Sam Lee

Barclaycard Mercury Prize
Barclaycard Mercury Prize

Mercury nominee Sam Lee is as intriguing as the haunting songs on his debut album Ground Of Its Own. His work blends ancient, in the form of traditional Romany and traveller songs, with contemporary ‘mongrelised’ sounds such as percussion instruments made from gas cylinders. He is passionate about folk music - its history, its relevance, and its future - and is a founder of the award-winning The Nest Collective which promotes folk events and music. Ground Of Its Own was made with some of the studio legends who worked with Nick Drake, and has received glowing reviews from Uncut, BBC Music and The Guardian, which called it ‘impressively brave and original.’ Sam told us what went into the album and played some of his key kit.

The Nest Collective Records

Making Ground Of Its Own

Sam Lee’s approach to music is innovative but also respectful and inclusive. He acknowledges the debt his work owes to the traveller and Gypsy communities, crediting several families in the sleevenotes of Ground Of Its Own. He also wants to inspire other people to sing and perform; our recent chat with him found him brimming with encouragement and suggestions as to getting up and giving it a go. He’s delighted to be on the Barclaycard Mercury Prize shortlist, and hopes that his nomination will encourage more people to explore folk music.

The Mercury prize is an award that I like to believe puts the integrity of music at its heart, and the judges are all brilliant people, the ones I know are people I have a great amount of respect for. I’d like to think that they are not impressed by the razzle dazzle, so in that sense it’s a massive honour to be part of it. More importantly, it’s a great honour that folk music is being treated as a candidate there amongst your Plan Bs, your Django Djangos, and that it’s a valid and important musical beacon for today.

It’s funny because it’s the oldest music in the award, it’s been going for thousands of years and here it is, on Radio One, and on Channel Four and in places that don’t care for old things, old ways, and I’m really chuffed. I think folk music deserves to be there. I’m really proud that I get to be the one to get it there, of course, but I would hope that through this attention people would go OK, I quite like this music, maybe there’s other folk music, and look further into the folk canon and discover a whole other world of music that’s below the radar.

With a sizzling new video for his track ‘The Ballad of George Collins’, Sam’s definitely taking folk in new directions.

Sam’s album draws on tradition but reinterprets it with some unique new sounds. He’s a keen collector of songs passed down through an oral tradition rather than written records.

It’s an album first and foremost of traditional songs, traditional British songs that I’ve learned, mostly from the gypsy travelling community, British gypsies and British, Irish and Scottish travellers. And they’re all old songs, some of them ancient, some not so old but hundreds of years old generally.

They’re emotional tales, they’re all very rare versions that nobody’s really heard before, that I dug out, that I’ve learned first hand or dug deep into old recordings made in the 50s and earlier, in caravans, from the old song collectors. But I’ve taken these old songs and I’ve re-appraised them in a contemporary way, not trying to create a folk album in the classic sense of guitars and twiddly-dee and revival arrangements, but bringing an acoustic and a texture to them, using sounds, lost and found sounds that have a similar genesis, or home-made sounds, to the idea of where folk song comes from.

So they are sounds that match up the songs. And that was very much in the creative process, how I tried to source an instrument or an instrumentation or an approach to an instrument that was guided by that song and what the song was asking for. Because every song calls out for different packaging, different wrapping, a different lick of paint.

With a background that encompasses both fine art, teaching survival skills, and burlesque dancing, Sam feels he approaches music in a different way, and that his other interests have helped formulate his unique sound.

I’m not a trained musician, I never went out to be a musician, but I come from a fine art background, and I come from also a wilderness survival and the outdoors. Both those trainings are very much about this idea of ingenuity and gleaning, this idea that everywhere you are, you’re looking, your landscape, your environment, and working out how to creatively interact with it. And reappropriate, and adjust, and challenge. Making an album was never something I thought that I’d ever do, I didn’t have all these big dreams of being a musician or a singer, it was always about finding an emotion, finding a sound that I had an emotional response to, and that emotional response maybe matched up to the one that I was having to that song.

