Spontaneous by nature and always one to make the most of a tough situation, Phelps decided to look on the bright side of things during quarantine, and shift his focus inward towards personal growth. Hence Talking to a Friend was born, an arrow on the compass of his journey leading him to connect with fans in a new way while satisfying the itch of his songwriting bug.
Each song is an intricate layering of bubbly guitars, and you’ll notice something new every time you listen through. The hook, “I believe,” in title track “Talking to a Friend” mirrors the hopeful and optimistic instrumental. The track “Choices” is exactly the kind of sad song he grew up loving, vulnerable and tearful, whereas “I’m Weak” features a catchy, plucky riff melody that makes your head nod along. Altogether, they lay out the different pieces of Phelps’ multifaceted self-exploration, providing specificity in the most relatable way, where listeners will see themselves mirrored in his own self-reflections.
The Kentucky native has chased his love of music all around the country: from Austin, Texas, to Brooklyn, New York, where he lives now. A dedicated work ethic and humble perspective have kept him afloat and going strong even as he’s faced challenges along the way, including his impulsive moves and, of course, the current stranglehold on society.
In anticipation of the EP, Phelps has collaborated with photographer Courtney Sultan to post a series of promotional shots, including a goofy teaser video. He also appeared on the podcast The Georgia Songbirds, in which he talked about his childhood and musical background.
We had the chance to chat with Phelps, who shared some behind-the-scenes of Talking to a Friend, his deep love for Steve Earle, and some goals for the year.
Where did you grow up, and who or what from your childhood inspired you to pursue music?
I grew up in southeastern Kentucky in Pulaski County. To me music was just always larger than life. I never got into any type of video games or anything. I always just loved a great, sad song. Willie Nelson, Steve Earle, and old bluegrass songs that just stopped you in your tracks. That’s what inspired me.
Give us your best elevator pitch for those wondering who Sam Phelps is and what his music is all about.
Sam Phelps is just a guy who truly loves a good song that you wanna sit and listen to by yourself. Or you can put on your headphones, or get in your car and take a drive, and just feel it. Feel the story. Maybe hopefully relate to it in some way, and it makes you feel better.
What prompted the relocation from Kentucky to New York, and when did you make that move?
It was a series of things that all happened in about a year and a half. From summer 2011 to winter 2012. I was miserable in my situation at the time. I needed a change in the worst way. I wanted to go to L.A. I wanted a total change. So a friend of mine said come stay with me, save all your money, and get outta here. He knew I was in rough shape. His son was living in L.A. at the time he came home for a visit, and we were talking and he asked what I wanted to do. I told him I wanted to work in a guitar shop during the day and play music at night. He said you don’t wanna go to L.A., you wanna go to Austin, Texas.
So I did a little research, and shortly after I threw my clothes and a couple cheap guitars in my old pickup truck and headed west. I was there about two months and a friend I made there said they were moving to Brooklyn and asked me if I wanted to go. I said yes! Very spur of the moment. I had never even been to New York. So I got a job at a junk yard driving a big flatbed truck delivering used parts to garages all day, and on the weekends and a couple nights a week I worked in a horn/guitar shop. I worked 7 days a week that whole summer saving every dime I could. I knew New York was gonna be expensive. But I overcame a few obstacles and I’m still here!
Your new EP, Talking to a Friend, is hot off the press. What is one or two memories from writing or recording these songs that you’ll reflect back on most fondly years from now?
I would say the writing itself. I had gotten very sick the end of February, and stayed sick for a long time. And I was cutting ties with some people in my life at the same time, so just pushing through that and writing and thinking about how weird the whole world was at that time… I mean it’s just gonna be hard to forget. And the title track, “Talking To A Friend,” came so fast I couldn’t push the pen fast enough. I’d never had that happen before, so I won’t forget that.
You said that you wrote these songs “during quarantine while trying to find [your] direction.” Do you feel you’ve discovered more direction, whether artistic or otherwise, after writing and releasing these songs?
I do. I feel I’m getting closer to knowing what I’m capable of at this time and I’m ok with it. And how I can do the most with it. Obviously I want and need to get better and that’s just what I plan to try to do. It’s everything to me.
Do you ever write for others or get involved in co-writes? And how do you choose which songs to cut, and which ones you put on the shelf?
I only write for myself. At this point, I don’t think I’d know how to co-write. I’m still writing mostly from my own experiences at this point. Mostly, haha. Choosing which songs to cut is so random. I just literally spit them out without even thinking. It’s always to this point been so random.
Who or what would be a dream collaboration for you and why?
Steve. Earle. He’s the man. Steve Earle was my Bob Dylan. He talked more like me. He sang about gritty shit that was more relatable to my life. I had a very “old school” upbringing.
What is one of your main goals in music, and how do you define success as a musician and artist?
My idea of succeeding would be NO MORE 9 TO 5. No more soul-sucking. I don’t need a lot of money. I’ve never had it. A little travel, getting to play and CONSTANTLY create. That’s fulfillment in my eyes. I wanna write a great song and I want the time to lose myself to try and make it happen.
Are you making any tentative plans to play shows and tour this year?
Covid permitting, yeah. But I’m terrified of this thing. I would be really scared, but I’d like to. I live in a small Brooklyn apartment, and if I get sick, I’m getting others sick too. There’s no way around it. I couldn’t sleep at night if I hurt someone like that.
Besides Talking to a Friend, what else do you have planned for this year that fans can look forward to?
Hopefully some shows I would guess. I would definitely like to get back in the studio again already I have more material. But I would say just some shows be it live or from a computer screen.
Photo by Courtney Sultan