London-born Sam Lee has been described as ‘Britain’s most inventive folk singer’, and the Mercury Prize-nominated musician’s second album, The Fade of Time, has already earned him stunning reviews in 2015. We caught up with him just before he embarks on his first US tour to discuss music, activism and campfire singing.
So Sam, tell us how you developed an interest in folk?
I didn’t grow up with folk music in my family. But from a young age, I’d gone off camping with a very alternative organisation which broke away from the Scouts in the 1920s. We had a very strong tradition there, round the campfire, of singing folk songs and pop songs. I just fell in love with the music, with the story songs and with the experience of singing with other people. But it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I discovered that these were songs that come from an ancient lineage and have an amazing part of our cultural map and heritage in them.
Then I met a man called Stanley Robinson, who is part of the Scottish traveller community, which is an ancient, pre-Celtic community. They’re the nomads of Scotland, basically. And Stanley was in some ways the last of those great storytellers and bards. He took me on as his apprentice for the last four years of his life. He tutored me in his way of life; not just in the music but also in his way of singing, the knowledge of the history of the songs, the lives of travellers. It was an extraordinary, unique apprenticeship.
So you say he taught you how to sing folk: is there a particular technique you had to learn?
Actually, it’s more of a spiritual experience. It’s about how one learns to sing the story of the song; how one engages with the ancestors. It’s about giving the songs respect. To me, these songs aren’t from dusty old books; they’re living, breathing things that evolve and grow and develop. And they can manifest themselves in new ways.
It’s interesting that you talk about the evolution of these songs. You’re certainly known for reinterpreting folk. What’s inspired you in that?
I grew up with folk songs in the contemporary music world just being played as folk songs. They weren’t being honoured as potentially new and relevant to another generation. And I never got why folk songs had to be played on a guitar or done in a traditional way. These songs can have any sort of instrumentation that you like; anything would work, as long as it’s done respectfully. So I thought, ‘Ok I’m going to try something different with these.’ I wanted to make it contemporary, but honour that sense of history and respect that side of the magic.
How much do you stick to the original lyrics and melody, and how much do you change?
Lyrically I stick quite close to the original and melodically I’m using the same tune, but improvising within it. But I don’t feel any need to be sort of preservatory about the songs. These songs adapt and change all the time.
I wanted to ask you about your aesthetic: the music video for The Ballad of George Collins for example, is so incredibly beautiful, visually. What are you drawing from there?
I cut my artistic training in contemporary, conceptual new media and also trained as a dancer. In that particular piece I wanted to create something in a fantastically urban, sort of psychosexual way and it was an opportunity to start making a sort of strange, visual noise out of the songs.
What were the practicalities of shooting something like that?
It was hard work, but it was brilliant. I’d never made a music video before and suddenly I had this huge production on my hands! Loads of my friends work in film and were really open to help and see it happen. It actually also felt really serious. I’d just made a little album and put it out there and suddenly people are wanting to make a music video. Wow! What a treat!
You’ve been described as not just an artist but an activist. How do you feel about that?
I do see myself as a bit of an activist. I mean, it’s a big word, but for me, the activism is about trying to realise that in this immense period of social change that’s happening, why is it worth fighting for peace and equality if we end up discovering that we’ve lost our own heritage? So many of the reasons for why we’re here and what we’re meant to be doing are intertwined in those traditions. Also for me, it’s about wanting to shake up that traditional folk community, the community that has kept these songs alive for thousands of years. It’s not just about preserving the music, but about seeing it adapt to the modern digital age.
Now tell us: you’re going to the States soon! And supporting Patty Griffin!
Yeah, an unlikely but exciting teaming up there! The label who puts my album out in the States also puts out Patty Griffin. And so I got to know her music, and she’s great. Her music is so thoughtful and provocative. I’m getting excited to work with her. I actually haven’t toured the States under my name before. I did go on the road with the Waterson family, who are kind of the royal family of British folk, but I went for the fun, really. But I have no track record there, I’ve just literally released an album – so it’ll be interesting to see how the audience respond. I’m very excited about it.
Check out Sam’s US tour dates on his website: http://samleesong.co.uk
Sound Cloud: https://www.youtube.com/user/samleesong