Local singer-songwriter slows down but his music is heating up

Sauk City native Sam Ness will celebrate his new album with a release concert at the Majestic Theatre on July 23.
Musician Sam Ness sits in the grass in front of stone columns holding a guitar and looking off into the distance
Photo by TVG Photography.
Sam Ness will celebrate the launch of his new album, "City Lights and Smoke," at the Majestic Theatre on July 23.

Here’s the thing about singer-songwriter Sam Ness: Even when he stays home, he travels.

Just not as far.

When I last wrote about Ness — who will launch his new album, “City Lights and Smoke,” with a release concert July 23 at the Majestic Theatre — it was two years ago. Ness, then 22, was headed with his guitar to the western United States. He’d spent the previous several years crisscrossing the globe — the United Kingdom and Continental Europe, Thailand, New Zealand — playing on street corners, in clubs, on the move, chasing an audience.

“Only connect,” read English novelist E.M. Forster’s epigraph to “Howards End.”

It might be Ness’s mantra.

“It’s something I need,” Ness says of playing live. “I connect to other people through my art.”

It led to nonstop traveling over five or six years. “I think the longest I ever stayed in one place was like two weeks,” Ness says. He recorded a soulful version of Willie Nelson’s travel anthem, “On the Road Again.”

But in 2019, Ness wrote a song he titled “Slow It Down,” and at some point, more recently, it led to a reckoning.

“I decided I should take my own advice,” he says.

Ness spent several months of the past two winters at a cabin near Rhinelander, writing and recording and learning to exhale. It led to two albums, last year’s “The Cabin,” and the new one being launched at the Majestic. It includes “Slow It Down,” which Ness has just released as a video single.

Sam Ness Album Cover he has long hair and standing in front of city buildings holding a guitar with smoky sunlight backlighting him

“City Lights and Smoke” is the new album by Sauk City native Sam Ness.

Do not, however, think that all this means Ness, a Sauk City native who now lives in Baraboo, has lost his passion for live performing. That won’t happen. He’s just been keeping it in the same time zone.

“I did 164 shows last year,” Ness says. “That was pretty much all in Wisconsin. With all the [pandemic] craziness, not knowing if we were going to shut down again, I figured it was best to stick to outdoor places and venues I knew.”

Ness has the kind of backstory you might invent if you were trying to sell a singer-songwriter story to the movies. Growing up in Sauk, he excelled in sports — football, track and field, martial arts — and in show choir and on the musical theater stage, earning statewide awards and nominations for leading roles in “Beauty and the Beast” and “Les Misérables.” College theaters were offering scholarships. But Ness — who began writing songs at 15 and playing open mic nights in Madison when he was old enough to drive — spurned them to see the world.

The two albums that came from his sequestering in northern Wisconsin showcase Ness’s range. “The Cabin,” released summer 2021, is quiet and introspective. For the most part, just Ness and his guitar. “City Lights and Smoke” is a departure. He brought a band to the cabin — “my favorite musicians from around Wisconsin” — and the sound is grittier, with soaring electric guitars, fiddle solos, full drums.

“It’s different,” Ness says. “A sound people haven’t heard from me before.”

Which doesn’t mean the songwriting is any less sharp. “Slow It Down” offers the reflections of a performer who struggles to live in, and enjoy, the present.

I know every WiFi code, Ness sings, so he can keep in touch with friends he’s met on the road, but not a single name in the crowd. At the same time, he’s already thinking about the next gig. Another lyric from the song: I’ve been living in tomorrow but breathing yesterday.

“It doesn’t,” Ness notes wryly, “leave a whole lot of time for right now.”

The video of “Slow It Down” is terrific and resulted from a bit of good fortune. Ness had an idea of what he was looking for, and so, while preparing for a gig in Rhinelander, he sent out a note to friends and acquaintances asking if anyone could come and hold his phone and get footage of him loading in and playing the gig.

A man he didn’t know well showed up with a lighting rig and excellent cameras.

Andrew Egan runs Inspire Digital Studios in Rhinelander.

“This is what I do,” Egan told Ness. “I make music videos.”

“He took it and ran with it,” Ness says. “He captured the essence of what the road is.”

Ness promises the July 23 Majestic launch will be “a banger. It’s not one to miss. I’ll be with the full band and then some.”

Next — we can’t be surprised — it’s the road. Ness is ranging into other time zones again: out West in August, to the South in September. He’ll bring a new perspective, though some things don’t change.

“I feel like I live where I park,” he says. “But I wash my clothes in Baraboo.”

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