A bard of the hard road, rising star Sam Morrow reconnects with the world through his music
By Bliss Bowen
“Didn’t get too far with my own ideas
I know love is the answer but I forgot what the question is”
— from Sam Morrow’s “Hurts Like Hell”
You can hear an old soul speaking through Sam Morrow’s music, so it’s easy to forget the thoughtful Venice resident only turned 25 in January. He’s logged hard miles in that time.
Raised in Houston, Morrow was initially schooled in music in his family’s Methodist church. But by high school, he’d ditched choirboy decorum to “escape” in getting high while listening to rappers like Lil’ Flip and attending EDM raves.
“I was trying to produce that kind of stuff, but I was never that good at it,” he recalls. “I couldn’t relate to it as much as I can relate to a guitar and singing.”
Morrow started writing seriously five years ago, while in rehab in Palm Springs to shake his heroin addiction; from there he moved to a sober living facility in Venice and he wound up staying, drawn to Venice’s “small town feel in a large city.” He logs a fair amount of time on PCH, commuting between his job and his Venice digs, where he lives with his one-year-old pup Sturgill.
“When I was getting high, I was kind of escaping, and I needed a way to escape that was healthy, y’know? I found that pretty quick in playing guitar and singing,” he says. “I encourage anyone who’s trying to get sober to find a creative outlet. It doesn’t necessarily have to be music or painting or anything like that; you can get creative with just how you help people. There’s so many ways to be creative. Keeping stuff bottled up in you doesn’t seem healthy.”
Sobriety brought a hunger for “brutal honesty” and fresh appreciation of artists who “just write what they think,” like Johnny Cash, Steve Earle, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Marty Robbins and Townes Van Zandt.
“Would you applaud if I made it sound pretty
If I sang in key could I make you believe ….
The same old bullshit don’t make the grass green”
“Lyrics take people with me,” he notes. That they do. Onstage, Morrow tilts his head back, eyes closed — “it’s hard for me to sing with my eyes open,” he admits — and howls out his personal lyrics in a voice more expressive than refined, raw with need.
“I love, love playing live music,” he says.
Uncomfortable in social situations, music gives him a way to connect.
“First it was my way of connecting with God, then it was my way of picking up girls, and now it’s my way of just connecting and, y’know, learning about people and myself,” he says. “I attribute whatever soul I have in my music or voice to singing in church, because I was singing to something, I thought, in church. And there’s a connection that you feel when you’re singing music, when you’re quote unquote ‘worshipping.’ I wouldn’t really consider myself a Christian anymore, but I bring that kind of connection to something greater and music is my pathway to tap into that.”
In September he released “There is No Map,” his second album in less than two years, both recorded with John Mayall/Walter Trout producer Eric Corne and seasoned musicians attracted to his soulful tunes, including guitarist Eamon Ryland, keyboardist Sasha Smith and drummer Matt Tecu. Studded with roadhouse rockers and narcotic allusions, yet also soberly introspective, it’s a good roadtripping companion. The album has been warmly received and boosted interest in Morrow from tastemakers and, crucially, bookers. He has summer shows lined up for London, the South and the East Coast.
Yet it’s an open question whether the way people commonly cherry-pick individual tracks to create their own playlists has shaped response to “There is No Map.” There’s not a bum or filler track there, so it’s not like you must cue up a single to hear anything worthwhile. It’s also true that it’s a real album: a collection of thematically related songs sequenced with old-school thought and care. That kind of conscientious artistry gives albums greater staying power. Does that still matter to listeners who aren’t artists or diehard music aficionados?
“I didn’t learn too much back when I knew it all
Yeah, I didn’t listen up when they told me I’d fall
Yeah, we all fall …
Keep your eyes open, feel as much as you can
And when you do fall remember: you can still stand”
— “There is No Map”
“You really have to listen to it as a whole, or else it doesn’t have the same effect as if you listen to it in pieces,” Morrow says. “I think ‘There is No Map’ is one of the best songs I’ve ever written. I love that song. A lot of people don’t get to it — it’s the last song on the record — but the people that do, they’re like, ‘Dude, this is the best song.’ …
“I’m happy with what we accomplished. It’s a piece of work that I’m proud of. But if anything, it got me in a headspace to really know what I want to do for the next record. … I’m in a really contemplative phase of my music right now.”
Morrow recently traded an acoustic guitar for an electric model, and he’s practicing on electric more often. That’s a noteworthy shift for someone who, up to this point, has approached the instrument primarily as a writing tool. Paying closer attention to guitar parts is part of a broader study of differences between songs that deliver cathartic release and music that makes you move. He cites Billy Joe Shaver’s “Georgia on a Fast Train” as “a badass song” even though it’s “not about anything necessarily deep.”
“I’ve almost been trying to write in like a lighter affect,” he says. “I’ve been trying to exercise my brain that way, where I’m not just writing about cathartic things but about more everyday things. A really important piece of what I love about music, is really, really good lyrical songwriting. But musically, I’m in more of a headspace to write more upbeat stuff.”
Since the shuttered Room 5’s “Monday Monday” nights were resurrected at Hotel Café, he’s spending more time at the popular Hollywood songwriter hang. He used to spend hours with fellow creatives at Venice’s Groundworks, but now he usually needs space after work to write and play guitar.
“I don’t think I take enough advantage of the creativity that’s around me, but there’s something in the air around me that I do take advantage of,” he observes. “Maybe it’s being close to the ocean; maybe it’s people. … I’m just chipping away and being patient, and just getting better at what I do. As a musician, I still have a long way to go.”
Sam Morrow plays The Echo on (1822 W. Sunset Blvd., Echo Park) on June 26. To learn more about Morrow’s music and other show dates, visit sammorrowmusic.com.