Sam Robbins is just getting started. The Portsmouth based singer/songwriter is a full-time student at Berklee College of Music and is coming off of a whirlwind of a year in 2018 which saw him making an appearance on network television's well-known series, “The Voice.” Robbins will play his biggest hometown show so far on Saturday, Jan. 12 at 3S Artspace.
EDGE caught up with Robbins to discuss where he's been, where he's at, and where he's hoping to take his music in 2019 and beyond.
EDGE: Why music? Why do you seek it? Why do you create it?
Robbins: Music has always been the one thing that I've able to fully immerse myself in, and feel the truest connection with. Music allows me an escape that doesn't go away when youth does – in Bruce Springsteen's autobiography, he has a quote that sums it up for me: “Music was filled with a deep longing, a casually transcendent spirit and ... hope. Hope for that girl, that moment, that night when everything changes, when life reveals itself to you, and you in turn are revealed.” I create because it allows me to keep this spirit alive in myself.
EDGE: How's school going? What have been some key takeaways for you as a student? Has anything blown your mind that you hadn't even considered prior to heading to Berklee?
Robbins: School is great! I'm going into my last semester, so it's getting to the point where I have to start reflecting on what I've experienced at Berklee and begin looking ahead to what's next. There has been SO much that I've learned from Berklee – from really getting a handle on music theory, harmony and songwriting to getting a fuller idea of the music business. The real takeaway from Berklee, however has been the relationships. I've met so many amazing, talented and driven people that have pushed me to go further. Through working with teachers like Paula Cole, Scarlet Keys (a Portsmouth resident), Peter Eldridge, Berta Rojas and so many others I've been able to see what success looks like in the industry. The community there is really unlike anything else. I heard it described once as “an oasis of modern music.” So basically ... almost every day something blows my mind at Berklee.
EDGE: I love that series of videos you were doing in what I assume were practice spaces at the college. What do you enjoy about interpreting other people's songs?
Robbins: The “Berklee Practice Room Sessions!” Those were super fun! They came from a funny idea when we couldn't find a practice space so we just decided to set up in one of the little practice rooms. I love interpreting other people's songs. I've done around 600 shows in the past three years – this has included a lot of bars, private events, weddings, engagements, frat parties, and just about everywhere you could imagine. This requires me to know a lot of covers. I've found that doing a ton of covers allows you to mold the songs to what your style is, and it allows you to refine what your sound is. Doing cover gigs has been a boot camp for me where I've been able to train relentlessly and discover how I can apply my own musical sensibilities to whatever cover I'm playing.
EDGE: What's good for 2019? Might there be a record in the works? If so, what's it all about? What are you looking to achieve?
Robbins: There is a lot that's good for 2019! First, I'm releasing my first single in over a year, “Addicted,” on Friday, Jan. 11. This is a song that means a lot to me and it's the first of what is a much deeper, more introspective sound that I've been exploring. Much of my life has changed over the past few months and I've been putting it into my music on a much deeper level than ever before. I've been allowing myself to really explore my artistry as a writer and performer, and see where it takes me, and most importantly I've been writing just what I respond to emotionally – no expectations of what “my sound is." No questions of “is this me?” and just allowing myself the freedom to create. I can't wait for people to hear it. As far as a record, my producer (who also plays drums with me) and I are planning on recording as much as possible this spring – and that could very well turn into a record
EDGE: How do you approach songwriting? Is it easy or arduous? What do you get out of the act of writing songs?
Robbins: Songwriting is a crazy thing that NOBODY – and I mean NOBODY – really understands. To me, it's both easy and arduous. Occasionally, I will get inspired and write a song in 20 minutes, and that's when it's easy. These often also turn out to be the best songs because they were born from an emotional moment that you are still in – my song “Addicted” was one of these songs. It's incredible writing in this way because it's really you pulling from your subconscious – and because of this, you learn about yourself and your emotions while writing. However, this is not usually how it works. Most of the time, I will feel inspired with an idea or a melodic section and that will be great. And then I'll need to get to work to flesh out the rest of the story. This can be incredibly hard and take painstaking work – but it's always worth it.
EDGE: Seems like it's paid off a little bit. Tell us about being awarded the Pat Pattison Songwriting Award…
Robbins: It was amazing, and also a big surprise! I just checked my email one day and saw it. It was amazing to receive recognition from some of the songwriting teachers at Berklee who I respect so much.
EDGE: What or who inspires you? How do you channel this inspiration into your art?
Robbins: I have many inspirations. First, my life and the everyday emotions, ups and downs and new beginnings of life are fascinating to me and it all inspires my writing. On a less philosophical level, I'm very inspired by country and Americana music as a whole – usually when I listen to a lot in this genre I can come home and start writing immediately. Artists like Jason Isbell, Hank Williams, Brandi Carlile, Willie Nelson and others are incredibly inspiring as writers to me. I'm not sure why.
EDGE: 2018 was an interesting year for you. Not only are you full-time student, you also made an appearance on the major network show, “The Voice.” How was that experience? What did you take away from it?
Robbins: "The Voice" was an incredible ride, and definitely the coolest experience of my life. I didn't make it very far, but it was still one of the biggest moments of my life and career. There were a lot of takeaways – just getting up there and being able to audition out of the thousands who try was a huge confidence boost for me. I figured that I must be doing something right! It also showed me that I can push myself to perform at that high of a level and do it – that I can get up in front of millions of people and perform. One of the biggest takeaways, however, is in the way that it allowed me to think about having a music career – that what builds the kind of career I want is building communities and to be a part of a community. To me, it's not really about being plucked from obscurity and turned into a “star.” Doing "The Voice" really made me glad to be from a town like Portsmouth, because I realized that not everybody has a community that is so receptive to artists, and I'm so thankful to the community, which has been so supportive to me ever since I started playing music in town at 14.
EDGE: Is it weird to set foot on stage to play to a room full of strangers? Or do you thrive in that sort of environment? What's your pre-show ritual (if you have one) to help fend off the butterflies?
Robbins: At first, this definitely freaked me out. But honestly, over the years I've begun to really enjoy this feeling. I've begun to almost enter a meditative state when I'm performing – I almost feel like my head is clearer when I'm performing and talking to an audience than at almost any other time in my life, which is crazy!
As far as a pre-show ritual, I always stretch my neck and hands a lot, but a lot of what has helped me deal with nerves is the book "Effortless Mastery" by Kenny Werner. I was lucky enough to attend a few of his clinics at school, and I bought his book and it really changed my thinking about performing. Before doing a big show, I'll usually read through the first few chapters and it helps me a lot.
EDGE: You're playing a hometown show at 3S Artspace on Saturday, Jan. 12. What excites you about the gig? What can folks expect?
Robbins: I've been looking forward to this show for a long time! It's the biggest headlining show I've done, and it's really going to be a review of my musical journey so far. I've been playing music and been supported by the community here since I was in middle school, so I'm going to revisit a lot of my older music that I rarely play, while also playing new songs that showcase the new, deeper sound that I'm exploring. Also, it's generally going to be a good time! My friend and longtime musical collaborator Abrielle Scharff will be opening with her band, so it's going to be a great night.
Go & Do
What: Sam Robbins in concert with special guest Abrielle Scharff
When: 8 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 12; doors open 7 p.m.
Where: 3S Artspace, 319 Vaughan St., Portsmouth
Tickets: $8, members; $10 in advance; $12, day of show; show is all ages, seated
More info: Visit www.3Sarts.org and www.samrobbinsmusic.com