An in-depth look at Sam Martin’s “Alpha Omega.”
Jesse Cannon: Hi. My name is Jesse Cannon, and I’ve devoted my life to figuring out what goes into making great albums. I’ve produced over a thousand records, written two books, and recorded hundreds of podcasts pursuing the hidden secrets of how great music gets to the world’s ears. Now I’m proud to present Inside the Album, where we get to go deeper on how your favorite artists have made the amazing albums in their catalog. We will hear first hand from the musicians and the team behind them that helped craft these records, while getting to know the little secrets that go into making great music. On this episode we discuss Sam Martin’s debut album, “Alpha Omega.”
Sam Martin is a Grammy winning musicians, singer, songwriter and record producer. He rose to the public eye in 2014 for not only being featured as both singer and songwriter on two number one David Guetta songs, he also co-wrote Jason Derulo’s “Want To Want Me,” which holds the record for the most adds in contemporary hit radio history.
Armin Van Buuren (feat. Sam Martin) — “Wild Wild Son”
Jesse Cannon: Since then he’s worked for the virtual who’s who of pop music, including Maroon 5, Ziggy Marley, One Direction, Nick Jonas, The Chainsmokers, Pitbull, Snoop Dogg, Armin van Buuren, and G-Eazy. But this isn’t why you should know Sam. In 2019, he released his solo debut “Alpha Omega,” taking an ambitious step that I have never heard of anyone known for writing EDM bangers take: a concept album. The album is an ambitious and deep move that chronicles a journey through life and strikes countless emotional peaks, all while maintaining a consistent and powerful mood. This spring I got to chat with Sam and he started off the conversation by telling us how he got here.
Sam Martin: So, I never knew that you could write songs for other artists. So when I was a kid, I always just sang songs and just put out little records and I’d sell them at my high school, and it was just, that’s just what you do. I had a decent voice, I thought I had a better voice than I did. It wasn’t until I moved down to Los Angeles, or was coming down here a lot, was that I was just getting pushed by my, just fellow writers. Because I would usually be the better singer in the room, not necessarily the better writer, so I would always have to sing whatever we wrote even if I didn’t like it.
They started pushing me and they started… my range actually improved by about four or five notes, and I sang harder. It was very strange for me, because I maxed out my range and now all of a sudden I’m hitting a C, like what? And I’m barely hitting a C sharp in full voice and it’s just like, what’s going on? I was only hitting a F sharp or a G at the best. So everything was improving, my writing was improving, my syncing was improving. And so what happened was, I always thought of myself as an artist, and there came a point where I was really broke. Extremely broke. And the negative, in money. It was now becoming a selfish endeavor to continue this journey as an artist. Especially with a wife, I was a newlywed, and I just said “Okay, now it’s a hobby, I’m 27 years old or something, I’ve already gone for it and that’s it, and don’t… you just keep it a hobby, Sam.” That’s what I was saying to myself.
Then, I kind of accidentally started a band with my brother. He’s a very funny guy and we like to have fun on the camera. We made a few videos that went viral, we’re one of the early YouTube beneficiaries, I guess. Our little act went viral, and then he made a goofy song that I helped him with and that went more viral, and I wrote him a song that had a big chant in it, like a big soccer chant, and that one, when we released that song, I didn’t know this was happening of course, but Mike Caren was searching for new talent and found this independent release top 100 thing on iTunes, and there was our song.
And it had this chant, and he actually sampled it and sent it over to the Featherstones, a producer group. They sampled it and Dr. Dre heard it and liked it, and wanted it to be on his album “Detox,” which never came out. Anyway, but Esther Dean, who was number one writer at the time, wrote on this track with my chant and Dr. Dre, Eminem and Lady Gaga were going to release this song. And that is crazy. No one told me this, and I signed a very tough publishing deal, as as soon as I signed it I found out this opportunity was in the works. It slowly became clear that that wasn’t going to happen, and then another artist wanted it. 50 Cent wanted it, and then someone else wanted it, and then it just kind of evaporated.
But it got me signed to Mike Caren, who’s a powerhouse and super talented individual and a hustler and a legend in the making. I didn’t know he was a legend in the making and so when I met him the first time, before I signed it, I said I was impressed with his intelligence, seemed like he knew how to make money in music, and I was unable to make money in music in any significant way. So it was cool to hear all these theories and all this stuff. So I remember going, “You know what, I don’t know if we’re going to do business together Mike, but I know that you’re going to do really well.” I didn’t know that he was already doing very well. So he laughed and I said, “I guess I’m going to sign that deal. I mean, no one else is knocking on my door.”
Jesse Cannon: While Sam’s a totally unique story, one of the weird trendlines you do see with people who are able to make amazing pop music, is that oftentimes they’ve never really listened to much pop music, and they come to it from an outsider’s perspective.
Sam Martin: The second miracle moment was when I now have been presented with pop music. I never, at this point in my life, I don’t like pop music, I don’t even know what’s going on. I didn’t even know who Rihanna was or who Maroon 5 was. I’d heard “Stereo Hearts,” but I didn’t even know who that guy was. And I remember my wife saying, “I think you could write something like this,” and it was “Stereo Hearts.” And I thought that’s really cheesy, I don’t like that. Now I love that song.
So now it’s put in my subconscious that I need to write this pop music, and I’m like, what? I wake up from a dream with this melody going around in my head and I thought oh, that sounds like pop, and I ran to the piano and in a sort of haze put it down on this little digital recorder and went back to bed. Woke back up, listened to it, for some reason I was inspired by it and I finished the song in another flash. And I said this word, mumbled it, daylight. I was like (singing). I was very mumbly. But I said “Oh that’s cool, I’ll build the song lyrically around the word daylight,” and wrote this over a few days.
