Sam Sparro’s New Album Has the Queer Pop and Janet Jackson Vibes You Need

The Grammy-nominated artist has traveled back in time to the era of "Club MTV" and "Rhythm Nation" to produce this fully realized sound.

Sam Sparro sits down at a West Village coffee shop and orders a flat white. The Australian-born, Los Angeles-based singer is in town to promote his new album, Boombox Eternal, and hopes to visit the sites where a couple of legendary clubs once stood.

“I was thinking about just the era of music that inspired the album,” he tells NewNowNext. “I thought Limelight could have been an interesting place. And then, it kind of predates the era, but I was like, it might be cool to just go by the Paradise Garage—which I found out they demolished.”

Boombox Eternal, Sparro’s first album in eight years, is as slick an homage to late-‘80s/early-‘90s pop and R&B as you’re likely to hear in 2020. It’s packed with both kinds of jams: the hi-octane, frenetic kind that demand to be pumped up (“Everything”) and the velvety smooth, slow variety (“Eye to Eye”). It’s as if Sparro traveled back in time to the era of Club MTV and Rhythm Nation to produce this fully realized sound.

Janet Jackson was particularly influential. After seeing Jackson on a recent tour, Sparro began revisiting her music the way he’d first experienced it: on cassette tapes. “I basically re-bought all the cassettes that I’d thrown away,” he says. “It sounded like the way I remember it sounding. Most cassettes are recorded at high speed. It’s not as hi-fi, but it has a warmth and coziness. It’s not perfect. Sometimes if the tape’s a bit worn out, it sounds a bit wobbly. And I use a lot of that stuff on the album, like tape wobble. I just love the format.” Fans who feel the same will be able to order a special limited edition of Boombox Eternal on an actual cassette.

Sparro’s work has always contained an element of nostalgia. He’s been particularly interested in what he calls his queer ancestors’ musical history since he began work on his 2012 album, Return to Paradise.

“I got really obsessed with New York City in the ‘80s. I got really obsessed with the Paradise Garage. I got a tattoo of Larry Levan,” he shares, rolling up the sleeve of his oversized yellow denim jacket to show off an image of the revered DJ on his forearm.

It was around the same time that Sparro personally started trying to clean up his act. Drugs and alcohol had been part of Sparro’s life for years. He’d moved to London when he was 17 and was swept up in the city’s club culture, taking ecstasy and going to dance parties.

Sparro, who grew up in a fairly conservative religious household—his father was a minister—found that drugs opened him up and provided a sense of belonging he’d never experienced before. “I finally felt relief from this internal pain that I was dealing with,” he says. “This very secretive inner life, this shame, this loneliness of growing up queer in a straight world.”

Kevin Posey

His substance abuse escalated as the demands of his career increased. Sparro’s hesitant to get into the specifics, but around 2008, as his self-titled debut album took off—largely fueled by the success of his breakthrough single “Black + Gold”—he was subjected to what he now characterizes as abuse. “Not like physical abuse,” he’s quick to clarify. “There was a lot of manipulation, extreme stress, deception, and being pushed to unhealthy levels of exertion, mental strain. Kind of at the height of my career was some of the worst times in my life.”

He became suicidal and realized that it was time to make a change. “It took me a while to get clean and sober,” he recalls. “There were a lot of stops and starts in the beginning.”

This past January, Sparro celebrated seven years of sobriety, and marked the occasion with an Instagram post, speaking publicly for the first time about his struggles with addiction, mental illness, and PTSD. “Today, I can honestly say I feel free and happy,” he wrote. “I have love in my life and a lot of self-love.”

Sipping his flat white, Sparro reflects on revealing something so personal. “I just thought it could help somebody,” he admits. “I know there’s a lot of people dealing with that, especially in [the LGBTQ] community. I think the rates and types of addiction are higher in our community because of the trauma that we’ve grown up with.”

Kevin Posey

He also hopes to give fans of his music some context for his new songs and for the way he sees himself in relation to the music business these days. As part of his recovery, Sparro had to rethink how he worked. “I’m very autonomous,” he explains. He’s assumed control of his career in a way that he admitted might seem more stressful—taking his own press photos, designing his own album art, directing the video for his upcoming single, “Eye to Eye.” But Sparro works at his own pace now: “I’ve gotten better at slowing down and being more meticulous.”

Sitting in that coffee shop, Sparro doesn’t use the word “comeback,” but he does admit that he no longer sees success the same way he used to: He doesn’t think of himself as being in the music business but as a multidisciplinary artist who makes music.

“It’s like, the more self-esteem that I’ve developed, the less I’ve conflated my self-worth with how my career’s doing,” he says. “Honestly, it’s kind of a weird time for me. But I’m having a good time. I’m enjoying it.”

Boombox Eternal is out February 21 on all streaming platforms and available for purchase.

John Russell is a New York-based entertainment and lifestyle journalist. He has been called “the Courtney Love throwing Chanel compacts at Madonna and Kurt Loder” of his generation.