INTERVIEW: Sam Obernik (ADE 2011)
The first time I heard “It Just Won’t Do” by Tim Deluxe, I was struck not only by the infectious hook but how insanely quirky and unique the vocals were. Recorded as a one-off fluke thanks to a nearby studio, that song became a massive global dance smash and launched Sam Obernik’s career as an in-demand vocalist. She’s worked with everyone from Linus Loves and Alex Gaudino to Paul Harris and Richard Dinsdale. With a full of slate of new releases upcoming, 2012 might be the year that Sam gets her own album that focused on her.
DJ Ron Slomowicz: Welcome to Amsterdam, Sam.
Sam Obernik: Thank you!
RS: I assume this isn’t your first time in this lovely city.
Sam Obernik: No, it is not my first time in Amsterdam, but it is my first time to make it to ADE. Usually my diary somehow gets in the way. I always try to go to Winter Music Conference in Miami or the new IMS in Ibiza. I really love the Ibiza music; I think it is really productive because it is very small. So this is actually the first time that I have made it to ADE.
RS: How has it been, have you had good meetings?
Sam Obernik: It has been reassuringly hectic, back-to-back meetings. I didn’t schedule anything the first day to try and find my feet. It actually just ended up being full on, like dominos. We are now on day four and I am pooped!
RS: A lot of people know you for ‘It Just Won’t Do’ how did that song come about?
Sam Obernik: I was actually in the midst of recording a singer, songwriter solo album, supported by a major record label. I had a studio next to Tim Deluxe’s and another co-writer Ben Onono. One night they threw a track my way and said they thought I would be great on it for a laugh. The next thing we knew Pete Tong was taking it out as a white label to Miami and it blew up from there, globally.
RS: So you had no idea that it would become as big as it did?
Sam Obernik: No, not really. Dance music in those days, it was a little more considered the turnover because we still weren’t fully digital in terms of our release. The turnover wasn’t quite as high as it is now. You never know with dance music.
RS: The next thing after that was the Stevie Nicks cover “Stand Back.” What was interesting was that you went from quirky and edgy to all the way pop.
Sam Obernik: I didn’t really think about it at the time, I just really liked that song. I knew the Stevie Nicks’ song and I didn’t think about the asthetics in between. At that point, I had actually just started another project of my own; I just ended up doing it. I was surprised that it blew up and even more surprised at how much more popular it was in the States than in Europe. I guess with it being Stevie Nicks it makes sense. Then I put out a project called Barefoot, which was an album of big old house and hip-hop tunes from White Lines to Born Slippy. I recorded live with a 12 piece jazz band, which was incredible.
RS: I need to find that, I have never heard of this.
Sam Obernik: Yeah you should, it’s incredible, and I love it. It is a real big baby of mine. Out of that, I went and got back into dance. I did the “Baditude” with Paul Harris from Dirty Vegas and Dave Spoon.
RS: One of the main things that are special about you is your voice. It is very unique and when you hear it, you know it is a Sam Obernik song. What is your background, are you Iranian?
Sam Obernik: No, I am a very mixed bag. I am of Greek blood, but my name is Czech. I grew up in Ireland and I live in London. It is just a hodge-podge of curious cultural nonsense really.
RS: Are you a trained vocalist?
Sam Obernik: No, I trained on the street. I started busking on the street when I was about fifteen, which is a traditional form of displaying your musical art in Ireland. You go on the street with your instrument, you have a hat out in front of you, and people throw money at you.
RS: Did you make your living busking?
Sam Obernik: No, I didn’t make a living but I definitely made some decent pocket money.
RS: Did you always know that you wanted to be a singer?
Sam Obernik: Pretty much, as soon as the hormones kicked in, I knew.
RS: Right now you have several projects going: ‘Liar,’ ‘Edge Of The Earth,’ the Str8Jackets track… Can you make sense of all this?
Sam Obernik: It makes perfect sense to me, I am just turning out tracks and each one is a clean sheet. I am a veritable magpie/butterfly. You can’t pigeonhole me. I am very eclectic, but it’s my voice that ties everything together. ‘Liar’ was great this year, which was with APDW. ‘Edge of the Earth’ was with Hook N Sling and Richard Dinsdale, who just jetted off to Vegas this morning. They are at the tail end of their promo right now. The next one up is actually with Kid Massive, who is an amazing talent and knows what he is doing. It is going to be called “Yawn”. After that is the Str8Jackets that have ‘Love and Oxygen’ which I love as well. After that, I have Roger Sanchez and Sidney Samson.
