Interview: Sam Palladio

Sam Palladio
Sam Palladio

Sam Palladio: “There have not been many jobs in my acting career that haven’t had a musical element.”

The Cornish songwriter opens up on his journey from his theatre education to ‘Nashville’ stardom and his upcoming debut album

Whether during college and university, or roles in theatre, television and movies, music and acting have always gone hand in hand for Sam Palladio. The apotheosis of that union came in 2012 when he was cast in the role of Gunnar Scott in the ABC musical drama Nashville. As well as a starring role on a hit TV series, relocating to Tennessee also provided Palladio with the opportunity to work with some of Music City’s finest songwriters and musicians.

Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before the Cornish star began working on material for his solo career, often collaborating with the writing community that helped make Nashville such a believable proposition. Over a decade since his move, Palladio is now ready to release his debut album later this year. Navigating genres like Americana and Britpop, the record also draws inspiration from the profound loss of his mother in November 2018.

The recent Nashville reunion tour served as a platform to road-test some of the upcoming material, reaffirming Palladio’s connection with fans eager to experience his music. Shortly after its conclusion we spoke with him about the journey that’s led to his first solo record, the album’s poignant debut single Something On My Mind, and what else to expect from him in 2024…

Read our interview with Sam’s Nashville co-star Charles Esten

Do you see Nashville as home these days?

“I do. I’ve been here eleven years, it’s mad. In 2012 I moved out to shoot the pilot of this TV show [Nashville]. It spiralled into this long job, which was amazing. By that point, you live somewhere for six years and you get a feel for the town and start to love it. It’s been home ever since.

“I’d never been to the States and got that lucky, one in a million, audition from my little bedroom in London. It turned into this amazing chapter in my life. I’d always wanted to live in the States at some point. I didn’t know anything about Nashville. I loved Americana and 70s folk and stuff, but didn’t know a thing about country music. So I went in blind, and then it was like, ‘This place is awesome!’”

Who were your big musical influences growing up?

“It was really, really broad, which was a great thing. I was very influenced by what my parents listened to. My dad always had his finger on the pulse of what was new and we’d watch Jools Holland together. He’d always be coming in like, ‘I think you should listen to this band called Muse,’ or, ‘I found this band called Biffy Clyro that I think you’re gonna really like.’ And I’d be like, ‘Dad, I’m not interested!’ Then every recommendation became a favourite band.

“For Cornish, teenage Sam, with long hair down to my shoulders and a beanie and flared jeans, it was rock bands to start with. It was early 2000s rock; so it was Incubus, Rage Against The Machine, System of a Down… all that great teenage angsty stuff.”

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Were you already playing music at that point?

“I grew up playing guitar as a kid and then had bass lessons and played drums. I went to college in Truro and did performance and music A level, and drama and photography; lots of arts swirling around. It started there and then, once I’d gone to drama school, I did this rock and roll musical called Dreamboats And Petticoats that was a 50s jukebox musical full of Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison. It was this whole other world that I hadn’t really been exposed to of this classic, amazing songwriting.

“Prior to that, my first job out of drama school was a Barry Manilow musical with like 40 Barry Manilow songs. I had to learn every song and learn every instrument. So those two theatre jobs turned into a really good music education like, ‘Wow, these Barry Manilow songs are incredibly crafted pop songs.’ I started learning chord shapes that I’d never been around and then that flowed into the 50s stuff.

“Then in my 20s, I had my 70s folk, James Taylor and Neil Young penny drop. So it started rocky, and I still love that, then ended in the Americana world via 50s rock and roll and Barry Manilow, making my music taste very eclectic.”

Sam Palladio

Sam Palladio: “I didn’t know anything about co-writing and I thought all artists wrote their own songs.”

Were you in bands and writing songs throughout your childhood and teens or did that come later?

“I’ve been in bands from as far as I can remember. The first band was called Tripwire. That was all very grungy, Nirvana meets Rage Against The Machine. We thought we were going to be superstars. I remember one of the conversations, we were probably all 16 and having an after-school band practice, and our guitarist had decided that he wanted to go to university and study chemistry and we’re like, ‘Dude, what the hell? You’re an idiot, what are you talking about?’

“Then I had a band called Liquid Sister and then one called The Vitesse at college. That was always a cool one. Then, moving to London and doing the acting thing and the West End, I started writing my own songs. I had The Sam Palladio Trio for a couple of years. Then it was me acoustically doing a sort of Mumford & Sons/Americana/folk/Britpop thing, to very little success. Just in between all the theatre stuff I was doing. I’d finish at the West End show at 11pm and then would play some midnight gigs. It was all good prep for moving to Nashville.”

