ADVERSITY IS NO FUN when you're right in the middle of it. That's just a fact of life.
But once you get through tough times, there's usually good to be gained. Adversity makes you stronger, they say. It can illuminate the need for change, or remind you to appreciate what you have.
Adversity can fuel great art, too. That's the lesson of Soulboss, the new album from Portlander Sam Humans, a regular presence within the city's creative scene for the past 15 years.
Not long after moving to town in 2001, Humans started a pirate radio station called the Portland Radio Authority and broadcasted from his home for a couple of years. He formed rock 'n' roll bands—like Modernstate, ...worms, and O Bruxo—and recorded music with some of them while playing shows with others. As a hobby, he started building one-of-a-kind "creative noisemakers" of his own design, housing them in interesting packaging.
Things were going great. Humans, now 40, was living out his vision for an artist's existence in a town that valued such a thing.
Then 2011 came along, and things went south. First O Bruxo broke up, and Humans was devastated. "It was the most fun band I'd ever been in," he says. Shortly thereafter, Humans split with the mother of his very young son, just as the family was considering a move to Hawaii. Those two breakups nearly pushed Humans right out of the musical life he'd built for himself.
"I was very close to giving up," he says. "I'd recorded [some new] songs at that point, and it took me a couple of years to get back to where I even wanted to touch them. Then the rest started coming out—the ones about heartbreak and that type of thing."
The title of Humans' new album mirrors a nickname given to him by Papi Fimbres, his bandmate in O Bruxo and, more recently, Orquestra Pacifico Tropical. The tracklist is split between songs recorded before or around 2011, and songs recorded after Humans recovered from that year's blows.
Sonically Soulboss is warm, intimate, and built on unconventional time signatures. It features Humans' lively African-style guitar playing, his dusky baritone voice, and synthesized squiggles here and there. Often, it sounds like Wolf Parade's Dan Boeckner leading a Ghanaian highlife band under overcast Pacific Northwest skies. Call it downcast dance music.
Soulboss is an upbeat record despite its lyrical themes, which center not only on pain and heartbreak, but also on getting older, growing up, and loving unconditionally. Humans calls it "a big ode" to his seven-year-old son, and the perspective the boy has brought to his life.
"You become a parent and... the world makes a hell of a lot more sense," he says. "Growing older is sort of subservient to the idea that a mass of life experiences leads to wisdom, and I think that I've been fortunate enough to have had a lot of really interesting experiences in my life. And those things hopefully add up to a unique worldview."
This fall Humans will add to his list of interesting experiences. He'll leave Portland in October and travel all over the world for a few months, leaving his return open-ended to see what opportunities arise. (He says he expects to be homesick for Portland most of the time.) But first, he'll release Soulboss (and a companion album planned for later this year), play Tuesday's show, and reflect on the journey that brought him to this point.
"It took me five years to get Soulboss out," he says. "It was a good five years—a lot of trials and tribulations and whatnot—but it's nice to finally get it done."