Interview – Sam Lee: “I had no intention of becoming a musician”

Sam Lee is more than just a singer or a song-writer. He is an artist who draws together a range of interests and projects, giving them meaning and purpose. From artists’ rights to a love for the natural world, Lee seeks to raise awareness and make a difference. Through lecturing, broadcasting, performing and working with various organisations, he gets involved. He’s a busy man. More than anything, he is a collector of traditional folk song, taking something old and refreshing it for a new audience in order to give it life.

It’s something more than being a custodian for this ancient music. Transforming, translating, interpreting fragments of old songs is a wholly different artistic endeavour, akin to creating works of art from ‘found’ objects. As a recording artist, he’s continued to develop since his debut, which was shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize. Lee’s latest release, the ecologically-themed ‘Old Wow’, has received critical acclaim and will surely be up there when album-of-the-year lists are collated. Americana UK caught up with Sam Lee just after he finished touring the album and while he was putting the finishing touches to his first book, ‘The Nightingale’, due for release in spring 2021.

You’ve been described as a song interpreter or a song collector. Can you explain what that really means, what the process is and perhaps give us an example of a song you’ve collected and the story behind it?
I am both the interpreter and the collector; they are both connected but not always. A lot of the songs that I sing are ones that I haven’t as such learned from songbooks or off recordings made by other folk singers or that are widely known within the tradition. Although there are lots of exceptions to that, most of the songs I sing are ones that I have collected myself as a song collector: someone who has worked as a musicologist within the British Isles, spending time with the gypsy traveller community and recording some of the elders. These are the very, very last few elders who remember a time of the old traditions and the old songs being passed down from generation to generation. That’s been an extraordinary experience for me to hear the songs first-hand within the last communities to still be singing them. So, what I’ve been doing is taking these songs and making them more widely available online. Also, as an interpreter, I suppose I’ve been reappraising them, singing them, arranging them and recording them in my way to give them a more contemporary new lease of life. I guess one example of that might be on the current album there is a song called ‘The Moon Shines Bright’ that I learned from the singing of an English gypsy woman who is 93 years old called Frida Black. She is still alive and still singing. She’s been a dear friend and teacher and a source of amazing wisdom and songs. She had fragments of the song but not in its entirety. So, I’ve taken bits of hers and reappraised it, re-written into the cracks, polished it up as a sort of contemporary new version of the song with lots of new writing within it but also strains of her old words too.

It’s a really interesting process. I was wondering how you really make those songs your own. You explained how you sort of fill the cracks within the song. How else do you bring it up-to-date as a contemporary artist?
Well, many, many different ways. For me that’s the big challenge and also why I don’t consider myself just a singer and recording artist. I’m a promoter. Through the Nest Collective I’m constantly foraging for artists who I think are doing interesting things with traditional music, both in the UK and beyond internationally. I programme an enormous number of concerts in London and around the country, trying to give a platform to this music that I think needs more attention and more opportunity to be heard. So, there is that and also a lot of work with teaching through working on an industry level, doing artist mentoring and artist development programs. There are all sorts of different ways I am trying to bring the songs out of the ghetto as it were, out of the cupboard, allowing them to be seen as a really vital part of our cultural landscape. They need more than just the folk community singing them. They need to be seen as something that everybody has a right to sing. I guess I’m doing it in a multifaceted way, working on an ecosystem on different levels. I can’t just be one thing in making music. It wouldn’t be correct or right to use music to serve my own artist ego to be successful. I want to create a world that is more fertile for the songs.

