Small town boredom, an online band name generator and a seven-year friendship proved to be the recipe of success for genre-less Gen-Z musical trio Sam Backoff, Savana Santos and Sami Bearden of Avenue Beat.
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You've likely heard the group's overnight trending TikTok track, "F2020," which chronicles the artists' experiences living through one of the most challenging years of their lifetimes. From a beloved cat dying to the sudden onset of the global pandemic, the lyrics prove to be the perfect formula of humor and vulnerability, voicing the grief and confusion an entire generation has been feeling since March. Though many have taken on new hobbies or attended virtual happy hours to make quarantine feel more bearable, the chorus' lead-in of "lowkey fuck 2020" has practically become the year's universal mantra.
For Avenue Beat, the words prove even more intimate. "And I put out some music that nobody liked/ So I got really sad and bored at the same time," heard in the first verse, is a direct result of their single being pulled from country radio just months ago.
Photo courtesy of Big Machine/ Tape Room Records
But "F2020" wasn't written to launch Avenue Beat's pop career, rather it came more as a much-needed catharsis. "That day, I was just creating something that felt the most 'me,'" Savana explained. "I didn't care about genre or what we were doing because we were in this weird limbo space." That lyrical outlet quickly became group therapy, creating an essential addition to quarantine playlists everywhere.
Fast forward to August, just a month after the song's July 10 release, and the track has over 12 million global streams. Against all odds, 2020 may somehow become Avenue Beat's year.
PAPER caught up with Avenue Beat on Zoom (where they popped multi-vitamins mid-call) and talked about finding their place in a new genre, using writing as quarantine therapy and what it means to have a viral release.
Let's kick it off with a check-in. How are you all? What's on your minds?
Sam Backoff: What is on my mind?
Sami Bearden: I feel like I'm fine.
Sam: You know, you go through waves during all of this junk where one day you're like, "This is the best day of my whole life!" And the next day you're like, "I am devastated for no reason."
Savana Santos: Yes, I know exactly what you mean.
Sam: Right now, I'm just somewhere in the middle, which is good. I'm on the up, you know?
I want to dive into the year. Very ironically, despite the sentiment of "F2020," it has definitely been your year. How are you handling such a fast-paced upward climb in the last month?
Sam: It was so weird. We were talking about it yesterday; we put out a single to country radio and they pulled it. We put it out right at the beginning of quarantine, and they had just pulled it, and I was sitting on my couch and I was devastated. I was like, "My career is over, oh my god." And then literally a couple of days later, Sami's cat died. All of a sudden, Savana had written the first verse and chorus of that song, we threw it on TikTok, and then we had five million views and I was like, "I can't even handle what's going on at all." It was just the weirdest roller coaster of emotions.
Sami: It's not real in my brain yet. I don't know how to act. It's moment by moment for me; I'll remember some horrible thing that's happened and I'll be sad, and then I'll remember that this is happening and I'll be like, "Woo!" Then I just keep going back and forth.
Savana: Same for me. I forget that this happened until there will be a moment like yesterday. Sami and I ordered Postmates and then our Postmates delivery girl was like, "Are you guys Avenue Beat?" And we were like, "What?!"
Sami: That was literally the first time I've ever been recognized by somebody. Sweet, sweet Sarah. It was so weird.
Sam: She DM'd us yesterday.
What a feeling that must be though, right? And that's actually a really great segue into my next question. You've done something already that can be really challenging for new musicians, which is that you've created a group identity with a viral song in less than two months. How did Avenue Beat come to be, and how did you choose the name?
Savana: Online band name generator when we were 14!
Sam: That's how we chose the name. But we're all from the same small town in Illinois; Savana and I have known each other since we were babies, and then I met Sami when we were 14 doing musical theater in our hometown. We basically have been singing together ever since.
Sami: A third of our lives! I did the math.
Savana: We never meant to make this a career, though. It just kind of happened. We were just chillin,' vibin,' hangin' out and then we just fell into doing this for our life, I guess.
Sam: There's nothing else to do in our hometown, so we would just sit in my kitchen and write songs or make covers or whatever. And here we are!
Sami: And play bars at 14.
Sam: Yeah, we played a lot of three-hour cover gigs and stuff like that.
I grew up in a small town where there was nothing to do, so I get that. I did not make a music career out of it though, so y'all are at least one step ahead of me. Speaking of, pop stations have been picking up "F2020" since it went viral. Can you describe to me what it was like the moment you heard your song on the radio for the first time?
