Stefan Tschumi

For months, Swiss artist Sam Koechlin (aka Sam Himself) has been treating fans to a string of singles as he geared up to release his proper debut album Power Ballads, which finally arrived this month.

While it seems like a long time coming, in a sense, the wait was extended only further as a result of the pandemic, which left the normally Brooklyn-based singer stranded back home in Switzerland after global borders were quickly sealed up to stop the spread of COVID-19 last spring.

Koechlin had no choice but to lock down and do what he knew best: work on music. But in the process, and as a result of being back in his hometown and surrounded by old ghosts of his past, he also had to reckon with himself and his old, familiar self-destructive behaviors, a struggle which is reflected on the newly released record. And perhaps it's that reckoning, felt by so many who had plenty of time to look inward this past year, which makes the album so tangible.

"It's weird that it's out now," says Koechlin, speaking with Variance over the phone on a brisk, early fall morning from Brooklyn. "It's like a child, on its first day of school or whatever, and I'm just worried about it a lot and thinking, hoping it's doing well, hoping it's making a lot of friends," he says in jest.

Calling the record his "2020 album," Koechlin acknowledges early sketches of some of the tracks were in place pre-pandemic, but it wasn't until he was in lockdown when he really, truly devoted himself to fleshing out the songs which would make up the record. "They're my 2020 songs because hopefully it gives people a sense of just how lonely I was with my guitar during that time."

He quips: "I'm also mindful of the size of the violin that I'm playing, which is probably down there with the world's smallest, in the grand scheme of things. I know how much harder people have been hit by this."

Although Koechlin is easily modest when discussing his album, and perhaps, if not certainly self-deprecating, it's worth noting, there is an instant classic aura around the record. For an artist who was playing SXSW in Austin just three years ago, Power Ballads carries a serious weight to it, ready to share a lane with records by such prestigious acts as The War on Drugs and Perfume Genius.

Stefan Tschumi

Over the course of 10 tracks, Koechlin offers listeners glimpses of his inner thoughts, with dazzling, '80s-tinged vignettes of loss and failure. It's very personal, and heavy at times. And even though one might assume that's not what society needs as we try to dig ourselves out of this mucky, trying two-year period, maybe that's why it's actually so unexpectedly timely, as we've all experienced some degree of loss and uncertainty.

"I think the best case scenario for me is that people take away something from the record that I couldn't predict or even put into words," says the singer. "That's the magic of music. So much of the music I love is about me, even though it's not about me and it's about something completely different. But I listen to the artist's music and think, 'This is the soundtrack of my life right now.'"

For now, Koechlin is excited to be back in a somewhat normal space. He's planning to play live as much as possible, starting with a run of shows this fall back in Europe. And while he anticipates playing in the United States in the coming months, he admits he's trying to be considerate of many fans who have a sense of whiplash from all the concerts which have been rescheduled over and over again these past few months.

"Because of Covid and individual situations, our German tour got rescheduled three times," he explains. "I'm hoping the third one is the charm. Not just for me, but for people who are looking forward to it and just want it to finally happen. I think some people have felt burned by all of it, and I want to be respectful. I'm just trying not to get any hopes up and then having to walk it back every time. It's like, 'Well, Santa Claus—and not that I'm Santa Claus!—but sorry, he's not gonna be able to make it!' You know?" 

While Koechlin points out fans' frustration with the back-and-forth of live music recently, it's fitting that the closing track on his album is a song about what comes after the lockdowns, after the struggle, after the pain.

The epic, three-and-a-half minute cut, titled "When I Take the Stage," is Koechlin at his finest, nodding to the cities and venues and gathering spaces gone dark and quiet for many months. Yet in the midst of the darkness, he envisions the post-Covid world, with an optimistic, forward-looking view as he declares: "I'll make the rafters ring / I'll burn the bleachers down / I will set the curtain swinging / I'll send shivers through the barren ground."

"I was basically carrying myself through—and this was last year, so we didn't exactly know what the road ahead looked like," he says. "So I was like, yes, I can see it. I'll be playing live again. I will do it better and louder and with more energy than I ever did before. And I'm saying this in the middle of 2020, in a room by myself, no fans, just me. So in a way, I had to recommit. And that's what the song is about. It's a promise to myself." ■