Daylight was really a metaphor for the light at the end of the tunnel, as you pass away into the… die and go into the next, whatever the next is, so that it was their last night in ever. And that got me goosebumps. And I’ve always been fascinated with what’s on the other side, open to all theories. Anyway. So I was really happy with the song. Sent it in, and I have a funny response that I’ve kept from Mike Caren which was, “Not bad, but needs more this and that.” And unknown to me, flash forward here, but eight months later was in the room with Max Martin, Adam Levine, MDL who had, great producer, and he had helped me, he put drums on it, cleaned it up, he was one of the main reasons it even got past Mike Caren and into Maroon 5’s inbox.
But there was a moment with Max Martin and Adam Levine and this is really my baby, my song, and they’re saying this is going to be, oh the third single. He was saying incredibly positive things, like “This is the best song ever.” It’s not the best song ever. He just was so pumped on it. And even on Jimmy Fallon when he was supposed to be promoting another single, Jimmy Fallon said “Hey, is this song, Payphone, your jam?” And he’s like “Actually my favorite song is ‘Daylight.’” And I’m like, “What is going on?”
And I’ve never got a cut in my life. This is my first cut as a writer. Learning from Max Martin, just watching him work, and for some reason I was so arrogant in a way. After a day and a half I just kind of got so humbled by Max Martin’s perfection, that I just went from actually feeling like a participant in my song, I stopped and I immediately went to being a student. I just started asking questions, and instead of trying to be with the guys. I think if you’re curious, and this is the moment I realized that I need to shut up was that Max came in and he said, “We need to get acoustic guitar on this,” and I was like “Great.” And James Valentine, who I love, started playing a guitar. I was, “Oh, that sounds great.” And he goes “Well, just calm down, let’s try out a few guitars.” And I was like, “Okay.” Then he goes “Let’s try a couple more,” and we’re trying them, and I was like wow, this is a lot of acoustic guitar.
And all of a sudden he pulls out this spanking ’65 Gibson, started playing it. And it just sounded about 50,000 times better than the other guitars, and I could not believe that I didn’t know that, and something about that little moment. And I just, no one knew it but I changed, right there. That was the little moment. And then he said, “Go on the piano, Sam and let’s play,” and I was like “No way am I going on the… because I have no idea, you’re not going to like it, you’re not going to be able to describe what you want, and why don’t you just go do it.” And he said “What?” I said, “Just you do it,” and goes in there he goes “I haven’t played the piano in three years.”
And then he went in there, this is Max, and started. He found this nice thing that, just like “Every Breath You Take,” this piano on the offbeat on the snare, just this, holding on these fifths, and it just sounded, it was just a great mood, and I use it a lot on other stuff too.
I could talk about that forever but anyway. I just went, “Oh God I’ve never done this in my life. I’ve never…” I think I was 27 years old and I’d never made a finished record, I realized, and I’d thought I had. I made like five or six albums and I’m like, “I don’t know what I’m doing,” so. But I forgot to say this was great, when I first met the guys, Adam Levine and Max Martin, Max sat me down, and me and MDL and he said, “Who wrote this song? The song.” I said, “Well he produced most of it, MDL, but I actually wrote the song, the chords and the words and the melody.” And he looked at me and he said, “Where did you come from?” I think he meant who’s your publisher, but I said Oregon. Everybody laughed, just like that.
Jesse Cannon: When many people think of rock stars, they think of a natural charisma that the person was surely just born with. But what Sam’s going to talk about here, is it’s not always the smoothest road to gaining that confidence and really having success. There’s ups and downs, there’s points where you’re confidant and you doubt yourself.
Sam Martin: I have supportive parents, I grew up, all my peers thought that I was, the only reason I became prom king was because I made albums. And I was the musical wizard guy in my hometown, and so I never felt like I wasn’t affirmed. It wasn’t like… I felt that I had done some cool stuff, and people had enjoyed my music and been touched by it, and had goosebumps by it and that kind of thing. So I felt good about life and music and all that, even when I was quitting. But I guess I’d never heard it from the best guy in the game, ever, and when he said that, he basically said to me, or, you’re okay. You’re good. It had such an effect on me. After the day was over I didn’t even go home. I took a walk and just was like, I just passed the test.
It had a big effect on me. I don’t think a lot of people get that. I mean, how often does a guy the level of Paul McCartney tell you you’re good, and then works on your song? And then it becomes a number one single, and now we go on the stage together at the ASCAP awards as me and Max Martin.
And so it was just crazy. And it was my first, and then I get to play it on the Grammys, and it gets played on Saturday Night Live, it gets played on The Voice and it gets…did this whole thing and I had no cuts before then, I just was writing music for whatever. Then the next question was, could I even do this again, since it happened in a dream, and I spent a year and a half and although I did get a Ziggy Marley song, I made $1,000 on the Ziggy Marley. I did get a Grammy for it, which was, I still love that that happened. But the reality was that I was a good likelihood that I was a one hit wonder and that was going to be it. And it wasn’t until I started meeting some new friends like Jason Evigan, Ian Kirkpatrick, Lindsay Robins, Julia Michaels, people like that, they kind of started to teach me about what people were really looking for, and Mike Caren was clearly supportive and all this stuff.
But all of a sudden, after a year and a half of struggle, having this big hit and not knowing what to do, how to get more pop music out there, I had this, two years later, all my efforts, everything came out in one six month period. One fall, and I had met David Guetta and we had got along, and me and Jason were kinda on a roll together. We wrote two number one songs in one week, which was “Dangerous” and “Lovers On The Sun.” And one was on Monday and one was written on a Friday, and it was just like things were going well, I could feel it, but I still had nothing except my one song Daylight which was all you could ever ask for out of life anyway.
