Sam Amidon Interview

Sam Amidon plays as part of the Whale Watching Tour along with Nico Muhly, Ben Frost and Valgeir Sigurðsson this weekend.

When Sam Amidon was growing up, his parents, folk musicians Peter and Mary Alice Amidon, encouraged him to follow his own musical path. That path began with the fiddle, and has taken in banjo, guitar and the kind of voice that can survey Appalachian, Irish traditional songs and R’n’B classics in a heartbeat. At school he started a band with his friends Thomas Bartlett and Gabriel Greenberg, and his sense of friendship, and experimentation (along with an element of Fate) has become a pattern that has led to his relationship with the Bedroom Community (Bartlett has gone on to work with artists such as Antony and the Jonsons, The National, David Byrne, and Grizzly Bear, as well as recording under the Doveman moniker, and Greenberg is now a brilliant cover artist and illustrator). The more traditional take on community seems to appeal to Amidon, whose approach to making music is surely influenced by his parents own earthy approach, who he recalls performing at home, where musicians would drop in on a regular basis to play.

As a teenager, Amidon released five albums with his band Popcorn Behaviour/Assembly to great critical acclaim, and in 2001 he went on to release ‘Solo Fiddle’, a collection of unaccompanied Irish tunes, which shares a space with some of Tommy Peoples early work, one of his heroes. Through college he became ever more interested in indie-rock, but once he started learning the guitar in earnest, he realised that much of what his peers were listening to was the folk music he had known and loved growing up, so he started looking again at what is ultimately his own kind of musical language, something he was working out on records such as ‘Home Alone Inside My Head’ (2003), and ‘But This Chicken Proved False Hearted’ (2007). All of this deepened the majesty of 2008’s ‘All is Well’ – a collection of reworked Appalachian folk songs he recorded in Iceland with producer Valgeir Sigurðsson, featuring orchestral arrangements by composer Nico Muhly. These collaborations led to a different kind of music-making, that would culminate in this year’s ‘I See the Sign’ which is a most delicate battleground of musical inspiration, borrowing from all kinds of little kingdoms; from ballads to folk songs to hymns that portray such grave human concerns as broken love, people and lives.

Amidon is someone that is just as happy playing in a pub in Lisdoonvarna as he is in Carnegie Hall (he has done both) and the result will always be the same – shimmering, lasting beauty. From collaborating with piper Isaac Alderson, to playing the fiddle with Swell Season, to performing with Elysian Fields, and rehabilitating R. Kelly, Amidon is one of the most gifted musicians at work today, but it is more than that, his work is transformational, as the original version of R. Kelly’s ‘Relief’ goes, ‘see I’m just trying to bring relief for those who need it, somebody help somebody, now go and repeat it‘. What a relief for Sam Amidon, Siobhán Kane talks to him.

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Somebody that comes to mind in relation to the way you make music and perform in terms of warmth and intimacy is Will Oldham, hopefully it is only a matter of time before you collaborate with him?
It’s funny with him, I had never heard his music until recently, well I’d heard little bits here and there, but I hadn’t known his work intimately at all, except for ‘The Letting Go’ which Valgeir produced, and that was around the time I was talking with Valgeir about maybe doing something together, but nothing had happened yet, but I was listening to that record and the sound of that album was so beautiful that it really inspired me to sit down with Valgeir and really do something. I love that record and the newest one is also really beautiful, but I have to go back and spend time with the earlier ones, I admire how he does what he does. [Laughs] Who knows, maybe we will work together. We have never actually met, but we have some friends in common. Actually Shahzad [Ismaily] who played all the non-orchestral instruments on ‘I See The Sign’; drums, guitar, all electronics and synthesizers, is playing bass on tour with Bonnie Prince Billy, then Valgeir produced ‘The Letting Go’, and my friend Eamon, a traditional musician in New York who plays banjo, has just done something with him. So there are all these connections that are quite separate, going back and forth, so hopefully we’ll get to hang out sometime. It would be fantastic. As well as that I think we both love a lot of the same music, like that Andy Irvine and Paul Brady album – that is a huge influence for me.

