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SG Lewis on 'times': His debut album and love letter to disco dancefloors

18 March 2021 | 5:30 pm | Emma Jones

With his long awaited debut album now out, SG Lewis invites us in to his love of dancefloors, disco and knowing where it comes from.

Samuel George Lewis, professionally known as SG Lewis, has been making music for years now. Inspired by formative experiences such as seeing Crystal Castles at Reading Festival when he was young to his first experiences dipping his toe into club culture, he has maintained a deep appreciation and fascination with dance music and the rich culture which surrounds it.

Having first made a name for himself in the mid-2010s with his hip-hop influenced electronic music, inspired by the likes of The Neptunes and the sounds on Majestic Casual, it was around this time he began to shift from bedroom Soundcloud producer to an artist with a steadily-solidifying artistic identity. In 2019, he released a three-part EP series which delved even further into that culture which inspired his very genesis titled Dusk Dark Dawn. The series detailed the experiences of what would be for many a perfect night out: the anticipation and excitement of the beginning of the evening with Dusk; the ecstasy and thrill of being in the club at its peak in Dark; and the step out into the sun and back into reality with Dawn. It was ambitious, but executed impressively, and again SG Lewis leveled up, shifting from alt circles to producer-in-demand. He's since gone onto work with Dua Lipa on Future Nostalgia highlight 'Hallucinate', Victoria Monet and Khalid on 'Experience', Aluna on 'Warrior' and more, and has almost systemically continued to collect more and more collaborators for his own music including Clairo and Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs.

In the period between 2019's three-part series and now, SG Lewis has hardly been taking a break. In fact, prior to the pandemic, Lewis was busy undertaking an even more ambitious project and became a student of the 1960s and 70s disco era. Having always had a fascination with that period and the music which stemmed from it, he began to research and learn about it as he embarked on his new record, times (out now via PMR/ Caroline Australia). Not intent on just making a disco-influenced record, SG Lewis instead opted to create a thoroughly disco record which at once paid tribute to the era itself while weaving in his own experiences of times on a dancefloor. Adding the likes of Nile Rogers for 'One More', rising star Lucky Daye for 'Feed The Fire', Australian darlings Lastings on 'All We Have', and actual icons Robyn and Channel Tres for one of 2020's best singles 'Impact' among other names to his lengthy list of collaborators, times began to take form as one of SG Lewis' most impressive, star-studded and fully-realised records yet. Not only that, but with the addition of his own vocals for the first time playing an integral part in some of the album's best moments including on 'Chemicals', it is also the most "Sam" an SG Lewis release has been as well.

To understand times, one is encouraged to have at least a formative understanding of the era SG Lewis is channeling. Disco is music for people of colour and queer people, and was first created by Black, Latino and queer American people in the 1906s. Spurred on from a need for shelter and to meet likeminded individuals in safe spaces - safe from the white, hetero mainstream clubs - disco was as much of a socio-political movement as it was a music genre. Rooted in the exploration of self-expression and the liberation that comes with that, disco was that safe place for many. It provided strength in identity and strength in numbers thanks to its enormous, global popularity, even despite attempts to destroy that in the 1970s with radio smear campaigns, violence and damage to property, and the infamous "Disco Demolition Night" where people literally burned disco records at a baseball game.

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By creating a record which harked back to an era where dancefloors and disco brought people together, SG Lewis didn't realise at the time of its creation he'd be releasing it into a world where that was gone for so many. He's very careful and adamant to ensure he is not attempting to pretend to have created these sounds, and instead ensures he continues to direct those who listen to times to those who have come before him (including regularly referencing Tim Lawrence's Love Saves The Day). While here in Australia, many cities have returned to packed dancefloors, other countries remain far from this reality.

times is many things: it's a tribute to the early disco era, a love letter to dancefloors Lewis and many others miss so terribly, a collection of songs with a star-studded collaborator list. It is also SG Lewis' finest effort to date, and a pivotal moment as he continues to become one of the world's most in-demand producers. Every single song is strong, it shows Lewis understanding his collaborators and what they need to be able to bring their best performances to each song, and also his own abilities to be able to bring the best out of himself too. It's a disco ball-lit kaleidoscope, a joyful escape and a temporary slice of dance-oriented bliss. While the times we're in right now might indeed be confusing, chaotic and disconnected, SG Lewis' times is a love letter to togetherness, to dance, to community and savouring the good times while they last.

times is such a great album. It must be such a strange thing because it's been in your life for quite a long time. Can you talk to me about looking back and how it was working on this album with artists like Nile Rogers and Robyn, but also locking down in your parents attic where you started making music? That must have been a really weird moment!

