Interview: Sam Brookes on Bristol Statues, John Martyn and working with Ethan Johns

Sam Brookes is an independent artist who has been compared to a number of artists including Bon Iver and Jeff Buckley. He has been following this path since he was 16 and his career got a major boost in 2014 when his album, ‘Kairos’, was made a Stand-out Album by The Independent and he was named a Breaking Act by The Sunday Times Culture. There are clear ‘60s influences in Sam Brookes guitar playing which recall Davey Graham, Bert Jansch and John Martyn from the ‘70s. However, these influences have been filtered through his fathers playing and record collection which was his prime influence. As well as his guitar playing and songwriting, Sam Brookes has won plaudits for his angelic vocals which are part of his mother’s influence rounding out the family influence. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Sam Brookes when he was at home in Bristol to discuss the Bristol protests, his new album ‘Black Feathers’ which is his first album in 6 years and follows the death of his father and a close friend.  Sam Brookes talks about the influence John Martyn’s music has had on him and what it was like working with renowned producer and musician Ethan Johns. The interview also brings out what it is like to make your way in the music industry as an independent artist.

How are you, I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of coronavirus?
Ok really. My mum’s 73 and my nan’s like 91 so we have been a bit concerned about them but everyone is OK. The state the music industry is in has proved difficult, but we are all in the same boat so I guess we just need to stick together and do the best we can for the minute. It looks like this is going to be with us for sometime and while I know I will always make music, I am concerned about venues and other parts of the industry.

You currently live in Bristol. What has it been like living with the recent protests which must have been a shock for the city?
Yeah, it was quite a thing. I went down a bit later that night because I went to see my mum and I wasn’t too keen on gathering in crowds, to tell the truth, as my partner works with people with special needs so we are still being careful, but the atmosphere was quite powerful. It is an interesting city, Bristol. It is quite outspoken and very diverse, I think it definitely stressed people and created a conflict but I reckon other places have had that.

I live just up the coast from Liverpool, and slavery is deeply embedded in that city’s history and still has an impact on people’s lives today.
Definitely. We are the outcome of what has come before us and we forget because we are sometimes too busy with our daily lives. We are all taught a history as we are growing up, but it is not always the history that actually happened, a fully round version.

This may be the generation to make a step-change to the situation?
Could be. To me, it seems to be a cultural cognitive thing. The older you are the more set in your ways you become, I’m not saying that that is necessarily good or bad, but everyone has an individual choice to question themselves but when you are younger you seem to be able to be influenced a lot more. Obviously, that starts with your parents, but with social media, there is a greater weight to what young people are being influenced by.

‘Kairos’ received a lot of positive press when it was released about six years ago. What did that mean to you at the time?
It meant a real hell of a lot. I have been self-employed since I was like 16 and I really want to do this as a living and I’m interested to see whether it is possible. I knew I had created a good album but the question is how much impact can you make as an independent artist. So much has changed in those six years until now. It was quite scary but really heart-warming when I got good reviews, and I did quite a lot of touring with that record and sold a lot of records. So all that was really great.

What is a lot of records to an independent artist?
We had 500 vinyl and they went. Then I had about 2000-2500 CDs plus whatever downloads there were. So it was close to the 4000 I think. It made me realise that I just had to keep going even if I had to build fan by fan.  I just had to be out there so people could see and hear what I was doing and hopefully, if I could increase the volumes by four I would have a viable business, even by two who be a big step forward. You have to manage your overheads and all that kind of thing.

How much self-management do you do?
I do have a manager, but I have always had that sort of business head-on as well. I have to be mindful of how I am doing day to day as I am just getting back from a writing phase. I have to really get rid of that business side of myself because otherwise, I can’t be on that creative plane I need to be on, but I do enjoy the business side as well. I love bouncing ideas around with my manager, I’m kind of the ideas guy and he is the one who sort of processes it all for me and says well actually that might work or you are better putting your time and energy over here. We work really well together and I wouldn’t have come to this new album without him. He has been a great influence on me.

It is six years between albums, in-between you were involved in the John Martyn Project. How did that come about?
That came about because the Jazz Café, in London, was putting on homages or tribute nights as just one-offs and they got in touch with a good friend of mine, Pete Joseph, who is a soul/jazz singer and asked him to put a band together. He called me because I am a massive John Martyn fan, and he was like are you up for it? I went oh yeah man, I am there already, can I pick the songs? So a band was put together with four main singers, a rhythm section and we did the gig and it was awesome, I really loved it. We finished the gig, and me being me I was like we have got to do this again. I was pleased with the way people reacted because I was quite nervous to be honest because if I thought there was a John Martyn tribute act playing in Bristol, I am not too sure whether I would go. That music means so much to me that I would just rather put the record on. There is also an element to a lot of John’s stuff while a lot of people like his music there seems to be a new generation coming through Spotify and all that. He wasn’t making really contemporary albums, he wasn’t Phil Collins, though he did work with him, at the time. The reaction we got from people when we went out and played was just really heartfelt, people were saying thank you I haven’t heard those songs played like that in a long time. It was great, it was like fans playing fans. That’s when I thought I am going to try and spearhead this and put a tour together. The drummer in the band is actually an agent and we managed to do a tour and we hope to do more. I think ‘Solid Air’ is 50 in the next few years. Let me tell you, it is an absolute pleasure to sing those songs. I was just like I wish I wrote this song. I don’t even think about that now, I am just so grateful to play them in front of people.

