Image Courtesy of Sam Amidon
UK-based American folk singer Sam Amidon is somewhat a unique creature in the folk scene – a singer-songwriter who uses traditional ballads as the starting point for his music but turns them into something completely new and unique. With a new album, Bright Sunny South, having just hit stores our very own Gareth Hugh Evans chatted to Amidon about the new album, his process for sourcing new music and why there’s a Mariah Carey song among the tracks.
Gareth Hugh Evans: I managed to catch you when you were in Sydney earlier this year, at FBi Social in Kings Cross and really really enjoyed your set. I hadn’t seen you live before and loved it.
Sam Amidon: Thank you.
GHE: And when you were in Australia you announced that you had a new album, Bright Sunny South, on the way. Tell us a little bit about the album – you’re describing it as a lonesome album right?
SA: It has that element in the sense that it comes from a little bit more of a solitary place. It’s still super collaborative – I’ve been working with some of my favourite musicians. There’s just more moments on the record where you feel like you’re in the presence of one spirit. I’m singing a lot of those older ballads that are solitary mountain ballads.
GHE: So you’re reaching back again and playing a lot of traditional music on Bright Sunny South?
SA: So far I don’t write songs from scratch. I have no idea how to do that, I’ve never done it. I don’t write lyrics. But I love to sing and I love of folk songs so what I’ve ended up doing is taking old folk songs from various sources and then just totally changing the music around. More reorganising the music then putting it into a new context. This album is almost entirely that with a couple of covers.
GHE: I’ve been reading a lot about the early folk music collectors recently – people like Alan Lomax and James Francis Child and Cecil Sharp – who went out and either recorded and notated folk songs. Are you diving into these song collections for your traditional tracks or are you collecting songs yourself from other singers?
SA: I don’t collect them. It’s a hard and weird thing to do right now – it’s hard to tell where to look. There are people who do that now but it’s very different from when it was done in the 1940s and 50s when you could go out into the rural areas and really you were hopping back a century pretty much. There were still playing these songs. I’ve learned a lot of my songs from those collections and I’ve also learned a lot of my songs from friends who would play old-time songs now – it’s still a living tradition. And I’ve not just learned my songs from the field recordings, I’ve been really influenced by the field recordings because of all the qualities they have. One thing that’s amazing about those Alan Lomax recordings is that you’re hearing a whole body of music that’s not being recorded in a studio. It’s all being recorded in people’s houses, on their front lawns and porches. Sonically their quite weird – the person stops singing halfway through because the baby’s crying or there’s some animals off in the distance. It’s a bizarre and wonderfully unpredictable sonically. That’s been equally inspiring for me.
GHE: I’ve been a big fan of traditional music for a while now and I’m always really interested in where the singers get their songs from. Whether they’re just getting them from other singers or whether they’re diving into the archives of these collectors directly.
SA: I’m not somebody who has too much patience for archives. I respect greatly people who do that because I learn a lot of my songs from them. I’m more of a random – I love listening to music. For me I don’t take an academic approach, I don’t go leafing through old songbooks, I don’t know how to do that. It’s really a much more personal thing for me which is simply when a song gets caught in my head that’s when it has a chance of becoming something I would sing. It’s often quite an upside-down process – a lot of times I write the guitar part first. I’m just working on music and I come up with the guitar part and then I’ll realise that a melody that’s been kicking around my head can be shoehorned in there somehow, fit on top in a way.
In that sense the music is a much more a personal, compositional style process. Like the song “Short Life” on this record – I just wrote the music and then I just went “Oh yeah, those lyrics could go in there”. It’s a random process. In a certain sense I definitely am a folk singer because I sing folk songs, but in a certain sense I’m not a folk singer at all because I’m not trying to sing them at all in the way that other people would expect. I’m using that as the source material to make music.
It’s much more the way that, in the 1960s, jazz musicians used show tunes, tinpan alley tunes as the content for the music they made. The melodies from 1920s and 30s shows that they adapted to become vehicles for them. It’s sort of similar to that – I take the skeleton of these folk songs and turn them into something to play music on.
GHE: And that is the folk process as well – taking something that already exists and refining it for yourself.
SA: Exactly. That’s what a lot of [collectors] did too. I’m not saying I’m unique at all. First of all that’s been done on the classic records of the 1970s like Andy Irvine and Paul Brady or Martin Carthy. And also if you’re listening to a guy on a mountain he might have learned a song from an organ player but he has a banjo so he plays it on a banjo. It’s always been a random process.
GHE: The two songs on the album that are the contemporary tracks, or at least your reinterpretation of contemporary tracks, are the Tim McGraw song “My Old Friend” and the Mariah Carey song “Shake It Off”. How do you choose those songs? What’s the process behind picking contemporary songs amid all the traditional songs?
SA: It’s the exact same thing as a folk song. I heard those melodies, the Mariah Carey album and Tim McGraw song, two years ago now and they just got stuck in there. Certain melodies have a quality of ancientness. It’s hard to describe but they have an ancient quality. And whether that’s a folk song that has that quality or a Mariah Carey or whatever song it doesn’t matter. So it was the exact same process. Even lyrically those songs express something similar to a murder ballad or a lonesome ballad. They just had that encounter with something beautiful that caught my ear.
GHE: A lot of people might include a Mariah Carey cover on their album for shock value but I don’t get that impression from you. It sounds like you’re including it just based on the song itself.
SA: I’m glad to hear that. I hope the music earns that quality because I know what you mean for sure.
GHE: You’ve been to Australia a couple of times in the last few years – is there any plans to bring Bright Sunny South down here too?
SA: It’s not on the schedule but I’m certainly going to come back. I’m not sure when but it’s going to happen for sure. I love playing in Australia. You guys still love music.
GHE: I wish there’d been more people at your gig in Sydney this time around.
SA: It’s fine. It was an intimate space and an intimate gig. You have to trust in your experience as a concert goer. Having your own experience with the music can be extremely intense – if there’s only three people there you can still have an amazing night.
GHE: Sam, I better leave it there but thank you so much. It’s been great chatting with you today. Good luck with Bright Sunny South and hopefully we’ll see you out in Australia soon.
SA: Thanks very much.
Bright Sunny South is out now. Check out Sam Amidon’s brand new video for “As I Roved Out” below: