INTERVIEW: SAM BUCKINGHAM
With two acclaimed albums and her grassroots fan focused approach, Sam Buckingham has become one of Australia’s most respected independent, self managed artists. Known for her intimate and “almost spiritual” live shows, Buckingham has been touring consistently since the release of her 2017 album “The Water”, lapping the country with Kasey Chambers, James Reyne and Diesel and selling out her recent “Hammer & Love” national tour.
Currently Sam is preparing to tour her next single “Real Life”.
At RaRa, we love and champion independent female artists carving their own paths in the Australian music industry. Sam is one of those women, and we were honoured to speak with her after her Hammer & Love tour earlier this year.
How long have you been making & performing your music for?
I’ve been writing for about 20 years, I started when I was 14 and Im 35 now. And I guess I officially started performing when I was 18 and allowed to go into bars and start drinking. But before that I was playing a lot in front of family and friends, and just getting comfortable with the idea of playing in front of people.
When I first started I was so shy I couldn’t even look at people in the audience. I had to turn around so I couldn’t see anyone or I had to ask them to turn around because it was just so confronting. I actually needed to do that for a good few years before I felt comfortable enough to even walk onto a stage. I guess I was embarrassed about bearing my soul because I was writing songs about myself. I often wondered if there was something wrong with me but the more I talk to people the more I realise that’s pretty normal, it’s a skill that you have to learn, to overcome all sorts of fears and bodily sensations to be able to stand on stage.
And when I did start performing I was incredibly nervous performing, so much that my whole nervous system completely broke down. I was shaking and sick, and I had to really do a lot of work for a good few years to train my body to just chill the fuck out.
Isn’t it amazing though, that we feel like this but we still have the drive to put ourselves through that and overcome it?
I know! It’s really cool. There’s either something really wrong with us or there’s something really cool about us, I can’t decide.
OK so fast forward to now - you’ve recently come off your “Hammer & Love” tour where you played in multiple states in Australia... what kind of shows did you play?
When I’m booking my own tours, I’m really particular about the kind of venues we choose and the way we set up the shows. The way that I perform is very much based around storytelling, and it requires that direct connection to the crowd, which means it has to be in a venue that’s conducive to people sitting down and listening and being part of that experience.
So it was seven cities, and we played the album from start to finish and I basically told the stories of the people that I met on my travels and things that I learnt about myself (I wrote the album mostly while I was living in latin America) and it was probably the most storytelling I’ve ever done on tour, which felt really, really good!
And so did you organise this yourself, or did you have a team around you to help with booking and promo?
I have a booking agent at Harbour Agency, who I started working with about a year and a half ago and that has actually completely changed the way that I tour, for the better. He does all the backend booking of the gigs and we spend a lot of time working together on the way we want the tour to look and feel, and therefore what venues look right for that, and he and the team at Harbour handle all the details for that, which has taken a massive weight off my shoulders, and freed me up to do a lot more writing and other work with my music.
And also for the first time on this tour I worked with Revival Music Group. So once we’d booked all the gigs, I gave them the tour schedule and they sourced flights, hire cars, sorted out musicians baggage etc and that made a huge difference too. It saved me a lot of time and brain space, which I’m learning is maybe even more valuable than time itself.
And then the rest I do myself. I did all the promotion, sending my single to community radio through AMRAP, but I also have an ongoing list of community radio stations that I know play my music, so in the places I was visiting I contacted those stations and asked them to plug my shows.
I also contacted street press, newspaper and blogs. And I actually don’t think I should do that again, because it’s another thing that takes up a lot of time and headspace, and though I think I managed it well for this tour, I don’t think I’m the best person for the job. Because I’m focused on all the other details of the tour and everything that the artist has to do, I don’t often end up following up with radio and blogs. Anyone that comes back to me - great, but I’m not really pushing to get promotion and I’d rather have another member of my team pushing to build those relationships. So while it costs a lot of money, I think for the next tour it would be a lot smarter for me to do that.
I guess that’s the big question, when do you go from doing it all yourself to hiring someone else, and hoping that they actually do a better job than you can?
Well to be honest, that’s been part of the problem for me, that I don’t feel like I’ve found anyone that I really trust enough to do a better job than me. I’ve worked with a few publicists in the past but when I look back, it’s not really anything more than I’ve achieved on my own. And I’m not entirely sure how to overcome that, because if you’re putting in that much money, you want to know its got a good return on investment. I think it’s just like anything else, you have to find the right person.
How to do go balancing the creative side of things with the business of being an artist?
I think I’ve gotten a lot better at this over the last year or two. In the past I’ve just let my creativity be something that happens when it happens, but as my work life has gotten busier I’ve found that I actively need to carve time out or else it just doesn’t happen.
So now what I do is I make time blocks. So I’m fine if I’m not creative at all one day, as long as I know when I am being creative and I put time aside. So I’m crazy about looking at my diary and planning out a week or two ahead and blocking out time according to when I know is going to be my most productive time to create or cover the business side of things... and then it’s always open to change, there’s always room for flexibility but I do try to schedule each according to what my bigger goals are.
