Interview: Cal Stamp

Cal Stamp

Recently I was able to catch up with singer-songwriter Cal Stamp (Record Heat / Spirit Animal) to discuss his recent EP entitled Nylon, his second EP called Denim, and how Stamp plans to close out the “trilogy” with Leather. In this interview, Cal Stamp discussed his unique musical upbringing, what motivates him as an artist, and he mentioned several of his core artist influences. Stamp’s Denim EP will be available wherever you stream your music on October 14th, and the latest single, “Don’t Make Me Wait!” was released on September 9th.

All right, thank you so much for your time today, Cal! Your solo music appears to be going on the right track. What do you love most about the freedom of making music by yourself now?

I should point out, first and foremost, that it’s never really by myself. I like the feeling of being in a band and being creative with other people. That’s an important part of the process for me. Every one of these songs was written with at least one other person – mainly producers I met during my time with Spirit Animal. I met Kevin Rudolf at a songwriting camp in Nicaragua. That’s where we wrote “American Wasteland.”

I met Ryan Petersen at a writing session set up by Spirit Animal’s old A&R at Atlantic Records, Pete Ganbarg. We wrote two of my favorite Spirit Animal tunes with Ryan – “Karma” and “Survival” – so naturally I wanted to work with him again. He ended up producing my whole record.

I met [former Click Five frontman] Kyle Patrick at Rockwood Music Hall during my first year living in New York. A decade later we wrote “Be My Girl” together. This is a long-winded way of saying that, as much as I do like having the final word, there’s always somebody standing next to me enduring my bullshit, and those guys deserve credit. 

Sweet! So what was your musical upbringing like and what made you want to become a musician?

I grew up in one of those families where there was always music in the background. Every second of every day there was music on the stereo. My dad would play his guitar and sing and have his buddies over to jam in the living room. My mom played classical piano and cello and she would sit in the piano room and play for hours. My brother and sister and I each endured years of private piano lessons. I resented those lessons back then, but I’m grateful now.

I understand that your current project is constructing the EPs in three different parts of NYLON, DENIM, of which I’ve already heard, and then LEATHER. So let’s talk a little bit about LEATHER. What type of rock influenced this set?

Oh, it’s all BDSM. <Laughter>

Oh, really? <Laughter> That would be interesting!

LEATHER is still my take on 1980s pop-rock, but it has bigger, dirtier guitars and it draws more from Bon Jovi and Thin Lizzy than John Mellencamp or Bruce Springsteen. There were some great rock ‘n’ roll choruses in the 1980s and I grew up hearing a lot of them on the radio. Think Journey, Bryan Adams, Rick Springfield – anyone with hairspray.

Yeah, and I saw on a recent setlist that you posted on Instagram that you covered a Tom Petty track. I think it was “You Got Lucky.” I wish I could get to hear that live! But how is the reception to live material going so far?

It’s been great! I write songs that are pretty easy to learn. There’s enough repetition, and the concepts are distilled down to a point where, by around chorus two, you pretty much know the words. That works to my advantage in the live context. If they know the chorus, you’re coming out ahead.

Sidenote: I actually have an in-studio acoustic performance of that “You Got Lucky” cover on YouTube. It’s one my dad used to do with his buddies. That’s probably how it ended up in my set. Can’t discount the impact of being nine years old and watching your dad and his friends play Tom Petty in the living room.

I wrote the review for NYLON and it remains heavily in my summer playlist rotation. Did you make it a goal of yours to have that same type of vibe to it?

Well, one of my core songwriting tenets is that every chorus should feel like a burst of sunshine hitting you in the face (see: NYLON EP cover). That obviously lends itself to a summery sound.

That’s cool. So you’ve mentioned artists like The 1975, John Mayer, and The Killers as big influences for you. So what will be an artist that people may be surprised you follow, or admire?

The first artist that comes to mind is Kanye. I think he’s probably the most important pop act in the last decade or two. For all his troubles, he’s still pretty brilliant.

