At 26 years old, many people have a quick double-take when meeting Sam Ness. “His hair and beard conjure images of Jim Morrison circa 1969, and, like Morrison, Ness writes poetry that he sets to music and prefers the character of old European cities. But Ness isn’t as lost as Morrison was” (Wisconsin State Journal). But it’s not just his looks that often surprise. After leaving his small hometown of Sauk City, WI, Sam has already seen and lived more than most could in several lifetimes.
Sam made a big entrance to the stage when he started performing in his high school Show Choir and Musicals, earning him awards such as Colby Show Choir Invitational Outstanding Male Soloist Award, Lacrosse Logan Show Choir Invitational Showstopper Award, Onalaska Show Choir Invitational Outstanding Male Soloist Award, Milton Show Choir Invitational Outstanding Male Soloist Award, and Monona Grove Show Choir Invitational Outstanding Male Soloist Award. To pair with the show choir season, Sam performed in several musicals landing him The Wisconsin Tommy Award – Outstanding Lead Performer (Role of Beast in Beauty and the Beast), as well as a Wisconsin Tommy Award Nomination for Outstanding Lead Performer (Role of Marius in Les Miserables).
Outside of theater productions, Sam made time for competing at a varsity level on the Football team as well as Track and Field teams, while competing nationally on the Trap and Skeet team. The athletics and theater productions came naturally to Sam after practicing Karate (Taekwondo) for a decade.
Sam started seriously writing his own songs at age 15, and started religiously playing 8 open mic nights a week in Madison, WI as soon as he got his drivers license. This landed him his first residency gig performing weekly at Madison’s Tip Top Tavern. While his family and friends urged him to pursue theater, Sam felt connected to his songwriting and needed to see it through first.
With several scholarships to study theater in New York, California, Tennessee, Massachusetts, and Wyoming, Sam rejected them all when he felt called to take some time to travel. With a his guitar, a rucksack, and a few hundred dollars, Sam was given a one-way ticket to Edinburgh, Scotland by a fan he had briefly met. After he landed, he quickly ran out of money. He befriended the staff at a hostel while he learned the craft of busking (street performing). After he spent months honing his skill, he hitch-hiked and hopped busses for almost a year across Scotland, England, France, Spain, Portugal, and Switzerland, sleeping in hostels, people’s couches, and occasionally in the street.
Sam returned home to Wisconsin shortly before he turned 19. He started building a following in his home, as well as recording his first full album, “Whispered on the Wind” which landed him the Madison Area Music Awards 2018 Alternative Album of the Year shortly after receiving the Madison Area Music Association Breakthrough Artist Third Place Winner 2017. He made a promise to perform for his livelihood, or starve to death, and so far he’s still playing music, and loving every moment of it.
A few of the friends Sam made hitch-hiking through Scotland came to visit him the following year on their way home to New Zealand. Shortly after, they invited him to perform at their wedding just outside Christchurch, NZ. Off like the wind, Sam spent a few months hitch-hiking and busking across both the North and South Islands, mixed with a 23 show tour across Thailand and Cambodia arranged by an agent out of Bangkok.
Sam returned home to keep touring the following summer. Come Autumn, Sam got itchy feet again and decided to revisit his friends in the UK. He recorded a few ideas shortly before he left, then finished writing and mixing his sophomore album, “Lullabies & FaerieTales” from his laptop during his journey. The album was nominated for several Madison Area Music Awards, and he was awarded the Male Vocalist of the Year 2019.
Roaring into 2020, Sam released four new Live in Studio videos, which led into the release of his “Sam Ness – Live in Studio” (Later rebranded as Sam Ness – Down the Road) album on March 8th, 2020. Shortly after, he landed a track on Sofar Session’s Spotify playlist, “Now Playing”, played 105.5FM’s Studio M Session, as well as opened for the band America on their 50th Anniversary Tour at the Crystal Grand Music Theater in Wisconsin Dells.
Sam could only roar so far into 2020 though. Along with other musicians, he locked himself at home daydreaming about being back in the world. His song, “Six Feet Away feat. Grace Gladem” debuted mid-summer, alongside a music video featuring Kallie Tierney.
Knowing he couldn’t be on the road a while, Sam took the opportunity to slow down and reflect on the last 1000 shows in the middle of Wisconsin’s Northwoods. He spent the winter isolated in a Cabin recording an album that was released in May 2021 called, The Cabin. Hitting the ground running, Sam left the cabin and played over 150 shows through the Summer of 2021, and took home the Madison Area Music Awards Unique Performer of the Year as well as Male Vocalist of the Year.
Touring extensively after The Cabin was released, Sam returned to “The Cabin” to record his latest album, City Lights and Smoke which was released July 23, 2022. Shortly after, he received the Madison Area Music Awards Album of the Year (City Lights and Smoke) as well as Folk/Rock/Americana Song of the Year (Slow it Down).
2023 has been a great year, Sam took the Madison Area Music Awards Male Vocalist of the Year and Acoustic Guitar Player of the Year. With over 200 shows in 2023, you’ll have to check out his socials to see where the road has taken him now! Stay tuned!
“Sam Ness is taking the Madison music scene by storm. His rugged charm coupled with immense talent have made him a stellar act to watch”
-On Wisconsin Radio