David Guetta (feat. Sam Martin) — “Lovers On The Sun”
Jesse Cannon: Just like when he met Max Martin, one his main collaborators, David Guetta, would also be a humbling run-in.
Sam Martin: I remember I met David Guetta at the APG Studios, and I thought people should know me because I’d had this number one song. And they didn’t. Everyone thought Max Martin wrote it. People came up to Max, people I met later and were like, “Congrats, I love that ‘Daylight’ song.” And he’d say, “Ah, thank you but I really can’t take credit for it.” Which was really cool of him. And when I met David Guetta I assumed he would know who I was because of this song, and I remember I went up to him and I said, “Hi David, nice to meet you. I’m Sam Martin.” And he looked at me like, who? And I remember going, “Just a fan of your music, man.” Like, “Thanks for a… ” and I was like okay, I’m done.
I don’t like to do that, go up to people so I was just like okay, that sucked. I remember I told him this at this dinner table two years later, and I said, “Do you remember the first time we met?” And I go, “Basically you were very nice, but you basically had no idea who I was.” And I said to myself, well the only way he’s going to know my name is if I write him an incredible song. And so, that was my motivation.
I really didn’t have any other music except I thought that “Titanium” was amazing. I was like, okay, I’ve got to focus on this guy because I don’t think I can get another cut from anyone else, because Maroon 5 only does a record every two or three years, and it’s a miracle when that happens, so I just focused on it, and he liked some stuff early on, but it wasn’t until me and Jason go together that we wrote “Dangerous,” and “Lovers On The Sun” in that one week. I remember not knowing if “Dangerous” was very good. In fact I was embarrassed by it.
But we were up till 5:00 in the morning, and my head was, I was really not the right place to be listening to anything, and I said, “I can’t hear that right now, I got to go.” And I remember walking backwards, just leaving, and Jason going, “Okay.” Anyway the next morning we woke up to an email from David Guetta going, “This is a monster. Ah.”
Jesse Cannon: As far as rock star fairy tales go, you think this would be the top, and everything would be going well, and the snowball would be rolling on his career. But as you’ll hear, it takes a lot more than that to make it as a pop star.
Sam Martin: Now my voice is on these records, but they’re trying to replace me. I’m having, out of respect I will not say who tried to cut it, but basically the biggest names started to cut this, and I kept thinking, oh, we’re going to have a great cut. It’s going to be David Guetta featuring someone incredible, and it’s going to be a number one, it’s going to be great. And he kept saying, “I just don’t like his voice, and it’s just not coming out the way that I like it in the demo.” And I’m going, and I’m sitting, and finally we were at his house in Ibiza, and [inaudible] going, “I liked your demo the best.” And I was like, what? I was like, okay. I was like, “That’s fine.”
And then “Lovers On The Sun,” they tried to get some really cool people to sing that one, and they backed out last minute so he said to me, he goes, “Your voice sounds incredible on this. Why don’t we just… let’s just leave you on ‘Lovers On The Sun.’” I was like, whoa. I was like, okay. So then I remember we were at that same trip in Ibiza and they showed me the graphic, “Lovers On The Sun” featuring Sam Martin in small letters. I was like, “All right, cool. This is great.” So, “Lovers On The Sun” actually went number one, Germany and in the UK, and then I guess it was loved around Europe that summer, because I’d hear people playing it in their cars, or someone would send me a video, and I was like, “Oh, this is awesome.”
And I thought well “Dangerous” is the one they’re going to do the whole campaign around. So I was getting some talk from Atlantic. They were like, “Do you want us to sign a record deal?” And I was like, “I think is should only sign this if I stay on Dangerous.” So literally they were trying to replace me up until the last minute, and then I get a call from David Guetta’s right hand man and he says, “Sam, we’re going to keep you on the record.” And I was like, “Oh my gosh, okay.” And so they kept me on the record and it literally was the song in which I went around and did the promo, and did The Voice in Germany, and did what was X Factor in Milan. And then I did the NRJ thing, and did this whole round of publicity stuff with David. We did the Good Morning America in New York.
Anyway, it was just awesome, and hard. A lot of pressure, I got sick for one of them and I tried so hard to make those, that’s the highest song. And part of the reason is that my voice improved so much during those years of sessions that I was able to sing really low and really high, and you could change the key, but normally if the notes were in a certain range where they were tighter, you would be able to move the song up and down and have anybody sing in their sweet spot. The problem was that when you went too low, no one could sing those low notes, and then when you went too high to make the low notes better, no one could sing that high. So I think the reason I was able to stay on those songs is because I had this range, that I don’t even know where it came from, and no one could do the whole range.
Jesse Cannon: So while this talk has been very career-minded and talking about stepping up the ladders of fame, what you learn about Sam is, that really doesn’t matter as much to him as his family, and he’s going to talk about that now.
Sam Martin: So obviously I signed the record deal with Atlantic, thought it’d be cool. And then I actually had my first son, and I just fell in love. I’ll never get that kind of emotion, that I had that amount of love in me. What a beautiful thing, and I just took the time off. I said, what is, and I had another song called “Want to Want Me” come out, which went number one, and that’s my biggest song, for sure. And I felt financially that I had, be secure for a while, and that I could take the time to be with my son. And I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but it definitely messed me up, because everyone else was still hustling, and I was half-hustling. And just, I could not believe how much I loved this kid. And it’s still going.
So now I just had to figure out some balance to be able to raise my sons, and still write music and be engaged in this intense world. But anyway, then everything went on pause, and you could say a mistake in a career sense, but in a life sense, no way. Your plaques can’t give you a hug. Nobody talks about your plaques at your funeral. So who cares. But happy to write music and do this for a living. I don’t want to fall for that drug that it is, that makes you think your value and your worth and that it matters so much. It just doesn’t.
