When we connect with Sam Austins via Zoom, it's on the heels of some exciting news for the 26-year-old singer. The day before, it was announced that Austins would perform as part of the 2022 Lollapalooza festival in Chicago, where he joins a stacked bill that includes big-name acts ranging from Metallica to Dua Lipa.
"It's going to be so sick," he says from his L.A. studio, a sparse room furnished with a guitar and a keyboard. "I've always wanted to do these things. So for me to be able to take what we've been doing in Detroit, and bring it to places like Lollapalooza ... it's just a huge, huge moment."
The genre-defying artist signed to Atlantic Records last year, where he dropped his debut record HOMELESS STAR. The title, he says, is a reference to his time struggling to break into music in Detroit. Its cover features an otherworldly photo of Austins wearing a custom sci-fi-inspired breastplate made by Nusi Quero, an artist known for designing futuristic 3D-printed corsets worn by the likes of Kylie Jenner and SZA, as well as Grimes' full back tattoo, which she has described as looking like "beautiful alien scars." In the record's cover photo, Austins looks like he crash-landed in a crater on an alien moon.
One the one hand, Austins is no stranger to the music industry: His father is Harold "Spike" Bonhart, a professional singer who performed with the Four Tops in the R&B group's later years, and his uncle is Motown songwriter Barrett Strong, who recorded the company's first hit with "Money (That's What I Want)" in 1959. But when we bring up his family, particularly his father, a publicist's voice intercepts to ask Austins if he's OK to talk about it.
"Remotely," he responds.
According to a press release, Austins grew up in Detroit in a musical household, teaching himself to play theme songs from Star Wars and Harry Potter on a living room piano. But in the same release, he described his home life as "hell" until his father moved out with another woman. He then moved to the suburbs with his mother, whose Navy S.E.A.L. boyfriend wanted Austins to join the service when he turned 18. That's when Austins left home, couchsurfing and living in his car before moving in with an aunt in Detroit. Eventually, he started getting recognized for his music, dropping an EP on Soundcloud and scoring opening slots with acts like Danny Brown before headlining his own sold-out show at Detroit's El Club.
"I think that for me, in my situation, I was never really reliant on the fact that I had, you know, Detroit legacy in me," he says. "I feel like what I've always relied on was just what I was doing."
He describes his relationship with both his father and uncle as "distant."
"It's something that people like to talk about, but for me, it's never really opened the doors that I saw, straight up," he says. "But I also am very proud of it. I think that it's something that people look at like, 'Oh, this is a throughline.' And I think that's really sweet to me as well."
Austins says he got the idea to start what would become HOMELESS STAR while working on a project through Tidal's Unplugged grant in 2019. He moved to California in 2020, and recorded HOMELESS STAR between L.A. and Detroit. "I continued coming to Detroit pretty much every few months, and also bringing a lot of it to L.A., to bridge the gap and make sure the project is cohesive," he says.
The record was executive produced by Seth Anderson and Garret Koehler of Detroit's Assemble Sound, an indie music company that operates out of a 200-year-old church in Detroit and recently formed a partnership with Atlantic to develop more locally grown talent. It was mixed by Jeff Ellis, who also mixed avant-garde R&B crooner Frank Ocean's debut Channel Orange.
"They took it to the next level, and that's the reason why it sounds as good as it does," Austins says. "I'm so hands-on with the recording process that it was really tight to come in and see, like, geniuses at work."
Ocean is certainly an influence on HOMELESS STAR, but Austins also cites Kid Cudi and Kanye West, as well as rock bands like Nirvana and Radiohead. The record calls to mind other psychedelic pop acts like Tame Impala (like on the track "Drifting Away") or Gnarls Barkley (see "Mind on Drugs"). But Austins says the city of Detroit was also a major influence on his sound.
"I think that the biggest influence for me, other than just the musical side, was also Detroit, in the grit that comes from being a Detroit artist and the things that you experience coming up," he says. "I feel like that the inner core is a very Detroit inner city influence project, in the sense that it is about that rawness that I just feel like can only come from the city."
Austins says he performed the songs from HOMELESS STAR at an L.A. release party with a four-piece band, the first time he has ever done so. He says he's still figuring out what the Lollapalooza onstage configuration will be, but says he now prefers performing with live musicians.
"I definitely want to always have a band," he says. "It's so fun to have real instrumentation, and to have that feeling."
He says he hopes to visit Detroit more in 2022, and to also start on his next record.
"Every time I'm back in Detroit, it feels like a family reunion," he says. "I just want to connect with everyone when I'm back."
He adds, "I hope I can come back to Detroit really soon. ... Pretty much all I have been working on is making sure that the next project is even better than the last."