What is the marker of a great musician? Is it the outsize energy he devotes to making music? The prodigious speed at which he composes it? The vastness of his catalog? Or the curiosity that shapes his aural explorations? In the case of next-wave soul singer Sam Dew (whose debut EP, Damn Sue, dropped in April), it is, remarkably, all of the above.
That fire—a surge of inventiveness and intuition—has always burned brightly in Dew, since his days in grade-school talent shows. A dexterous singer-songwriter, he’s attracted a wide swath of admirers with his vast range: collaborating with Wale (“LoveHate Thing”) at one moment and Skrillex (“Stranger”) at another, while also penning tracks for Rihanna and Mary J. Blige among others. “Soul has always been a part of the music I appreciate or understand,” explains Dew—a man of pliant, velvety vocals. “I never questioned what genre I would be as an artist. But I always knew that it was going to be about the layers: which layers to take away, which layers to add.”
These ambitions converge intriguingly in Damn Sue, produced by Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio, with whom Dew is currently on tour—boldly opening himself to new audiences. “Dave has an interesting palette to pull from: soul, punk, rock, blues,” Dew says, admiringly. “It just made sense for me to work with him.” At once eclectic and melodic, Damn Sue is as much a concept EP as it is a journey through Dew’s fertile headspace, from the glitch-hop of “Rewind” to the sweet, hymnal “Victor.”
To understand Dew’s genre-hopping instincts is to journey through his many artistic inspirations. It started around age seven, growing up in two Chicago households after his parents separated. “Musically, it was like going to different spaces. At my mom’s house, it would be Michael Jackson, Anita Baker, Teena Marie,” he says. “My dad was all about Bob Marley, Curtis Mayfield, Earth, Wind & Fire.” Dew was mesmerized by many incarnations soul could take. “And of course, I’m living on Chicago’s South Side, so that’s juxtaposed with Crucial Conflict,” he continues. “Outkast is coming out from Atlanta and Timbaland from Virginia—all this progressive music, messing with songs, textures, and attitudes.”
After college in Atlanta, Dew mingled those discoveries as frontman for Cloudeater, a mercurial indie-rock band with a large following that owed as much to hip hop as it did to art rock. The rapper Wale, a fan, reached out to him for a collaboration. “I was a little on edge at first,” Dew admits. “I was on my rock thing, trying to be the next Thom Yorke. Wale persevered, and Dew inched out of his comfort zone to guest on the rapper’s 2013 hit single ‘LoveHate Thing.’” Says Dew, “The song turned out great! It was very important for me to show Wale who I was, be as real as possible. He got that.”
As Cloudeater splintered, Dew began penning songs for Rita Ora, Jessie Ware, and countless others. “It was a chance meeting with Pharrell…to rethink the way he worked.” “He said I reminded him of himself back when he was in N.E.R.D.,” Dew says, bashfully. “He gave me amazing advice: that artists have a tendency to overthink their solo work. He basically said, ‘Don’t write all your hits for everyone else.’”
For the most authentic experience, Dew arrived at Sitek’s L.A. studio with a wealth of ideas, but nothing written. “I have a lot of references,” Dew continues, name-checking David Bowie as another influence. “But what spoke to me here was Bill Withers, and the simplicity of message.” Even at just six songs, Damn Sue achieved what few modern releases (much less soul albums) can: It’s a concept album that manages to be catchy.
The EP begins with the spacious, atmospheric “Desperately” and its opening lament, “You are cruel, you are unkind”—a portent of the emotional puzzle to come. Says Dew: “It’s about your loneliness and your desire to be with someone. Whether it’s best for you or not, you have to deal with that truth.” The actual Damn Sue is a fictional woman, a metaphor for flawed romance. “Air,” a chant-like admission of love that floats on an upbeat groove, is the kindred spirit to “Desperately.” It’s almost religious in its singularity, says Dew. “She’s the one who you hope to be with. It’s not even intentional. For your own sanity, you have to believe The One is out there.”
Damn Sue ends with the hushed “Victor,” which makes peace with life’s ebbs and flows. “I won’t suffer a loss, not another day,” he sings. It’s the EP’s most introspective track and perhaps—in context of the résumé of experiences that led him to this point—its most honest. “The human experience as I’ve been living it is not about getting answers in life, it’s about how gracefully do you deal with the fact that you may not ever get one,” he says. “In art, that can take the side of comedy or tragedy. I love how it teeters on both at any given time. For me, it’s about playing with that purgatory.”