by Amelia Williamson

Sam Cullen: Warming The Cold Midwinter

by Amelia Williamson

Sam Cullen: Warming The Cold Midwinter

Singer-songwriter Sam Cullen is sending a ripple through Aotearoa’s local rock’n’roll music scene with his new EP ‘Love Again’. Through Cullen’s nostalgic lyricism, audiences get a taste of the common Kiwi attachment to humble hometown beginnings. Amelia Williamson catches up with him.

Hailing from Invercargill, Sam Cullen spent several years studying jazz at the NZ School of Music in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, though don’t let that mislead you.

“Studying jazz for me was kind of more of a way to have another tool in the toolbox for things like writing and production, and music theory. It kind of opened my brain to musicality more than influencing my own music in a way,” he reflects.

‘Love Again’ is Cullen’s third EP and harvests a reflective pop rock genre, shrined with collaborators Ben Malone, Harry Parsons (also known as Macey), Chris Scott and mastering by Chris Chetland. It’s sonically assembled in line with the likes of Springsteen, The Bleachers and Sam Fender, with consistent references back to Cullen’s own southern hometown reining his sound back to Aotearoa.

Though positioned as the last of the four tracks, Written In The Wind marks the beginning of the EP for Cullen, a nostalgic track he fondly remembers writing in Invercargill that reflects on his own adolescent journey between leaving his hometown and beginning a new life in Wellington.

“My parents don’t live there now, but I used to have an upstairs tiny little office that was home to me and my music. It was basically the family home, and it looked out across this view that I’d been looking at the past decade or two decades. I think I’d gone away for uni first year and come back home and there were a couple of tiny little things that had changed – and I remember spinning out about it,” he chuckles. “It was just like, ‘Okay well the writing’s on the wall, the writing’s in the wind, like this was always going to happen,’ so it was kind of just about that, like missing home, homesickness… but things are changing.”

With a degree in jazz performance secured, Cullen continued further north to Tāmaki Makaurau, where he describes meeting some of his musical collaborators for the first time.

Forever, written with Ben Malone and Harry Parsons, and produced by Malone is described by Cullen as “…a classic kind of Springsteen pop-rock tune.”

“I’ve been in a long-term relationship for five years, so that was kind of just the catalyst for writing the song, ‘…this will be forever’, that kind of thing. We knew what the song was going to be about, once we had that line, it was pretty straightforward from there. Ben was amazing at figuring out what I wanted to hear in my head, but also I was so stoked that he was able to put his production into it, he knew exactly what I wanted.”

The EP’s title track, Love Again, presents at first glance as a love song, however Cullen happily elaborates on a deeper meaning behind the sentiment.

“Obviously it’s a love song, but I wrote it more for myself in a sense of opening up to myself and figuring out kind of who I am. This was a song that came out of that process. The song just kind of spilled out of my guitar in like an hour, on the floor here in my flat.”

The single’s accompanying music video sees Cullen bringing the personal love song to life alongside his bandmates. The song lyricises, ‘…find me that feeling I’ve been missing, oh oh, show me how to love again’, testifying to his own experiences seeking and embracing human connection.

He began teasing the release of this third EP in 2023, with the releases of Forever and The Cold Midwinter as singles. He pinpoints the Waikiwi Tavern in Invercargill as being the source of the inspiration behind his more nostalgic tracks, The Cold Midwinter in particular.

“Waikiwi Tavern is a place where everyone would congregate, you could people watch. A place where it was freezing cold, and you’d be stuck there until closing, you know, smelling cigarettes, and that sort of thing. That was kind of where it all came from.”

With Cullen’s artistic lyrics, the disconsolate scene from an Invercargill winter’s night gathers a certain appeal. ‘Four degrees in the smokers, the wind chill bites my hands, in a haze of cigarette silence, the smell ain’t for me, but I’m happy to be invited, I’m just here for the culture, to bear witness to the violence.”

Though questioning the appeal of a night out in Invercargill, it reflects an unmistakable fondness towards his roots and comes with a music video released in 2023, which has collected over 40,000 views on YouTube and is fast becoming one of the singer’s most celebrated tracks.

The Cold Midwinter is again testament to adolescent growth, a sonic celebration of being a young adult, and more broadly is a love anthem to the hometown culture in Aotearoa. Altogether, ‘Love Again’ finds Sam Cullen emerging into the nation’s music scene as a confident radio-friendly pop-rock artist.