Sam: Where was I? I was driving. I went for a moody drive just for fun and I put the radio 'cause I was like, "Maybe I'll hear it, probably not though, whatever." And I was driving around and I stopped to take a video of the sunset and then the song started playing. I literally almost threw my phone out the window; it was so exciting. I'm glad I was parked because I probably would've crashed my car. It was crazy.
Savana: I remember this because it was the earliest I had ever woken up in my entire life. For some reason, I checked my phone at like 6:58 in the morning, and there was a radio host in Nashville for 107.5 The River who was like, "I'm going to play your song in two minutes, go to your car." And I was like, "What?!" I bolted to my car and then I turned it on and it was on!
Sami: I'm so mad! I still haven't heard it organically yet, I'm mad.
Sam: Just go sit in your car and listen to the radio.
Sami: I'm just going to do that. The Prius won't cost me any gas, so I can just sit in there all day.
You all essentially created the song from scratch. The three of you wrote it, Savana handled production, which I do want to talk about a little bit. When you produced and mixed the song, what inspired you to take such a divergence from the group's usual country sound? Can you walk me through that process?
Savana: At the time, our single did just get pulled, so we were in this weird limbo of "What are we going to do next?" Deciding what we wanted to do, where we wanted to move forward. That day, I was just creating something that felt the most "me." I didn't care about genre or what we were doing because we were in this weird limbo space. I was like, "You know what? I'm just going to produce a song, I'm not going to give any thought to what it needs to be or any perception of what it has to be." And that's what came out.
Sam: Who would've thought? When you just listen to your heart, things work out.
Sami: Unless your heart's a dumbass.
Sam: But that also might be fun!
That's going to be the quote, the only one I'm using. "When you listen to your heart, things work out." Have you produced music before? Was this a thing where you sat down in front of your computer and you were like, "This is going to be the first I ever produce" and it's going to go viral?
Savana: For our country stuff, I co-produced with these two dudes, Ashley Gorley and David Garcia. It was a really great learning experience for me; I didn't really do as much on those projects, it was more of me just figuring out how to create a song. From that, I think I learned how to do everything myself.
Sami: Once the song was finished and it had kind of popped off, our label was like, "Hey, get this out immediately." I feel like you didn't have time to overthink it. There was no talk of another producer, you were just like, "Okay, I guess I'm going to do this." You didn't have time to doubt your dopeness, so you just got it done.
Savana: I think we finished the song in 48 hours or something.
That's really fast, but it worked out quite well for you. You've taken the track to top viral charts; in this moment, you're #4 on Spotify's United States Viral 50.
Sami: Oh, that's wack!
Savana: That's wack.
All three: [yell excitedly]
Savana: What the heck?!
Sam: I don't understand what's going on.
You're really topping viral charts. You were playlisted on Pop Rising and Pop Sauce on Spotify in particular. What is it like starting in the country world, now becoming part of the pop world and crossing genres so early in the game?
Savana: It just kind of happened and we didn't really need to have a sit-down discussion with everyone on our label and be like, "We want to do this."
Sami: We've always just made...
Sam: Music that we like.
Sami: We're lucky that people nowadays aren't really concerned with genre with all the ways that we can curate our own playlists, and everybody has this really eclectic music taste. So I don't think we've ever really thought like the binary terms of genre, we just kind of made. So whatever we make, wherever it's supposed to live, we'll hang out there. And then if it ends up going somewhere else, we'll hang out there. We're just going with the flow. We're just vibing.
Savana: We're just vibing.
This pop space, pop world, however you want to imagine it, is that somewhere you envision yourself continuing to experiment in?
Sami: Whoever wants us! [laughs]
Savana: Whatever the music wants to be is what it will be. I don't think we're going to put any restrictions on what we create.
Sam: No rules from here on out.
Looking back at the song, I want to dig into some lyrics. There's the iconic first verse which was in the original TikTok, "Yo, my cat died and a global pandemic took over my life/ Put out some music nobody liked/ Got really sad and bored at the same time." It's all very real, very emotional in a song that had a tinge of humor to it. You listen to the song, and you're like, "Yeah, F 2020!" Did writing the song help you all cope with this collective grief that 2020 has brought all of us?
Savana: Yeah. The lyrics when I was writing the first verse and chorus, I didn't have to think about the lyrics because the lyrics were just what had happened in our lives.
Sam: She was just venting.
Sami: I think there's something about putting your problems on an easy-to-digest plate for other people. It's so weird that all this tragic stuff happen, but now people are just singing, "My cat died..." It's like, "Yes, you know my pain!" You know it. Even if you don't know it, you know it.