Look at everyone’s eyes, who’s decided that music is their number one? And see how it’s going. That’s what I’d say.
Sam Martin — “Bring Me Home”
Jesse Cannon: So, hearing that a pop artist that is particularly known for collaborating with David Guetta made a concept album could seem really strange, but once you hear how it came to be, you start to understand.
Sam Martin: So, even my little high school and junior high albums had this reprise of a song. I’d play one version of a song, and then three songs later I’d play it a little differently. I’d have the stripped down version and the fully produced version. Or I’d have a complete different, Chaos part one, Chaos part two, Chaos part three. And this all came from Pink Floyd, Another Brick in the Wall, part one, Another Brick in the Wall, part two, Another Brick in the Wall, part three… I don’t know where it starts, but it goes all the way to the end and through Golden Slumbers and Carry that Weight, and all that, and of course Sergeant… three songs into the last three songs, it’s crazy.
And I just loved it. It’s basically a modern day symphony, or an opera, or whatever. I studied some of Mozart and Beethoven, and they all did this concept album, or they would call it an opera or a symphony, and I just thought that was the coolest possible thing you could do. And take a theme and take a story and build a whole song, or a whole 40 minute to an hour piece around this story. And I think I was a bit haunted by the fact that I hadn’t done it, and I felt that I needed to do it.
And I was just watching a documentary last night about raising boys, and they need to express themselves, or else they bottle it up inside. If you bottle it up inside, it makes you angry, and you have pain, and part of the healing process is to express what you’re feeling, and a lot of boys are not told they’re not supposed to cry, and they’re supposed to be tough and man up. That’s obviously not the best way to become a man. So I told my wife, I know why I did the concept album, because I needed to express it for some reason, and if I didn’t express it, it was going to backfire on me.
And it was already backfiring on me. I was really losing steam for music. And being in pop and just trying to make money or something, is good. Not good for your soul, you actually lose creativity and you have to find the balance where you need to do the task to make money for your family or whatever. And the other side, you don’t realize but you need to be very creative to be able to do that, and to be creative you need to be inspired. And to be inspired is a mystery. And I’ve solved my entire life financial in one inspiration. So I really believe in inspiration. You lose inspiration, you’re just trying to do what you just did, how to get a cut again. Another number one radio song or whatever. I had to do it.
Jesse Cannon: We connected with Sam a few times, so you’ll notice there’s a little bit of a different grain to his voice in this one, but I wanted to talk to him about how since he always felt like he needed to make this record, I wanted to find out how it actually came to being.
Sam Martin: Every time I would write an emotional song that was really personal to me, it never got used by any other artist. So that at the time that I was just trying to survive, and I was signed to my current company at APG, and I was just writing songs, and occasionally I would just be set up with the hunt or a radio hit, and I would write something meaningful. Or something would happen, or I’d be in a bad place, or I’d be in a happy place. Or my wife, who was extremely nauseous in her pregnancies, and I’d write a song for her or something. And I’d always feel like, I’d send it in and think, oh here’s a song I wrote, and if they didn’t jump all over it I just kept it quiet.
And there was an occasion when a big artist wanted to cut a song that was really personal to me, and I was like, “Can we not have that happen? That song is way too personal to me.” And that happened enough I’m like, I don’t know what I’m waiting for. All these songs are piling up. I was unaware that I was going to put them into a concept album at the time, at least on a few of the songs. What happened is, my second son was going to be born, and I knew that this was going to be a rough time at home, so I wasn’t going to be able to do sessions, and play that game. And I had this literally an epiphany I think, because it happened so quickly, and I had all these little seeds of songs.
That one should have gone to Maroon 5, and this one could have gone there, and I really like that one, and no one would take that one, that’s really my style, and blah, blah, blah. And all or a sudden, I just opened a Pro Tools session, started throwing in these songs that were in rough form, or different voice notes from my phone. And all of a sudden I realized I had 40 percent of a life story, in of an album. And I had a lot of gaps, but I started putting them on the Pro Tools session. That’s going to be the birth, that’s going to be this and that’s going to be the death scene, that Kanye West was going to take this song and he decided not to, and it was like, when I die don’t cry for me. And I go, oh that’s when he’s old. And so, I started putting it together and realizing it was semi-autobiographical, except for stuff that I haven’t gone through yet.
And then I knew really clearly what was needed, and I needed a childhood song with a kids choir. I needed a teen angst song. I needed a drug escape song. I needed a college party song. I needed a midlife crisis song. I needed a twilight years, getting old song. I had a rock bottom song. I hit the bottom. I had a depression song, and I had a getting out and pulling yourself up by your boots song, it’s going to get better. And then I had this little tiny seed of a marriage song that I had written for my own wife, that really wasn’t that good, and I dusted it off, and the first thing that I wrote chronologically was this verse for my wife when we were about to get married. It was like, we’re going to do this together marriage song. And I didn’t have a good chorus. And so the last thing I wrote for the record was this “Blue-Eyed Joy” chorus, which is one of my personal favorite musical moments on it. And it’s just cool that it’s eight years later, it took me eight years to write that song. And it’s just a little tiny, beautiful little ode to marriage and my wife and all that stuff.
So then I had this assignment. September 24, when my son was born, and things got rough at home as predicted because having an infant and staying up. I was the night nurse, so I would stay up, and I just started trying to knock off these ideas. I was so inspired because my dream was to write a concept album, but my whole life I’ve been toying with it and finally I was like, I’m just going to do it. When is this going to happen? When am I going to get a chance to do this if I don’t do it now? I just pulled into it and I wrote three songs in one night. I haven’t done that for 14 years or something. I was like a child. I wrote the most of “Sabotage” on a guitar, and then I switched over and I wrote “What A Life,” which was the twilight years song.