Tommy Peoples is a huge influence also, which makes a lot of sense considering you started out on the fiddle.
In a way it is a most obscure thing to get people into, as from a listening perspective Tommy Peoples and his early solo records are pretty intense, they are quite full on and the sound is quite raw, so it almost the equivalent of me listening to a free jazz album or something, but that is all I grew up loving, it was all I did until I was twenty-one. I sometimes sang, but it was more of a social thing, whereas fiddle playing is very solitary, and very personal for me.The first time I heard the second track ‘The Kid on the Mountain’ from that Tommy Peoples and Paul Brady album [‘The High Part of the Road’], even the first minute of that track was a foundational thing for my entire sense of rhythm and phrasing, Tommy was a huge influence also in an indirect way, and on a deeper level I am sure that it still an influence, and Martin Hayes also.

Though you have also recorded many Appalachian songs and other kinds of folk songs, your childhood was heavily influenced by Irish traditional music wasn’t it?
That is one of the reasons why it is so much fun to come to Ireland, because as a weird coincidence, my childhood was all about Irish tunes, though I now play so many Appalachian tunes. It informed so much, I mean, when I was going to turn fifteen, my parents had been doing some concerts in England, and as a surprise they took me to Ireland, and then my whole goal was to find out where Tommy Peoples was playing, and he was playing in this little pub in Lisdoonvarna, I went there with my fiddle, and the other guy that was supposed to be playing with him was late, so I played. I literally could have died I was so happy. When I was around twenty, Tommy moved to Boston for a few years and played with a lot of my friends there, and I would go and play.

You started off with the fiddle, which seems perhaps like your most personal instrument, but then picked up the banjo, was that a natural progression?
It all is a question of what takes over at different times, my parents play the old time banjo, so banjos were always around, and the fiddle is so physically close to your head, whereas the banjo is something you can strum and almost forget you are doing it, so you can also read a book, or watch a movie. The banjo wasn’t something I thought about, and it was just next to the couch, I was just lazy, and I think the banjo and laziness go together [laughs]. I would often think ‘oh I should play the fiddle now’ – it was much harder work, whereas I would think ‘I should stop playing the banjo now so I can get something done’. When I went to New York in my twenties, with my friend Thomas [Bartlett], he was writing songs, and had me play in his band. I didn’t know how to play guitar, so I would play the banjo instead, then I started to try and learn the guitar which is how I came back to folk songs.

You said that Shahzad [Ismaily] has given you guitar lessons in return for banjo lessons, how has it been working out?
It’s been good. It is sort of getting there, I definitely feel like I am still learning how to play the guitar. You wouldn’t hire me as a guitar player. Though I did just do some stuff with Justin Bond [of Kiki & Herb fame], he is making a solo album with Thomas, and Thomas had me and Shahzad playing, so there I was, a session player! But Justin is so relaxed that it’s okay.

It must be so interesting to work with someone like Justin, who has such a distinctive way of telling stories, and yet in more of a torch song vein.
Exactly, he has that style, but is this totally amazing performer, he goes into this other zone as this storyteller and has an amazing presence on stage.

You also seem to really love working in that collaborative way, helping other people achieve their vision of a record or sound.
I love doing that. As a fiddle player, that was my whole identity as a teenager, I thought people would only ever hire me as a fiddle player, I never thought I would ever be in the front. So I love that role, trying to make something that fits into other people’s work, though I’m not that good at it!

