Is there anything SG Lewis can't do? Notion speaks to the multi-hyphenate about his forthcoming debut album ‘times’, what drives him to keep creating, and capturing euphoria with his music.
[Article originally published on 6 November 2020]
Although he started it before COVID took hold of our world, SG Lewis’ ‘times’ is an album that is wholly representative of the past few months. “Once lockdown happened, it took on a new meaning that tomorrow isn’t promised so any chance you get to experience music with people you love, you have to take”, SG explains. “The album is hugely celebratory. The two words I would use are ‘euphoric’ and ‘escapism’”.
“I was studying a lot of the disco era at the time, but it was less about recreating disco and more about a study of why disco music is so euphoric. Why is it the music that creates such celebration? I became quite fascinated with that”.
Recounting some of his favourite memories in clubs and at festivals, SG tells me that with his forthcoming debut album ‘times’, he wanted to capture a feeling of pure euphoria: “That feeling of overwhelming emotion where people are so happy that they’re crying”.
Bottling jubilation and pouring it into earworm melodies is a craft that SG Lewis is very familiar with. In the five years since he released debut single “Warm”, SG has become an established figure in the electronic music space. With more than a dozen introspective singles and five EPs – notably the three-part concept series, Dusk, Dark and Dawn – collaborations with Dua Lipa, Clairo, Khalid, Ruel, Robyn, Victoria Monet, and AlunaGeorge under his belt, racking up millions upon millions of streams is a given for 26-year-old Sam Lewis.
Thanks to years of hard graft, the self-confessed “music nerd” seems to be living his dream. Now in a place where he can ask almost anyone on his bucket list to collaborate with him and expect a hearty ‘yes’, it’s been a long time coming for the guy that used to make tunes in his parents’ attic.
“I’m really lucky in that I’m in a position now where a lot of the people that I ask [to collaborate] say yes. That’s the dream scenario for me to be in”, SG says, his eyes sparkling with excitement. “Half my approach to making music or collaborating is to listen to music and think, wouldn’t it be cool if so and so did a weird spin-off 80s synth tune, and I’m like, I could be the person to make that happen!” Grinning like a kid at Christmas, he continues, “I get to imagine what it would be like for Dua Lipa to do a 90s house tune. That’s the fun bit. I get to make the records that I dream up, basically”.
With an “endless” bucket list of collaborations, SG can tick off one more – Lucky Daye. Linking up the old fashioned way – through a studio session in Los Angeles – the pair connected instantly and smashed out their new tune “Feed The Fire” in two hours. “The first thing he [Lucky Daye] did was sing the hook, and this huge grin just came across my face as soon as he hit the first chorus. He just smashed it”, SG recalls.
The song itself was born out of an obsession with Jamiroquai. Whilst working on his album, SG took to the disco era like a third-year university student researching their dissertation – “pretty heavily”.
“Originally, I was making instrumentals, but in the end, made a bunch of stuff that I felt was quite Jamiroquai-esque”, he tells me. Inspired in particular by the lead line in Jamiroquai’s song “Little L”, SG recruited the band’s keys player, Matt Johnson, and Simon Hill, the man responsible for the song’s strings arrangement. “I was putting things together that I was liking, then tried to sing on it myself but wasn’t quite getting the right pockets for it. Then I met Lucky Daye”. The rest, as they say, is history, and “Feed The Fire” was released at the end of October as another fizzing, MSG rush from the album.
Whilst SG Lewis may be able to create a song quickly, he admits that it takes “forever to finish them because I get a bit perfectionist with it. I just lose my mind a little bit and spend too much time on my own listening to it. We’d actually submitted the album, it had gone to vinyl pressing and I made them stop the pressing so I could change some of the things on the album”, he laughs sheepishly. “They were pretty pissed off but it’s gotta be right, you know?”
And I don’t blame him for wanting it to be perfect. After five years of releasing music, fans are hungry for a full-length project, and with each release proving so popular, it’s no wonder ‘times’ has built quite a lot of buzz around it. “It’s there forever”, SG affirms.
Whilst some artists may feel a pressure to recreate the same high after making a hit (or in SG’s case, several), he reveals that “I never feel the pressure because I’ve never wanted to make the same song twice. I get so bored with things that by the time I’m finished with it, I don’t wanna make any more”.