As a result, you’re bringing them to new audiences. How have you found audiences have reacted to your interpretations?
This new album has been very interesting because I’ve just come off tour in the UK. I had quite an incredible experience because at the end of every night we had people coming up to me who would sometimes cry on my shoulder. Some people would, you know, take me in a certain way because I’m dealing with songs that have a very strong focus on environmental issues and the ecological crisis that we are in. The songs connect into that, which is my particular thing that I think is important at the moment, and people were expressing real gratitude for touching on something that is not being spoken about enough within music and how important the climate crisis is for people. For them, the concern is understandably the greatest issue of our time or of humanity ever really. Audiences were grateful to see it being dealt with on an ancient level and through music and on a very heart-based level, which is what I’m trying to do, use the songs to help people reconnect with our ancestral music and relate to nature. That’s ultimately what the songs are about. It’s about a wider sense of purpose and interconnectedness with the natural world. I’m trying to realign where the songs have come from but with an awareness of the contemporary situation we’re in right now. I think people are very pleased about that.

Absolutely, it is a very coherent album thematically and that must’ve been a real challenge when you’re gathering and collecting songs. Did it start out like that? Did you go looking for those sorts of songs? Or did it emerge that those were the sorts of songs that were engaging you at the time so it organically became that sort of record?
I’ve been looking for all sorts of songs. I don’t think I’ve ever chosen not to listen to a particular folk song. I’m only interested in collecting traditional songs – that’s definitely the case – but I’ve kept an ear out for songs that have a connection with something within that theme. The songs on the album are not all songs I’ve collected. There are songs I’ve come across over the years from all sorts of different places and songs that I felt are ones that have something in there that needs to be retrieved or evoked a little bit more, so I may change the words or the tune. Some just come fully formed. That’s the way with this material. I have always been looking for songs and have a special love for the ones that need attention. Finally, this was the album where I was ready for that and the songs were ready to come out. I didn’t choose which songs to sing before I went to make the album. They just sort of poured out. There was no struggle about whether I should do this or that, just that these are the songs. It happened in a very natural way, in a way that I’ve never experienced with music before, actually, to have such a natural flow. It was funny the way all happened.

There are obviously songs that mean a lot to you. Which songs off the album mean the most to you, either because of their history or the lyrics or because of your experience of collecting or interpreting them?
It’s a hard question! It’s like trying to pick your favourite colour in the rainbow. Individually, it’s just a colour but it’s the combination for me; it’s in the way that it was arranged through the heart, hearth and earth. Each song serves a purpose within the combination. They were ingredients within this vegetable soup of music. If you take one out, it suddenly doesn’t taste so nice. Maybe, for this purpose, I’d say that actually the last song on the album, ‘Balnafanen’, which is one that I learned from my teacher Sandy Robertson, one of the great Scottish traveller singers, who was quite unknown but the family had kept this song going. It’s really such a beautiful love song for nature in such simple means and in such a simple way. It’s such a beautiful thing within the context of the album to sing a song that is just free of issues. It was just about enjoying the land and wanting to nurture it and the honouring of the plants. His community depended on it and lived upon it and slept upon it every night. So, in that sense that song holds a special place for me.

Also, I was thinking about the album title, ‘Old Wow’, which is a really interesting turn of phrase, can you tell us what that means to you?
‘Old Wow’ is I name I sort of received in some way. I don’t feel like I made it up. It came to me in a moment of nature connection work some years back. It was about 2015 when having a very important journey in terms of re-routing myself back to nature, which has always been my oldest friend and greatest companion. Having been doing music for years and years by this point, I kind of stopped hanging out in nature a lot. In a moment of deep questioning about it, a buzzard, the great bird of prey, flew over me and dropped down right over my head and started crying her powerful song in the most benign, beautiful way. I was absolutely blown away. The bird flew round, round and round my head in circles, singing as if it was just there to tell me it’s out there and it’s here: this greater power we’re all connected to and we are all communicating with. It was telling me, you’ve just got to listen and pay attention and in that moment that wonder of the power of nature and the energy that sits within folk songs, within each other, within everything, suddenly came. And a name came to me for it: the ‘Old Wow’. The ‘Old Wow’ is this timeless, ancient quality of magic that has seen everything when one really opens your eyes to address it. So, that name kind of came to me and I wrote it into poems and used it and then it came back again. It re-emerged and surfaced for the album in the lyrics for the first song, ‘The Garden of England’. It’s central to what I’m singing about in that song but then it’s served well as the album name too.

