Sam is every bit as nice and gracious, and more, as you could ever possibly imagine him to be. NMR had the pleasure of sitting down with the busy singer-songwriter to get his thoughts on what makes a good cover, how the boy across the street ended up as his main collaborator, the dirt on Oprah, and his upcoming solo album of original songs.
Sam, thank you for sitting down with us.
Sam Tsui: No thank you for having me, I’m excited.
So how’s your week looking?
My week is great! I’m here with you, so that makes it a good week. Busy with a lot of stuff, but that in my book is a good sign, so I’m working.
You were telling me earlier that you’re an East Coast guy and that you just moved over here about a year ago — how has that move been for you? Have you liked Los Angeles?
I love Los Angeles. I miss my seasons, and I miss my weather a little bit, but it’s a beautiful sunny day outside, so I can’t complain. I like it out here.
Let’s get into your YouTube. You collaborate a lot with Kurt Hugo Schneider, and it’s a well-known fact that you grew up a street away from him. Personally, do you see that as coincidence? Is it fate? Something else?
Honestly, if you had told me when Kurt was like that kid down the street, if you had told me in however many years I would be in Los Angeles making music with him a lot and both of us working on this music and entertainment career, I would have probably thought you were crazy. It sort of just happened of it’s own accord. You know, we were friends in high school, we both did the musicals and choir and all that stuff so we knew that we both liked music, but it was in college that we sort of started working together by some chance of fate and luck. And all the fans, we built something, and yeah, it’s sort of gone from there, but I had no idea when we were just kids in the summers of Philadelphia that we would be here today. Definitely not.
Did you two plan to go to the same college together?
No, not at all! He was a year above me. We both went to college for different things, but we just happened to be at the same place, and I guess that’s a little bit of sort of fate and happenstance, and yeah, it’s crazy.
So you two collaborate a lot, and you do a lot of covers. How much artistry do you think there is in covering other people’s songs as opposed to writing your own songs and performing those songs?
Yeah, I think that those are two different slices of the same pie. I think no matter what way you’re making music, you’re still creating something new even if you’re using material from someone else. And for me, it’s been incredible to do so much cover material because I’ve learned so much as a songwriter and as a musician, because especially when you get to take songs from vastly different genres and make them your own, you’re not only discovering what makes a good song and really learning what makes these hit songs tick, but you’re also by having to translate them into your own voice and into your own style, it’s actually a great way to figure out what your style is and figure out who you are by using this material for when you move on to start writing your own material. I think there’s just a lot that you can learn from cover music, and I think in today’s world of pop music where there is a lot of dance and there’s a lot of sort of repetitive, simple music — and I don’t mean that in a bad way, but the sort of current musical aesthetic is simpler to some extent, and so it’s actually great music to cover because often times it’s very blank canvas that you can sort of play with in a lot of ways and make it really fun and different which is what I love to do. So yeah, covering music is great. Obviously, original music is great as well, but I think there is definitely a huge value to both.
What do you think makes a really good cover stand out among the rest, considering there are so many on YouTube?
I think the covers I like to watch, and therefore the ones that I strive to make, are covers that don’t feel like covers — that when you’re watching them, even if you know the original song, you’re not thinking, “Oh, this is a great cover,” that sort of transform themselves enough so that it feels right in whoever’s voice is singing it. Whenever I go to approach a cover, I really think not “How can I make this song cool?” but the first step is “How would I sing this song? What does this song mean to me? And how can I make it into a new piece of art that uses this material and transforms it into something new?” So that’s what I think makes a good cover.