It was very strange and very full circle because I went about this album with some pretty heavy ambitions for it and managed to pull quite a few of them off in terms of lie getting these amazing people to collaborate with me. But then it was kind of literally at the moment where I needed to lock myself away and work on the production for like three four months, that was when the first lockdown hit. As much as the locked downs have been pretty tough and tough for everyone, I was able to use the time of the first one just to really focus in on the details and utilise that time to really hone in and finish the production. But it's really strange because, I'd been working on this thing that felt huge to me and I was really excited about it, and then I would go downstairs to have dinner with my family. It was a daily humbling!

Just got some unreleased Nile Rogers music upstairs, but Mom's still making dinner!

[Laughs] It was so strange because it was this thing of in the same day, it would feel like so much has changed and yet so much is still the same.

You've spoken about the celebratory message in the album and the slightly new meaning that it did take on when the pandemic hit. I wondered, when did you realise, there's something more here or there's something deeper here?

I think as I entered into the lockdown and into this kind of finishing process, there was more music than just the ten tracks you hear on the album and I think all the music I had in front of me fitting this ode to dance floors approach, and this concept the study of 1970s New York and the celebratory aspect that I've taken from that. But these ten tracks fit this narrative of time as a finite resource and this urgent reminder that you may never get the opportunity to experience these things again. Once this selection of tracks communicated this very specific message to what was going on currently, it was just really obvious to me which tracks should make the album and which shouldn't really.  It was as I was starting to finish these I was like, "Oh this is weirdly relevant to now," and the meaning of the album shifted in front of me. It was the reshuffling of the album and the tracks that were going to be included that definitely just underlined that message.

It's weirdly eerie because I know myself and so many of my friends and people that we talk to, we've all learned more about appreciating moments before they're gone and of almost preserving the time that we have because you don't know when it's going to change. It could change tomorrow, it could change tonight, you don't know! Do you think that that's a big part of your perspective changing as well?

I think there's this realisation that I think that, I wouldn't say that I ever took things for granted but I definitely always presumed that there was gonna be another festival, another opportunity to dance and celebrate, or another show. You just realise that the safety net of these ideologies is so thin. None of these things are guaranteed and there's no insurance that guarantees that these things are gonna be there tomorrow. It's definitely shifted for me personally. I think about the things that will come back slowly for us, you know. Right now we have we don't even have pubs or restaurants. There's definitely a conscious sort of learning for me that even when those things come back, I really want to make the effort to just try and appreciate those and be present. That undoubtedly leaks into the music.

You've said that it's about the history of disco and the seventies, and that you want to take what that history and that energy meant to you and reinterpret it for the time now. What does that history and energy mean to you now, and has that meaning changed for you since you did that initial deep dive into that era?

What it was that fascinated me about that era and the music and what was going on was that disco, as well as just a genre music, it was a kind of movement. The clubs provided a safe space for marginalised communities to come together with people from different walks of life and to celebrate their identities and to celebrate their lives. Disco music is gay, black music and these spaces provided safe spaces for celebration for those people to be themselves. That message of inclusivity and the fact that the music could serve as a soundtrack to something so important in my eyes that's kind of the message I wanted to to bring forward into my own music and into today. I think that message is still so relevant. While we've come a long way from the 70s, I think that it's still important that those safe spaces and those inclusive spaces are created and that message is reinforced. I thought if I could create music that could provide the soundtrack to those spaces in any way, shape or form, I thought that was a really beautiful thing for music to be able to do.

It is such a pivotal moment in musical history, in dance music history, in civil rights history. Did you ever feel intimidated or apprehensive to take those sounds and and bring them forward in your own way?

Of course. I think that I just had to approach it with a level of respect and making sure that I paid my dues along the way. The last thing I wanted to do was to be a visitor to the genre and try to claim that I had invented something or created something for the first time. I really made sure that I did my research and I learned about this music that I loved and that resonated with me. And then I have made sure, throughout the album campaign and with the messaging to fans and the interviews that I've been doing, to lead people that listen to this album back to what I learnt. If I'm able to learn these things through studying this era and to learn these amazing things about this music and the people that originated it then there's no reason that the people who discover that genre through me shouldn't be able to learn those things too. It's not even trying to just educate people purely out of "You should know this." This is amazing stuff! This journey started out of curiosity, and I just think that it's amazing stuff to read about. I think that, especially in dance music, the more we can learn about its past, the better we can move forward with it.

