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A student of classic pop songwriting in the vein of Brian Wilson and Simon and Garfunkel, Kansas City-based songwriter and performer Sam Arjes is motivated by the realization at a young age that "powerful songwriting can be as a form of expression and art." In this interview, Arjes, whose most recent single is an indelible piece of chamber pop called "Maryanne", explains his approach to songwriting, his earliest influences and what music has recently inspired him.
Describe your earliest experience as a songwriter. What got you started? Who were your earliest influences?
Music has always felt very important to me personally, even at a really young age. I have tons of great memories as a kid, listening to music with my parents—running around the house singing along to the Beatles with my mom, or riding in the car with my dad and listening to artists like The Temptations and Elvis Presley.
I love all kinds of music, but I really got hooked on pop, rock and folk music of the 60s and 70s. The fact that my parents loved it probably had a lot to do with that, but also because so much of the songwriting of that time period really resonates with me. For instance, I remember first hearing “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel and being totally drawn into the song’s story and the feelings it evokes—the ache of being alone and displaced in a big city, struggling to survive the harshness of winter.…the emotions are conveyed so clearly in that song and in such a powerful way that, even at such a young age, I was impacted by it.
Through similar experiences, listening to other classic songs of that period, it became clear to me how powerful songwriting can be as a form of expression and art. Eventually, I decided I wanted to become a musician and write songs of my own that would (hopefully) create that kind of lasting impact as well.
How often are you writing songs? Are you a heavy editor or do songs come fairly quickly?
I try to constantly write, even if I’m not actively sitting at home with a guitar or piano. For me it’s sort of an unpredictable process—sometimes a song seems to come naturally, out of nowhere almost, and other times it’s something I have to consciously work at and put effort into. Usually something I see or experience will inspire an idea, but then it becomes a process of working it over in my head or on paper until it feels right and I’m happy with it.
I do tend to edit a lot when working on a song. I always focus on expressing something that has meaning to others, not just me, so it’s always a matter of working out what I’m trying to communicate and how to best express that in a way that resonates with the audience or listener. I mostly draw from my own feelings and personal experiences when writing, but I always want the listener to be able to relate to and connect with the song as well. I don’t want the lyrics to spell out the story so specifically that there’s nothing left to the imagination; I want the story left a bit broad and undefined so that the listener can contribute their own meaning to it, or interpret it on a personal level, too. That's my goal for each song, and I'll usually work and re-work them over and over before I'm satisfied. It takes a while sometimes.
Talk about the recording process for your most recent single, “Maryanne.” What did you learn that you’ll take to future projects?
The recording process is such a fun process, and I’m constantly learning from it. My two latest songs (“Where I Have Been” and “Maryanne”) were produced by a good friend of mine, Jamie Searle, at Chromatic Contact Multimedia here in Kansas City. Jamie's a rare combo of producer, songwriter and psychic—he has a way of knowing exactly what a song needs (or doesn’t) in order to bring out its full potential and make it sound exactly as you’d imagined it should sound. Plus, he can play and write music for roughly a dozen instruments, so he’s like Brian Wilson and The Wrecking Crew, in one. Working with him and our mixer (Justin Mantooth of Westend Recording Studios) is great because I get to watch and learn as they work and ask questions about the whole recording/mixing process, which they're always happy to answer. I’ve learned a lot about composition and arrangement from them and it’s definitely enhanced my own songwriting immensely. I love it!
How do you move through creative blocks? What gets you inspired?
A lot of things will spark creativity for me if I hit a block—movies, listening to music, visiting a new city, etc. I’ve even written songs that were inspired by books that I’ve read. Also, I’m generally working on multiple songs at a time. So if I hit an impasse with one song, I’ll leave it alone for a while and work on another one. When I come back to the first song, I usually have a fresh perspective and can start gaining some momentum on it again.
What new music are you currently raving about?
Well...2019 still feels recent enough to be relevant, and it definitely brought some great music from some of my favorite artists. Wilco’s latest album “Ode to Joy” is fantastic. Metric’s latest album was technically released in late 2018, but I pretty much spent all of last year listening to it and couldn’t get enough of it. Julia Jacklin released an album last year called “Crushing” which quickly became one of my favorite albums of all time. And when I went to her show at the RecordBar back in May, a band called Black Belt Eagle Scout opened for her—I’d never heard of them before and they pretty much blew me away with their awesome live set. And they released a great album in 2019 as well.
In terms of new music this year, I’ve recently discovered an album called “Rattle Trap Sessions” by Decoyote, an Austin-based artist, and I’ve been pretty hooked on it. Nathaniel Ratliff also has a new solo album that I’m really getting into. And I’m a big fan of M. Ward who has a new album coming out in April. He’s released a few singles from it already and so far I’m loving it. I get very excited over new music from artists I love, and there’s definitely a lot I’m looking forward to this year. I can’t wait!
Sam Arjes's recommendations from the Johnson County Library catalog:
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) by Jeff Tweedy
No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
Revolver by The Beatles
Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys
Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkel
Hunky Dory by David Bowie
The Bends by Radiohead
The Animal Years by Josh Ritter
High Violet by The National
The Suburbs by Arcade Fire