In anticipation of the release of his new album Bright Sunny South, we caught up with folk singer and multi instrumentalist Sam Amidon to discover a bit more about the album’s background, and Amidon’s own musical background and inspirations.
Hi, how are you?
Good, how’s it going?
Good thank you, I’ve had a day off work, so been spending most of it listening to your new album.
Oh my goodness, that’s genius.
So it’s due for release in about a week, how do you normally spend the build up to an album release?
Well there’s a sort of a weird calm before the storm. A lot of the stuff is done; I do have a couple of things, but the three or so weeks before an album comes out are weirdly quiet. You’ve finished everything for the release and the work has gone into other people’s hands.
There’s plenty of stuff going on, but for me, for the musicians themselves it’s actually quiet and can be quite confusing and strange. You’re in a weird empty space; because you’re not playing any shows, but other than a few things like this interview, it’s quiet. So I’m going to see some films, hanging out with my kids and enjoying not being on tour yet. And reading Proust.
I guess this is the closest you get to time off really?
Yeah, I’ve taken enough time off between albums, but whilst I’ve not been terribly busy with my own work, I’ve worked on other things. It’s a time when you can actually enjoy your time off, because you know you’re going to be working hard for a time after that. So it’s a time you can have some space to yourself, and it’s good, I like it.
Has the process been much different to your other albums?
It is different, in so much that it’s the first time where I’ve had a proper tour schedule. It’s all a little bit more official. The last couple of albums were just done in a more kind of intimate way.
You’ve kept things quite stripped back on this album, was that always the intention?
It kind of was the intention yeah. Hopefully not in the arty sense, but in the sense that I was living in London and spending a lot of time in London, where I don’t know as many people as in New York.
So my life here is kind of weirdly solo. I mean it’s not solo, because I have a wife and kids, so I have an extremely social life. But in terms of the community of musicians, I don’t know that many musicians here.
So I was playing a lot more, just on my own in the house. And just in terms of the material, the songs I had worked out for the album had a more solitary feel to them. They’re more of a lonesome ballad style as opposed to the social folk song.
The album is still extremely collaborative musically, I was working with Chris Vatalaro, Thomas Bartlett and Shahzad Ismaily, they were my musical collaborators on the record, they were the band, but they’re also people I’ve worked with on a duo basis as well. So I worked with them as well, but I definitely wanted it to have a more intense focus on each individual sound and the melodies.
You played quite a few instruments on the album: banjo, guitar, fiddle and piano. Which was your first instrument and what was it made you start?
I started playing the fiddle when I was three and really I was entirely a fiddle player until I was about 21 or 22. Banjo I sort of picked up in high school, and the guitar has been the last ten or so years. And the piano I really don’t know how to play, I just sort of figured it out for one song.
But I was really a fiddle player growing up, I was immersed in the world of New England, where I grew up, fiddle tunes and had a lot of Irish and French/Canadian tunes. Especially those traditional Irish tunes, I had a thing for those. It wasn’t until recently that singing became a thing. I mean I sang a little bit when I was a kid.
From what I was reading you came from a fairly music orientated background, was it always the case that music was going to be your profession?
It was always sort of assumed, in the sense that I was always immersed in this world. I was lucky to be immersed in a world of a lot of great folk musicians. My parents never really pushed it on me. They were never “you have to do this”. But they just tricked me into it, by having everyone we knew be a musician.
Another huge influence in that respect was Thomas Bartlett, who co-produced this album and plays on it. He became my best friend when we were about 6. I mean, I liked playing music, but I loved basketball and I was into all the stuff the kids were into, whereas Thomas was really driven. When he was 6 he was,“I’m going to be a concert pianist”. You know what I mean, he had that intensity to him. I think it was largely, if not more, because of him that I’m doing this.
We used to play at his house, we’d alternate, we’d play basketball, run around in the woods, watch TV and then we’d play fiddle and piano for an hour, and work out arrangements, probably from about the age of eight. And he drove that; he was incredibly intense in that way. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I really thought about it. I was fifteen, when I remember thinking, “I want to do this, this is my life.” I thought about it constantly then.
Given how long you’ve known him now, you must have a really good working relationship. You’d know what works for each other, which buttons to press, and which not to.