It's so crazy to me that there's people in dance music, in certain pockets of dance music or who appreciate dance music who will be homophobic. It's insane to me. The very roots of electronic music, you know, it's gay black music. You can't enjoy music and you can't like, you know experience those things if you don't respect and appreciate the people that originated it.

And literally created it!

That's just insane to me.

I totally hear you! Looking at the album, you said "Now for the first time I'm able to put my own experiences into lyrics and deliver them myself." Sam, that is huge! That is just amazing. Can you talk to me about the journey that you've been on to get to that point?

I've always written music and I've always written songs. I've always approached things from a songwriting aspect as opposed to a beats and instrumental approach. I love singing and I've always loved the kind of art form of singing but, it's kind of been a process of discovering myself as a singer. I think I spent so many years just in my brain going "Oh, but you're not a singer so it doesn't matter." I think I just watched enough interviews with people that I looked up to you know. I realised that Pharrell didn't think he was a singer for the longest time, and he would put his vocals on records for then other people to cut. 'Frontin' was meant to be for Prince, but then [Prince] didn't take it and people encouraged him to put it out. That just made me change my mindset and I was like, "Well, let's see if I can do this!" It's something I worked really hard on and I did enough of it to learn about how I can use my voice and the style of singing that suited me best. Then from there it kicked open this door of opportunity. Now I have my voice on my own records and it's like, well I can say what I want now! I now understand what it means when people [say] it's cathartic to write about things.

I desperately need to talk to you about 'Impact'. It is one of my favourite songs ever. I just remember when I heard it. I think I listened to four days straight, I just couldn't stop listening to it. I was reading about how it came together with Channel and Orlando (Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs), and then Robyn coming in at the end. Can you talk to me about the moment when you knew that Robyn was gonna join the track and what it was like creating this song was so many amazing artists on it?

The thing is I didn't let myself believe it until I literally saw it on Spotify. I'm a fan of Robyn and I know how selective she is. I've been the biggest Robyn fan so long, so there was always the voice in the back of my head that was like, this isn't definitely happening until it's out so I didn't want to get my hopes up. I remember dropping the teaser and people were just like, "WHAT??" I still feel that way. I'm lucky enough to like call her a friend now because we spent a lot of time on Zoom, still haven't met in person, but [we've been] talking about the record. She's incredible human but at the same time I'll never stop being huge fan of hers and just being in awe of her and her art. It's still a little bit surreal, I'll be honest. One of my my favourite things to do, and something I've really come to enjoy of the years, is getting to dream up these records with people that I'm huge fans of and just kind of join the dots, and I think 'Impact' is really like joining the dots. [After] me and Orlando had worked on the instrumental it was like, "Well, okay, what could this record sound like if I put Channel Tres and Robyn on it?" I'm lucky enough now, I'm in a position where I get to dream up these records but now I can make more of them happens. The possibilities just get wider and wider.

Pull out the bucket list and just start working through it?

Well after that like, well anything's possible! Let's get D'Angelo! That's not happening but it's on the hypothetical list in my head like, well if I can make it happen I'll give it a try.

In five years time when D'Angelo is on a SG Lewis song, I'll be like, "He did it! He did it!" It's funny because the feeling that I got from 'Impact' seems to be similar to the feeling that you got when you were doing your deep dive into disco. You're spoke about that addiction to songs and that incessant almost obsession with music. Why do you think it's so important for an artist to still get that feeling and want to chase it?

I just can't imagine making music without it. I don't know how to. Any time I've tried to engineer any musical creation in my head, or tried to do something with my my head instead of just following how it feels, it's never worked. The only compass I have for making music is how something makes me feel. You have to remain a fan of music to in order to feel that and that's you know inspiration. No thought is completely original, you know. Listen to any of your favourite artists get interviewed and they'll be like... For instance, there's this Kevin Parker interview breaking down The Slow Rush, and he's like, "Here's this drum break from this LL Cool J song," [and] he basically like replicates that for 'Borderline'. By being a fan of a broad variety of music, that's how your influences become more unique because of those combination of things. It's really the only way I know how to make music and I can't really picture doing anything else.

times by SG Lewis is out now. Buy/stream here.

Words by Emma Jones

Image: Harvey Pearson