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Roberts, Sam

Sam Roberts

Singer, guitarist

Montreal rocker Sam Roberts became one of Canada's most popular musical artists in 2002. While his albums are released under only his name, his live shows are often billed as the Sam Roberts Band because Roberts' four band mates are an integral piece to his soaring success. With Roberts's shaggy hair and scruffy beard, the Quebec native made a name for himself in Canada as a sort of blue-collar rocker who makes music for the masses, but at heart is a solid musician with indie roots. "He's likeable, earthy and authentic, with what appears to be just the right combo of career drive and rapturous devotion to a higher power he often identifies in mid-song incantations as "rock 'n' roll!," wrote Eye Weekly's Kieran Grant in 2003. With power-pop harmonies, rock 'n' roll anthems, and Canadian pride through and through, Roberts became a new champion for Canadian music.

Born to South African parents who immigrated to Montreal before he was born, Roberts grew up in Quebec with three brothers. At the age of four Roberts learned to play the violin, a hobby he kept up until his early twenties. "I actually kept taking lessons into my 20s, and I'm glad I did because the discipline that it takes to play violin drove me to rock 'n' roll," Roberts said the official Universal Records biography. When he was 12, Roberts was given a Spanish guitar on which he learned to play rock chords, and at 17, he fronted the band Grover. After graduating high school, Roberts enrolled at McGill University in Montreal where he majored in and eventually received a degree in English Lit. While attending school Roberts played in the band William, which began around 1993. Three years later the band released a three-song vinyl record before changing their name to Northstar in 1997 and recording a five-track EP.

After Northstar's EP failed to stir up much excitement, Roberts retreated to Montreal and made a decision to write and record his own music by himself. In 1999 he recorded and self-produced a 12-song demo. "I felt my clock ticking. I was 25, trying to scrape through winter without committing myself to a job," Roberts said in his biography. "But instead of saying, 'Alright it's been a nice ride, but the dream is gone and now I'm going to get a job to make ends meet,' in that moment I turned it into, 'Alright, now I'm really going to live for music.'"

In 2001 Roberts and friend Jordan Zadorozny (who had played drums for Blinker the Star) recorded a set of songs, which Zadorozny produced and engineered at his home studio in Pembroke, Ontario. Robert wrote all the songs and played guitar, bass, and keyboards while Zadorozny played drums and percussion. A band was soon formed that included Roberts at the helm with Zadorozny on drums, Eric Fares on guitar, James Hall on bass and Dave Nugent on guitar. The new band, billed under Sam Roberts's moniker, played a well-attended showcase at the 2001 Canadian Music Week festival in Toronto. Although Roberts seemed like a solo act, the front man knew that his live performances were all about the band aspect. "Writing good music isn't really enough; you need the magic the band brings to the table. I'm just not a good loner. I like walking down the street with the guys in the band, I like the laughs and the stupid inside jokes and arguments," Roberts said in his biography.

The low-budget tracks recorded at Zadoronzy's home studio were picked up by Toronto independent label MapleMusic and released in 2002 as the EP, The Inhuman Condition. The album caused a stir in the Canadian music industry. "Like Sloan circa One Chord to Another and Navy Blues, The Inhuman Conditions' six tracks beef up sweet '60s pop harmonies with big '70s cock-rock balls, but pack enough raw power and surprise left-turns … to avoid the retro-rehash route," wrote Stuart Berman in Eye Weekly. The EP soon went gold in Canada. Roberts's music appealed to fans of power-pop, classic rock, and modern rock.

With all the attention stirring around Roberts, in 2002 he signed a deal with Universal Music Publishing Canada and later New York's Universal Records division. Roberts knew that he had a hit formula in his hands but was adamant about staying true to himself and his band mates. "If you're writing music that doesn't appeal to anybody but yourself then that is a disadvantage," he told Access Magazine.

In the winter of 2002, Roberts and his band flew to Vancouver to record their major label full-length album at Mushroom Studios. Roberts enlisted Canadian producer Brenndan McGuire (known for his work with Sloan and The Dears) to help him achieve his vision. The band re-recorded some of The Inhuman Condition's most popular songs including "Brother Down," "Don't Walk Away Eileen," and "Where Have All the Good People Gone?"

