The prodigious Sammy Brue can make any musician feel small when you stack up his accomplishments at the young age of 18: being called an “Americana prodigy” by Rolling Stone, shows with songwriting legends Justin Townes Earle, Lucinda Williams, and Hayes Carll, and a premier slot at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island are only a few highlights of his career. Today, the singer-songwriter released two new tracks from his forthcoming sophomore album Crash Test Kid with “Teenage Mayhem” and the album’s title track. The songs show the versatility of Sammy’s craft; “Crash Test Kid” is emotive with messages of unity and preservation, and “Teenage Mayhem” crackles with unbridled energy that is sure to get anyone off of their feet. Currently on a nationwide tour with Michael Kiwanuka, we called Sammy to chat about the new album, growing up in Ogden, Utah, and the power of today’s youth:
How are you? How’s the tour?
Dude, the tour is incredible. It’s refreshing to know that there are people to play to tonight and every night.
Where are you right now?
I’m actually in my place of living for the day in Salt Lake, and tomorrow we’re off to Colorado to play a date. Everyone’s coming out to my show tonight: friends, family, enemies, you name it.
Being on tour exposing your music to all of these newer audiences, what’s it like getting to come play in your hometown?
It’s awesome because I’ve done tours before where we’ve hit Salt Lake, and I’m super excited to play the hometown and then oops — the venue is 21+. So the laws here are crazy because anyone under 21 can’t step into a 21+ venue, so this is actually the first time I’ve been able to play a show here in a non-21+ venue!
Being from a smaller city like Ogden, how do you think your hometown and your upbringing impact your music and this new record?
Ogden is an unforgiving place — looking at my Spotify numbers and everything, Utah and Salt Lake are usually at the very bottom. There is this core group of people that’ll have my back till the end, but Ogden’s just kind of different. It used to be if you weren’t on The Voice or American Idol, you’re gonna have a hard time pulling people in. But it’s a love/hate kind of thing — I love spending my off-time here with my family and friends. We’ve got a killer skate scene here, but the road has really become a home for me.
How has being involved in the music industry from such a young age colored your view of the music industry?
There have been some damn rocky roads that have been very hard to get over. But I’m so fortunate to have my family which really helps me through everything — because when there’s so many doors and offers coming left and right, it helps to have that grounding me to allow me to take my time and figure out what’s best for me. But, you know, the music industry is why I get to do what I wanna do — travel, play music, and enjoy life. It’s like the yin and yang.
At 18, Crash Test Kid is already your second album. What was different about the recording process for this record as compared to your debut?
Well, the record is radically different all over compared to my debut. For my first album, I was recording in Muscle Shoals with John Paul White [of the Civil Wars] and Ben Tanner [of the Alabama Shakes], and I was reluctant to intervene because I just wanted to let them do their thing. They let me make some really cool decisions on the record, but I wanted to have an ultimate respect for the space and make it sound like “Sammy Brue from the Deep South”, but really I’m from the other side of the country. So Iain Archer reached out to me after that cycle to begin co-writing, and I almost didn’t want to like the songs we were doing. But something clicked, and suddenly we had five bangers, and then he asked if I wanted to co-write a record. We went up to Brighton, England to record it, and I definitely had my hands all over this record. Iain produced it, but I felt like I was taking matters into my own hands. I remember telling him that “Teenage Mayhem” just had to shake — it had to break shit. I’d been trying to search for this sound for a long time, and we got it. Honestly, though, the words are the biggest step up on this album. I’d been spending time by myself, roaming, and kind of thinking of like, “What would Woody Guthrie do?”
That’s something I think about often — what would the revolutionary forebearers of music say about this wild time we live in.
Yeah, and it’s especially weird being a young kid in this age — I had an iPod very young, being exposed to music all through my life, and feeling the common ties to other young kids. Some kids’ families are fighting, some kids are struggling with drugs, but everyone’s hurting a little.
What’s it like performing with that generational gap between you and an audience?
You know, when I’m performing, I just want to be saying things right to people’s faces. With these new songs, I can look people in the eye and make them think “Is he talking to me?” I think I perform differently to younger people than older people, but only because I feel like a song like “Teenage Mayhem” is gonna connect with the youth. Older people don’t fully understand the struggles we go through, and I think kids our age are sick of putting our heads down and just rolling with the punches.
It’s incredible to me that the major movements of our time, whether it’s climate change or gun violence, is predominantly led by the youth.
You’re right, and no one is ever gonna completely agree on issues like that. But what older people miss — we’re young as fuck! These kids are literally changing the world at such a young age; why can’t we change the world, and learn from those people and try to add to what they’re doing? I want to do that, but on a musical side.
“Crash Test Kid”, to me, is one of the best examples of the message you’re trying to get across on the album. Can you walk me through what the song is about?
I would love to be one of those artists that’s like “I don’t want to tell you the meaning because you can figure it out.” I remember the very start of the song, when Iain was talking about my dad who grew up in a very low-income area, having to do super fucked up shit to survive, and it started with that kind of pain that people go through. But now, my dad and I can go to place and I’ll hear him say “I didn’t go through ANYTHING compared to what’s happening now.” And the song, for me, is about how everybody shares that same pain — that pain of being put down and not believed, and not even acknowledged. That’s where the line “We are all crash test kids” comes in at the end; we’re all going through shit, and we’ve gotta help each other out.