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Back And Bold

1 June 2012 | 1:15 pm | Cyclone Wehner

"I learnt to also fight for the right things and to trust my instincts."

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Sam Sparro (born Samuel Falson) is primed for the comeback of the year with his opulent Return To Paradise, unveiling a new look best described as 'Jay Gatsby hits the disco'. The Australian soulster, based in Los Angeles, recently performed showcases in Sydney and Melbourne. Falson also appeared at Mardi Gras, which, he enthuses, was "a riot" (in contrast to his Young Talent Time guest spot). "The crowds responded really well, considering they'd never heard most of those songs before, so it was really fun," Falson recalls of the mini-tour.

The Happiness singer, who last gigged in Oz over two years ago, hoped to reacquaint audiences with him – but how could we forget Sam Sparro? Nevertheless, Falson has maintained a low profile since 2008's eponymous album, with its wonky electro-soul runaway smash Black And Gold. Now, after parting from Island Records, and re-strategising, Falson has struck a worldwide deal with EMI Australia. Falson is known to regret his debut, but he learnt from the experience. "Yeah, I felt really rushed," he affirms. "I felt sort of pressured into certain situations that I wasn't entirely happy with. But it's your first album, so you don't have the clout to do anything else. I learned a lot about collaboration. I learned a lot about having a much clearer vision and a sound in mind and how to commit to that. I learnt how to be stronger. And I learnt to also fight for the right things and to trust my instincts." Many artists discount their instincts, rather tuning into market mores – Marina And The Diamonds' Electra Heart might be a Katy Perry record. "It's true," Falson observes generally. "That's the difference between being an artist and being a product. I decided long ago that I could certainly be a product if I wanted to be, but I really committed myself – and my life – to being an artist. I think it will ultimately be more challenging (laughs), but probably more satisfying."

Falson spent his first 10 years in Sydney. His Dad, a muso and Christian minister (see his impressive bio at chrisfalson.com), determined to move the family to Los Angeles. Falson sang in church (which conceivably accounts for his 'Sparro' nickname), once impressing Chaka Khan. There was even a Maccas ad the 'child actor' prefers to these days  edit from his bio. Yet Falson felt estranged in glitzy California and, quitting church, then school, he returned to Sydney to stay with his grandparents. He eventually headed to London, revelling in its club culture – and coming out. In 2004 Falson flew back to LA. By now his father, responsible for the 'bar-church' phenomenon, was hosting warehouse parties – his ideal of an ultra-modern ministry – and here Falson, long experimenting with bedroom electronica, befriended producer Jesse Rogg. The soul boy penned the existentialist Black And Gold while holding down a coffee shop job, airing an EP on Rogg's indie label. Soon Radio One DJs Pete Tong and Annie Mac were programming it. Falson found himself at the centre of a UK bidding war. The crossover kid signed to Island, who promptly shuffled him off to record with Paul Epworth, among others. BAG reached No. 2 in the UK, Falson's album going Top 5. The single was nominated for a 'Best Dance Recording' Grammy. 

Between albums, Falson cut some 'features', notably on Basement Jaxx's Feelings Gone. He joined Mark Ronson's supergroup Chauffeur with Theophilus London, making music for a Gucci campaign. "It was really fun to do. I think we had talked about doing a longer EP at one stage [but] it just hasn't been the right time for any of us because we're all on different schedules," Falson says. "But, if we ever got together again, I'd love to do it. We had a lot of fun – and it was a good artistic collaboration." And Falson worked on music for other artists. He remixed Kimbra's Cameo Lover. Bigger yet, Falson has writing credits for two songs on buddy Adam Lambert's Trespassing – one, Shady, also featuring Nile Rodgers. Trespassing has just entered the US charts at No. 1 and Falson is "really thrilled". "I definitely wanna do more of that in my career."

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Return To Paradise is less conceptual than thematic. Falson, reteaming with Rogg, references the R&B, funk and disco of a "very specific point in time", 1978 to 1984, the album's title an allusion to Larry Levan's feted New York club Paradise Garage. The music is live-oriented – and deliberately not overproduced. "What I'm fascinated about with that era is mostly American pop culture of that time, because there was so much happening in this country socially – you know, there was a huge melting-pot of races and sexual orientations, especially in places like NYC, Chicago and Detroit, and people really fighting for their freedom and their right to express their identity. But there was also an innocence about it and a romance. There was totally exaggerated sexuality in that area, too, but people were singing about love – I Feel Love, Donna Summer, Prince's I Feel For You... Today those sentiments in pop music are so rare, they're almost considered corny." Indeed, raunch rules. "I think because everybody's so insecure," Falson posits. "And it lacks depth."

Falson sees himself as an outsider in contemporary popdom, questioning mainstream orthodoxies. But, though RTP is distinct from what's in the charts, it's not incompatible. Falson shares his vampy (and campy) sensibilities with Cee-Lo Green. Moreover, Falson has hired hip remixers (and musical allies) like Azari & III. "I feel like I stand on my own a bit as far as my own generation is concerned, but I feel a strong connection to people of an older generation in this business who have really inspired my work and who I respect tremendously. Part of this record is to introduce that sound to a whole new generation of music listeners – and to reignite older fans of that music. I see that in my shows already – my audience has been really wide. I see people in their teens and people in their 40s, 50s and 60s at my shows – and I really love that. I'm playing at Lovebox in London with Chaka Khan, Chic and Grace Jones. I'm gonna be on the same stage with them – and I feel totally comfortable there. I feel more comfortable there than I would on a stage with, like, Skrillex!" Falson is open to change, however. "This album in particular is really nostalgic, but I've already started working on the next album and it's much more innovative and looking to the future a bit more."

RTP has a celebratory – and escapist – vibe, the recession giving rise to a collective nostalgia for headier days, but it's also a break-up album. ("That's quite nostalgic as well!," Falson quips.) Falson's split with his first serious boyfriend inspired the current single I Wish I Never Met You, Princely electro-boogie, and the ballad Shades Of Grey (nothing to do with EL James' erotic literary saga). Adele has mined personal heartache – why not Falson? (The Tottenham soulstress had him support her in 2008 and actually covered BAG.) Falson is unsure what listeners' reactions will be to such rawness, admitting that he didn't contemplate that when writing, wanting to instead express his "own truths". "It was really cathartic – I needed to write those songs, for my own sake." But, Falson figures, if nothing else, the lyrics are nearly universally relatable. Still, soul-baring songs can be tricky. "I find that singing them every night is more challenging than I thought it would be," he divulges. Play it again, Sam?