The instruments played on the album include Jew’s harps, Shruti boxes, Swiss hang drums and samples. Here’s a live video of Sam Lee performing On Yonder Hill with Tank & Trumpet at The Magpie’s Nest. Video by Ely Rosenblum.

I did for a little while play the guitar, but while I was playing the guitar I started singing, and then I realised that I really like singing and I didn’t really like the guitar, so there is a very marked lack of guitar on the album. I’ve tinkled around on a bit of piano, I’m really no master of instruments, I’d rather let the professionals do the work, I’m a singer, that is me. We’re all singers really. If you can talk, you can sing.

I’ve always been interested in strange sounds, I think at the time of making the album I was, as I still am, deep into things like Jews’ harps, and that wonderful world of this old but very modern sounding instrument. I discovered Saul Eisenberg and his tempered, cut gas cylinders and I also absolutely love alpine horn. But also part of being in wilderness work is birdsong. And even though it’s much, much used in all albums, very much about particular birds in emotion, imprint, the impression that they make on one’s self, is it a songthrush at evening, is it a skylark on a high hillside, is it the sounds of swifts on a lazy summer’s afternoon? And each one, each bird, has its sort of, its impression, and how that also matched up with the songs. So I was constantly gleaning, grafting, stealing, robbing, sampling.

Barclaycard Mercury Prize

Technically it wasn’t very complex, I wasn’t doing wild things. There was one song, the last song on the album, which is I guess the sort of sound art piece, which is a Scottish ballad, My Aushoon which is the traveller cant for My Old Shoes, and I learnt it off my teacher, Stanley Robertson who was a Scottish traveller and a wonderful man.

It’s an old, old song, beautiful ballad. I started off by using a verse of another Scottish traveller song, sung by a cousin of his, a distant cousin, who’s still alive, a 97 year old woman in a nursing home, now, wonderful singer and piano player, who sings this raw, busty old tune called What Can A Young Lassie Do With An Old Man. It was just such an emotive performance, and so lamentful. I tuned alpine horns and lifted them so they created a sort of chordal backing, just very simple, to match her melody, it was a sort of harmony with her.

So it’s just a lot of layering, a little bit of acoustic, some wrapping around, and then I put the swifts on to get that sense of space, because as the song moves into the first verse of me singing, it’s about as I went, I saw my lovely lass to the church go, and she’s dressed up to get married with another man, it’s all to give this idea of the church bells ringing and this sort of escape, this landscape, this soundscape of the openness.

In a move that’s typical of his magpie streak, Sam heard an unusual variation in the sound of church bells and was quick to bag the sound.

The song ends with a recording I made just on my iPhone of church bells but very interesting church bells, the one day of the year when they do the muffled peal, which is the Day Of The Holy Innocents, in between Christmas and New Year. They put a leather sock round one side of all the bells, the chimes, so when it hits it takes off the impact mode, but leaves the harmonic frequencies so you don’t have that first attack but what you have is this melancholic, harmonic imprint and remains, decay, and it creates this very mournful sound.

Everyone thinks that I’ve done clever things, but actually what I love about a lot of the work in the album is that it’s not technology that has done the clever work, it’s letting nature, just influencing, and small applications on simple devices, which reveal a new acoustic.

Sam’s inspirations are many, and he particularly reveres Scottish traveller Stanley Roberson, his first tutor and mentor.

Stanley Robertson was the last in the great line of the Scottish travellers, and an amazingly ancient man who also loved pop music and Abba. Even though he sang about a thousand ballads that he’d learnt through the ‘auld tradition’ and grown up in tents and travelled, hawking… an existence and a life that was archaic, but he was a very far-sighted man and one who was very liberally-minded. He’s the man that taught me that folk music isn’t some caught-in-aspic, amber-trapped world of revival and just re-enactment, but it’s a living, breathing organism, and that you do what you like with it. Do it respectfully, and you have to call upon the ancients to play it, to sing it, and that’s where you source your energies from, but at the same time, you sing it for now.