That is poetic. What a lovely way to name an album! Looking back over your music since the first album ‘Ground of its Own’ to ‘Old Wow’, how do you think the sound has developed and evolved and your approach to writing and recording?
That’s such a hard question. I’ve no idea! I’m not really a songwriter. I love writing songs. I am a writer. I’ve just finished writing a book. But I’ve tried to shy away from writing quite substantially and then suddenly found myself in a situation where I needed to write and I found I can. I have a certain gift for it; I have my style, I guess. It was more a kind of necessity being the mother of my creation and creativity. In terms of the band sound, I decided to work with a group of musicians who are dear friends and personalities who I knew would both bring a brilliance in their musicality because they are brilliant musicians but also in their personalities and their sensitivity to the subjects. They were people who I knew would let the music flow. I didn’t really choose that there was to be a sound to the album. It was more that these are the humans I want to work with. They cover necessary bases in terms of what their instruments are.

You can really see that live. Their performances were magical and they really hold together as a unit. You can hear it on the album as well. It was produced by Bernard Butler. What was it like working together and what did he bring?
Oh, what an amazing man. Bernard brought a real focus and stability and thoughtfulness. He is a producer who isn’t coming in there to meddle and fix. He was there to add and bring about a real sense of cohesiveness. He was there to bring us all together and to integrate with each other sonically. There was a little bit of nipping and tucking with the arrangements. He brought his guitar along which was exciting and dangerous for me! It was also a really wonderful thing in the recording and mixing because, you realise, he has extraordinary ears and enormous experience. You know, he is working on the level of genius. When I say genius, I mean in the old sense of someone who allows the power that’s around – he calls it in – not that he is cleverer than everyone else. It’s that he is connected. Genius lives outside of us and we have to be awake to it to allow it to reveal itself. He did that with the recording and mixing and I really truly believe that. Everybody who has heard the record says it’s the most incredible sounding record. That’s down to him. It could’ve been done elsewhere and sound very different even with the same songs played the same way.

It is fabulous the sound and he really did bring that out. The most recent single, of course, was ‘Lay this body down’, which was accompanied by a really striking video. Can you tell us a bit about the concept and the production?
That was a situation where an idea got out of hand! In the best possible way! I worked with a film director I’d gotten to know, a very good, very high-quality and stylish director called Connor Gorman. We came up with this crazy idea for where to film and how to film. It went completely over budget! We ended up bringing in incredible dancers and burning boats in lakes and then going through tunnels on the canal in rowing boats. It just was like how stupid can we be? But I wanted to bring dancers in. I love dance for evoking the visual and expressive and kinaesthetic out of these songs. It’s a very physical song. I wanted to bring the qualities of fire and water and passage in the boat, particularly because it’s originally coming from the singing of an old ferryman from the Americas. An old African American in the 1890s sang the song to a song collector while rowing in the dark from one island to another. So that was where it all came from.

It’s striking and works really well. Heading back into your musical past now, into your youth, were you exposed to much music when you were younger? How and when did you find music and folk music in particular?
Well, I was very lucky that I came from a very musical family. My father was a musician, professional as a younger man but he went on to being in the arts. My mother is absolutely obsessed with classical music, which weirdly never transferred down to me. I went into the more local narrative. So, I was surrounded by music; my dad played music with us, to us. There was always music around. Nothing particularly radical, things like jazz and Paul Simon. No English folk whatsoever. I didn’t hear that until later on when I went camping and it was brought up round the fire with friends from a camping organisation. It was an alternative, radical, left-wing group, called the Forest School Camps and they have a very strong campfire tradition. Jon Boden of Bellowhead fame is another well-known youth from that movement. There is a big campfire singing tradition. Many of those songs were English and American folk songs. They were the songs of camp. I didn’t know that people called them folk songs; I didn’t hear that name. They were just incredible material and I fell in love with them. In my early to mid-20s, I started to wonder why I’ve never heard any of these anywhere else. Only we knew them and none of my other London city friends knew about this music. So, I started to explore it and discovered the wider folk music tradition. That’s how I came to folk music, I guess.