In terms of your career, was acting always the priority or just the way the cards were dealt?

“I went to Rose Bruford College, which is in Sidcup. It’s one of the top five drama schools, but they did this amazing Actor Musicianship degree. So it was merging the two disciplines; it wasn’t a music degree, it wasn’t an acting degree, it was somewhere in the middle. I loved both but music has always been the calling and the thing where I feel I can connect with myself a lot more.

“It was weird because I never made a choice. I suppose not making a choice was a choice, but it meant that every acting job I did had a musical element. I always had a guitar. At theatre school, while doing Shakespeare, I was writing a score for a Tennessee Williams play… everything involved music. After graduating, there have not been many jobs in my acting career that haven’t had a musical element.

“I always wanted to get towards where we are now; making a record, really trying to give the music the time it deserves. I was always distracted by these amazing acting gigs. Nashville was the perfect hybrid. I could not get a better acting/music job. I was in Music City working with T Bone Burnett and these incredible songwriters and producers, singing with Elton John. But music has always had my heart. I’m not one of those actors who knows all the classic films, like, ‘Have you seen this 1932 film?’ I don’t know shit about that. I know a lot more about the music world.”

When you were working with people like T Bone Burnett and some of the incredible songwriters from the show, did you have to separate your role and your own music, or were you able to study them with your own songwriting in mind?

“100 percent. I loved playing Gunnar on the show, but he was pretty much Sam with an American accent. So there wasn’t this separation of, ‘I’m going to work.’ It didn’t feel like work, it felt like an education. I’d learn my lines and I’d know what story I’m telling: he sleeps with this girl, he fucks up here, he plays a bad note at this rehearsal… ‘Okay, that’s my story this week.’ For me, the cool part was, on Monday morning I got to go in with T Bone and Colin [Linden] and there’s this beautiful song from John Paul White that we’re working on.

“Colin Linden was our amazing performance coach and guitar teacher. So I’d be like, ‘What tuning is this in?’ and he’d be like, ‘This is DADGAD,’ or, ‘Oh, what’s that?’ and he’d teach me how to do the Nashville fingerpicking style. We did that for six years. Basically ten months of the year for six years was purely music and singing and learning songs. It would be, ‘You’ve got to be in the studio in two days, learn this song and learn the guitar part.’”

It sounds quite intense…

“Off-camera was a lot of work, but it did always feed the musician version of Sam. That led to me trying to figure out like, ‘Oh, who wrote this song? Okay, it’s this guy Matthew Perryman Jones. Oh, let me look up him. Fuck, he’s amazing, I’ll give him a call.’ So I ended up cherry-picking the best people to work with together. I was always doing that, so off-set on the weekend like, ‘Do you want to write a song?’

“I hadn’t really done much of that in England. I didn’t know anything about co-writing and I thought all artists wrote their own songs. That’s how naive I was. It was like, ‘Oh, so there’s lots of songwriters on one song. Interesting.’ I realised I don’t need to try and chip away at this one thing I’ve been working on for six months that I can’t crack, I can bring someone else in and it gets done really fast.

“It was constant learning and I think that’s what made those first few years here so special. Music City is awesome, everybody’s creative, very down-to-earth, accessible and open. You wouldn’t find that in London…I suppose you could, but it was on the doorstep here.”

Sam Palladio

Sam Palladio: “I really needed to go back to England and write.”

It does feel like the co-writing scene here in the UK is harder to break into…

“Especially in the pop world, co-writing is quite a club. If you’re not signed to some big publishing deal, maybe they don’t have time to let you in. Over here, if you get on with somebody, it’s like, ‘Yeah, we’ll throw you in this write in two weeks.’”

Is there a particular song from the show that means a lot to you and led you in the direction of certain songwriters?

“There were 350 songs on the show. I didn’t sing on them all but it was amazing for the songwriting community. I had this song called Can’t Get It Right, which is a season two song, it was written by Matthew Perryman Jones and Lily Costner, Kevin Costner’s daughter. That was one that drew me to Matthew’s catalogue of music and then I realised that these songs weren’t just churned out in the back of corporate headquarters. These were real songs.

“A lot of time the songs were written for the show, or were songs that the artists hadn’t cut themselves yet. So they were very new. But it led back to their catalogues. I did a lot of writing with Trent Dabbs in that first couple of years as well. He wrote a song called Shine that was beautiful.