It’s a very close and intense musical relationship. Sometimes it’s too close. We’ve been playing music together since we were six, which is 25 years. Sometimes he’ll say something and I’ll be like, “Man that’s just like that time when you were eight and you said that about…”, you know what I mean? There can be too much background.
It can be very intense and we have a really deep connection in terms of music, and how we listen to music and how we play; and I really cherish that. This album, the three musicians that play, Shahzad Ismaily, Chris Vatalaro and Thomas Bartlett, all three of them are close collaborators from different stages of my life.
Thomas has been the longest term for years and years, and Shahzad is somebody who really taught me how to improvise, and that’s been the last eight years with Shahzad. And we had a really close duo and friendship. It started off with me giving him a banjo lesson and he’d give me a guitar lesson; and we’d just improvise. We have a really close improvisatorial relationship. Chris Vatalaro, who’s the drummer, he lives here in London. He’s my one musical connection, my fellow ex-pat in London. And it’s been about the last two years with him, but we’ve played about a million shows together, because he lives over here.
So I brought these three people together, who I’ve each had very intense duo relationships with, but we’d never played together as a quartet, as a band until the recording. And it was quite awkward sometimes. They all play all of the instruments; they’re all multi instrumentalists. So it was OK lets work on this song, and we’d have no idea, I’d have to awkwardly point to which chair or instrument they should go to, because they could all have done any of them.
That could possibly cause a few arguments
Yeah, everyone was too polite to argue, but there was just this weird tension. Which I liked, I liked having that tension in there.
So how do you approach the songwriting, do you start off with the lyrics, or a melody or a tune?
Well all of the words are folk song words. They’re all from folk songs. I’ve never written an original lyric in my life. I don’t really have any interest in that; though I might do at some point, who knows. I tend to find that I’ll have old murder ballads, or children’s song, or gospel tune, and the melody will be kicking about in my head.
I’ll be sat down at the guitar and writing some weird shit on the guitar and I’ll realise that the song can fit over that. That’s kind of my basic process in a nutshell. The lyrics are pretty much unchanged, but the melody and the harmonic backdrop and all that stuff is radically changed. Totally reworked.
The final part of the process is bringing it to other musicians to collaborate, other musicians who don’t generally have a folk music background, they bring something else to it. But once I’m singing it, I’m sort of singing it as if it’s mine.
If that’s the case you would have a large back catalogue of songs to choose from, how do you set about choosing which songs to reinterpret?
There’s a massive back catalogue in the sense that there are a million folk songs out there, and there’s a million other songs too. But I myself don’t know that many folk songs. I’m not an expert folk singer, I’m not a collector or expert on that all. I just love to sing.
I love a lot of those old songs. Alan Lomax made a lot of those field recordings throughout American in the 1950s and I love all those old field recordings. I have a lot of friends who are folk music collectors, great folk singers, and I’ve played music with them, and my parents are folk singers too. There are all these sources out there.
I don’t think I have ever sat down and said, “I need to find a song to sing, I should go research” – it’s more that I just love listening to that music, these are my favourite musicians. There’s a guy called Doc Boggs, a woman named Bessie Jones, there’s all this shape note music, sacred heart music and choral music. I don’t listen to this music because I think it should be preserved, or because it’s important to listen to them, or anything like that. I listen to them the same way I’d listen to Miles Davis or Yo La Tengo or whoever. I just love that kind music, they’re deep musicians, I love the way they sing.
It’s like with anybody a song gets stuck in your head, and with a lot of these old folk songs, it’s a very personal process. A lot of the old 19th century folk songs from England, America or wherever, they’re very intense, a lot of them are about death, they’re murder ballads, or they’re sorrowful love songs. They’re very sad and dark songs and often, that’s just something that gives you comfort – for some reason it gives people comfort to sing about these horrible things.
You were last in Australia a couple of months ago for a series of shows, how did they go?
It was a blast, I did one show with Thomas at the Adelaide Festival and then I did two solo shows in Melbourne and Sydney as well, it was awesome.
And with the album release coming up, are there any plans for you to head back down and tour again?
Absolutely, it hasn’t been put in place yet, but in the next year for sure. I love playing in Australia. It’s always a great audience; people really love music there. I find them to be really intense listeners in a great way.
Great, well I guess I should wrap up. Thanks for taking the time to have a chat, good luck with the album and the tour.
It’s a pleasure, thanks so much.