Sam Austins: outspoken R&B star spearheading Detroit’s musical renaissance
Sam Austins makes music in the service of one thing: a desire to communicate. Creating immersive and genre-fluid sonic worlds as conduits for his stories about growing up between the Michigan suburbs and the roaring city of Detroit, Austins’ music buzzes with a propulsive energy and has been described by Pusha T as “a mix between ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ and Prince”.
“There’s validation in hearing that feedback; in being seen by my peers and knowing that our goals are aligned,” the Detroit-born, Los Angeles-based artist tells NME about that particular shout-out, before recalling a formative experience seeing Pusha’s long-term collaborator Kanye West perform live in 2013. “I went to a ‘Yeezus’ concert in Detroit and stood very close to Kanye as he rose up to the sky. Seeing that show changed my perspective on what musicians can do with their vision and craft: it’s so much more than just putting out a song. These artists build out whole worlds, create [a] language. I want [to have] the ability to speak to people in that way.”
Austins doesn’t recall the singular moment when music came into his life – after all, it’s always been in his blood. Born into the Motown legacy through his musician father and uncle, he grew up playing the living room piano and tapping on his dad’s MPC console: “I was always in front of music. It was my safeguard from the chaos of the world outside.” Chaos also reigned over Austins’ experience in the deep suburbs of Southfield, MI, where, aged 13, he and his mother moved for a fresh start after his father abandoned them. Austins remembers Midwestern suburbia for the loneliness, ostracism and bullying he experienced: “I was singled out for being different. I looked weird. I loved sci-fi and graphic novels: I’ve always been infatuated with storytelling.”
Creating a wider artistic vision around his music – spanning album artwork, music videos and fashion – became a way to dive headfirst into the worldbuilding he so craved. And so emerged the concept for ‘HOMELESS STAR’, Austins’ 2021 debut mixtape which chronicled his struggle to survive in Detroit in the face of his family splintering and personal hardship. The title is quintessentially Sam Austins: a statement of unshakable self-belief that stems from reckoning with his difficult past and his conviction for a better future. The project takes conceptual and narrative inspiration from interstellar elements and Austins’ beloved Star Wars, but musically it is grounded in alt-pop and indie sensibilities. “But it still has a strong R&B flair which comes naturally from being from Detroit,” he adds.
Austins’ music lives and breathes Detroit. He fled there after falling out with his mother at the end of high school, sleeping on couches and in the back of his car until his aunt eventually took him in. The city, so often a battleground of crime and struggle (“I can feel all the noise outside,” he sings on ‘HOMELESS STAR’’s opening track ‘KILOS’ in reference to gunshots), became his sanctuary. “Detroit is in everything I do,” Austins tells NME. “It’s a breeding ground; a culture. The community is tight-knit: even when I’m not physically there, I’m one of ‘our’ artists. I do everything with the care of making sure it gives energy back to the city.”
Austins is now ushering in a new musical chapter with a project which, he says, is “being made from a new landing spot: it feels like we were in orbit before, and now we’ve arrived on Earth.” His careening new single ‘Matador’, produced by Rodaidh McDonald (The xx, David Byrne, Hot Chip), is a taste of what’s to come: “It’s stronger, louder and brasher. I think of the colours of my previous releases as muted blue and dark green. The new music is bombastic and high-octane – [it’s] bright orange, yellow, red. The songs are written to be performed live. I want my music to make people dance, scream, yell, mosh and love each other.”
During his first few years as a live performer in Detroit, Austins opened for the likes of Danny Brown, Vince Staples and Playboi Carti – shows that now “feel like part of my childhood”. Next month, Austins will head out on a North American tour with the fellow genre-defying Dora Jar, a venture that sprung up organically between the two internet friends. “I love everything about Dora – her art is amazing and she is an incredible person,” Austins says with a smile. “It’ll be so cool for audiences to see both of us doing our thing. I know the crowds are going to be beautiful human beings because they’re fans of Dora.”
From his ‘HOMELESS STAR’ beginnings to captioning his latest release with the message “HONEY, WE MADE IT”, Austins feels more ready than ever to invite people into his creative world, declaring: “I feel like I’m building the foundation to a skyscraper.”
Sam Austins’ new single ‘Matador’ is out now
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