Any others?

“I need to touch on Striking Matches. They’re an amazing songwriting duo, Sarah [Zimmerman] and Justin [Davis]. They’re incredible. They were responsible for, I think, eight to ten of the songs in that first couple of seasons, if not more. There was a song called When The Right One Comes Along. They became dear friends after and that was the classic moment like, ‘This is an amazing song. Who are these guys?’ We went for coffee and then I’ve been writing with them and they’ve been dear friends ever since. They’re all over my record.”

Let’s talk about your record. Have you been working on material for it over the last decade?

“I guess so. It started when I moved to Nashville. I’ve always been working towards it, trying to get a group of songs together that felt right. Over the time here, I’ve written so much. There was a big catalogue of stuff that I kept adding to as I got better. I turned up writing songs from the heart, but from a place of ignorance in terms of not knowing too much about the art of song-crafting, just going, ‘Here’s some stuff I’ve written.’ It wasn’t too bad, but it needed a bit of tidying up. I needed to learn a little bit more about structure and chorus and hooks.

“I cut an EP in 2017. I was thinking, ‘Now I can launch my music career,’ as the show was about to finish. Then it was like, ‘Oh, you’ve got one more season, you’re going back to work for another year.’ In that time, I wrote some more songs that beat out a couple of those earlier ones. So it’s all been holding and pausing until I knew I had some free time to try and launch this thing.”

What happened next?

“When the show finished at the end of 2018, I then had the realisation that the songs I’d been adding to this pile were fine, but I really needed to go back to England and write. That was the real realisation of, ‘I think I now know who I am as a person and as an artist.’ Maybe I hadn’t cracked who exactly that was but the thought was, ‘I need to go back to my roots.’ So take this Americana world I’d lived in for so many years and then work with some top British songwriters and try and find the Cornish guy who left, had this amazing time in The States, but is quintessentially British, identifies as a British artist, and then sprinkle in some Nashville.”

And you were able to do that at that point?

“The massive turning point in my life and in this chapter was losing my mum in November 2018. That happened and everything kind of stopped. The show had come to an end, so I took that year off, other than a couple of projects. Then in 2019, I started to go, ‘Right, let’s see if I can put into words what I’m feeling,’ which was clearly just missing my mother and being heartbroken. So it was, ‘Right, let’s go and write the songs in the UK and pull from this thing.’ And that started with Ed Harcourt.

“I’d had a management team for five or six months who had put together a load of sessions. Ed was that first session actually. It was interesting because I’d never written with anybody with clout in the UK and got to sit down with someone like Ed who’s a bit of a mad scientist, a beautiful lyricist, and melody just kind of flows out of him.

“He’s an incredible pianist to start with. I’d just been used to everybody having a little guitar, three chords, chug, chug, chug…. Then Ed sits down and starts playing some Mozart or something and chord changes that felt very Beatles and Bowie and timeless. I just started explaining what happened and that led to that first song.”

That song being Something On My Mind. What can you tell us about the writing process?

“It did kind of pour out, honestly. I knew the second Ed started playing some chords that this guy was a special writer. I’d turned up with that chorus lyric, ‘There’s something on my mind that haunts me every night / perfect summer’s day, before we lost the light.’ That has been a real guiding lyric for this whole record and that whole chorus is kind of the trajectory of where I am, and where I want to be and what comes from that.

“I do remember feeling comfortable to share some of those feelings, which at that time was a lot of sadness, anger and frustration… questioning things. He’s not afraid to push a lyric to a place that’s a little off the wall, or a little deeper. He writes in poetry, and I’d always tried, but definitely felt encouraged to explore that. This song became pretty poetic, pretty metaphorical and felt really special.”

Was it one that came together quickly?

“We cut a demo, I think it took us two days to write. I remember breaking down, trying to sing the scratch vocal, having to stop for a bit and him being really comforting. So it was almost like a therapy session as well. That made me think, ‘If this lyric makes me go to a place that’s vulnerable, and hard to access, and lets emotion flow, we’re on to something that’s going to make somebody feel something.’ Ultimately that’s all I want to do, connect with people.

“I’ve had so many beautiful messages about people losing family members and loved ones. It’s been overwhelming in a beautiful way, so many people have reached out already, saying how it’s helped them. I had one woman reach out and say that she’d seen me play this song for the first time on the Nashville tour a few weeks ago, before it came out. She’d lost her auntie a few months before and hadn’t been able to think about it. She said, ‘Your song allowed me to start the grieving process.’ Those little victories are all I’m after.”

