Sam Robbins Discusses Kerrville Folk Fest Victory, Auditioning On The Voice, & New Single ‘Reverence’

Described as an “old soul singer songwriter,” Nashville artist Sam Robbins has already amassed acclaim in his young career.

In 2018, the New Hampshire native was able to audition on NBC’s The Voice for Adam Levine, Kelly Clarkson, Blake Shelton and Jennifer Hudson. He was the season’s “Young James Taylor” and he was the first artist to ever perform a Jim Croce song on the show.

He was also one of six winners in the Kerrville Folk Festival New Folk Competition last year, which is one of the largest and most prestigious songwriting competitions in the country.

Robbins released his debut album, Finally Feeling Young, almost exactly a year ago in May of 2021. Two album tracks, “Remind Me” and “Saying Amen,” won him the aforementioned Kerrville competition. Americana Highways said of Robbins, “He writes of subjects that others don’t explore. ‘Saying Amen’ has Robbins touching that special place Leonard Cohen went. This is brilliance.”

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And this past Friday, May 27th, Robbins released his latest single, “Reverence,” which is the lead single off of his upcoming album, Bigger than in Between.

We had the chance to chat with him about the new single, his experience on The Voice, winning the Kerrville competition, and much more.

So can you talk about your roots and who or what got you into songwriting? 

I’m from Portsmouth, NH – it’s a coastal fishing kind of town in southern New Hampshire. Basically, it’s peak New England. Lobsters, Fall leaves, etc. There was a great arts scene in Portsmouth, and a great little acoustic music scene. I was not interested in this scene at all when I was a kid. I was a punk drummer.

I played in a few bands through middle school and into high school, mostly playing in sweaty basements, that kind of thing. I developed a real love for songwriting through that experience, and through listening to the great melodies that are in pop-punk music. When I was around sixteen, I picked up Bob Dylan’s autobiography – I had begun strumming a little on a cheap guitar and maybe thought I could write songs. That book really gave me the courage to try it. 

I was hoping you could discuss your upcoming single, “Reverence.” What’s the inspiration and influence behind it?

“Reverence” is one of the most different songs from any that I’ve written. It has a pretty direct inspiration. I was listening to an interview with Matthew McConaughey (where I wasn’t expecting a ton of inspiration) and he said something like, “people these days don’t have any reverence for the things they have,” and that thought really intrigued me. I didn’t love the negativity in it, but I just loved the word… there is such power in it!

It really got me thinking about the things in my life that I’ve cherished and why I treasured those things. The song is long, but I just needed the last verse. It focuses more on my mindset and how it connects to the idea of reverence, beyond just physical things.

What made you choose this track as the lead single off of your new album?

I wanted something to lead off the album that would really pop! The vibe of the song is really different from anything I’ve released before. We wanted to create an old time rock/blues kind of feel – driving drums and bass, and classic sounds. I wanted something that would just blast right out of the gate for this new album.

Speaking of the new album, what can you tell us about it and what might fans expect?

Bigger than in Between is a very different vibe from my first album, and I can’t wait to get it out there and hear what people think. My first album was very DIY – we recorded it over the course of several years, in college and then in the living room in Nashville. You could hear my songwriting grow and change, and that was what was so interesting.

For Bigger than in Between, I took a totally different approach. These songs were all written post-COVID, which gives them an interesting flavor. I wouldn’t say that they’re directly about COVID, but these past few years brought so much in all of us that we didn’t know was there before. The songs are about reawakening, changing mindsets and getting more comfortable with yourself and your flaws. I wanted a cohesive project, that is a clear representative of who I am.

Where was it recorded and who helped produce it?

We recorded the album about two minutes from my house in Nashville at Skinny Elephant Recording. I worked with Neilson Hubbard as the producer, and he brought in a great squad of Nashville people to play on it. I absolutely loved Neilson’s production on Amy Speace and Jesse Terry’s albums in the past, so I was thrilled to work with him to take my music to the next level.

I wanted it to be a true representation of how I wrote and perform the songs, so the album is fully tracked live – no vocal tuning, very few overdubs. We just wanted to get what it would sound like with me and a band just having fun with the songs. We had two days of just me playing guitar and singing at the same time, to really capture that live feeling, and then the band came in.