The Whale Watching tour seems to be greatly about that; collaboration, inventiveness, that earthy understanding of music and the joyfulness of creating with like minds, it is something that is synonymous with Bedroom Community.
The Whale Watching tour is a performance, but within the group it is very collaborative, I think it almost that Icelandic tribal thing, there are still pretty much vikings there, and no-one makes decisions on their own, it is a wonderful model for music making and touring. It is quite a fun group, we have gotten quite comfortable. I don’t remember ever rehearsing for these concerts, which is amazing, because it can be quite complicated, but Nico is on top of us, pointing at people, and writing things out. It’s wonderful how natural it is, it is more of a feeling that is kind of tribal and about community which is a great thing to be part of. Nico is incredible, I met him through Thomas in New York, it is funny because we hadn’t played much together, but it just kind of worked the way the arrangements were done for my records, I didn’t say how I wanted it, and he didn’t say how he would do it, but it just kind of worked, we have a wonderful musical friendship.

He seems to have an almost mischievous, childlike way of creating, literally ‘playing’.
Definitely, that is how I would describe it also. He has a very childlike quality to him, and he just puts these things out there, these beautiful, simmering melodies, it’s amazing.

The fiddle player Caoimhín Ó’Raghallaigh recently collaborated with Amiina, and he had said that over the years, he has really been drawn to Icelandic music, what is it that makes it so compelling for musicians do you think?
Caoimhín’s my main man! I love him. I don’t know, Iceland really is a special place. I think the best thing about it is the landscape. Things like the mineral hot springs, which are just like municipal pools, and things like that combined with the environment which Valgeir creates in his studio makes for something really special. They really are connected; the space, the clarity, and going there to record is amazing because you have all these things at work, and it is the opposite of what the recording process can often be like, you play, and then you go and swim for a while and then come back to record.

Your last two records have obviously benefited hugely from this almost holistic approach to recording music.
It is so important to me, it gives a warmth and clarity to the work, and it is definitely down to the atmosphere that Valgeir creates.

In all your work you seem to be drawn to the mystery of the thing; whether the murky origin of a folk song, or the different meanings one crucial word can have, is that partlywhy you are constantly drawn back to folk songs, because they belong to nobody, and so your work is never a cover, more a reworking, as they are constantly shape-shifting?
Exactly, my work is not about covers, and that is a crucial distinction. A cover is your version of somebody else’s thing, yet a folk song is nobody’s and yet there is sort of a lineage, but the best thing about them is that sense of mystery, you don’t know quite where the origin is, and you sometimes don’t know what the words mean necessarily, but they are nobody and everybody’s songs. You can learn from them too. Sometimes I feel funny about doing some songs, but I keep thinking that those songs were originally made by people who knew those things deeply, lived them and understood what that meant pretty well – I can then do something with that understanding.

What is the most complicated song you have ever worked on?
I don’t know, because it’s rare that I hear a song and think ‘I should do that’, it’s more that I play a line on a guitar and then I realise it is a certain melody that has been poking around my mind for a while, so it is pretty accidental. If I run into a problem then I just change it, I am not precious about it, I will just do it until it works.

Would you have approached the R. Kelly song in the same way?
Exactly the same way, and I know that is a cover in a technical sense, but not really the way I actually recorded it.

It wasn’t surprising that you recorded that song, you do like your hip-hop.
Well, I am from the streets [laughs].

It’s folk music as well.
That’s true, and I do love it. I think MF Doom is one of my favourites, because he has that stream of consciousness thing going on, it’s quite exciting.

When did you start becoming interested in other types of music aside from the folk music that you grew up with?
Well my parents would listen to a lot of different things, my Dad gave me ‘Bitches Brew’, but I suppose it was really Thomas and Gabriel at school, as we would push each other more as regards to what we were listening to. Recently I just discovered that old Grace Jones record ‘Nightclubbing’ and seriously it is the only record I have listened to for a while now.

What else are you working on at the moment?
I have a show coming up at the Kitchen in New York in November which is going to be a big show with video, songs – kind of an extravaganza, so that’s the main thing.

Sam Amidon plays as part of the Whale Watching Tour along with Nico Muhly, Ben Frost and Valgeir Sigurðsson at The National Concert Hall on Sunday 26th September. His latest record ‘I See the Sign‘ is out now on Bedroom Community.

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