December/January 2020

by Silke Hartung

On Foreign Soil: Sam Bartells in Nashville

by Silke Hartung

On Foreign Soil: Sam Bartells in Nashville

Born in Hamilton, singer/songwriter Sam Bartells lives in Auckland these days and writes songs with his heart on the sleeve, being remarkably outspoken about past issues with alcohol and substance abuse. A few singles in, some placed on big Spotify playlists, and with a few well-attended live shows, Sam is signed to former-Rubicon lead man Paul Reid’s Reslau Records, and gearing up for greater things. Recently that included a trip to record with renowned producer Daniel Ford in Nashville, Tennessee. Silke Hartung asked Sam to tell us about how it went over there.

How did this come about? You’ve only released a few singles, so it’s quite special!

This trip and project first grew from regular contact with a friend [Paul Reid] who had been helping advise me with some of my music releases. He’d always said that he loved the tracks and that because I had a little bit of a country sound that it may be the reason for some of my tracks not getting a huge amount of traction in our current market, which has been somewhat true. He is a talented musician and very successful businessman who has studied the country music charts and industry, so I respected his opinion.

He recently decided to start his own artist development company to support NZ musicians and their projects. I was invited for a casual jam with him and a few of his Reslau Records staff about a year after our last contact. I was still working hard writing and releasing music, and went along for a catch up and to check out their new premises. About a week after the jam I got an email from them inviting me to consider working with them on a project with my music.

We sat down a week later and they told me that they thought my released an unreleased tracks would be suitable for the USA market and that they wanted to do a trip to record some songs and possibly look to hand me over to a bigger label there with more knowledge of the local market. (I was stoked! It was great to have these musicians and great guys keen to back my music!) After some family discussions, we decided to see what we could make happen. Reslau Records paid for the trip and all expenses and we have an arrangement in place for future projects if successful. That was how it came about.

What were your hopes before going, and did that all happen as planned?

I tried not to have huge expectations and decided to go with the flow on the trip. However, I did hope that we would achieve the best recordings of the tracks we chose to do and with a new vibe and feel sound-wise to them. And a recording contract or something in place for future work there would have been the goal for the team.

I had three other lads on the trip who were all musicians and have backgrounds in sales representing me, so I felt I was in good hands to let someone else do that side of things for once. We did make a lot of contacts and met with the guy and label that the team were trying to get to. He has recently come back to us and wants to work with me, so we are currently negotiating how it will all work – trips over, recording, management and so on!

Other than recording, what did you discuss with the US label? What will they do for you?

I’m unsure of what the next plan is but I’m told I will be heading over in a few weeks and I should have an outline in the next week or so. Reslau Records is covering all recording, travel and living costs on an annual basis until the achieved goal is reached with them, or we decide to change our plans. (I’m just stoked I’m able to keep writing and doing what I love which is more than I anticipated a few years ago when I was really struggling with life.) I’m so grateful and just keep it all one day at a time for now.

How did you find Nashville?

The weather was crazy hot, even 32 degrees at night sometimes. One Sunday night we thought we would get an Uber from our B&B in to see Broadway before I hit the studio the next day. I was actually gob-smacked when we arrived there. It was crazy. People everywhere – like we only know from events like the Big Day Out – on the streets. Cool neon, bright lights, with tons of bars lined up one after the other, live bands in every window, smashing out country classics in a first-class kind of way.

The streets were filled with international and American tourists, from hens parties to sports teams letting their hair down. This was a quiet night, so the Uber driver (also a musician!) told us.
On a side note, about 15 drivers of the 20 Uber rides I had on the trip turned out to be musos.
I loved the vibe and energy of Nashville, most people there seemed to either party and have a good time, or were there to focus on their music career.

And you did some recording over there?

On Monday I started recording at Nashville’s Sound Kitchen Studios, with producer Daniel ‘Dr.’ Ford. It looked like an old Mexican ranch from the outside, sitting in the dust on the side of the road, however, was first class inside and you could almost feel the history and stories that would have been created there all around you. The studio hallway was lined with country music stars and their awards from recordings done at that studio.

I was a little nervous, but Dan made me feel at home in his studio and we got along great from day one. He’s a very chilled-out guy who was easy to have a laugh with, but also very focused and driven about the project we were about to take on. His approach was very vocal and guitar-driven which has turned out very well for me and I feel like he has really captured everything I was trying to say in these tracks in an honest, straightforward kind of process of recording them.

We spent three days in the studio and managed to track four full songs. The session guys were only in for bits of it, and they were so fast and skilled it was weirdly cool to experience. They were all so talented in their areas and easy to talk to and record with.

Working with Dan Ford and all the amazing session musicians (including Chris Condon who plays guitar for Billy Ray Cyrus) was a real highlight of the trip. Also Mike Cleveland (mandolin/violin) Smith Curry (lapsteel) and Caleb Mundy on bass were all amazing!

Did you have time to enjoy more highlights of Nashville

I spent a lot of time in the studio but I did get to see lots of bands in and around Broadway and meet great people who were very friendly and welcoming. I was mostly asked if I was South African, or from UK or Australia, but there were a few people who knew the Kiwi accent.

I would start every day with a morning mediation and workout which kept me pretty grounded as there was a fair bit a partying around me! I stayed sober and even managed to catch up with a few friends there in Nashville who were on that journey too.

I bought a Gretch semi/acoustic Blue Bigsby guitar which is really nice and got it far cheaper than it would be to buy here. I got a tattoo on day three, which was good fun. A little expensive but the tattoo studio was owned by PINK and very fancy so I didn’t mind paying a little extra! It’s on my left arm and is a symbol that represents the Serenity to me, which I utilise the words from everyday in a spiritual approach in my life. It’s a nice reminder of the trip too! And the team bought me some cowboy boots. I’m gonna sport those at the next gig haha.

Any specific highlights to share?

Kid Rock’s Bar on Broadway. Live band on every level of the building from morning until late. The Broadway cover bands all work mainly on tips I believe. They would have a tin bucket up the front plus people from the band would walk the crowd for tips and do other impromptu parts to the performance to earn extra. It definitely kept the performances at high intensity and upbeat, and I hope they make reasonable money – to me it seemed they weren’t getting rich, but it looks like a decent living and great practice.

I got to watch some great artists shows at Americanafest which was on while I was there. And our team chatting with Chris Chiflett from the Foo Fighters after his show with his own Americana-style band.

I had a huge amount of fun with my team from Reslau Records and I can honestly say I don’t think I have ever had so many great laughs with a bunch of awesome guys in my life, so that was very special for me to just get in some good old laughter and connection with my peers. That was great medicine for someone like me who tends to isolate and internalise a lot. I’m grateful for this great opportunity which is still unfolding and can’t wait to share the music that was recorded in Nashville with everyone.