And then I wrote the end of “Great Escape,” which was the reprise, which was one of my favorite moments of the, where it’s out of “Great Escape” and he goes into, he’s basically high on drugs, and he remembers his childhood and it’s like a swirling Beatles-esque thing. So I wrote those three ideas in one night. All of those made it on the record, and that’s just how it went.
Jesse Cannon: And this Sam talking about the nitty gritty of actually creating the record.
Sam Martin: It’s almost like it chose me. It came to me very quickly. It was slow preparation and quick execution. I basically prepared, I had accidentally prepared music over an eight year period, and when it was time to execute, I had to write six or seven more songs, and I had to develop the rest, and produce everything. To put that whole symphony together just like my heroes before me, it was so satisfying I can’t even tell you. It was so satisfying. And I don’t like to be self-indulgent and waste time because I have children and they’re very young, and this is the time to really shape and mold and raise the boys. And so I don’t like to waste time on stuff, so it was weird to engage in this and be… but I was full of life. I think my mother who I saw, was seeing at Christmas, my parents saw me running out the door to go mix the record. And she was like, “I haven’t seen you this excited in a long time. It must be good.” I was like, “I hope so.” It felt good, I mean.
Just for fun, I remember that I really set a goal that it was going to be January first, and I was going to be done with the record, and I didn’t want it to go into the next year and mess with that. So I just said I’ll be done. It was December 30, and I was with the mixer and we were doing final tweaks. His name’s Steve Sundholm. And I said, “Bounce that out, bounce that out.” And he was bouncing all these tracks out and I was putting them on that same Pro Tools thing I opened in the first day, and I started replacing with all the final mixes. This 40-minute symphony together where they overlap, and where it needs to go, and I was putting all the whole album together on this thing, and I remember I bounced it out, downloaded it, put it on my phone, and I drove home.
And I put the record on, I’m just checking to see if there’s any little thing wrong, or if I messed up, or if the levels are, just checking. And I just put it on, drove home, and I actually had a 40-minute drive home, which is exactly what the record was. And by the time I got to the end of the record my whole body was full of goosebumps. I pulled into the parking lot of where we live up there. I said oh my God. I’ve had no changes. Basically it was done. And I think we had just the smallest tweak, and something else. But I basically got to experience this dream come true.
And I walked in the door, I don’t even know what I said. I was like, I think I had my wife listen to it the next morning and she was like, “Oh my God.” So, it was very special for us.
Sam Martin — “The Great Escape”
Jesse Cannon: As the saying goes, no man’s an island. So Sam needed to enlist some people to help out and make this record. Here he’s going to begin to talk about how that collaboration process started.
Sam Martin: This record, it was almost like I had to relearn how to do it, partly because, mostly because I didn’t feel I had permission to ask favors of my very, very successful songwriter friends. I felt that it was going to be pulling teeth. I can’t promise you’re going to make any money. Can’t promise we’ll go on the radio, and I don’t want to do it. I’d already spent a lot of time with those folks, and I know the types of songs we would write, and it’s just, that’s not what I wanted it to be. I wanted to try to do it myself, like I used to. I used to write 100 percent songs, I used to produce 100 percent. That’s who I was, and then when I came to LA, I learned that everyone else was way better at almost everything I did. And so I got pigeonholed as melody guy. Which I enjoy. It comes much easier to me, and trying to write lyrics for Rihanna is the last thing I could do, so quite a relief to be considered melody guy, because then other people have to work on those lyrics.
It’s funny, because two of my biggest songs I either wrote all the lyrics, or most of the lyrics, or wrote the main lyric. It was just always funny people pigeonholed my when my two biggest songs are me on the lyrics. But anyway, obviously with help. So I didn’t ever have a lot of confidence with the lyrics. So what I’m saying is on this record it was different because I got to write everything and express myself and it was very, very therapeutic and powerful for me. So I would write, what I tried to do was I tried to write and vocal produce all the songs so that they sounded really good just vocally, even with just the piano, or bass and just a small drumbeat or something.
And then I didn’t feel terribly confident in my production skills, so I partnered with a guy that I have worked with for a long time, Nate Merchant, and we would take on a song here and there. What was cool was that “Sabotage,” which is one of my favorites, I actually produced the first draft of it about 90 percent. And I was so in shock that I had done that. And it came out so quickly, it was like 15 minutes I had the meat and potatoes of the whole production. It was so fast. It was the most, so freeing because it was cool. It was cooler than anything I, it was like yes, I was pumped.
So I had more confidence after that, but I didn’t feel like I was a finisher, so I would pass it off to finish and make sure I didn’t mess up any frequencies, and then, or clashing kick drums, or anything.
Sam Martin — “Sabotage”
Sam Martin: Nate helped a lot, cleanup on that one. But we would take a song like “Sugar Is Sweet,” and just, we had the song, I recorded the vocals to the radio quality or whatever, and now we have this vocal stem and we go in there and try to find the groove and all that together. So that would be [the] process. There was one process where I had written another song for pitch, and I called [inaudible] and I said, “Hey, do you remember that song we did?” And he said yeah, and I said, “Can you send me the stems to that song? I’ll make you a producer on this song, and I’ll just do everything else. Just send me the stems.”
So he sent me the stems. It’s in the wrong tempo, it’s in the wrong key. So I just started pitching it and putting it in the right tempo, and putting all the parts together, and I made a full arrangement of another song’s stems. And it literally is, it just came together so beautifully. I wrote the top line, made the top line even better, and then I added elements to help it build and to fill it out. And so we ended up co-producing that. But that’s actually something I’ve been doing a lot lately is, “Send me the stems to that song that I love, and let me see if I can adapt it to this song I just wrote.” And that has been fun because then you already know you like those sounds. It’s awesome.
