Sammy Volkov is here to stay — and we hope he will. After returning to Alberta from a stint in New York where he chased his acting dream, the Edmonton-based singer released his debut album Be Alright! in late 2022. Following instant acclaim and widespread radio play on CKUA, Volkov has set his sights on a summer and fall tour, including several folk festivals and a stop in Calgary. We spoke with Sammy ahead of his appearance at this year's Calgary Folk Music Festival. [Edited for clarity]
Claire Miglionico (CM): I saw on your website that you have a love for acting and you’ve had a life-long dream of becoming an actor. Did your love of acting come first or was it music?
Sammy Volkov (SV): Music was definitely my first love creatively. I went to acting school because I was encouraged to do acting in high school. I think a lot of people who get into it go that route. Music and acting kind of happened at the same time as far as performing goes. I secretly would be coming up with melodies since I was little kid but I’d never ever sing for anybody. I was way too shy to do that.
The first time I sang for anybody was in high school as part of a joke. It was supposed to be funny but people responded strongly and said "Oh, you should do that more often! That was really good!" And I was like, what the hell are you talking about, that was horrible! I sincerely thought that it’s just something everyone did and never had a feeling that I was suited to sing or any good at it. But I always loved it and I always loved coming up with melodies.
Then, when I went to university for acting, I really started to seriously write my own music.
All photos by Daniela Roth.
CM: What instrument do you compose with? Are you a guitar player, pianist?
SV: Guitar. But I often come up with the melody in my mind and maybe I’ll have some words that come as a placeholder. I find it’s really interesting coming up with music that way because the placeholder sometimes has a weird deep relevance. So sometimes I like to stick with whatever subconsciously arose to fill the spot in the melody.
I think that partly has to do with composing off the top of your head with no instrument because you have total freedom. There’s very little structure, and if you let the words and music come together, I think that can tap into something a little more mysterious and honest than you might allow yourself to write otherwise.
The music was my attempt at making a little tool box of assorted influences and somehow making them cohesive sonically.
CM: I was able to listen to your Be Alright, and online it’s described as a very vintage, early 60s pop and R&B album. How would you personally describe the music that you’re drawn to playing?
SV: For Be Alright, the music was my attempt at making a little tool box of assorted influences and somehow making them cohesive sonically. I didn’t want it to sound like different artists but I did want it to sound like each song would be stylistically distinct. This album was basically me trying to make the kind of records I look for and the kind of records I like happen to be early 60s R&B and pop, going way back to crooner kind-of-stuff. It's sort of like a mixed bag, a weird little collection of records. If someone would have picked up their favourite record, if they have a big nerdy collection like I do, I think it would just end up being pretty eclectic. I kind of wanted to make them all fit — with the exception of "Birthday Letter" — as singles, like records that could work on pop radio back in the day.
CM: For Be Alright it was a two year journey. You finished the album at the height of the pandemic. Can you tell us more about what that journey was like for you emotionally and musically?
SV: That was the greatest creative time of my life so far because it felt like things were finally clicking. I was finally doing what I had always wanted to do, and thanks in large part to Harry Gregg at Riverdale Recorders in Edmonton. He assembled a great crew of musicians, and Scott Franchuk engineered. We all just got along and we were all so careful and all kind of realized that we would be this bubble. Under two weeks, I think, we did all the recordings and it was just the most exciting time: so exhausting but so gratifying. It sounds corny, but I really felt like I found a place where I belonged and I had never felt that way. At the same time, I was getting to know my current partner so it was amazing. It felt like all these things were happening for a reason and at the right time. It was a wonderful time in my life, I loved it.
CM: Before you created this record, you were living in New York City. I’m really curious as to what that part of your life was like for you and going to school there.
SV: Yeah, it’s a really convoluted timeline. Sometimes it scares me, like what was I doing on this day and this year and I literally can’t do it. I’m saying this like I just woke up from a coma (laughs). I know I went to school in the US so yeah, that was from 2010-ish until 2015-ish then I was living in New York, then I was living in LA, then I was living in Toronto, then I was living in Edmonton, and then I was living in Toronto again. It was like a thousand moves.
The last substantial chunk of time before 2020, I was in New York again. I was working in TV production offices and just feeling my soul wither and die. Literally all I did with my time when I wasn’t at work was write music and go to open mics, and I really have to say that kept me going, that’s all I cared about.
