A Coast Not So Narrow: Exploring Music and Songwriting with S.J. Armstrong

Interview by Sam Hartman
WLUW had a conversation with artist S.J. Armstrong after the release of his debut album The Narrow Coast. Originally from L.A., Armstrong moved to Seattle and continues to work on his new album. Armstrong dives into various personal topics in his album and explores the boundaries of what it is to be an artist. He has a new single called “Summer Sunshine” coming out May 14th.

What’s your background as an artist?

I started playing music in 1998 on the keyboard and then playing guitar in 2004. I picked up a lot of other instruments along the way and had some other instruments at home. Eventually, I started to play things along with the radio & records and started writing my own songs. In college, I had a little folk act and would go around to open mics and play some showcases. I played folk songs for friends and wrote about my life and things that I cared about. Eventually, I started to look for ways to record them and make them sound different. A lot of people do the acoustic singer/ songwriter thing and I wanted to separate myself from that musically. I started to add instruments like electric guitars, stacked vocals, transistor organs, and B3’s trying to create a unique soundscape around the songs I have written over the past decade.  

Well, it sounds like you definitely had a journey through music. I heard you incorporate the electric guitar, layered vocals, and various instruments in your album. 

What is your writing process? Do you write two songs at once that correlate or are they independent?

I have, but not any of the songs on my record. For this record, I wrote all of them separately and I don’t do co-writes, I like to write all of my songs. I write most of my songs on guitar and the last few songs on the album I wrote on the piano. I spend a lot of time with my songs and ideas to build them out over time. The other day, I was looking at things I wrote 6 or 7 years ago. I make changes to them and adjust the lyrics. Some songs I change to fit other songs on the record and mess around with certain keys. I start with guitar and a few lyrics then I build into it. I like different structures too. The song “Back Home” has no chord section, it just has verses. That’s my favorite one on the record because it is kind of different.  

What was the process of making The Narrow Coast 

It started before the pandemic and that definitely delayed things for quite a while. I started by live-tracking the drums and had someone else drum on the record. I’m actually a drummer, ironically, is the one thing I didn’t play on the record. At first, I wanted to have a 70’s type drum sound with booth drums. I cut them at a big commercial studio and some friends let me come in and fill the cancelation slots. I did a lot of the other layers at home. Some of the guitar solos I did in the studio because I couldn’t crank up the guitar amp super loud in my apartment and get kicked out. I worked on it over time when I still lived in L.A. and proceeded with it when I moved up to Seattle. I finally got the record finished and released it.  

A lot of the songs were written over a long period of time. The oldest song, “Nobody Knows,” was originally called a year in review, and now that I have put it out, some people have asked me if it is about the pandemic. The song was written well before the pandemic even started. I picked out songs that spanned a long period of time in terms of the songwriting I have done and I tried to present them all in a similar way and turn them into a cohesive record.  

I read on your Spotify that you’re creating a follow-up to The Narrow Coast. What can listeners expect from this new album?  

It is going to be a little more rock and a little less folk rock. I have a single coming out May 14th called Summer Sunshine that I’m pretty excited about and a has a bit of folk rock. But the album will have a similar sound with the stacked vocals and double-tracked acoustic guitars as the basis of it. The Narrow Coast is all short-scale bass, and I switched up some of the basses I used for this new album. Some of the songs will have that short scale but some will have precision, fender, and long-scale bass. The drum tracks will differ, instead of booth drums, the new album will have live room drums. I used the live track drums but I used a different drummer and he played some of the tracks differently. It will be a bit of a different sound but the basic elements of it will be the same. I’m pretty excited about it, I think people will like it.  

How do you prepare for live performances? 

I’ve always performed by myself with an acoustic guitar but I would love to get some people together to play more of a band-type show. Sometimes, I perform different versions of my songs like playing in a different key or changing the lyrics. Because they’re folk songs, they’re all kind of fluid and you can do whatever you want with them. It has been a bit more difficult here up in the northwest because I do not know as many people. When I lived in L.A. people would just come over to some party and play a couple songs. I did things like that all the time but it’s been a little harder to find places to play at but I’m working on it. 

It’s all about making those connections and meeting people. 
I know and it’s such a different scene and no one knows me here. 

S.J. Armstrong performing “The Breaks” live

Well now is the perfect time to get your name out there with your new single releasing soon and your upcoming album.  

What do the next 5 years look like for you as an artist? 

At the end of this year, I would like to put out my album and put out another one after it. I’ve been writing and putting ideas together for the future. Success for me is making a record I like so I’m going to keep making records no matter what happens with it. This is what I love to do, writing songs, playing for people, recording them, and coming up with unique sounds. You guys have been so helpful playing my record and I have more listeners in Chicago than the rest of the world. I hope to find people who like what I’m doing, like the sound, and listen to the records. I’ve had a few people tell me that they really like the record, and you guys playing it for me means a lot to me. No matter how big or small the audience is, I’m going to keep on making records for everyone that wants to listen to them. 

Check out S.J. Armstrong on Instagram and check out his debut album The Narrow Coast below!

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