It’s just a completely different song. I mean, you wouldn’t recognize the two. And it’s just that he had such good sounds and all that. So a lot of it was me writing and finishing vocals, and putting together vibes, and then calling a producer in to say, “Do you want to help me knock this out?” I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time with, “Hey, I’m not sure this song’s going to make the record.” I wanted to be like, “I’ve got this lined up, and I just need to get this right in the production.” Isaiah Tejada would come over, and Nate Merchant would come over, and me and Jason Evigan had already written a song called “It’s Gonna Get Better,” but I sent it to him and he said, “Oh, this is great, let’s get a gospel choir on it.”
So I called my friend Nick Sealy. And now he’s in LA but he went to Dallas, and he, they recorded a gospel choir. And that song keeps getting picked up by TV shows, and syncs and stuff, so I did something right with that one. Jason Evigan is on that one, he was such a help in the beginning.
A song called “Bring Me Home” on there that Craig Coleman liked, and it was supposed to be in some movie, so we got more attention on it, and Classic did a version that I thought was awesome, and used that production. And then Jake Cash had actually, me and him had written the lyrics. Craig had put his stamp of approval on it, and that didn’t actually go in any movie, and so it was just sitting there. So I said, oh this is awesome. This will be that I need redemption song.
Jesse Cannon: Obviously as you’ve heard, Sam’s enthusiasm is abundant towards this record. But I think it’s now time to bring in some other voices so we can get to know how this record looked from the outside, so I interviewed Nate Merchant to get his feelings on the record. First he’s going to tell us how him and Sam met, since it’s a great story.
Nate Merchant: Sam was actually a family friend, so my family actually knew the Martins and we grew up actually in the same neighborhood, a little suburb south of Portland. Sam actually taught me guitar when I was in sixth grade, so we had this mentor type music relationship pretty early on. Then I ended up going to U of O to study music, and then I came home after my freshman year for the summer and I’d been learning different things about different daws and logic and stuff from Sam, and calling him, “Hey, what limmer do I put on the master?” And different things like that. And then he actually just, he gave me a call and he was like, “Hey man, I’m looking for a producer to work under me and learn from me and stuff,” and I was like, “I absolutely want to do that.” And then seven years later, we got to make an album together, so.
Jesse Cannon: When you hear that somebody had a hand in the production on a record, that can look like a million different pictures, since the role is so ambiguous. So I wanted to hear exactly what their collaboration looked like.
Nate Merchant: So a lot of times what happened on this album is I’d come over to the house. He’s got this spot in Silver Lake where he has a nice studio over there. I’d go over to the house and he’d have three songs finished, just chords, a capella, or a bass line production and then the vocals, and he’d be like, “Well which one do you want to work on today?” And I’d be like, “Oh my God, okay. These all sound amazing, I want to work on ‘Sugar Is Sweet.’” So that was how it went down in terms of jumping on some of these songs and getting to help out production-wise.
A lot of them came out in different ways. “Sabotage” was one that Sam handled more of the demo production and got it pretty far before he passed it off to me, and then I took it home and replaced some synths and put some fatty bass lines in there, and programmed some more drums, and put in fiddles and polished it up and did more of the finishing role on there. And then “Sugar Is Sweet” was one where he had, I think it was piano and vocals. And then we put our heads together over at his house and he played this sweet bass line, and then he went away, and I programmed some drums and got some synths in there. So each song was a little bit different but my role was predominantly with the production and finishing touches and stuff like that.
Jesse Cannon: When you hear this record, aside from it being a concept album, you can hear that there’s this more prog take on it, so I wanted to see if there was any emotional touchstones that brought them to this unique vision.
Nate Merchant: We were just trying to find something unique sonically, and I think we achieved that. It’s this weird blend of hip-hop with Pink Floyd with pop melodies, and big drums and organs and guitars. It’s just this whole melting pot of different sonics and stuff, and so I think that was the main goal. With Sam it’s always how do we get the most energy in the song? How do we push it forward? How do we make everything exciting? How do we get to the chorus? Those type of things is a lot of what we tried to do. But Sam is obviously an incredible writer, but was very involved in the production too, in terms of directing things, and even touching things and getting things where they need to be, so it was really, really not too difficult getting to work on this.
They all actually came pretty easy, because Sam did a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of getting the melody and the lyrics where they needed to be before I even came into the process. So a lot of it was getting the production in the right place. The only thing I can really think of is on I think Shine On, the one at the outro, is the one that probably took the most work. We had a tough time trying to figure out how to make it cool, and we finally stumbled upon this chapped choir sound that was really cool, and then we added these big hip-hop drums and stuff, and I think we did the drums three or four different times and tried it as Sam’s house, and then I took it home and tried it again, and then we were at the mixer’s house, and I was in headphones trying it.
That’s a lot of the process with Sam too, and things I’ve learned from him is sometimes it takes five times to get it right, and be okay with that, and the finished product is better because of it. So we’re proud of where it ended up.
Jesse Cannon: For those who have never been a part of a pop production, it’s often shocking some of the ways that you come up with a unique melody. Oftentimes you have to take yourself out of the normal singing over the song element and do something totally unique. But this technique is really unique.
Nate Merchant: One thing that I don’t want to say a phase, but something that Sam had discovered that he threw around a lot on this record, and we leaned on it for those cool ear candy type sounds, was Sam discovered this method where he would put his hands over his mouth, like almost like you would do a bird call, or something like that. And he would go in to the mic and we would just loop the song, and then he would just sing these crazy unique melodies that we would just drop in, and you hear them in “Sugar Is Sweet,” the (singing) these little things where it’s hilarious to watch. Because he’ll have his eyes closed and his hands over his mouth, and he’ll be making these crazy noises, and they turn into these beautiful melodies that we pitch up and distort and do things like that, just to get these cool ear candy sounds, and so those are sprinkled throughout actually most of the songs, but that’s just a funny technique that we used.
