The Giant Step:
Sam Doores Walks into the Big Wide World
There’s no way to be objective here. We lived in the same house for three years, travelled across state lines and national borders, read our work to each other as we tried to figure out how we were going to say what we wanted to say, and possibly to remind each other that what we were saying was worth hearing.
The man is a friend. One of my best. That needs to be said. But it’s not why I want to write about him.
I met Sam Doores twelve years ago when he was working as a street musician in New Orleans, and like a lot of people from that time, I’ve watched him turn six-string spare changing into a living, breathing career.
And I want, just for a moment, to write about that house, a wobbly and worn structure pressed up against a levee at the end of Deslonde Street in New Orleans. I’d like you to see its bargeboard interior and imagine the sizable living room, the upright piano, musical instruments scattered about, and a big soundboard with a blanket draped over it.
It was a perfect room for collaboration, and Sam Doores used it for that for nearly a decade. The street gave name to his band. The constant visits from musicians led to recording sessions that eventually produced a small record label. And the open layout was a perfect place to write, rehearse, and eventually record pieces of what would become his self-titled debut album.
And now, without the house, without an address, and without the band, Sam Doores is stepping out into the unknown.
“It doesn’t feel like my first rodeo,” says Doores. “I’ve spent the last decade touring. (But) it’s the first time that I’ve ever gone out not in a band that’s part of a collaboration…where I release my own record and have total creative control.”
Recorded over nearly six years in New Orleans, Nashville, and especially Berlin, and featuring songs that trace an arc from his early days as a street musician to his current reality as a touring frontman and producer, Sam Doores is an album both dark and optimistic. It makes as much use of Doores’s songwriting gifts and prairie drifter voice as it does of experimental production and eclectic instrumentation. Doores credits much of the wide-ranging feel to the freedom to experiment he was given by producer Anders Christopherson, who invited Doores to show up and noodle around in his Berlin studio.
“It started as an opportunity to mess around with songs that didn’t fit the Deslondes sound,” says Doores, speaking of his longtime band that he’s released two albums with. “Because Anders invited me and wasn’t charging me, I could just go to Berlin and try things out. When the Deslondes would tour, I would tack on a week in Berlin each time … everything kept feeling progressively more exciting. When the Deslondes went on hiatus it felt like the perfect time. I had the time and energy to focus on it.”
And indeed, if you follow his work chronologically, it’s a massive departure from the rollicking campfire feel of the Deslondes’ second album Hurry Home (the swinging celebration of “Other Side of Town” and the almost Barry White bravado of “Must Be Something” being notable exceptions). This is a more introspective, occasionally haunted, and ultimately hopeful record, fueled by Doores’s own experience with the end of a relationship and displacement from his longtime New Orleans address. It feels like a journey into the shadows of his own loss and back again.
“It’s tricky because there’s so many different types of songs and soundscapes, so I decided to do (the record) in movements. There is a lot of darkness on the album, and I wanted to work through that darkness and come out on the other end.”
Doores adds, “It’s a cathartic process to write a song about. It feels great if by the end of writing a song about it I have come more to peace with (an experience), or added some value from it. I hope it comes across like that.”
Collaboration has been a hallmark of Doores’s career. Like a lot of New Orleans musicians, he’s functioned as a sideman in a variety of bands (Hurray for the Riff Raff, Jackson and the Janks) and a frontman in others (The Deslondes and their earlier iteration, the Tumbleweeds). During his time in that little house on the levee, his living room became a gathering space for a rotating cast of musicians who would arrive, hang out, play, cook, and eventually record.
As with his new album, the constant experimentation eventually fuelled a small record label, Mashed Potato Records, which has released two compilation albums of songs recorded in Doores’s living room (he hints that a third could be on the way).
“Ever since I started recording and producing friends’ records I get more and more into the details. It started making me pay attention to the subtleties more. What kind of sonic landscape do we want to create?”
“I have a hard time being distant from any recording now,” says Doores. “The key is to do that without getting overly precious. Sometimes its hard to strike that balance.”
Doores admits that if it weren’t for the collaborative projects he continues to engage in, such as Mashed Potato Records, he might not have taken on this one. He cited the legendary New Orleans musician, songwriter and producer Allen Toussaint as one of his role models.
“Toussaint is one of my heroes. He spent a lot of time producing and writing, but he also had his own thing. I think I need that to create a long term career instead of getting locked into one thing.”
“As long as I’m in other collaborations I can play in this project,” he says. “It gives me creative freedom of movement. I can put a west coast band together. I can have a European band. I can play solo. It feels liberating to have my own name out there, but it does feel strange to have your own name on the marquee.”
The unease at going it alone permeates the album itself. The desire for connection, and the sense we are all in it together, comes through in song after song, from the struggling artist that sends regards to a now successful former partner on “Wish You Well,” to the frightened kid trying to construct a heroic story of his father on “Windmills.” On “Push On,” Doores intones:
If you fall, I fall
We all fall together
And on the final track, “Nothing Like a Suburb,” a glorious collision of oom-pah circus organ and Mexican trumpets backs a sweet, longing melody about eternal love that sounds like it should play over the credits of a Sergio Leone western. And in keeping with his collaborative spirit, he doesn’t even sing on the track, giving vocal duties over to keyboardist Carlos Santana and guitarist Ryan Baer. This, in spite of the fact that Doores wrote the song for his sister’s wedding.
“I have less energy so I have to be more strategic about how I spend it,” says Doores. When I ask him about touring. With the album coming out, he’s going to have to be on the road a lot, and he counts out loud the six tours he’s currently planning.
“I’m giving up any kind of regular routine,” he says. “I’ve always had to give it up for this. Cooking in my kitchen is the thing I miss most. Early mornings and early evenings, when I feel like I’m my healthiest, just isn’t possible when you’re making a living playing music, and making a living playing music is the best job I’ve ever had.”
But, he points out, it can’t just be a job. He’s just returned from South Africa, where he worked with a choral croup learning local song traditions. It took him back to his younger days singing in gospel choirs. And even though he doesn’t expect any of what he learned to end up in his songs, he insists the trip was crucial for his development.
“I think it’s important to always have a relationship to music that’s outside of the music industry,” says Doores. “Its like a reset button. Going to Cuba last winter was that for me as well. I think I need to do that every year just to keep my head in the right place.”
When we speak, he’s back in New Orleans, which he calls his “musical and spiritual home.” But unlike most of his time in New Orleans, he doesn’t have a physical house anymore. That house on the levee, where he recorded friends and where I heard him begin to build this record, isn’t where he gets his mail anymore. And perhaps that was a shove he needed to head out into the world, at the front of a band, the way he is now.
It fits in with the memory-dipped feel of the new record. A kind of loss and a cherishing of memories has always been a part of Doores’s work. The debut single of the album, “Let It Roll,” comes off as a deep prayer that he can hold his path going forward, and that the love of others can sustain him, and that theme runs like a cable through the whole record.
But if there is a sense of loss, then Doores gives the impression that it’s a necessary one. The things we love matter because they are going away, and there’s a kind of heroism in holding on.
And in looking forward.
“Right now I’m having so much fun with the band I’m playing with,” he says. “I feel like a teenager. It’s the same amount of fun but more adult. It’s the most fun I’ve had in a while.”
He pauses for a moment and then adds, “I’m excited for the next record. I think the next one’s going to be the one.”
“That’s what everybody says, right?”
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