A Musical Journeyman
by Teri Barr
photo by JC Dunst
“Music is a release for me when life gets hard. It’s a friend I can always count on. It’s a connection to so many amazing people around the world. It’s a second language, a hobby, a business, a friend, an enemy, sometimes it feels like the air that I breathe. I don’t know what the moment was I realized it, but I’ll never live without being close to music. It’s just as ingrained in me as my own heartbeat.”
He found his voice, while wandering the streets of Europe. But Sam Ness brought his songs home, to record in places he loves, in Wisconsin. His album is a magical musical journey, and not only features his thoughts about where he’s been; but as one of the youngest and exciting new voices on the scene here, it’s a reflection on where he still wants to go. So, just before he leaves in search of some new inspiration, Sam took time to talk about his reason for traveling, why he loves busking while he’s on the road, and how some bad busking experiences in Madison have pushed him to try and change the law here.
Maximum Ink: I feel like you were born to be a singer and songwriter. When do you remember music being a part of your life?
Sam Ness: I grew up hearing my dad play guitar. I remember as a toddler, he would have me strum the strings while he held the chords. As I got a bit older, my sister started taking piano lessons. As a little brother I naturally had to try to do it better than her, so I started taking lessons too. Early middle school is when I started learning guitar, and I found it to be a great release for my youthful angst. In high school, I performed with the Sauk Prairie show choirs as well as participated in all of the other musical opportunities the school had including the Musicals, Madrigal Dinners, an A Cappella Group, Solo Ensemble, etc.. I really fell in love with performing any way that I could, but I couldn’t decide what path to take in the performing world. I wanted to study Musical Theater, but had a few options that I couldn’t sort through, and decided to take a year off instead. I booked a one way ticket to Europe, and found myself living as a professional street performer, commonly called a busker. I played my guitar and sang in the street to earn money for food and shelter. Almost 10 months later I flew back home to start working on the album that I released in December, 2017.
MI: And you came back home to do it. Why?
SN: I grew up in a house near Lake Wisconsin just outside of Sauk City. I grew up spending most of my days fishing. and hiking every trail I could find. I feel so lucky to have spent so much time reflecting on myself through the landscape around me. I think that my music would have a very different energy without the connection to this place. I found it very difficult to write when I left home to travel Europe. “There’s something in this air, I fill my lungs and it clears my head” is a line from the song Gibraltar which is from my new album, “Whispered on the Wind.”.
MI: Tell me more about your new album. Your celebration show featured many local artists, and you played with a full band!
SN: The release show felt AMAZING! Thank you! I was so overwhelmed by the amount of people that came out to support my new record. That was the first time that the full band had all played together too, so the energy we had on stage had me feeling weightless. I was surrounded on stage with amazing friends looking out towards more friends, and it was everything I had wanted in a release show.
The album itself was such an amazing experience in itself. A massive shoutout to everybody that was a part of making this album. Everything from the players, sound engineers, folks that provided the spaces to record, as well as the folks that provided emotional and financial support. My name is on the cover, but really this album wouldn’t be possible without all the help and amazing talent from everybody else.
We recorded part of the album in a beautiful barn just outside of Sauk City, thanks to the Schwegel Family. Another part was recorded in a church right in the heart of Sauk City that was established in 1852. We added many other bits and pieces to the album from different churches and studios around Southern Wisconsin. The way that we recorded this album, I let my session players hear all of the songs, and write the parts that they heard. I gave little direction, and really let them put their own energies into the songs, making a sound much bigger than just me. The players on this album are all my friends. They’re beautiful people with big hearts, and I think that’s the biggest reason I’m so proud of the songs we made together.
MI: But you are ready to take your music on a new adventure! Where are you going and when?
SN: I’ll be leaving for New Zealand in February. This will be another wandering trip hitch-hiking, playing in the street, and experiencing the culture as intimately and honestly as I can. I hope to wander my way through Australia and parts of Asia as well. This past year has been really crazy for me in my career as well as my personal life, so I’ll be using this trip for self-reflection, getting back in touch with my writing and learning more about myself. I think that by taking away all of the variables of a place you’re comfortable with, and totally immersing yourself into a foreign place, you learn a lot about why you think the way that you do. It opens your mind to new ways of thinking, learning, loving. I think that travel is a healthy risk that we should all take to grow as people, and to better understand the world we live in.
MI: You’ve already traveled extensively, what has been your favorite place, and why?
SN: There were several places that I truly fell in love with, one of them being Glasgow, Scotland. The city has a lot of character, and an amazing music scene. I made so many friends there that I’m still very close to. The best part of the city was that there were heaps of musicians that were better players than I was, and it helped me really grow as an artist. I keep finding that every place and culture has at least one lesson to teach, and these are the lessons I’m still working hard to apply to my life every day.
MI: You also busk wherever you travel. But the most disappointing busking experiences have happened on State Street in Madison. Have you been able to find a resolution to this problem?
SN: When I came back from Europe, busking wasn’t just a way to pick up some extra cash, it was my job. Busking was how I built my fanbase, how I sold CD’s, and met people and tourists from all over the world. It shocked me that there was little to no culture in Madison for it, given that there are so many incredible artists in the area. The laws regarding street performing have a lot of grey area, and are very difficult to find. I did as much homework as I could and found that the only rules were you cannot play amplified when connected to city power. So, as I need amplification to run my special effects, I invested in a small battery powered amplifier. I quickly took to state street to continue my beloved work, but was met by officers who shut me down regardless of what the law states. Often times they gave no reason to why I needed to leave, they just threatened me with massive fines. I reached out many times to Alder Michael Verveer, but I never received a response. I have worked with many other artists in the Madison area to propose new laws regarding busking licenses and regulations, but the city has ignored our case. I’ve had many people ask why I’ve stopped performing on State Street, but sadly I can only say it’s become too unreliable, and too much of a hassle dealing with the police.
MI: But, you have helped educate residents and visitors. Many people didn’t even know about it until you increased awareness. You should be proud of this, and many other accomplishments. Are you?
SN: I’m so excited about every new opportunity I’ve worked my way toward this past year. Seeing each one come to life is so incredibly rewarding. But with every goal I reach, I enjoy a quick night out in celebration with my friends, and wake up with the bar set higher. I’m nowhere near where I want to be in my career or my life. I think that the more I can grow as a person, the more honesty and raw emotion I’ll be able to find in my music. It’s the way I can connect with more people on an intimate level and reach new goals for this upcoming year.
MI: Is there anything people may find surprising about you?
SN: When I was a junior in High School, we performed the Broadway musical “Hair” for our show choir show. I had the solo “I Got Life”, which is about not needing money or a good situation to be happy. It’s about being happy because you’ve got life, and nobody can take that away. Before that show, I had a very neatly kept beard, and short hair. Since then, I’ve only cut my hair a very few number of times. Will I be a long haired, guitar playing, hippy who’s “Got Life” forever? I guess we’ll see.