In the summer of 2003 Universal Music Canada released Roberts' new album We Were Born in a Flame. The Globe and Mail's Robert Everett-Green wrote: "In Sam Roberts, we seem to have somebody who can play both sides at once, by becoming a roaring success while singing about stunted opportunity." Later that year, Roberts was nominated (but subsequently lost) for two Juno Awards in Canada. Roberts soon became one of the most popular musicians in Canada.

Shortly after its Canadian release, We Were Born in a Flame was put out in the United States via Universal Music, but the label soon dropped Roberts before anyone in the U.S. even noticed he was there. The following spring, Roberts signed a deal in the U.S. with the roots-rock label Lost Highway, ironically, a division of Universal. We Were Born in a Flame was re-released in the United States in August of 2004. The American CD came with two bonus tracks, "When Everything Was Alright" and "This is How I Live," from The Inhuman Condition and with a different track order. The album got its fair share of American reviews, but was nothing in comparison to his success in Canada. Rolling Stone wrote that Roberts plays, "unpretentious, scrappy rock and roll…."

Roberts continued to tour the U.S. and Canada for most of 2004 into 2005, when he began to write songs for a new album. To record the band's sophomore full-length, Roberts and his crew went to Australia and set up shop in an old Presbyterian Church where they spent three months living and recording. Joining the band on drums in Australia was Billy Anthopoulos and producer Mark Howard. "We lived and ate our meals together in the church, spent our mornings at the beach and came back in the afternoon to get down to work. It was all pretty idyllic," Roberts said on his website. Roberts finished up the new recordings in Montreal where drummer Josh Trager played on a few tracks and producer-engineer Joseph Donovan finished the album up.

For the Record …

Born Sam Roberts on October 2, 1974 in Pointe-Claire, Quebec, Canada.

Singer and guitarist Sam Roberts started off in the Montreal, Quebec, Canada band Northstar before going solo in 2001; released The Inhuman Condition, 2002; signed with Universal Music Canada and release We Were Born in a Flame, 2003; signed to Universal Music in the United States and re-released We Were Born in a Flame on Lost Highway imprint, 2004; won three Juno Awards, 2004; released Chemical City on Secret Brain/Universal, 2006.

Awards: Juno Award (Canada), Rock Album of the Year, Artist of the Year, Album of the Year, 2004.

Addresses: Record company—Universal 825 8th Ave., New York, NY 10019. Website—Sam Roberts Official Website: http//www.samrobertsband.com.

Tired of the major-label runaround, in May 2006, Roberts' released the new album, Chemical City, on his own label Secret Brain (distributed by Universal). "Chemical City vaguely recalls '60s psychedelia in subject and sound; songs abound with imagery of mountains, blue skies and dragonflies," wrote Eye Weekly's James Simons. "With this album I really wanted to explore the darkest depths and the highest heights of experience. The tension between those two extremes is what attracts me to rock 'n' roll and gives a lot of my favorite music its real power," Roberts stated on his website.

With the release of his sophomore album, Roberts remained hugely successful in Canada but largely unknown in the U.S.; a dichotomy that both Roberts and many other Canadian acts can appreciate. Roberts continues to tour with his hardworking band, confident that he will never tour as a solo act. "I'm not a singer-songwriter/crooner in anyway. I play in a rock and roll band," Roberts told Rolling Stone. "And like anyone else whose name just happens to be on the marquee, like David Bowie or Neil Young, there's a band out there that makes the rock and roll happen."

Selected discography

The Inhuman Condition, MapleMusic, 2002.
We Were Born in a Flame, Universal, 2003, reissued, Lost Highway/Universal, 2004.
Chemical City, Universal/Secret Brain, 2006.

Sources

Periodicals

Eye Weekly (Toronto, Ontario), July 4, 2002; May 29, 2003; April 6, 2006.

Online

"Mellow Gold," Access Magazine, http://www.accessmag.com/Archives/64-SamRoberts.html (June 17, 2006).

"Sam Roberts' U.S. Rebirth," Rolling Stone, http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/6468131/sam_roberts_us_rebirth (June 17, 2006).

Sam Roberts Band Official Website, http://www.samrobertsband.com/web/bio/index.php (June 17, 2006).

Universal Music Official Sam Roberts Biography, http://www.umusic.ca/samroberts/ (June 17, 2006).

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