For example, at the moment I’m starting to work on a new album, so it’s really important to me to spend a lot of time writing and demoing the songs and working on them before trying them out live. And I’ve already written a lot of songs but I want to write a lot more before I even start to look at recording the album. So I guess you could say that I’m in that season, but I still have to juggle that with work and gigs, and keep on top of everything else.
I also like to plan my time according to my menstrual cycle. So there’s actually 4 phases of the menstrual cycle - the reflective phase - when you’re menstruating, the dynamic phase, then expressive, then creative. And each one has different values and we are more able to perform certain tasks or we feel more a certain way in different phases than others. And so I’ve been learning a lot more about the science of that, and actually planning things for when I’m in different phases of my cycle. So I’d encourage everyone to look up Lucy Peach who is a Perth based artist and talks a lot about this. Honestly that has made a huge difference over the past 12 months of actually starting to pay attention to that and work with it.
But just having those tools and understanding helps. I know for me, I focus really well on writing first thing in the morning before I’ve done anything else. So I often write as I’m eating breakfast, because I won’t be distracted by day to day work. And I know that I can only focus on computer work for 4-5 hours maximum in a day, so I set myself a limit so Im working to my best abilities.
Just understanding those kinds of things like tuning into my own body and my own brain and how I respond to things - I find that helps me to balance the creative and business side a lot better.
Have you ever had any long periods of “writer’s block”?
Um yeah... but I don’t call it writer’s block, and it doesn’t bother me in any way. I call it “I’m just not writing right now”. And talking about cycles and stuff, for me personally - creativity comes in cycles and I’m really aware that there are times when it is better for me to not write, because I’m like a sponge and I’m filling up my own world so I have more to pour into my creative efforts. And I’ve seen this cycle over and over again in my 20 years of writing. And it does not bother me in the slightest if I haven’t written a song for 4 or 5 months, because all of a sudden I’ll start writing and it will be like a tap has turned on.
I think that as independent artists where the industry has changed so much, we don’t really have to go by those old ideas of album cycles, and we can actually create on our own schedule.
Forcing myself to write has never worked. Being in the practice of writing always helps - so not being attached to outcomes, but saying I’m going to write a song once a week, doesn’t matter if its good or bad, I’m just going to flex that muscle for a bit. The practice of writing has always been super valuable and I find it more and more valuable as time goes on and the busier I get. But the pressure to actually write, or feeling like I’m blocked because I’m not coming up with anything good… I just find that to be so unhelpful and I’ve found over and over again, that’s just not what’s happening. What’s happening is I’m gathering things for the next real outpouring of creative energy.
Do you ever still have to deal with nerves or stage fright these days?
Sometimes I feel nervous when I’m on stage just for one song. Like if I’m singing backing vocals for a friend, or if I’m doing an “in the round” thing, where I play one song and then sit through two more before I play again and I don’t get into the rhythm of it. If I’m doing something that is a bit different to what I’ve done in the past, I get nervous because it’s new and uncharted territory. But if its a show where I’m playing my songs and I’ve done it before, I don’t tend to get nervous anymore. If it’s familiar territory and I’m just grateful to be there.
I love how music makes you push through those nerves. I guess by now you’ve learnt that those feelings aren’t bad, it’s just something that is new or different.
Yeah and I like that you can reframe it, like is it fear or is it excitement? Because the body doesn’t really know the difference. And I think that’s really valuable. And now, when I do feel those nerves, where I used to wish them away, what I do now is just acknowledge it, and know that it’s normal, and for me that helps me drop back into the moment instead of getting caught up in my own brain that I shouldn’t be feeling that way. So I actually really enjoy those moments now because I think “I’m alive, I’m really feeling something and that means that this matters to me”. I think reframing that and telling yourself a different story is really helpful.
Do you have any advice for emerging artists at the beginning of their careers?
Hmm. So many things. One, I would say is define what success means to you, and go for that. That’s a lot easier said than done, because we get a lot of messages from a lot of different places about what success looks like in music. I think for me, personally, I spent a lot of time so confused about all those messages that I couldn’t find a clear path to see who I was, what mattered to me most, and then figure out how to go for that.
What you want will evolve and your path will unfold over time as you keep writing songs and doing your thing, but I think it’s so easy to get trapped in what other people are saying about success, and listening to that instead of your own voice that is kind of screaming at you “this is why and how I want to make music, and this is the way it works for me”. We’re so lucky that we’re living in times where you can actually ask yourself that question and go forth and make something happen without the need to sign to a label or be played on every radio station in the country. And if that’s your vision of success, go for it. But know that’s your vision and not just something that you’re buying into because the general population or the TV has said “this is what success looks like”.
So I guess what I’m saying is walk on your own path. We have this saying in yoga practice “stay on your own mat”. You don’t need to look at anyone else on any other mat and compare yourself to them. It doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing, that’s their story. Be on your own mat and practice yoga in the way that you need to, and want to, on that day. And I think that is so applicable to music. Don’t get waylaid by what everyone else is doing, just do you.
Sam Buckingham is performing one show at The Wesley Anne in Melbourne for her upcoming Real Life tour on Friday October 25th, with other shows all around the country.
All tour dates, tickets and details can be found at sambuckingham.com/
Check out the video for ‘Real Life’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1djVcxfToEc