The electric guitars are played by Ruston Kelly’s guitar player, Juan Solorzano, who was able to elevate my guitar parts with amazing riffs and effects. Michael Rinney from Miranda Lambert’s band played bass, Neilson played drums, and my girlfriend Halley Neal came up with amazing backing vocal arrangements and sang all over the album. She’s also featured on the first song (“Bigger than in Between”), which was recorded all live in one take!

I see you were one of six winners of the Kerrville Folk Festival New Folk Competition last year. What does that mean to you, and what was that experience like?

It was awesome. Kerrville is an institution! I was honored, but honestly, I was pretty shocked. So many of my songwriting heroes have gone through that contest, and even though judging songwriting is ridiculously subjective, it’s nice to feel like I might be even a tiny part of that pantheon of songwriters.

I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that going to the festival last year to perform was my first time ever at a Folk Festival! It was an incredible energy, and I’ll be heading back this year! I left feeling so inspired, and it was one of the best audiences I’ve ever played for. Unbelievable!

I also see where you performed on The Voice in 2018. What can you tell us about that experience, and do you feel it positively affected your career?

The Voice was a crazy, fun, amazing, stressful, learning experience for me! There’s too much to write here… but I’ll try! I was only briefly on the show. I was featured, they came to my hometown, did the whole thing, and was aired on TV, but no one turned and picked me for their “team”. I remember feeling so crushed when that happened.

It’s been a few years now, and my perspective on it has totally shifted. I’m so lucky to have had the brief exposure and amazing experience. I was flown out to LA several times, had the whole makeup, wardrobe, TV experience, and it was such a great time. But looking back, I think my experience really solidified that absolutely none of that really matters. When you get huge, flash-in-the-pan kind of exposure, it fades in the same kind of way. Quickly!

And, ultimately, no amount of pure exposure will get you a music career that actually lasts and is what I would want to do. That’s my opinion anyway! In short: The Voice was awesome. The (very) brief feeling of being a star was fun and hilarious. But ultimately, writing better songs is what I want to get me to where I want to go.

What does success as a musician and songwriter mean to you?

This ties in with my last answer. I think the biggest thing I’ve learned over the past few years is that community is success. Building community – real community where people are sharing real value for each other, not one built around fame or trends. I want to write songs that touch people, one person at a time. I want to be able to connect one-on-one, without any of the other walls that the music industry has put up. I don’t want to be a star. I want to be able to build my career to a point where I could play great listening rooms around the country, and have people come out. I want to keep building community. 

If you could tour and open for any present-day artist, who would it be and why?

I would love to tour with Livingston Taylor. I took his two classes in college, and I just didn’t understand it back then. Now I do! He’s really a master of performing solo acoustic, and I would just love to watch and learn from him. Also, he plays some of my favorite venues in the country! 

Other than the album, what are some of your goals – whether musically or otherwise – for the rest of the year?

Hmmmmm… I think my big goal, musically, is to just hit the road as much as I can! With COVID, obviously touring has been hard, and now I want to just get out there and see how it feels. I can’t wait! Personally, I’m trying to find a little balance in my life. Maybe go running more, find out how I want to spend my time outside of music, because it can be all consuming!

Sam Robbins on Tour

6/02 – Hastings, NE – The Lark Listening Room

6/03 – Aurora, NE – House Concert (The Leadership Center)

6/04 – Wray, CO – 4th and Main Listening Room

6/12 – Englewood, CO – House concert

6/24 – Belleville, IL – Venue on Main

6/30 – Nashville, TN @ The 5 Spot

7/08 – Cary, NC – House concert

7/09 – Washington, DC – House concert

7/14 – Reading, MA – House concert (w/ Halley Neal)

7/15 – Portsmouth, NH – House concert

7/16 – Basking Ridge, NJ – Ross Farm (opening for Carrie Welling)

7/23 – Manchester, NH – House concert

7/28 – Bridgewater, MA – Bridgewater Music Alley

7/31 – Bridgton, ME – Hayloft at Dragonfly Barn (w/ Halley Neal)

8/04 – Cambridge, MA – Club Passim (Album release)

8/05 – Portsmouth, NH – House concert

8/06 – Francestown, NH – Old Meeting House Concert Series

8/19 – Spring Lake, MI – Free Fridays Concert Series

8/21 – Pittsburgh, PA – House concert

8/26 – Robbinsville, NJ – The Folk Project Troubadour series (opening for Carla Ulbrich)

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