How did the second verse come to be? The line I was really intrigued by was, "The problems I got are honestly probably not that bad/ When I compare 'em to some shit y'all had." Where did that lyric come from?
Sami: That's kind of a problem in and of itself, wanting to complain about it but also feeling guilty for complaining about it because you know that...
Sam: Everybody else is going through all kinds of shit that's probably way harder than the shit that you're going through, and then you're like, "Why am I complaining when these people have it so much worse?"
Sami: We just had to acknowledge our own privilege as people who do not have to face half the shit that people are facing right now.
I want to make sure we talk about the TikTok video that introduced the song. It featured some imagery created to demand justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and so many more Black lives that have been lost just this year. How are you all prioritizing activism during this challenging time?
Savana: I think it's not a coincidence that the time in which we're stuck at home and we have to think about things is the time that all this stuff is being brought to light. It's a really important time for us to get educated, first of all.
Sam: Do a lot of soul-searching, a lot of self-reflection.
Savana: Yeah, and get involved as much as we can because we have the opportunity and the time.
Sam: When will we all ever collectively as a community ever have this much time to really do all of this work again? Life has kind of taken a pause, so it's given everybody such a good opportunity to really work on these things that we definitely should have been trying to fix a lot sooner.
Sami: And Nashville, the songwriter community in general, has really hit the ground running with educating and taking action. A friend of ours, Parker McKay, started the Nashville Action Committee. She sends out one easy-to-do but impactful action for everyone to do a week, and then you just tackle it. What people are doing here especially is just so mind-blowing, seeing a community band together... The Nashville songwriter community is very white, but everyone is acting as allies, which I think is very telling of the empathy that defines this community.
Nashville had a protest that attracted 10,000 people in June, so there is this outwardly physical type of activism that's happening right now, but there's also the social media side of things, and y'all are very well versed on TikTok. What are your thoughts on TikTok as a platform for activism?
Sam: I think TikTok is such a great platform for activism. The biggest hashtag on TikTok for the longest time was the Black Lives Matter hashtag; people could go online and look at all of the peaceful protests and see the change and feel the community, even if you went to your protest in your city, you saw there were so many people in these other cities. You can spread information and education so quickly because everybody can upload and see it.
Sami: TikTok is such a great format for education because it boils down things to small, easy-to-digest little bits. If you get a large influx of hard-to-process information, it doesn't stick with you or you'll see it for the lump sum that it is and just be like, "That's a lot right now, I need to go to this." I think it really helps educate people because the platform can be fun, it can be quick, it can be educational, and creators on TikTok are so brilliant in how they use it. Viva la TikTok.
There is no confirmation that this is going to happen and things might change, but what are your thoughts on a potential TikTok ban, and how would that change music promotion for the group?
Savana: I think TikTok is amazing, and what makes TikTok amazing is the community. I feel like, if it gets banned, we'll just pick up and move somewhere else.
Sam: Everyone's already like, "Alright, if TikTok gets banned, we're all moving to Byte!" The people are still there, or they'll find us on our Instagram or our YouTube videos or whatever. It would suck and I would be so sad if TikTok got banned because it's my source of joy, but we'll find somewhere else to go.
Sami: It'll be the year 2021, looking up TikTok compilation videos just like we did with Vine. I don't want to go back.
You were set to open for Rascal Flatts on some shows this year. What were you looking forward to most about that touring experience, and how are you feeling about the live stream situation right now?
Savana: For touring, I'm excited — if we ever get to go back out — that there might be a song that people know the words to. That's never happened before.
Sam: That's never happened. That's always been our goal. Whenever people are like, "What's a moment you guys want to have?" Hearing your song on the radio, one, and then two, having a crowd full of people sing your lyrics back to you. I feel like that's everything.
Do you think that because the song went viral, it inspired you to want to make more music like it? What are your plans for music moving forward?
Sami: There's definitely this pressure a bit to recreate the success of the first song, and your natural instinct is like, "Okay, is there a format that I can copy and paste?" But I think we're all trying really hard to block out that noise and still just do what we've always done, which is create stuff that we want to listen to and stuff that we enjoy, stuff that's true to us. There is sometimes, in the corner of my brain, like, "Is this it?"
Do you think that, based on our current trajectory, 2021 is going to be a better year?
Savana: No expectations! [laughs] I don't want to jinx 2021, I'm going to let it be.
Sam: It can be whatever it wants to be; hopefully, it's kind to us.
Sami: No expectations. We are going in blind, cautiously optimistic, but hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. How about that?
Photography: Delaney Royer
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