John Martyn is  largely unique as an artist. He started out as a folk singer but what he actually became as an artist, mixing folk, blues and jazz,  was something special. He clearly influenced you a lot, but who else are major influences on your music?
I grew up listening to a lot of those folk revival artists, guys like Davey Graham, Ralph McTell, all stuff my dad listened to. That stuff spoke to me, particularly Davey Graham with his guitar playing rather than his songwriting, the like of which I had never heard before. Bert Jansch was the one who got me into the same style of guitar playing with the songwriting on top. Then I started delving further into the late ’60s, early ‘70s folk type music, people like Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and it is funny, I have got artists with certain albums or even certain songs where I have gone I wish I had written a song like that. ‘Once I Was’ by Tim Buckley was one of those songs and I thought, you know, I could sing a bit like that maybe, but it was really moving me inside. It is funny with Tim Buckley, I prefer the album ‘Grace’ by his son Jeff Buckley, but that song really struck a chord with me. Joni Mitchell hands-down is probably one of my favourite songwriters of all-time. You can sit down and kind of break down songs, you know the first chorus or whatever, but her songs are like from the moment they start to the moment they end, awesome, she is awesome.

Why is now the right time to release a new album, particularly with the challenges of COVID?
The plan was to release it a little bit earlier this year to give us a good run-up to a tour which was supposed to be happening this autumn but when the pandemic started to unfold we decided to push it back a bit, then we had conversations about whether it should be released. It is a heavy album that is about grief and loss and I was worried in a way that it would be too much for the people following me. Then again, it is like well people are going to need albums or music that is going to pick them up and make them dance, scream even, but they are also going to need something when they are feeling low and want that comfort. I thought it was important to still release the album even though the subject is dark. There is still a lot I wanted to do with the album, there is still a lot of hope in it even though I was tackling these dark and difficult subjects. Ultimately, me writing these songs gives me hope, so I want there still to be an air of hope in the record. We have never had a pandemic so knowing whether it was the right thing or not to release a record now, there is no answer. It is always difficult to decide when to release a record anyway so we just decided to plough on.

You have been quoted as saying the album is “a meditation on grief”. How did you avoid the charge of being morbid?
Like I said before, with a lot of the songs, even though I may have been wrestling with that loss and pain, it is the soul that helps me make sense of what is going on whether it is obvious what is in the song or not. It is the completion of those thoughts I was having and that element of hope that came with it and a kind of meditation on grief rather than it being stuck in a dark place. Yeah, that is it I think.

When I listened to the album one of the things that struck me was the variety of the arrangements. Who arranged the tracks on the album?
A lot of the record was recorded as a trio with me on guitar with drums and bass. We ended up recording that live but the drummer and bassist had never heard the music until they came to the studio because I wanted them to react in the kind of way you do when you first hear something and you don’t know it very well but you are just intuitively and instinctively reacting to what you are feeling. The arrangements, well I demoed the album and took it to producer Don Monks with my manager and we were pretty clear on how the songs were going to go. A lot of the direction was just from me singing and playing the guitar and then we just coated those main elements with the other instrumentation be it strings or synth or backing vocals.

You have a jazz pianist, Neil Cowley, on the session and John Martyn played a kind of hybrid folk-jazz. Was there any improvisation during the recording sessions?
There wasn’t any real improvisation. We had a couple of jams between ourselves in the studio but that was it. A lot of the songs were fully formed really, I’d been playing them on guitar live for some time and we formed the band around what I was doing.

Who was the drummer?
We had a couple of drummers. We had a lady called Daisy Palmer playing drums and then we had Ethan Johns come in and play drums. A friend of mine Josh Magill, from the band Syd Arthur, played drums on a couple of tracks but only one that made the final cut. It was great working with different musicians and seeing what flavours they brought. It was amazing to work with Daisy and Josh but it was quite a thing to hear Ethan play drums because I have listened to a lot of records that he has produced, and I am a massive fan of what he has produced especially the Ray LaMontagne stuff. It was quite amazing to close my eyes and hear his drumming in my head on my stuff. It was pretty cool.

It is not often the next generation in a famous musical family achieves success on a similar level to their parent but Ethan Johns has managed it. He seems to be able to mix production with the actual instrumental side of recording. That must have been a bit of a buzz for you?
Oh man, it was. I was very nervous. I’m not into getting star struck or anything like that but when you listen to so much of his stuff and he is such a sweet guy. He just came in, set his kit up and we just got playing. It was so awesome and great fun.