Barclaycard Mercury Prize

He’s aware that some of the more traditionally minded folkies are not his biggest fans but takes a laid-back attitude towards them.

There’s the wonderful quote that I often say which is from Gustav Mahler of all people, not the most politically sound of people but he said, ‘Tradition is tending the flame and not worshipping the ashes’, and that has been a great guide for me of how one should approach any tradition. It’s not about looking at what’s gone behind and trying to reshape it, it’s about the fuel that you put on the fire. And that’s how I work, it’s about taking that wonderful rich antiquity and just throw a load of madness at it and see what takes, catches, really. That’s my philosopy.

I couldn’t possibly speak for the whole folk community. There’s been lots of embracing and I have lots of supporters and people saying what I do is great, and I have people who don’t like my style. I’m not sure if that’s me as a personality as much as it’s as a musician, as a singer and as an interpreter. Anyway it’s the hardcore trad world that say, why is he even bothering with instruments? Just sing, you know. That’s the way the songs were, that’s the way they should be.

And there’s equally people, in that real kind of academic world who are like, oh it’s wonderful hearing the songs have a new birth and being taken in this new direction. It appeals to many different people and I woudn’t want it to appeal to everyone. It is marmite music within the folk world, as folk song is marmite stuff, to the contemporary world.

I never want to preach to the converted, I’m quite evangelical in my love of it, because I’m an outsider. I don’t come from folk music, I discovered it, and so I really want to convince the rest of the world, who never heard it, that hey, this is really great stuff, you’ve got to hear it. Part of my motivation for making the music is because I couldn’t really find much folk music other than the deep, academic stuff, that inspired me on a contemporary level.

There wasn’t much that really made my heart soar in the way that it does when I listen to blues or a lot of world musicians, something with real guts and spirit, so I wanted to make something that had that, for me, that emotional risk-taking that I hear in a lot of foreign traditional music. Because I think in many ways, British folk song is beautiful and articulate and dextrous but it’s quite conservative emotionally. It’s very English, do you know what I mean? The same in Scotland, to a certain extent, in Scotland and Ireland as well.

Sam was also delighted to hook up with legendary producers Joe Boyd and John Wood, who contributed to the success of acts like Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny, Kate and Anna McGarrigle and others.

I was really lucky to work with firstly Joe Boyd, the great producer, who put me onto John Wood, who was Joe’s right hand man and studio engineer and mixer for all those seminal records that Joe and Witchseason records did. John Wood was the ears of those kind of days, and was a great mentor and sort of dad towards Nick Drake. He came out of semi-retirement to mix the album, because it was very digital-sounding, it was very sort of studio-sounding, and he brought this wonderful warmth, and that golden touch that he has of placement, of how sounds should be in a very simple way.

He’d take 52 tracks on the Logic files and just put every instrument where it should be, how it should envelop you, particularly where the voice should sit. It’s a very vocally led album, and it was great watching him do it, seeing how he heard, but also hearing while he’s doing, talking, with the anecdotes, working with some greats. I’m indebted to his total genius.

The album was mastered at Fluid Mastering in London.

Japanese Koto

Sam collaborated with some amazing musicians with a variety of different and unique instruments, both for the recording and for performing under the banner of Sam Lee And Friends. As well as Saul Eisenberg (tank drums and Jew’s harp), he worked with artists such as Steve Chadwick (trumpet), Camilo Tirado (tabla and other percussion), Francesca Ter-Berg (cello), Flora Curzon (violin), Jonah Brody (Japanese Koto) and Michael Wright (Jew’s harp).

I’m loving working with them because we’re an eclectic bunch of world musicians, jazz musicians, contemporary classical, and we’ve been doing some fun stuff.

See the side panels for more video interview clips and Sam talking about some of the instruments and sounds, as well as playing.