I opened up for the band America last weekend and, at the gig, my guitarist and I were talking about Kanye’s use of homonyms. I do it in “Hey Amy” with the line, “Sixteen, with the wind at her back/She put the top down and pulled her hair back.” I don’t know if I would have gone there had Kanye not given permission by example!

<Laughter> What went into the song “Run Right Back To Me,” on DENIM? It starts out acoustically in the verses and then a hard-nosed electric guitar approach on the choruses. So can you walk me through the songwriting on that one?

The whole song is about being in denial. It’s the “unreliable narrator” thing. I wrote the melody way up at the top of my vocal range because I wanted to add an element of desperation to the delivery. The protagonist keeps insisting that this woman who left him is coming back, but to us in the audience, it’s very clear she isn’t. Like in the chorus when I sing, “She said, ‘See ya later’/So I know I’ll see her later,” we all know he’s deluded.

I also like to sneak old song titles into my lyrics – little Easter eggs that allude to stuff that influenced me. I actually doubled up in the chorus to “Run Right Back to Me” with the line, “Like a bat outta hell/She was born to run.” I mean, Springsteen and Meatloaf? Let’s go!

Musically, though, Petty was probably the biggest influence on that tune – him and ELO’s Jeff Lynne, who produced Petty’s Full Moon Fever and Into The Great Wide Open. We wanted to get that same shimmery acoustic jangle where the guitars are so bright they almost function like a hi-hat. Then under that are those warm synth pads and sharp, palm-muted electric guitars you mentioned. All of that comes from the Petty/Lynne records.

We actually wrote “Run Right Back” a couple days before Tom Petty died. He was my songwriting hero, so I was pretty devastated by his passing. I was a little surprised by the intensity of my own reaction. I didn’t expect to feel grief, but his music was very important to me.

Yeah, and that just shows the power of music in general. So I’m glad you’re a part of that picture of the puzzle of what people continue to go back to look for. Not only the past music that people are influenced by, but also the music that people continue to want to write about. The last question I have for you  is are there any dream producers you would like to work with? And the second part of the question is what would be a “dream touring outfit” you’d like to pair up with other bands for?

Well, it was a dream working with Ryan Petersen, so I’d always be happy and enthusiastic to work with him again. And I’m sure I will. He’s become one of my best friends, really, through the pandemic. We started talking everyday on the phone, working on the project, so we got very close. Outside of that, Blake Mills would be rad. He produced a couple of my favorites from the last decade, including records from Dawes and John Legend. I would love to work with Martin Johnson based on the stylistic parallels between my record and the Night Game stuff. And Butch Walker has a classic cool about him that I think would work great with the songs I write. 

And as far as the dream touring package? The Killers, The 1975, John Mayer – I think any of those bands you mentioned earlier would be a great fit. The Night Game, too. I really dig Muna. What about you? What do you think?

I think a band that has been around for a while in the indie rock scene, like The Strokes would be huge for you if you’ve ever got on a stadium tour like that. But even a band, like the 1975, The Killers, or John Mayer would be perfect for you showcasing your talents, which I think you have a lot of.

Thank you! I truly appreciate that. It’d also be great to go out with The Struts again. Spirit Animal did a bunch of dates with them. I’d love to go back out and do it again with the solo act since we both do a retro rock thing. 

Yeah, they got signed to Taylor Swift’s former label.

It’s always good to see friends succeed. I mean, they were already succeeding, but the bigger, the better.

Any last words for fans to look out for, like the triple EP?

“Don’t Make Me Wait!” comes out September 9th, then the DENIM EP drops October 14th. So keep an eye out for those. And I’ll be setting up a run of dates for the fall – East Coast, Nashville, maybe something in LA.

If you come near DC or Baltimore, count me in!

I’ll definitely be coming back to DC, because as I believe you know, I grew up down in the DC suburbs, so that’s a home base for me.

That’s awesome! Well, thanks so much for your time today, Cal! 

Awesome, dude. Thank you, I appreciate it!