’m a huge fan of NPR Music and their Tiny Desk Concerts, they’re killer! I’m right into watching live performances from big festivals such as Glastonbury, Coachella and the like as well. Happy Mag blog from Australia is also great along with familiar ones such as Pitchfork and Consequence Of Sound.

How can we find you on social media?

Sam Cullen Music on Facebook is my main outlet along with Spotify as Sam Cullen.