Sam Martin — “Sugar Is Sweet”
Jesse Cannon: Next I talked to Jason Evigan, a producer and songwriter who’s known for his work with Demi Lovato, Madonna and Maroon 5. Here’s what he had to say about how he got to work with Sam.
Jason Evigan: I met Sam Martin maybe five years ago. We were set up on a blind date session. It was me, him and another songwriter, Explicit and JR Rodham. He walked in the room and just had crazy wild energy, and we wrote a song called “Rollercoaster.” I don’t think it ever came out, but that was our first encounter. And then we connected, we just kept writing. We set up more dates and we just kept writing and writing, and our friendship just grew into something special.
Sam called me up and said, “Hey, I’m making this album. I want to fulfill one of my dreams and make a concept album.” He said, “Can you come up to my place in Oregon, and can we just work on it for a few days?” Or a week, or something like that. I said sure, so my wife and I went up to Oregon and we worked on it. We went to a studio, played some live drums and some things, and the one song that really, I connected with it like crazy was the one, “It’s Gonna Get Better.” So we really dove in on that one together.
I sprinkled stuff here and there on other songs, but that was the one that we really spent a lot of time on together. We did most of if up in Oregon, where he was living for a little while. I wanted the production to have this almost cold, underwater feeling, so I remember taking all the samples and all the drums, and we really filtered them down low, taking all the highs out until the end, and having it finally open up. We used the Juno, I know that Juno 60 was the main synth we used a lot on the record.
There’s a song I did called “Chains” with Nick Jonas. I wanted to take a little of that sonic landscape and throw it there. Cold, a lot of blues. I don’t know if that makes sense, but the color blue. The song reminds me of, it feels like that color. Also, just knowing Joy, Sam’s wife, and knowing that he wrote it to her during, she had such a tough pregnancy. She was sick for almost the whole time, and just hearing the song that he wrote, it was just a beautiful moment just to hear him singing it to his wife. It’s going to get better.
And Sam also, he’s a tough guy. He tells you how it is, he’s really real. Sometimes he’s a little harsh to people, so when you see that side of him come out that’s really sweet and encouraging it’s a beautiful thing. And that’s why I think the record really connected with me so much, because I love that side of him. Just to see him write a song to his wife like that was beautiful.
The cool thing about me and Sam’s relationship is we’re like spiritual brothers. It goes way deeper than just music. He introduced me to a mentor of mine who really changed my life, and we would go visit him in DC all the time, and just sit and listen to this guy talk, and he really helped us with a lot of things in our life, and so making this album with him and being a part of it was really special because knowing Sam and knowing how deep he likes to get, it was good to work on music that was really, really, really from the soul, wasn’t like, let’s try to make a pop hit, let’s try to make something just cookie cutter. That’s why it took so long to make it too, everything had to hit the threshold of the compass in his heart, so it was really special.
It’s not always the easiest process working with Sam because he knows exactly what he likes, knows exactly what he wants, and he doesn’t stop till he gets there. So he’ll push you and push you and push you and push you till he gets there, and that’s why he’s as prolific as he is, because I saw him do that with a big Jason Derulo song he had. I was there actually when they wrote the song too, and I saw it through the process, him just pushing Ian and pushing him. “Let’s take it more and more and more. We got to, we’re ahead of the beat.”
And the first time he played me the full album, he sent it to me. I remember I was driving with my wife in the car and I just started bawling listening to it, it was so powerful. First hearing the kids, and how he incorporated all the children into it, and the whole storyline, it just got me so hard, because I know Sam has such a good heart, and seeing it come to life on a record really was a powerful moment for me.
Sam Martin — “It’s Gonna Get Better”
Jesse Cannon: So now that we’ve heard from some of Sam’s collaborators about what it was like working on the record, I wanted to hear about the struggles he encountered while trying to put together such an enormous feat.
Sam Martin: Most of the stuff was flowing, and it was really fun. But I was really stuck on the childhood song. I had one that had it sounding like “Old Man” by Neil Young, and that just wasn’t even close to as good, so I was discouraged, and then I tried another version of a childhood song, and I couldn’t find the tone. I finally wrote this little theme. And I thought it was nice, just a little folk thing. And then it stuck with me, and that’s actually one of the main themes of the whole record, is it keeps reemerging, those summer days are forever mine.
Sam Martin — “Summer Days”
Sam Martin: And then I thought, well I need kids for it, and so I started to find this girl, and that guy, and started singing it, I literally made a kids choir over six or seven sessions, and it’s this big “those summer days are forever mine.” It reminded me of, what’s that band? Blind Melon, it was that kind of thing to me. And I was, oh that’s nice. Then I thought, well those summer days are forever mine obviously seems positive, and I wanted it to be positive.
But I also wanted it to be like, the parents are stressed out, and is that why daddy shouts, and I wanted a Pink Floyd vibe to be in there, because my life was very good growing up, but like every family we all have, there’s darkness there. And if you see where my dad came from, you’d be amazed that he ended up the way he ended up in a good way. And so he protected us from the darkness that had come from his house, and there was still darkness leftover to deal with. And as I grew up and pursued more the best way to live, and pursued spiritual things and trying to figure out what life’s all about, I realized that my growing up wasn’t perfect. It had a lot of stuff still needed to deal with, with no major trauma or anything.
So I wanted the “Summer Days” song to be a reflection of both. As a kid there were those moments when you just didn’t want the day to end, and it was so fun in the park or doing some crazy activity in the forest, or whatever. And there were those moments, and the other moments were like, why was it so stressful for no reason?