How did that passion, that interest, transform into performing?
Well, I just started singing them and I loved singing them. I went to folk clubs and people liked me singing them! So, I kind of was like, “I should do more of this!” I had to sing the songs. It wasn’t just about singing them. It was about doing something with them: learning them, teaching them, exploring them more, all these different things that I started doing. That’s kind of how. Before I knew it, I was thinking I wanted to record. I recorded our first album and learned how to make music by recording that first album. I didn’t expect it to have the success it had. But that’s sort of what came out of it. As with all these things, it wasn’t a journey I planned and I had no intention of becoming a musician. That was it! Here I am!

Indeed! Early in your career, around that point, you were supported by an Arts Foundation Award. How did that come about and what impact that have? That might be of interest to other artists who are trying to succeed at the early stage of their career.
It’s very nice to ask about that because funnily enough I was at a conference yesterday and one of the trustees was there who was saying, “I was there when you’ve got nominated.” Without that, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything. It was a massive financial grant that allowed me to take the time to create an album. It paid for the first album because I couldn’t have afforded to invest that time and risk into it. The Arts Foundation works as an annual trust fund that is given over to one artist within a particular art form. They have four or five art forms that they select each year. It was right place, right time. They decided that year they were going to have folk music. It hasn’t been chosen since and it had never been chosen before. They asked some people to nominate musicians who they thought were needing that support. I was one of them. I had to apply, providing my brief of what my vision was and what I would do with this money. I’d love to read my application again because it was something like wanting to change the entire world through folk music! Then the four shortlisted nominees had to give a concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. I had to make a band for that because I didn’t really have a band. That was it! I won! I couldn’t believe it – I’ve never won anything in my life. Actually, I had won one thing in my life, which was the first time I ever went to Cecil Sharp House, the hallowed halls of the English Folk Society. I went to a gig and bought a ticket in the raffle and I won the bottle of champagne much to the fury of the regulars there. This bloody young thing came in and won the best prize!

It must’ve been a great feeling at the time and must’ve made a huge difference to your early career.

Oh, very much. I’m still immensely grateful and in good contact with the Arts Foundation. I’ve been a nominator and an advisor since then. So, it’s good to be able to contribute back and bring attention to artists and all sorts of different places who need that attention.

Moving on to some of your other projects, one of your great successes was when Guy Ritchie chose you to write the lead song for his Hollywood epic ‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword’. How did that come about and what did the experience teach you?
That was a wonderful moment when I got a call and he said, “My name is Guy Ritchie. You might know me from such films as…” It turns out that he is an extraordinary man, a gifted storyteller, a wonderful visionary. He makes a particular type of film that’s maybe not everyone’s taste but have wonderful characters and worlds he creates. It didn’t really surprise me that he loves his folk music and he’d come across my music and loved it. He said he was doing a project and would like to bring the authenticity of folk music to it and asked me to come in for a chat. It snowballed from there. One minute I’m throwing songs all over the film and the next minute they were being whittled down through board meetings but one song in the film is enough! It was the right one and the song did really well. It was a great boost to my career both in terms of awareness and financially! It helped me pay for this new record, which I probably wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. I’ve always had these little windfalls just as I’ve needed them! Music is a financially prohibitive and complex game to play. I’ve been very lucky and I also realise how important it is to support artists because we don’t always get those phone calls and I may never get that phone call again. I may not have the same opportunity for that same leg up in the future. Times are getting tougher and budgets leaner. We’ve got to look after each other as much as possible.

