The Right Amount of Distortion: An Interview with Sam Valdez

Up-and-coming LA singer-songwriter Sam Valdez is poised for an exciting year in 2018, with the planned release of her debut EP, a full-length album on the way, and talk of touring on the horizon.

Inspired by modern indie pop and vintage Americana, Valdez has released two singles to date, both impressive snapshots of a young artist trying on sounds.

Her debut single “Hours” combines her biggest stated influences–the emotional honesty of Angel Olsen and the lush arrangements of The War On Drugs–into a deep, dreamy, reverb-soaked ballad.

“It’s Alright” is similarly awash in atmospheric production, but it’s the more grounded of the two. Here, distorted electric guitar chords and live drums hold down the spacier slide guitar hooks and synth melodies in a breakup song torn between looking back and looking forward.

With a broad palette of influences and big plans for the future, Valdez will be worth keeping tabs on in the new year. In an interview with the All Scene Eye, Valdez walked us through the making of her first singles and the musical background that led her to this point.

Tell me about your musical origin story. How did you first become a musician?

I started playing violin when I was six or seven. I pretty much did that my whole life, until I started learning the guitar about three years ago. When I moved out to LA five and a half years ago, I was still doing violin stuff; I was trying to compose jazz and classical music. Then I decided I wanted to try singing and songwriting. I started trying to learn how to sing and play guitar, and from there, I started songwriting.

Was there anything specific that inspired that shift away from the classical?

I think it’s that I moved out to LA and started hearing all these great local bands. I was like, “man, that’s so cool.” I was always like, “I wish I could sing,” but I never took any steps towards it. I was super focused on violin for a long time. Then I started songwriting, and I became really obsessive with it.

Was it the same thing with picking up the guitar after the violin?

Yeah, I had to have something to accompany myself with, you know? And I’ve never been a huge piano person. I actually have a weird thing against piano. [laughs] Someone had lent me their acoustic guitar, so I was just like, “alright! I’ve got to do it.” 

What’s your aversion to the piano?

I don’t know, maybe it’s because on certain solo competitions I’d have to do for violin, it’d be accompanied by piano, and I’d always be really nervous to do that.

Do you remember your first favorite band or artist?

Probably Britney Spears. [laughs] But my mom listened to a ton of country growing up, too. I definitely really connected with Johnny Cash when I was younger. That was a little after my Britney phase.

I definitely love old-school country. I’m a huge Emmylou Harris fan, and I love Townes van Zandt. I was also obsessed with Leonard Cohen.

You’ve said you were inspired to write “It’s Alright” when you were out for a walk one night. Can you tell me how that came about, and what the next step was?

I actually remember that night–it was a strange night. I had gone to this party up in the Hills. It was a house show. It was a cool night, and I met some really interesting people.

After I have a night out, I love taking long walks. It was 1 a.m. at that point, and I started walking on Sunset, down in Hollywood, because that’s where I used to live. I was listening to music at the time. I took it out, and I started hearing the chord progression in my head, or the rhythm of it. Then I started humming things; I probably looked like a crazy person while I was walking. Then I rushed home, like, “ok, I need to get this down,” so I made a voice note on my phone, ran home, and started working on it.

You can hear the post-party mindset in the finished track–there’s that line, “you left me sleeping in my party clothes.” 

Yeah, the song is about a breakup, and when you have certain nights that bring you back and remind you of things, and that’s what happened.

From there, can you tell me about the process of arranging it in the studio, building up the guitar feedback and atmospheric elements?

This is definitely a cool one for me, because we were in the studio with players, and we got to get a great quality of tone for everything. My friend Josh Grondin produced it, and we were trying to figure out the vibe we wanted it to have. He was very much like, “I want to make it grungy.” He kept referencing Mitski and Nirvana, stuff like that. I was definitely adamant on the vocal and the slide guitar doing that intro and outro, just to keep that Americana thing going. 

We did a ton of distorted guitar layers. We spent so much time figuring out the correct amount of distortion we wanted, trying to get a good tone. We did layers where it was lighter distortion, then a little heavier, more of a bite, and we layered them. The process was a ton of guitars and a few synths, bass, and drums. 

We had a drummer, Kyle Crane. He’s amazing, a really good drummer. It was just the three of us–everything outside of the drums is me and Josh.

Who are you working on the upcoming EP with?

I’m doing that with Jacob Summers. He’s an artist as well–his artist name is Avid Dancer. We met a couple months back and connected super well. We were on the same bill for a show, and he came up and talked to me after. We ended up recording my EP together.

It’s all done, and we’re going to put it out early next year. Everything on the EP is just me and him. We did it mostly in his kitchen, very lo-fi. [laughs] But the quality came out really good, and we’re excited about it.

These two songs out now–are they stand-alones?

Yes. Actually, “It’s Alright” is going to be on my EP, even though it’s separately produced, but the vibe is pretty similar. 

“Hours” also has such an interesting production–how did that come together?

That was produced by Max Braverman. He definitely has more of an electronic approach to music, and that was different for me, but it was a really cool experience. I think I like to keep more of a full sound to things, but that song came out great. He’s really talented, and we also became friends, but that song was a very different thing for me. It’s mostly synth-based with drum machine, and I think there are two guitar tracks on it. 

What kind of a sound can we expect on the EP?

The EP definitely has a 60s vibe to it. It has more Americana colorings for sure, but we also use a drum machine, so it’s blending everything. It has pretty good range, I think, and I’m excited to put it out.

If you had to describe this process of making your debut EP in one word, what would you pick and why?

Emotional. The songs on it are really personal to me–It’s very true to some experiences over the span of a year.

I think having Jacob produce it, and him becoming a friend that I love being around, it was very comfortable and open. We got to explore so many different emotions and sounds. I think it was my first experience recording with someone else where I really felt like the walls could come down, and we could experiment and go deep into it, and try to convey everything we wanted to.

We tried a bunch of crazy things to do that. One morning, I was like, “ok, my voice needs to sound more broken,” it was sounding too clean. I had warmed up. So I was like, “ok, let’s go get whiskey and cigarettes.” [laughs] I don’t even smoke cigarettes, or really drink that much. Maybe it’s not the best approach, but sometimes you want your voice to sound a little more lazy and gritty. You can either wake up super early and go right over and sing, or you can smoke a bunch and drink. [laughs]

Now that we’re at the end of the year, do you have any musical New Year’s Resolutions?

Definitely. Mainly, next year, I want to do a big tour, which I’m in the midst of planning right now. I want to get a full album recorded, which I’m almost done writing. I just need to record it now. Those are my two main goals.

When you talk about touring, how do you translate the sound of these songs to the live setting?

On tour, I think some of it would have to be solo shows, depending on which ones my band can make it to. I think right now we’re trying to keep it true to how the EP sounds as much as we can, but we’re definitely going to start adding more tracks we can use live through Ableton, just so it can sound a little more full. Right now, we play as a four-piece, but we’re definitely looking to add that into the set and have a synth player as well.

Who are some local LA artists we should be paying more attention to?

I’m really excited because I’m playing The Bootleg on the 20th with this local band I’ve been super obsessed with. I just took a shot in the dark and asked their manager if they would play, and they’re going to. They’re called Ruby Haunt, and I love them so much. They have such a unique and haunting sound.

They blend all my favorite stuff. They’re kind of like Velvet Underground in a way, and they have a 90s feel almost, but they keep it really original and indie, new-wave at the same time. They’re great, you should check them out. They’re definitely on the darker side of things, but I love that kind of stuff, and I can’t wait to play with them.


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