Montreal-based alternative rock group Sam Roberts Band will release All of Us, their seventh full-length album, on October 16 – but as Sam Roberts himself tells it, this album had a more difficult genesis than any of his work that has come before. “I started writing almost three years ago for this record,” he says – but he soon ran into problems. “I had a form of writer’s block.”
Roberts says he usually writes the music part first, then the lyrics, so that’s how he approached these new songs, as well. “I wrote a lot of stuff without words and assumed that the words would find their way to the songs and fit in after the fact,” he says. “I was disappointed to find that that didn’t work this time. The music came out freely and easily and I thought that I was steps from the finish line quite a long time ago, but that proved not to be the case. I’m in the process of trying to figure out why.”
As Roberts theorizes, “I think part of it was because I knew that I had to write a certain kind of record, and that record was going to include looking perhaps more deeply into my own life than I had before,” he says. “Rather than telling stories and expressing feelings or ideas through other people and characters, I was going to be talking about myself more. Nothing rang true until I started telling the story that I guess I was supposed to be telling. I think part of it just had to do with the reluctance to be more autobiographical.”
Until Roberts truly accepted that this was the way his lyrics needed to be this time, though, he had to go through some major frustration. “I scrapped the record like three times, which I’ve never done before,” he says, then reconsiders. “‘Scrapping it’ sounds like such a violent term. Pull the thing to pieces. It wasn’t like that. The music was still speaking to me.”
Roberts persisted until he finally got it right, resulting in the heartfelt and introspective lyrics in All of Us. As for why he kept working at it, even though it seemed so difficult for so long, he says simply, “It’s not the sort of thing you can just let go of at the first sign of trouble.
“I do feel like there is a discipline to it,” Roberts continues, “and that’s something that I think we [songwriters] shy away from talking about because we don’t want to dispel the magic that exists about how music is made. I’m taking the opposite view of it now. You work hard at it. That’s when it comes out the strongest, as well.”
Roberts has certainly proven that he knows what it takes to successfully write songs, though. Starting with a debut EP, The Inhuman Condition, in 2002, Roberts (along with his band) has gone on to become one of the most successful acts in Canada, earning platinum and gold sales for their albums. The band have won six Juno awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Grammy award), including winning the “Artist of the Year” category in both 2004 and 2009.
Even with that level of success, Roberts remains a realist when it comes to his career, however. “Aside from having it permanently tagged to your resume, the reality is as a songwriter, when the momentum of that award wears off, you are completely left to your own devices,” he says. “After you get that break, what do you do with the opportunity? How do you keep your foot firmly wedged in the door so it doesn’t close on you again? Your success or failure hinges on your creative decisions.”
Roberts pauses, then adds with a laugh, “It’s starting to sound like the scarred warrior holding on for dear life! Which is I guess kind of accurate. I don’t know, maybe that’s just exactly what it is.”
Being a professional musician, with all its ups and downs, is a career that Roberts began training for when he was very young – he was only three years old when his parents enrolled him in violin lessons. By the time he was a teenager, he had become interested in rock music and started a band with his friends.
“I think we knew that the songs we were writing weren’t particularly good, but there was enough in them to encourage us to keep going,” Roberts says of his earliest bands. Still, he kept working at it, encouraged by discovering how exhilarating performing can be. “It’s an indescribable feeling, your first time up on stage. It still is, for that matter,” he says.
Now, with All of Us finally ready for release, Roberts is again showing how persistence pays off – even if it means releasing an album in the middle of a pandemic. “It’s a funny: what if I finished writing a year ago, and we put the record out last fall? It would have been a completely different set of circumstances,” he says. “We would have gone on a tour. But it wouldn’t have been the right record. So what’s more important? Being able to go out on tour and tick off all the boxes of a successful record release? Or making the right record and having that live for much longer than the current predicament you find yourself in? I would definitely choose the latter option.
“So the record landed in this strange cosmic meltdown of a situation,” Roberts continues with a laugh, “but it was the only time and way that this record was going to become when it became. So we’ll deal with the bumps and the bruises and the uncertainty. Like everyone else out there is having to do. We’re all redefining how to go about things.” So, as the album title suggests, All of Us is perhaps less autobiographical and more universal than Roberts realized.