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Sam Amidon: Bright Sunny South

In recent years, ‘folk’ music has begun to gain more attention in mainstream media, but with every new, chart-friendly iteration it seems to become more diluted, more distanced from its foundations. While ‘folk’ originally meant traditional songs passed down orally, in the 60s it came to mean contemporary songs written in a traditional style, often carrying a broad socio-political message. Not long after it came to mean almost any song played on an acoustic guitar. Sam Amidon, born in Brattleboro, Vermont is truly a 21st century folk musician, breathing new life into old songs with modern arrangements, re-written melodies and a unique vocal delivery. Adapting mainly Appalachian and Irish folk, his music is both adventurous and restrained, as showcased on his newest album, Bright Sunny South, named after a heartbreaking song about a young man leaving his family to fight in the Civil War, and its predecessors All Is Well and I See The Sign, released by Icelandic collective Bedroom Community in 2008 and 2010 respectively. Sam’s approach is both traditional and fiercely forward-thinking, and his story is fascinating. What has brought you to this point as a musician? I was sitting in music class in seventh grade, age 12 I guess, and my friend Alex was sitting next to me. Suddenly he looked at me and said, “Jimi Hendrix is the greatest guitar player ever.” This was very helpful information for me, because he said it with such certainty. And then when I went to listen to Jimi Hendrix and his music, I found that it was true. When I was 16 I was at a folk music camp in upstate New York and I was working on my fiddle playing. One of my favorite fiddle players was a local musician named Sue Sternberg. She played at a quiet volume but with incredibly powerful rhythmic drive. We were talking and somebody mentioned a fiddler named Tommy Peoples. I said, “Who's that?” and Sue said, “You've never heard Tommy Peoples? You must listen to him.” In that moment, just hearing his name, I had a premonition. I knew exactly what his playing would sound like and how it would affect me. I went down to the little CD shop and bought his album High Part of the Road, took it back to my tent and lay down to listen to it, and sure enough, it changed my life. Then when I was 23 years old, I went to hear a free jazz saxophone player, singer and songwriter named Arthur Doyle. He played a 15-minute long solo set at Tonic in New York City - saxophone, recorder, mumbling and singing. It changed my life again. What drew you to the guitar as a main instrument for composing? My main instrument is still the fiddle, second after that the banjo. I'm not a very good guitar player but it is the most useful instrument for composing and singing over and also I enjoy playing it because I am still learning how, so each concert is like practicing. These days most people think of the acoustic guitar as being the key instrument in folk music, but I imagine it wasn’t a big part of your musical upbringing. Very minimal, primarily as an accompanying instrument for Irish or Appalachian fiddle tunes. But not as a dominant instrument at all. “Folk music” in the sense of “acoustic singer songwriter music” was the one genre that I really hated growing up. It wasn't until recently that I understood what was great about Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Neil Young. And even then I am less excited by their songwriting and more by their guitar playing, band leading, improvising and personal intensity. What you do is quite unusual for a singer-songwriter these days, but actually strikes me as more 'folky' than writing material that is entirely your own. Is it often a case of matching up music you've written to lyrics that fit? That is more or less it. I just love to sing, but I'm not that interested in songwriting. Also most of my favorite musicians didn't really write that much of their own music – Tommy Peoples, Miles Davis, Dock Boggs, Bonnie Raitt – but were more focused on just playing music in a way that was deep and personal to them, regardless of where the songs originally came from. Are you consciously trying to strike a balance between straight covers and re-written material when you put an album together? I don't worry too much about how much I'm changing the music of the song – just whether it seems to fit me. But of course I do enjoy composing little guitar parts and messing around with things musically, so the more radically reworked process happens more often than a straighter rendition. Do you have a process for exploring possible source material, or are they mostly songs you've learnt from other people, songs you've grown up with and so on? I am not really an expert in folk songs and I have just a few favorite folk singers – my parents, Bessie Jones, Dock Boggs, Jeff Davis, Lucy Simpson – so I tend to steal from them repeatedly. The new record has much more of a live sound. How did the recording process differ from your last two records? I wanted to make an album that had a bit more raw sound. That is why I hired Jerry Boys. I loved the way he recorded Martin Carthy in the 1970s and Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabete in the 2000s. Unadorned documentation. How did Jerry’s approach differ from other producers you've worked with? "Producer" can mean a million different things these days. This album didn't really have a producer. I was the producer in the sense that I was making all the decisions about how things should unfold, who was going to be involved, and the shape of the album as a whole. Thomas Bartlett was the producer in the sense that many of the songs were developed collaboratively with him and he was extremely active in an arrangement sense on many crucial tracks. Jerry Boys was the producer in the sense that he recorded and mixed the whole record, frequently gave feedback on how things were progressing in the studio, and was the only person other than me who was involved in the recording process from start to finish. Without Nico Muhly doing arrangements like on your last two records, did you find yourself taking on new roles during recording? Nico's beautiful arrangements have always been recorded at a totally separate time and without me present (he doesn't even play me what he's going to do before recording!). So my role in the studio was not different here, because it is always me plus a few other people building the basic tracks. But yes there was a difference. Knowing that what we were recording that week would be all that was on the album made us more focused to create the whole album right there, instead of just putting stuff down and waiting to see how it would develop. I haven't seen you perform, but from what I've seen online you seem to enjoy keeping the audience on their toes. Are you aware of wanting to do something different from the standard singer songwriter format when playing live? Performing, especially when you are on tour, is a very strange intersection of risk, comfort, fear, and boredom. Anything I do on stage is a response to the fundamental oddness of standing in front of a group of people every night and watching them stare at you. samamidon.com )

Next article in issue 69

Headsup Sieben.

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