We also want to discuss the Beatles-y production of the song, with the brass and woodwind. Was that something you heard in your head or the work of your producer?

“That came through working with my producer Søren Hansen; we did the whole record together. He’s a Danish producer who lives here in Nashville. He was in this amazing indie-rock band called New Politics, he’s also a little bit like Ed Harcourt in terms of being an incredible singer and amazing musician, also a genius production engineer guy. I went to see him play a show at The High Watt in Nashville just prior to the pandemic and he blew me away.

“It was his first solo show after the band and he told a story about losing his mum, and played this incredible song that he dedicated to her. It turned out that our mums had both passed within two weeks of each other. That had been very much on my mind. I think both being European, both being a little bit outside the Americana/Nashville world, it felt nice to find somebody who wasn’t American who could step into the European thing.

“He loves The Beatles and had a music education in what a lot of us might have had in the UK through our parents and through the music culture of the UK being different to the music culture of Grand Ole Opry and Southern rock.”

Sam Palladio

Sam Palladio: “Ultimately that’s all I want to do, connect with people.”

And that influenced the orchestration?

“So yes, the orchestration came from the two of us, me really trying to lean into a British-sounding project. I’m proud of that. I’ve played characters my whole life. I’ve been the actor. Yes, everybody thinks I’m a country star, but I’m not. That was a character and I’m thankful for those songs. For years I’d had people say, ‘Sam, you’re on the biggest TV show in the world. If you want to be a country star, we can make a country star.’ I could have, but it doesn’t feel like me.

“But particularly on Something On My Mind, that orchestration came from Ed and the piano. I love brass, and I love horns, and I wanted to bring that in. I wanted to start this song with almost a fanfare, almost a funeral procession/celebration of life. We found this guy in Italy called Trombone Hero. We found him on Fiverr; he’s got great ratings and sounds amazing, so we sent him these parts and he sent back this great trombone intro.”

Would you say that the song is a fair representation of the album as a whole?

“It’s definitely a much larger puzzle. The album is alternative and it allows us to lean left and right because I’ve never said, ‘I’m a country guy,’ or, ‘I’m a rock star.’ The influences fluctuate. So it’s sort of genre-fluid.

Something On My Mind is a great way to start and that’s why I wanted to put this song out first, because it was so personal. It didn’t have that, ‘This is my smash hit TikTok song,’ it was just like, ‘Here’s a song that really opens up the conversation for me as an artist,’ and it allows me to be able to be truthful and honest for a minute.

“The rest of the record…. I worked with Jonny Lattimer in the UK and there’s a big song called Meanwhile In London that he was involved in. Nick Hodgson from Kaiser Chiefs, we wrote a couple of things. So it’s got some definite modern Britpop bangers as well. Lots of horns across it, so it all feels connected. Chris Shiflett from Foo Fighters is on the album. We’ve got another special guest on the album that I can’t tell you about yet. I’ve got a couple of heroes on this debut record, which is really cool.”

It sounds like the songs run the full gamut of all the things we’ve been talking about.

“Definitely, you know, it gets a little rocking in there, for sure. And then I finished the record with a song called Wake Me Up In Nashville, which is the first song I wrote, about my grandpa. It’s a very personal storyteller tune, done in a kind of Simon Garfunkel The Boxer sort of world. I think when you connect the locations of where we recorded everything, the musicians, the overarching production from Søren, it all feels cohesive.”

We can’t wait to hear it, when should we expect it?

“We don’t have a date for the record. This is really the start of a clean-slate career beginning. I’ve definitely got a leg up but we’re starting with this and we’re going to at least have another two or three singles at the top of the year. I would hope the record will be summertime, that’s a rough timeline.”

And will fans get to see you live in 2024?

“When we announce the record, we’ll put out a little headline tour. There are a couple of opportunities that might come along for opening shows. Having just come off the Nashville tour in the UK, that was incredible. The fans are all music fans, as well, which is great. They come to see the music, which is the star of that show.

“I’m fortunate that there’s a huge fan base. We were playing to 5,000 people a night. I think we played to 35,000 people over eight days or something, and they’re really supportive of the new music. I got to play three songs from the new record in that show, so I’m anxious to keep the momentum and make the UK a real focus.”

Something On My Mind by Sam Palladio is out now. For news of his upcoming album and tour, keep an eye on sampalladio.co.uk



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