An old friendship can be a wonderful, but sometimes it can also lead you down the wrong path.
On his latest album, Running Blind, Minneapolis artist Sam Cassidy concocts a tale of two friends, Ray and Louie, who turn to a life of crime and rob a check-cashing store.
Cassidy weaves his way to the back of the crowded bar near Cathedral Hill in St. Paul, still in a chore coat and stocking cap from his day job at a cabinetry shop. If there could be such a thing as a woke Marlboro Man, he would reside within Sam Cassidy.
There’s no ego about Cassidy. He’s unaffected but highly aware of his surroundings, making sure his long stature is folded out of the way before he orders a drink. When something funny catches him off-guard, a smile shows off perfectly straight teeth. When he’s not sure how to answer a question, he stalls with “That’s a good question” while lining up a thoughtful response.
Though Cassidy's world fools you into assuming it's a collection of simple one-off tracks, repeated listens reveal a dynamic, fractured, and outward-looking tale. Cassidy stumbled across the story for Running Blind when the two characters came to him fully formed one day in the song “Perfect Plan.” From there, he wrapped the rest of the album around the old friends. The more he worked on the songs, the more he realized there was to explore in the story of Ray and Louie. Ray is running from a dark past, still caught up in an old relationship he can’t seem to shake when he crosses paths with his old friend Louie, a wily character who knows how to talk his way out of trouble. The two drag into the mix a financially strapped Johnny and, like a sinkhole that swallows everything around it, they pull in old lovers and innocent bystanders, causing irreparable damage.
Cassidy didn’t have to stage any robberies to research the album, but he did spend a lot of time living in his characters’ psyches, at a time in his life when he was watching a lot tension-filled shows like The Wire and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. “It was important for me,” he says. “This whole process was an exploration of even if you do bad things, you justify them. It helped me explore what brought a person to do something that was bad. It’s a study of multi-dimensional people. That was important for me to not just have ‘this is the bad guy, this is the good guy.’ I wanted to feel that out. You empathize with them just as you would empathize with anybody. You’re not meant to feel sorry for them. The hope is that you can understand where they’re coming from, then it’s up to you to make the call about whether or not that justifies their actions—whether it’s fucked up or not.”
Cassidy worked with producer Jake Hanson to fit the sound of the record to the story he was telling, an immensely beneficial process for the songwriter, who was working with a producer for the first time. Hanson had something to say about all of the pieces, but he was also open to Cassidy’s view. “More than anything, working with a producer is another ear,” Cassidy says. “It’s easy to get wrapped up in yourself and your own ideas and think that they're the best ideas or be unsure if something is good. Jake would say no when I needed to hear it. He would say, ‘That chorus isn't a chorus. The voice you had didn’t carry. Go rewrite and come back.’ That was one of the moments where I said, ‘Shit. Okay. I thought the song was done. I guess I’ll have to go back and work.’ He was right, and luckily, the chorus came. I needed that from him to get there. When you create, people can sniff out bullshit; I want to be writing from a genuine place.”
Cassidy made a conscious decision to not write about himself and personal experiences, but bits of him crept into the songs by accident. “In my past experience, writing from a personal perspective oftentimes is really one-sided and tells your story and doesn’t really give credence to other voices,” he says. “That said, when I was consciously writing about other people I could go back and say, ‘That’s me.’ I found it more interesting because it was stuff I wouldn’t have thought about.”
Running Blind has been a long time coming: Cassidy has been sitting on the album for over a year, figuring out how to release it. He spent a lot of 2017 in the studio, recording the songs in bits and pieces at the Library and Summer Winter Studio, and then spending most of 2018 shopping the album to labels. The waiting made him anxious, with some life upheavals thrown in the mix, but when things fell into place, they all fell at the right time.
Cassidy’s musical journey began when he begged his pinched parents for a guitar at 15. Armed with some pointers from his dad, Cassidy took it upon himself to learn the guitar and create. Now 32, he’s just beginning to understand the role music plays in his life.
“I’m trying to figure my music career. It’s hard, because I know I’m just another sad white guy. I’m fully aware of that, and it’s something I struggle with. I hope it goes back to sniffing out the bullshit. I hope if you are willing to, you see it’s genuine. At some point, a good song is a good song, regardless of where it’s coming from. However I say that with the caveat that I’m fully aware of everything that comes with that. That’s part of the reason that I wanted to write fiction. I don’t really want to write about my experience. My experience is not incredibly interesting or important or new, so I had that in mind. I shouldn’t even have to say it, but there are so many women and people of color making good music. We need to get out of what we’re used to to be able to understand what others do. I do think about the future of my career, like what it would be like if I was still playing small clubs at 50 and making $40 a night at shows. If that’s the case, it won’t be because of women bands.”
With: Under Violet and Kiss the Tiger
Where: Turf Club
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 21
Tickets: 21+; $10/$12; more info here