Singer/songwriter Noah Sugarman is currently based in Los Angeles as a way to stay close to his label and the SoCal clubs that keep him kinetically busy. But, at least for the moment, Sugarman has returned to Northern Kentucky to see his parents and perform a handful of regional shows in support of his debut album, Art of Starting a Fire.
"We were back during Christmas and played the Southgate House and there were 400 people there, and I've never been part of a more emotional night than that," Sugarman says. "To come home and see everyone show up and be interested in what's going on and enjoying the music. It doesn't get better than that. It was the best night of my life."
Since its 2007 release, Art of Starting a Fire has generated positive buzz with its blend of gritty, syncopated Pop and bluesy, rootsy Rock — like a raw shot of Edwin McCain with a Brad Nowell chaser. Sugarman is clearly pleased with the results and equally satisfied with the response that has greeted Fire, from both the media and his growing fan base.
Although the Chicago-born, Ft. Thomas-reared Sugarman is still in his mid-twenties, he's traveled a long and tumultuous musical and personal path. He began playing guitar at 11, wrote his first song at 13, gigged regularly in a band at 15, studied Jazz and Classical guitar at CCM in the pre-college prep program and was an experienced veteran by his 18th birthday.
"I started my first band when I was 13," Sugarman says. "My drummer's dad was a drummer and he acted as our booking agent. By 14, I probably had 100 shows under my belt. We played high school dances and whatever clubs we could get into."
Sugarman spent two years in Northern Kentucky University's music program, but dropped out when playing and partying impacted his studies, a decision further keyed by the death of his favorite professor. While a student, he played with Phammilly Impulze; in his post-college years, Sugarman drummed for Tupelo Honey and also formed The Rudies to play his own material. Around then, Sugarman was spotted by Ryan Malott, who invited him to join 500 Miles to Memphis, where he spent two years playing bass and learning every facet of booking and touring.
Two years ago, Sugarman sent his demo to his drummer's uncle in California, who passed it along to a friend at L.A.'s Unison Records. The label contacted Sugarman and invited him out to record a couple of songs at their studio. They offered him a contract upon completion of the tracks, leading him to relocate west.
"We really clicked and they've given me an amazing opportunity," Sugarman says. "I'm a better musician for having recorded this album."
The stormy part of Sugarman's journey has been an ongoing substance abuse problem, which has landed him in rehab four times. Just over three years ago, he made up his mind to kick his habits and he's been sober ever since.
"You either fall down and stay down or you fall down and get up," he says. "You have to want to do it. I am completely OK with who I am as a person and just thrilled to be here. Good and bad, it's been a jam-packed 26 years."
In recording Fire, Sugarman availed himself of Unison's wealth of session talent, but The Rudies remain his road outfit. Sugarman is looking forward to getting The Rudies in the studio for his sophomore release.
"Two years ago, I said, 'They want to sign me as a solo artist, I need to go out and do this and I'll call for (The Rudies) when I'm ready," he recalls. "They're still my touring band. I wouldn't have it any other way ... keep it in the family."
Whatever happens with Art of Starting a Fire (actually the title of The Rudies' initial demo), Sugarman believes the album is a success simply by its existence. The songs he wrote for the album are very personal benchmarks of his life and career to this point, and being able to share them with his fans is the greatest accomplishment.
"This sounds cliché, but this whole album is a timeline and a therapy," Sugarman says. "A lot of the lyrics are very subtle, but it's an extremely personal album for me. I like to be subtle with my lyrics because I like people to interpret it to mean something for them that it didn't necessarily mean for me."
Given Noah Sugarman's current outlook for the future, he might have to go down a couple of waist sizes when he shops for pants.
"We're going to tour our asses off, then record another album and tour our asses off," he says with a laugh. "In five years, if I've gone to all the places I want to go, I'll be happy with the fan base. Already we've got fans and people dance to the music, and that's half of it for me."
NOAH SUGARMAN plays the Southgate House Friday. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.