How many tracks did Neil Cowley play on?
Neil played on 4 or 5 tracks in the end. On some of the songs he kind of plays a bigger part than others where he is just sprinkling some fairy dust on them. His performance on ‘Granite’ and ‘Into The Night’ is great. It was amazing watching him work because we were in the studio and you play him a song and within one or two takes he is like, stop, and he jumps on the piano and hits a chord, on songs that don’t have crazy chord changes, and he just like dances across the keys, he was so elegant. Some of his stuff is just heartbreaking.

How did you get him on the session?
Dom, who produced the album, spent a long time as a recording engineer before he started producing more, was working with Ethan Johns as his recording engineer and that is how he came to make a few albums with Neil. With the Neil Cowley trio, Dom has done like all of their records so he knows Neil very well and that is how we got him on the record.

You can’t tour the new album, how are you going to get it to its potential audience? What were your original plans?
We were originally going out with the trio and play the kind of songs as they went down, without the embellishments, and it would have been great to give the full record one last outing but we couldn’t afford that. The tour will be rebooked for next year so we will see where the album goes between now and then.  I’d love to have another player come in and just have that four-piece extra sound but I am really looking forward to playing as a trio because it is a different thing, there is a lot more space which is great to play with when you have great players just to muck about a bit and extend songs.

Improvisation Sam
Exactly, improvisation haha.

The album has 10 songs and feels like an album from the age of the LP. What are your views on streaming and do you think it is detrimental to how listeners experience your music?
I think streaming is ultimately a positive thing. I say that in terms of a world where a pandemic has hit twenty years ago when there wasn’t any streaming and music would have had to stop for like two years. Live music and radio were the only places where I would have been able to make new fans and friends, where with streaming and with the discover weekly and the people who had listened to my last album may get a notification of the new one, new listeners may get to hear my new music as well. In that sense, it is a good thing but I do think it is the wild west of the music business. It is so vast and the question is how to make a living out of it when it is so confusing. How do you grow a fan base under an artist’s control because I don’t feel those big streaming companies fit well with grassroots musicians the way they deal with labels, but that is a whole other conversation. I make albums conceptually in my head and I always will, because it helps me create a construct to work with. I think I will also always release vinyl because it seems to be something that people also want. You just have to think differently about streaming because people will digest it differently whereas putting on a record and sitting down and absorbing it, on your own or with some friends, is a completely different thing to sticking on a playlist because you are making dinner or something. You wouldn’t necessarily stick on a record when making dinner. I decided we would release six songs from the album kind of like singles really, on the streaming platforms to try and build a bit of momentum from a streaming point of view to try and help the album. What I noticed with albums being released that didn’t release a single was that when the album was released not many people were listening to it all the way through. It would seem that the number of plays reduced as you got further down the album and I thought that is a shame because there is a reason why an album has an order, and it is not a complete journey if you don’t get to an end. I hope to have pulled people with the singles so when the final tracks land then they will be more interested in the new tracks. You just have to think differently about it basically.

Post-COVID, what do you think the music industry will look like?
Good question. I’m not exactly sure what changes will be permanent within the industry, but for me personally what has changed is when the pandemic started I was a bit worried about how I would connect with my music and I have always had a bit of quality over quantity kind of attitude to my output and that kind of thing. One thing it taught me is that I started live streaming and I connected with my fan base in a way that was really beneficial to me at the time, mentally, and I really enjoyed it. I think there was this idea that you need to keep your social media really cool and don’t let people in too much, who would want to see me on a couch with a guitar, but people seem to be looking for a true connection, even though I don’t think it could ever replace the experience of live music, I do think it showed me how important connection is with my fans and with people who enjoy music enjoying it together. That is something that definitely has changed for me, understanding the importance of connection. How the industry will change I don’t really know. I think it will be interesting to see what happens to a lot of small venues, hopefully, they will be able to survive this. Throughout this whole experience I have been wondering what non-musician punters think about this because we hear a lot about musicians declare an emergency,  Don’t Stop The Music campaign and a lot of it is musicians, agents and venues forging it ahead but I speak to a lot of my fans and they are real music lovers who watched music three or four times a week and that has stopped for them. It is super powerful to hear from those people about what music means to them. It will be a busy time when the industry starts up again.

At AUK, we like to share new music with our readers, so can you share who is currently top 3 on your playlist?
Another good question. I am really enjoying listening to a song by Ane Brun (Norwegian guitarist and songwriter) ‘We Need A Mother’ and it is a really beautiful song, the lead track ‘Cycle’ from Morningface is awesome and I was listening to Aldous Harding’s (New Zealand folk singer-songwriter) song ‘Fixture Picture’ which is really nice.

Finally, is there anything you want to say to your fans in the UK?
I just hope everyone is keeping safe and well and I look forward to meeting some new people soon.

Sam Brookes has a couple of up and  coming socially distanced gigs:-
7th November: Old Market Assembly, Bristol (UK)

2nd December: Henry Tudor House, Shrewsbury (UK)

Sam Brookes ‘Black Feathers’ is out now on Go Slow Records

Author: Martin Johnson

I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

2 thoughts on “Interview: Sam Brookes on Bristol Statues, John Martyn and working with Ethan Johns”

    1. Hi Jeremy, yes Sam is genuine in his appreciation of a John Martyn and as you say that is no bad thing for anyone

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