We’ve been playing Sam Amidon’s music on Folk Radio UK since our concept in 2004 and during that time Sam has become a key artist that has helped define and push the boundaries of what we play and introduce to listeners. So we could hardly resist the opportunity of an interview in the lead up to his show at Westminster Reference Library, London on Friday 13th April.Sam Amidon has never been one to drift slowly from one project to the next. Aside from his solo and supporting band work he has worked regularly with fellow Bedroom Community artists collaborations go beyond a singular project to that of a collective, a family that continues to grow and extend to include the likes of Beth Orton who featured on Sam’s last release ‘I See The Sign’ (read our review here). Other worthy illumini who Sam frequently mentions during his tales from the stage include Thomas Bartlett (Doveman) whom he has known since childhood as well as the highly respected multi-instrumentalist Shahzard Ismaily. For Sam, this relationship is simple…”well in a way that is the primary sense that I think of myself as a “folk” musician… not so much in terms of the stye of music I play but the simple idea of playing music with my friends or with musicians who I can learn something from. That is inherent in the idea of folk music, it’s not even a question of collaboration but just making music with people!”
As anyone that has been to see a live Sam Amidon performance will know, Sam is more than capable of spinning a good yarn…”Well if you go on tour and play every night for 3 weeks or 2 or 6 or 10 or 11 or 1… the idea of getting up on stage in front of a bunch of people who then watch you while you do stuff, that’s pretty weird… and at a certain point you have to start responding to what it feels like in there otherwise you will turn into a small, sad robot…” he’s quick to remind of his dry sense of humour…which is unforgettable…”which of course is another goal of mine so I am going to go for that at some point, for sure, the whole small sad robot GOAL.”
In previous interviews the whole topic of playing folk songs and covers has crept into the spotlight, something Sam has been quick to joke about by suggesting that songwriting was not his forte…”It is true that I don’t write songs in the sense that I don’t write lyrics (but I do frequently write or change a lot of the music)… but the songs I sing are not ‘covers.’ A cover is when you do somebody else’s song like if you sing an R Kelly song [Sam reworked a version of an unreleased R Kelly track titled ‘Relief’ on ‘I See the Sign]. A folksong is different, it’s a weird exquisite corpse object that travels on its own through people & places and I’m just one of those places.
“Also… I mean it’s true that I don’t write songs, but that’s just one of a long list of things I don’t do or haven’t done… I don’t surf on surfboards, I don’t perform autopsies or drive a taxi, I don’t play the fuckin zither, I don’t write songs, I don’t eat clams or other forms of seafood except for fish. I do sing songs, I play fiddle tunes, I’m pretty good at basketball for somebody who comes from Vermont, I make up music, I go out on long walks, and I can count in binary code really fast on my fingers. Yeah! I DO do those things!”
I mention an old video I came across on youtube which featured a young Sam Amidon performing with Andy Woolf leading on fiddle. A reminder of his rich New England roots as well as coming from parents very well versed in Amercian Roots music…After watching the video (see below) I began to build a picture of a youth spent continually playing music…”It was not a uncommon but that was a particularly good night of tunes & revelry. I think back to those times. Andy Woolf, as well as being a great New England-style fiddle player, was one of the worlds leading gibberish practitioners. I once saw him give a totally solo concert at a folk festival where he appeared as Henry Kissinger and sang communist protest folksongs for the mystified audience.”
In 2008 Sam formed a trio known as Amidon Alderson Murphy: Isaac Alderson (Uilleann Pipes, Flute) and Keith Murphy (Guitar, Mandolin, Vocals). Their repertoire was entirely Irish traditional music. One of Sam’s early releases was in fact an album of Irish Fiddle solos, a fact that still surprises some but as Sam explains this was in many ways an inevitable course if you have an interest in the roots of New England music…”…I realized when I was about 11 that the New England Fiddle style was basically mostly Irish tunes and I wanted to go to the source”.
That interest is still very much alive and he still plays in sessions in NY. “Oh yeah there’s great Irish tunes all around New York City. It’s not so much “fun” as it is like doing a musical form of tai chi and chatting in between tunes with my friend Eamon about Evelyn Waugh books.”
Whilst having roots firmly planted in the rich cultural soils of New England Sam is, for us at least, at the forefront of re-defining the boundaries of experimental folk. Such influences were just as prevalent in his youth as the tradtional music he was so familiar with. His father also a breadth of musical tastes beyond roots msuci…”When I was 7 years old my dad took me and my brother to a David Moss Dense Band concert at Marlboro College…” other memories of experimental music exposure quickly follow …”and then when I was thirteen I liked Phish and I bought the Trey Anastasio album “Surrender to the Air” which had Marc Ribot on it and also a bunch of people wearing “Sun Ra” tee shirts so then I bought a Sun Ra album and a Marc Ribot album and it kind of went from there.”
If you follow Sam on twitter you’ll see frequent literary references and suggested reading so of course I was curious what he was reading right now…
“Just Above My Head by James Baldwin, at the recommendation of my friend Evans, and American Prometheus, which is a biography of Robert Oppenheimer, at the recommendation of my friend Jenni haha”.
and listening to?
AHMAD JAMAL there is no other music. (Cross Country Tour I think is the name of the record)
The Future? “The future is completely uncertain! But I just played a few duo shows with my new friend and longtime guru/hero Bill Frisell which were so incredibly fun we played tunes and songs and little music-stories, I really hope we get to play some more. Also I’m working on a new record and maybe I’ll try to go boxing or something.”
And I guess Sam couldn’t resist a grand exit when I asked what he was looking forward to in 2012…”Kirsten Dunst and Roland Emmerich laughing knowingly and maniacally as we all succumb to the Apocalypse!”
Sam Amidon Live: Westminster Reference Library, London
Don’t miss a fantastic opportunity to see Sam Amidon live at Westminster Reference Library, London, Friday 13th April 2012. Get your tickets here!
Here’s a great reminder of why we love him so much:
Video: Home Alone Inside My Head