And so that was tough because I wanted to be cool. I wanted the record to be cool too, like “Sabotage.” So the first song you hear is an instrumental, and the next song you hear is the precursor to “Summer Days,” and “Summer Days” does not actually sound cool, it’s really beautiful and it sets the story up, but it’s not cool, so I was bummed. That was they story, and I tried to put more hip-hop elements in there and stuff just to make sure it was as modern as possible with the kids choir.
But I think by the time you get through “Summer Days” and into the story, and you hit “Sabotage” and it’s such a different vibe, and all of a sudden the kid’s gone dark in his anger, and it’s all Imagine Dragons-y, then you realize, oh, this is an art piece. He just went from a kids choir into Radioactive. Now we have art. I am really proud of the transitions. I’m actually, while I’m saying that I’m getting goosebumps because that’s literally what I love about the changing songs, and into the next vibe.
Mine was more ADD I think, because pop culture is now, you need to move quicker and get to the point, and you can’t just hold for a few minutes like Pink Floyd and get away with it. And the next struggle was the midlife crisis song, and that was like, I just couldn’t get the vibe right. And finally I stumbled on, this is what got me excited. I said, “I’m 9:00 to 5:00 making someone else rich.” And I thought holy crap, that’s most people’s lives. Working some crazy job for some salary, the guy who owns the company is getting rich off the labor. Whoo, I was like, I’m going to finish that song.
And so the midlife crisis is about things aren’t as good as it was. Where did the magic go? I’m 9:00 to 5:00 making someone else rich, now I’m aware of the world, and I’m jaded. You’ve got to live before you die. Are you going to let that get you down, and then you’re just a sucker, because that’s the way it is, but you can choose to be different. And that, so, a hopeful note where you’re like, you take it all in, all the negativity in, you deal with it, and then your conclusion is nope, not going to let it get me down.
Sam Martin — “Blue Eyed Joy”
Jesse Cannon: To finish things off, I always think it’s interesting to hear what the collaborators think makes an artist unique. So this is Nate talking about just that.
Nate Merchant: I think it’s the spiritual stuff. I think he has a really great view of the world, and how we’re supposed to be, and our spiritual stuff, and so that I think is obviously infused in the album and so it’s just the big important stuff is mostly what he’s talking about, and I think that’s really cool. And then I guess creatively, his melodies and ideas are just ridiculous. It’s the stuff that he can come up with melodically is really a game-changer. So I would say those two things.
Jesse Cannon: And here’s Jason talking about what he thinks makes Sam unique.
Jason Evigan: I think it’s two things. One is, I would say he probably has the best voice I’ve ever recorded. And I’d say that he has really strong morals. He doesn’t compromise them for anything, which is refreshing actually. He doesn’t compromise who he is for anyone or anything, which is nice.
Jesse Cannon: Lastly, I talked to Sam about what it felt like in the end to take on such a huge undertaking and have it finished, and what it meant for the rest of his life.
Sam Martin: And I remember after we were done I’d play it, before it was mastered, Craig Coleman in person, and I flew threw the record and his first comment was, “You clearly put a lot of love into this, you can feel it in the record.” Oh yes, thank you, because I never knew if it was actually up to code. If It was really good enough. And for him to be like, “Wow, you can feel it,” that means that me and Steve had really got it there. When we mastered it even the mastering engineer was, “This is a beautiful record, I’m so happy to work on it.” And I was like whoa, thanks. Great. I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s good enough, so.
I mean, I don’t know what song or whatever, or what kind of thing would be played at the end of my life, or when I’m done, or when it’s really over, a funeral or something. And this feels like the piece in which my descendants would be like, “If you want to understand Sam, you got to listen to ‘Alpha Omega.’ And then that’s him.” I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, but what was happening is that I needed to have my opus, after all this great stuff that has happened, and still not to feel like I’ve had my opus. And express it and put it out there and just have it exist.
And I think I’m actually a different person after “Alpha Omega.” I just am calmer about, like if I’m in a session for instance, and we’re writing a dumb song, or a song that’s for pitch, and it’s supposed to go to some artist. Let’s say I’m not feeling it, or I’m not feeling like I’m totally contributing enough. I don’t freak out anymore. I used to be really anxious about that, be like, “Man, they’re all writing so quickly, and I shouldn’t even be in this room.” That’s how I would feel. And now I feel like I’ve expressed myself. Today’s not my day, but I’ve done it. So it doesn’t matter, and it’s going to happen again. And I’m way more confident in my ability to say yo, let’s just go with what the flow, what’s happening in the room, and do your best, and don’t worry about it. You’ve gotten to do it.
I think that’s my personality. I always had these checklists like, meet the president. Do this. And if you look at my life it’s got a lot of crazy things that have happened, even before all this Hollywood stuff happened. I ran the Boston Marathon on a bet with no training, and I broke my foot doing it, but didn’t know it. I stress-fractured it. I snuck in in Rome to see a private viewing of the Pope, and I didn’t know I was doing it at the time, but it became one of those stories, of, “Tell the Pope story.”
And then I only applied to one school, Berklee, got in to it, and got that, rose through the ranks there, and then left. And to get signed my Mike Caren with Max Martin and Adam Levine, and to get David Guetta to feature you on stuff and have a worldwide number one. It’s just like a crazy life. And so now after “Alpha Omega” it’s like, whew. And now I have children, and this is clearly the move. This is what my life had lead up to. Everything feels like whoa, what a life. So I thing that was the thing that was, one of the pieces left is, why haven’t you done this in music? You’ve been making music since you were 12. You don’t have your concept album done?
It’s like come on, get to it. I don’t know. It was a dramatic effect on me, so I have lots more in me. I’ve been so creative the last few months. But after I finished it, I was just ran dry. I’m super excited about what I’m doing now. Just yesterday I was buzzing because I just finished this song, I couldn’t believe it.
Sam Martin — “Summer Days (Reprise)”