You mentioned the challenges of succeeding in the music industry and needing those sorts of windfalls or bits of luck or special calls. The music industry has changed an awful lot in recent years, with streaming in particular. How do you manage those sorts of challenges?
So, the way I do it is by getting very involved in organisations, communities and boards that are doing amazing work. The two main ones in my life at the moment are Music Declares Emergency. Earlier on this evening, I came out of a meeting looking at how to radically change the music industry to be more environmentally aware and conscientious and bring accountability to it. We need to change our entire system basically. Musicians are a powerful body and voice to bring about societal change. So, it’s an extraordinary group to be in. The stuff we’re talking about is a mind-blowing level of opportunity and attention. I also sit on the board of the Featured Artists Coalition (FAC), a charity connected to the music managers forum that is essentially artist-led and about artists’ rights and advocacy. That’s also a wonderful organisation, bringing professional leverage with a board of incredible musicians who give up enormous minutes of time to really try to help the entire music community at all levels. Those are a couple. I’ve just stepped down from the board of the North American Association Folk Music and Dance Alliance (now known as Folk Alliance International) after a few years being one of their directors and supporting the American music industry, bringing British folk music over there and more North American music over here. There are many other things I do. There are so many ways I love being able to bring my experiences and my lessons and learning, to spread them and help artists feel supported and be able to take risks they need to take.

You mentioned environmental awareness and changes that need to take place within the music industry. What practical things need to change do you think?
We need to find ways for musicians to tour on a more ecologically sustainable level. We need to look at everything about where our money comes from and the organisations that are supporting us. We need to think about how we can help them be ecological sustainable and lower their carbon footprint as much as possible. We are looking at how to get the music industry to be carbon zero as soon as possible, by 2030, which is a really tight turnaround. That’s one of the ways we’ve got to do it. There are many different things. It’s holistic and there needs to be full on change everywhere. It’s also about how we package our music and how we share it, who we are hosting with and how we can lobby those organisations that are in control to be making sure that they are more environmentally sustainable as well.

That’s quite a target you set there, to be carbon neutral by 2030. Who do we need to get on board and who do we need to get that message out to?
Everyone! It’s not about getting the message to people so much as people going, “Hey, we can actually be part of this; this is something we can do, something we all want to be part of.” For me, that’s the really important thing. So, it’s about saying that if this is something we will partake in, we will make it happen. We can’t just let other people do it; we’ve all got to be involved. It’s got to be a collaborative effort. I think the importance is that actually we can have more fun doing it and we can have a better time than just sitting back doing fuck all and letting the world come to an end, which is basically what’s going to happen in the most appalling way. We are acting so deeply irresponsibly that we are compromising the life and opportunity of our children and grandchildren at the moment. We’ve got to come together and artists are the best people to bring about a sense of recognition and of realisation of where we’re at.

Sticking with that environmental theme, you mentioned your book ‘The Nightingale’ earlier. Can you tell us a little bit about that? I’m really interested to hear about the inspiration behind it and how you found the writing process for your first book. Also, how did you fit it all in because you do a lot?
Fuck knows how I fitted it in! It killed me! I loved it but it killed me because I was writing it throughout one of the biggest periods while trying to get the album out, produce videos, trying to turn around my organisation the Nest Collective, which is going through major administrative restructuring, upscaling and taking on a massive project. I had to just not go out throughout much of October November and December. I just buried myself and wrote. I only submitted the final thing about a week ago. Literally, it went in and then it went to print a week later. It was that fast a turnaround. I’m just recording the audiobook this week, which is another three solid days of more work for it. It’s kind of been an extraordinary experience of learning. Yeah, I got there. We’ve done it! I’ve been re-reading it and thinking, “Did I write that? I never even knew I knew that!” It’s the stuff that comes out when you have to put yourself into it. It’s quite amazing.

What sparked it off?
I was asked by Penguin, “Would you like to write a book?” And I said, “No! Absolutely not! No way!” But they said that they were going to make an offer that would be good for me and that I would rethink it. Actually, I don’t really know how to use the word ‘no’. That’s my issue! They helped me out a lot and they really supported me through it but, in the end, you’ve just got to go and do it Sam. It’s been brilliant and I’m super proud of it. I wish I had two years to write it and I’d I’ve made it loads better but it’s got some heartfelt stuff in it.