RS: Are they working together?
Sam Obernik: I am pretty sure that is how it is going to work out.
RS: That is a contrast.
Sam Obernik: It is just in the system, nothing is confirmed regarding the release yet. I also have EDX, Mauritzo, and some things working with Stefano Noferini. There are others that I will just shut up about right now.
RS: When someone like Stefano Noferini contacts you, does he give you a track and you write a song to it?
Sam Obernik: Yes, people approach me and they have backing tracks, instrumentals, or maybe they have something that has picked up hype that they want to do something with. Sometimes it is a cold call with a brand new track and we see what happens. It can be a very developmental process. People just send me tracks and I do all of the vocal work in my studio and send it back done. Which is great for them because they don’t really have to do any of the dirty work or comping that comes with vocal tracks. Then nice thing is that people trust me to come up with something that is going to work remotely. More than half of the people that I work with, I probably won’t see more than once as year, only at a place like this.
RS: After you do the track, it gets promoted and then do you start doing booking shows based on the songs.
Sam Obernik: Yeah, it is kind of a cumulative and self-perpetuating thing. What it does do is according to the releases that go out they kind of influence what territories will be bigger than others in terms of livework over the coming months. I will do a higher concentration of shows in one territory or another.
RS: Do you usually tour over in UK and Europe?
Sam Obernik: No, not at all, it really depends on radio play. For example, with ‘Baditude,’ it was a huge record in the UK so it is on high rotation on the national stations for weeks on end. Due to that, I end up running up and down the motorways like a bat out of hell. Within the last two years, I have had a very big track in Russia; it was in the top twenty for 30 weeks. It was called “Stereo Flo.” That had me out in Russia at all corners for two to three days every week. Keep in mind it is an eight-hour flight from Moscow to Lago Vostoc. You can safely say that I am quite educated in all things Russian by now and quite tired.
RS: By doing songs with all these different producers, will there ever be a Sam Obernik album with all these songs on it?
Sam Obernik: Yes, there will. In fact, I am just starting to develop that idea right now. I am going try and do something about that towards the middle or end of next year. It will definitely happen. While that starts happening I am also going to be working on something more Sam Obernik-centric. Something definitely more focused rather than featuring everywhere else.
RS: I am just curious, sometimes you are ‘featuring’ and sometimes you are ‘and,’ why is that?
Sam Obernik: It is kind of academic because of the way that I work behind the scenes in terms of producing the vocals and owning part of the masters, it is more democratic to stick an and in between the names. It is really nothing more than that.
RS: I actually saw one with Luciana that said “starring Luciana.”
Sam Obernik: Yes, that is just fun. I like that; I am going to steal that. Sorry Luci..
RS: Is there a community of the topline writers? Do you all talk to each other?
Sam Obernik: I have noticed during all of my travels to America that it is more prevalent there. We don’t have a formal society or anything but about once a year, all of the featured vocalists in the UK get together around a table and get really drunk/wasted. We share our disaster stories and anecdotes from the previous year of travels. It is pretty funny actually.
RS: I would love to be the fly on the wall for that table.
Sam Obernik: Not a chance, you do not get a look in. We have the place swiped before we go in.
RS: If someone wants to follow you do you do Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube?
Sam Obernik: I am actually the world’s worst social networker but yes, I do exist on Facebook and Twitter. It is going to be one of my New Year resolutions for 2012 to get that house in order. I am there and I do communicate but I am one of those people that says what needs to be said when I need to say it. I am not a gratuitous twitter, I would prefer to say something that means something or triggers a meaningful reaction.
RS: You have done a few videos, how do you react when you see a video that has you singing but it is not you in the video. Like the new APDW, ‘It Just Won’t Do’ video.
Sam Obernik: That one was a difficult one because we had already done a video for ‘It Just Won’t Do.’ It didn’t make sense and was a bit counterproductive in self-promotion. It wasn’t my idea to do it with someone else. There wasn’t anyone performing or lip syncing so it wasn’t a major issue in that sense. I would never approve a video of someone lip syncing to my vocals. I can stand on my own two feet and lip-synch my own record whether I am singing them or not.
RS: What would you like to say to your fans out there?
Sam Obernik: I know that I am not a prolific twitterer but I really do love and appreciate you all. Whatever you have to say to me I will always respond with a reasoned response. Thank you. Sometimes I forget especially doing all the tracks. When I hear a special record that just triggers something special in me, I remember how much just one lyric can make a person connect, for that, I am grateful for people understanding. Thank you.
Interview conducted October 2011 during Amsterdam Dance Event.