Then, just before shit hit the fan in 2020, I wrote Harry and Scott at Riverdale and I said "hey we should make a single. Let’s record a couple tracks". And of course right away they were like "yes, let’s do it!" because they’re so cool and supportive. So that happened in January 2020 and I went back to New York in late January 2020, and then things went crazy. I was only back in New York for less than two months. I got to literally catch the second last flight to Toronto. The last flight was totally sold out, the second last flight had two seats on it and I got the one seat, packed a carry-on bag, gave my landlord two months rent and that’s the last time I ever saw the inside of that apartment. It was completely hectic and panicky.
A few months into being back in Edmonton, I thought, oh, I really wish I had a whole album because I had all this material that I had written over the last several years. I had also saved some money from working these soul-killing jobs and so I was like, you know what, we could all die soon so I’d like to make an album, I don’t know about you guys! (laughs) So we just became this bubble, and in the summer, we made the album.
CM: You currently live in Edmonton. What would you say is a nice hidden gem about Edmonton that not many people know about?
SV: It’s definitely not a hidden gem but I love The Aviary. I love the Metro Cinema, it has this big old marquee that says "Garneau" on it. It’s this art deco movie theatre and they have a really cool artsy progressive schedule. That’s always been my favourite place. I love Nhon Hoa Sandwich Bar across my apartment building. It’s on White Ave. It’s this great Vietnamese sandwich place. It’s a really comforting place that I always think about when I’m in Edmonton.
For me, the highlight will be to sitting on stage with these people I admire and watch them sing a song acoustically
CM: What are you most looking forward to at the Calgary Folk Music Festival? Are there any particular musicians that you’re looking forward to seeing?
SV: Oh my god, so much. The lineup is nuts! I’m going to be doing a workshop with Del Barber, Boy Golden and Carter Felker and that completely melted my face. I’m so excited about that. Oh, and I’m doing one with Colleen Brown, who I love. I’m also so excited to see Sierra Ferrell. And I mean, Emmylou Harris, what the hell, it’s just absurd. Jeff Tweedy I’d like to see and so many more. For me, the highlight will be sitting on stage with these people I admire and watch them sing a song acoustically. My concert is Sunday morning and on that stage I’ll be followed by Sierra Ferrell and so that’s super exciting to me. I have this dream of her having to overhear part of my song and then maybe she’ll remember my song.
I should say, I’m also appearing at the Edmonton and Canmore Folk Music Festivals . So it’s a super stacked summer. It’s like a dream come true so I’m super grateful. It’s a hugely revolutionary year in my life, it feels like. A lot is changing and in the best ways possible, so it’s really exciting.
CM: A bit of a random question, but what’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
SV: Right away my mind goes to artsy stuff. The best arts advice I was ever given was to just tell the story. That came from my first year acting teacher at SUNY Purchase in New York which has an acting conservatory. The first year acting teacher was Charles Tuthill. He’s since passed away. He was really special, truly brilliant acting teacher and a remarkable performer. I remember struggling to do a scene in a way that I felt would be authentic and so I was wringing my hands and banging my head waiting for the inspiration to strike and he was like "you know, you can’t do this, it’s not your job. It’s commendable that you want to tell the story in the most authentic way, in a way that feels natural to you. But actually, your job is to tell the story. It’s not to do something in a way that feels good to you".
Ideally, if you’re doing something creative, it’ll feel good but the most important thing and the most privileged task is to tell a story to an audience and they’re there to listen. That’s your job. And if you’re lucky it will all fall into place and as you tell the story it’ll be coming from a true place.
For me, luckily, when it comes to music, I feel that. If I get to sing, it’s just the greatest place for me, it is a really magic place and if I feel that I’m reaching people, it’s just the greatest privilege and most magical transcendental experience in my life.
CM: What is next for you?
SV: What’s next for me is to go on tour. I’m hoping to go on tour with The Bobby Tenderloin Universe and Sam The Living in the fall in eastern Canada. I’m hoping Quebec and Ontario. We’re in early planning stages but we all want to do it so I think it’s going to happen. Beyond that semi-short term future, I’m going to start working more in the US because I’m a dual citizen; I have US and Canadian citizenship which makes it way easier for me to play in the states.
That’s another huge privilege I am so lucky to have because to play in the US — it can be a real pain in the ass for emerging artists. I’m really excited and it’s a big goal for me to start making inroads in the American scenes.
Catch Sammy Volkov perform at the 2023 Calgary Folk Music Festival on Sunday July 30 from 10:30 AM – 11:10 AM on National Stage 4. And in collaboration Saturday, July 29 from 11:15 AM – 12:30 PM on Altitude Communications - Stage 2, 3:20 PM – 4:30 PM on Horizon Heating -Stage 1, and Sunday July 30 from 12:55 PM – 2:05 PM · Horizon Heating - Stage 1.