“I’ve found that the only way that I can continue to have records resonate and things do well is if I’m excited about them. I think people feel that in the music. If I’m going to the studio and I’m like, oh my God, I need to make another ‘Chemicals’ now, I don’t think I would be able to do it. It has to come from genuine excitement and genuine inspiration. I really try not to think about that kind of stuff”.
In an age where everything is quantified by numbers – streams, listeners, sales – SG acknowledges that in the absence of live music, he’s become numb to the rush affiliated with statistics on his songs. “You put a song out and get a million streams in four days, and you think, cool! But you’re very quickly numb to those feelings and you forget what a million people look like. It’s hard to even quantify a million people standing in front of you. That’s a lot of people”.
“For me, success has always been playing a gig and spotting one person in the crowd and zoning in on them and watching them having some kind of emotional connection with the song”, he says. “I think that streams are arbitrary and not all streams are created equal. Something you can’t fake is someone in tears because you’ve just played their song. If the music has a real effect on people and has been a part of their lives and stories and relationships, then that’s the ultimate goal”.
Perhaps part of SG Lewis’ success is tied to the fact that he focuses on creating experiences and emotions with his music, as opposed to chasing numbers. “I’ve found that if someone likes a song because it’s catchy and it’s on a playlist, then you’ve got them for a month while they listen to the song, but if someone forms a connection to it that’s attached to a memory or a person, those kind of connections are the ones that last”, he says sagely.
Way back in spring, or what is now known as OG lockdown, SG Lewis retreated to his family home to work on ‘times’. For someone who was often on the go, playing live gigs around the world, the lockdown provided somewhat of an advantage for SG. Whilst the world around him ground to a halt, SG squirrelled himself away to focus on finishing the record. “In a weird way, I kinda needed that time otherwise it would never have been done”, he admits. “As soon as I finished the album, reality came crashing in and I was like, oh, I don’t get to go and play this anywhere, I’m still in my parents’ attic”.
Finishing ‘times’ wasn’t the only benefit of lockdown for SG Lewis – it also served as a reset button. “In a way, I think it takes you back to roots. You’re forced to be reminded of why you started this in the first place. Once again, I was at my parents’ house, in my bedroom, watching YouTube tutorials about new synthesisers and nerding out again, re-learning new things”, he says. “When you’re in the thick of it, you never take time to learn new skills within what you do. I was bored again so thought, what do I do when I’m bored? Luckily the answer was to make music!”
With the absence of a studio, SG began to build his own setup at his parent’s house for the duration of lockdown. “I ordered a load of kit in. My mum was like, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’” he laughs. “There were just boxes and boxes of shit arriving. All of a sudden the attic’s been turned into a recording studio. But it did the job. I ended up finishing the album there which was really full-circle because that’s the room where I wrote my first releases”.
Reflecting on how he’s grown as an artist since the early days of “Warm”, SG confesses that whilst he used to fear failure as a musician, as he’s developed, that worry has disappeared. Pre-Radio 1 play SG Lewis fans will recognise the journey he’s been on using his own vocals on his tracks. Once it was rare to hear a song featuring SG’s voice, but now, he’s happy to put it front and centre. In fact, he reveals that he’s even considering recording an album with just his vocals.
“This album has a lot of singing from me and that’s been super liberating”, he shares. “If you’d asked me 10 years ago, I would have been like, absolutely no fucking way am I singing on a record! You get this real rush out of doing things outside of your comfort zone, and I think that opened my mind up. I have to credit Julian Bunetta who I worked with a lot on this album for really opening my mind to how I could use my voice on a record and not being beaten up that I don’t have a voice like Adele”, he chuckles. “My opinion is that everyone has a voice now, and everyone can use it in some way. Growing and losing that fear element has allowed me to try things I never would have tried before”.
It’s this love of evolution that drives SG Lewis to keep creating music. “When I do these things, I feel like I’m tricking everyone. I know that sounds odd, but when I hear my voice on the radio, there’s some real weird satisfaction from that because I feel like I’ve achieved something that was never meant to happen”, he professes. “I get real achievement from doing things that I didn’t think I would be doing. Whether that’s making pop songs for Dua or singing on the record, the thing that drives me to keep making music is to do things I haven’t done and to be able to turn round and be like, I actually did it! The last thing I wanna do is repeat myself and do things I’ve already done. It’s like asking someone to wear the same outfit that they were wearing five years ago. It’s like, I don’t wanna wear that, I feel differently now”.
To quote the great Bob Dylan, ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’, and it seems like SG Lewis knows exactly how to capture them.