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Sam Riggs Steps Towards National Success with ‘Breathless’

Photo: Natalie Rhea

In 2013, Sam Riggs was a Florida transplant hoping to crack the tough clay of the Texas country scene. With a handful of solid tunes and a mentor in Ray Wylie Hubbard, he released Outrun The Sun under the moniker “Sam Riggs and The Night People” — and slowly built a following with a steady stream of shows and radio success.

Now in 2016, Riggs has dropped “The Night People” from the name (though it’s still the name of his band, it’s just easier to fit his shorter tag on a gig poster, “And harder to misspell,” he laughs). He’s also picked up a lot of buzz. On Feb. 19, Riggs will release Breathless, his sophomore album and first new music in three years.

“It’s definitely different,” says Riggs of the new album. “A little edgier; a change in tone.”

 

The 11-track LP (10 originals and an acoustic version of the new tune “Secondhand Smoke”) was not an easy endeavor, but a very necessary one on Riggs’ path towards national success. Ironically, all the time Riggs spent advancing that very goal also delayed the development of Breathless.

“For me, the distractions from promoting Outrun The Sun took away from time for creativity,” says Riggs. “You’ve really got to foster the creative energy inside of you and make sure it stays alive and well. I didn’t really do that at first.”

Given Riggs was spending time touring the country and breaking into new markets, it’s not surprising writing took a backseat. But that’s the sort of thing that can lead to an underwhelming follow-up record — the dreaded “sophomore slump.”

The saying goes, “You’ve got your whole life to write your first record, and only a few years to write your second.” It’s a notion that crossed Riggs’ mind, but he provides some clarity. “I think that saying can be misinterpreted as saying you have all this time to write your first one and not as much time as the second,” says Riggs.

In reality, the time an artist like Riggs spends writing a follow-up record is much more focused than a debut. “When I was really digging in and writing, I wasn’t just writing to write a song, it was for a reason,” he says. “It was about 12-16 months out when I really needed to get my shit in gear and start writing again.”

Breathless is entirely co-written with other artists, an exercise that can be as frustrating as it is rewarding. “It doesn’t always work,” says Riggs, “because sometimes you walk into the room and after awhile realize the direction you’re going is not right at all.” But for Breathless, co-writes were essential to bringing a slightly different voice that would ultimately complement Riggs melody-driven style.

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Take the track “One More Chance To Stay,” a plodding ballad that drifts between melancholy and optimistic while landing firmly on gorgeous. Riggs wrote the song with West Texas artist Charlie Stout, nailing down the structure, concept and melody on the first meeting and finishing it via back-and-forth texts and voice memos until it was just right.

“I wanted a slower, more candid look into relationships and love and the idea of staying and leaving,” says Riggs. “Basically I came to the table with just this idea that you have a decision. Two choices, and the reciprocal of leaving is one more chance to stay, to give it another shot and build it to something strong.”

The song actually had a chance to land on Outrun The Sun, but ultimately Riggs held off until Breathless, where it feels like a much more appropriate send-off.

On the other hand, you’ve got “Wake The Dead,” an up-tempo burner complete with a train beat on the verge of reckless and fiddle and banjo trading jabs. Then…there’s the rap section. “That’s a shocker, obviously,” says Riggs.

“I know when people hear rap in a country song, they immediately think hick-hop,” he says. “I wanted to make a statement that if you listen to the lyrics and what the song is saying, it’s nothing to do with tailgates, dirt roads, bonfires or anything like that; it’s making use of where you came from and what you’ve got. Plus I’m a big fan of Yelawolf.”

A prevalent theme throughout the record is addiction — whether it’s to a substance, a situation, or a person. “I kind of surprised myself when I started narrowing down songs for the record,” laughs Riggs. “I sounded like an addict. But most of us have been or are still addicted to someone, and that’s an emotion that can be stronger than anything else. It’s a very real part of the human experience.”

Breathless is full of new steps for Riggs. For one, he had to rustle up more than $30,000 to make sure the album would get made on time — and that was before launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise another $32,000, some of which went towards repaying the debt but the majority of which is going towards promoting the album on a national level.

With a serious investment on hand, Riggs wasn’t going to turn over his new collection of songs to just anybody. So he returned to producer Erik Herbst, who also produced Outrun The Sun. “I didn’t want to chance these songs with a new producer,” says Riggs. “Erik is an incredible producer who makes incredible records. At times our relationship can be a little toxic because we’re both very stubborn, but I’m outspoken, and Erik has a more subtle way of letting me know he wants me to do something. But at the end of the day, Erik has a great talent for pulling out the best in people.”

Some of those people include the University of North Texas drum line members, who contributed parts to the album’s first single, “The Lucky Ones.” It’s another musical moment on the record that is unexpected, but not unexplained, and certainly not unwelcome.

“The Lucky Ones” had its genesis on the road, when Riggs was driving the van between Kansas City and Memphis. The rest of the band was sleeping (“If you ever want to know what bands do in the van, it’s usually sleep off a hangover,” laughs Riggs) and Riggs was thinking about how far away he felt from where he started.

“Not physically,” says Riggs. “I had this idea of how it was going to go when I first started, and the path has been anything but glamorous — it’s been the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. At the time I felt like I was in deep space orbit, seeing earth from afar and looking at it from where it all started.”

For Riggs, that was in high school in Florida. He was on the drum line there (before being kicked off in rock star fashion) and to this day, the sound of a marching band still brings it all back. “It’s unmistakable,” says Riggs. “Even thinking about it right now when those drums kick in at the end of the song, the hair stands on the back of my neck. It’s like a flashback immediately to high school. Football games and late nights and running around a small town and all the craziness. If there’s one trigger that’ll take everybody back it’s the drum line, and it had to be there.”

 

Don’t feel too bad for Riggs getting kicked off the line, though. He elected to take ballroom dancing instead and says it was probably overall more helpful to his music career “because it taught me about real etiquette, and how to interact with girls without trying to get them to go on a date with you, and how to be less shy.”

It worked, too, because between the release of Outrun The Sun and Breathless, Riggs fell in love and married his wife. If it sounds difficult to manage a new marriage and a promising music career, that’s because it is. “One of the most challenging things I’ve encountered,” says Riggs. “But I’ve learned from [my wife] how to really love somebody honestly. Being in love and loving somebody are different things in my mind and she’s taught me how to love in ways I never thought I’d be able to.”

It helps she’s also a creative (a filmmaker) and met Riggs when he was already in the infantile stages of his musical career.

But being married and being a musician are not dissimilar, in many ways, and one very important one: “It’s about feeding the fire,” says Riggs. At times, what feeds Riggs musically can be pretty wild. It’s both a blessing and a curse, and something he’s very aware of.

“I want to grow and show people that growth, but it has to be calculated in a way so that I don’t lose people,” he says. “I don’t want to throw people for so much of a curveball that they’re like, ‘what the heck?’”

Breathless is certainly a great step forward in that goal. Riggs has always strived to reach beyond his Texas country roots, and his sophomore effort will undoubtedly be a big part of his blossoming success beyond the Lone Star State.

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Sam Riggs Steps Towards National Success with ‘Breathless’