Will there be more in that vein?
Oh my God! I wouldn’t dream of doing it for another few years. I’m still in recovery right now. It was agony. Making music is an absolute joy but writing is like pulling teeth out and you’re doing it yourself. So, no. Not in the immediate future anyway but who knows? There are other things I want to be doing right now other than sitting in a cold dark room!

I’m really looking forward to reading it! Of course, the nightingale is quite symbolic and features in a lot of traditional folk music. Were there any particular songs that came to mind for you or inspired you when you were writing it?
Well, it’s funny, I’ve just been recording the song section today. The thing is that there are so many Nightingale songs and it was really lovely bringing them all together, housed under one opportunity. To look at the songs through the eyes of the nightingale was really lovely, actually. Also, looking at European and eastern counterparts, Seeing the many different characters of this bird in different songs and actually looking at English folk songs and thinking about how much I love these songs. Some of the poetry in the Czech or Moravian or Grecian songs about nightingales, all the Persian ones or the Turkish ones are so powerful. We are actually quite polite and pragmatic about nature in some ways, quite practical, more of a handshake with it than the sort of deep embrace that you get in European music. Perhaps that’s the difference between the British and Europeans really, isn’t it?

I wondered about when you collect your songs. When you go to different places around the UK and Ireland and Europe whether you find the songs and the process of collection is different?
No, it’s person-to-person. It really is although in Ireland the reception is always so much warmer. They are the loveliest people in the world. There, it’s great but I’ve always been made very welcome. I’ve got a big smile that is my passport to get into communities! I can use charm when I need to! I’ve always managed to have a nice reception and be appreciated or invited.

Thank you so much for such a long, in-depth interview. As a final question, in terms of music and beyond how would you like to be remembered and what mark would you like to leave?
How would I like to be remembered? It’s funny that – I do think about that. I don’t really care. I’m sort of not in it for the memory. I think what I’d like to have is to know that it’s survived, that folk music just kept going for that little bit longer and it became a little bit stronger. I brought resilience and brought just a few more years to the music. I think that’s the legacy I’d like to leave. Also, I think most importantly, I’m very excited about the future of folk music. I don’t mean this just in terms of the music that’s been made and that people are singing it because actually I think there’s a lot of work to be done there yet but, actually, I’m really excited to see how as the world changes radically in the next 15 to 25 years, really radically. I’m thinking how folk song is going to come into its own and start to be able to offer something that is absolutely necessary and sought-after. I think it’s going to be a really powerful commodity. I mean the word commodity in a very open way and that’s all I’ll say on that.

I think that’s a nice way to close the interview, with the impact that folk music might have or should have and will have over the next few years. Thanks once again for your time and thoughtful answers.

Sam Lee’s ‘Old Wow’ is out now on Cooking Vinyl

About Andrew Frolish 1386 Articles
From up north but now hiding in rural Suffolk. An insomniac music-lover. Love discovering new music to get lost in - country, singer-songwriters, Americana, rock...whatever. Currently enjoying Nils Lofgren, Ferris & Sylvester, Tommy Prine, Jarrod Dickenson, William Prince, Frank Turner, Our Man in the Field...
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Clint West

Fabulous interview with a true artist who I was fortunate enough to see in the good old days of February. Cracking stuff Andrew.

Tim Newby

Great interview. Excited to dig deep into what he does.

[…] February: Sam Lee – ‘Lay This Body Down’ In an utterly absorbing and moody video, Sam Lee takes you on a journey to the other side.  As on all the songs on recent album ‘Old Wow’, Lee’s voice is magical.  This carries extra personal significance because Sam Lee’s gig in Cambridge was my final live show before the lockdown.  Also, I was delighted to interview Lee in the spring.  Read more here. […]