Today we’d like to introduce you to Sam Barsh.
Sam, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
My musical journey began when I wrote my first song at the age of two while getting my diaper changed. It was called “Grouches Need a Friend.” Not a chart-topping smash, but enough to encourage my parents to put me in piano lessons. I took classical and general piano lessons from age four to 11, then I switched to a jazz teacher, which is when I really started to get inspired.
My parents liked the fact that I was passionate about something, but didn’t really want me to go into a career in the arts. However, I got really serious about jazz in my junior and senior year of high school, practicing three-six hours a day. I won a couple of national awards and was selected the Grammy National High School Jazz Combo, which solidified to me and my folks that pursuing a music career was at least worth a shot.
I attended William Paterson University in New Jersey, just west of New York City, and immersed myself in the New York jazz scene. By the time I graduated I was working full-time as a jazz musician in NYC, crazy as that sounds. Soon after graduating, I joined the bassist Avishai Cohen’s new trio, with which I toured the world for three years and made three records and a live DVD.
During that time, I got very interested in pop, hip hop, and R&B music, and began writing songs and producing demos. After I left Avishai’s band, I spent a couple of years trying to start a solo career in the jazz world. However, after doing a studio album and a small amount of touring, I realized that my passion at that time really lied in songwriting and production.
Throughout that same period, I began spending most of my free time working on tracks with my production partner at the time. We actually lost our first batch of tracks due to a failed hard drive, but once we got going again, we spent a year getting a 10-song demo recorded, with fully produced, mixed and mastered tracks.
Once I had some songs to actually play for people, I was able to transition some of my contacts from the live music world into production work. During the summer of 2008, I produced three full albums for different artists. Asides from “The Years,” (a collaboration I did with Vosotros and a bunch of amazing LA musicians) getting some good reviews, none of the projects really went anywhere.
Desiring my own outlet, where I didn’t have to rely on the artists I produced to promote the music and their careers, I joined forces with Jesse Palter to create our duo Palter Ego. We wrote and produced an EP, and began pursuing the group as our primary focus.
However, not living in the same city (she was in Detroit and Chicago, I was in Brooklyn), we realized that to take the project to the next level we would have live in the same place. We visited LA for a month in the spring of 2010 and decided that it was where we wanted to be based.
I came to LA in the summer of 2011, and for two years Palter Ego performed all over LA and did some minor touring, made a series of videos, and released a full-length album and a mixtape of covers. However, we got to the point where we had hit a wall businesswise, and without the financial stability of paying for a PR campaign or to drop everything for grassroots touring, we chose to focus on other things that were starting to go well for us individually.
Shortly after I moved to Los Angeles, I reconnected with Daniel Seeff, a bassist, and songwriter, who told me that the established producer DJ Khalil was looking to collaborate with someone who had a jazz background and was also a skilled songwriter. Seeff connected us, and after Khalil’s new studio opened in late 2012, I began working with them on a regular basis.
The first major project we worked on together was Aloe Blacc’s album “Lift Your Spirit,” for which the 3 of us and Aloe co-wrote the worldwide smash “The Man.” After the release and success of that song, a lot more songwriting opportunities opened up, and I began renting my own room at Khalil’s studio. Over the past five years, we’ve worked on tons of projects together in the hip-hop, pop and r&b worlds, many which have thankfully been successful.
Also after “The Man” was released I reconnected with Rahki, a producer I had met when I first came to town, and he brought me in on the Kendrick Lamar project he was working on. We ended up collaborating on two songs on “To Pimp A Butterfly, ” an album which made a massive impact on the culture and garnered three Grammys for our work.
Today I am still based at Khalil’s studio, where we have five rooms and different producers working together and on individual projects. I’m usually in the studio five days a week, juggling a number of production projects, writing with Khalil and Seeff, and maintaining a fairly active live performance schedule in the jazz world.
Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Ha, it definitely has not been a smooth road! Any artist who has had a smooth road just hasn’t hit their first speedbump yet. First of all, I’ve chosen to move to the two most competitive cities for being a music professional in the US (and arguably the world), New York and LA, which is inherently a rocky road.
Breaking into the jazz scene in NYC is super tough. You have to put up with getting “vibed” a lot (people ignoring or acting superior to you at gigs and at jam sessions), not getting any calls for gigs, making very little money, and having to get around the city with your equipment on trains and buses. Even once you’re established, its a road that is both full of rewards and extreme resistance at the same time.
However, getting through that really improved my confidence and gave me extremely “thick skin” that has served me well in the years since. Also, when I stopped working with Avishai and began focusing on production, I was still making a living playing live gigs, but I really had to shift my mentality away from measuring my career worth by what “jazz names” I was working with towards developing my studio and songwriting skills for the long haul.
This was very difficult for me since for years I had set up my entire network by going to jazz shows, jam sessions, and working on that scene. Separating from that was one of the biggest and most difficult transitions I’ve made in my career. Plus, I was going from being established in one genre of music to the bottom of the barrel in another.
I also often tell people that I have been fired, or intentionally not re-hired, almost every time I did a gig in a new genre. My first professional gig with a jazz vocalist, my first corporate wedding gig, my first pop-rock band gig, my first out-of-town gig with a touring act, all resulted in me being told I didn’t do a good enough job.
However, after recovering from the ego damage, all those experiences inspired me to get my shit together, and now I’ve performed at the highest level in all of those genres, with some of the biggest artists in the world.
We’d love to hear more about what you do.
Though I recently started my company, I’ve treated my freelance career as a business since I started out. Sam Barsh Productions LLC is just an official entity representing all that I do musically, but specifically focuses on my production career and contracting live performances, where I have to invoice clients, write proposals and pay out musicians and engineers.
Though my biggest records have come primarily from being a songwriter and keyboardist, my profile as a producer has grown to the point that I am busy with a full slate of work ranging from major artist projects, acts newly signed to label deals, and up-and-coming independent artists. I also just produced a full-length album in conjunction with the Skirball Center’s exhibit on Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which has a cast of incredible guest artists and will be released soon.
The things I am most known for in the studio world are the Kendrick Lamar, Anderson Paak, Aloe Blacc and Logic records, on all of which I was both a songwriter and a keyboardist. In the jazz world, I’m most known for my years in Avishai Cohen’s trio, specifically the Live at the Blue Note DVD we made in 2006.
Do you look back particularly fondly on any memories from childhood?
Playing my first show in downtown Chicago with my junior high jazz band, and playing my first professional gig at Hackney’s on Harms in Glenview, IL.
- Website: www.sambarsh.com
- Email: email@example.com
- Instagram: @sambarsh
- Twitter: @sambarsh
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