In the crazy heady world of indie music, one man with a calm voice, a guitar, some talented friends and a wealth of ideas can tune up, tone down and stand out; just don’t call him a folk musician.
“Well, I just spent a week back with the family in Vermont,” sighs Sam Amidon down the line from a hotel in Los Angeles, in explanation of his recent activities. “Growing up there in Brattleboro played a big role in how things have come about for me. It’s full of wonderful folk musicians, artists and I was lucky to grow up around their songs, and I really took it for granted in a way. It’s such a strange place,’ he continues contemplatively. “You know it got a huge influx of hippies and artists in the 1970s and they made friends with the farmers in the area. So, now you have a lot of indie bands like Happy Birthday, The Bad Spellers and Feathers and a lot of folk musicians born in the 70s and 80. It’s kind of amazing really, but growing up there I just cared that it had a CD store.”
Despite being born into a neo-hippie utopia where everyone sang and churned butter while dodging the draft and forming fair trade collectives years before it was hip, Amidon decided that his burgeoning love of experimental music and free jazz necessitated a move to the big smoke. “I moved to New York to get away from those songs and that environment but then after a while, that’s what I found liked singing; these old folk songs. I’ve always loved working with musicians from different backgrounds and I’d always move between groups of musicians and we’d work with each other on projects.”
This breadth of collaborative experience is particularly palpable on his most recent album 2010’s I Saw the Sign, a collection of haunting songs we can expect to be highlighted at Amidon’s shows. Much loved cred-tastic arranger Nico Muhly, Melbourne’s own noise manipulator and Brian Eno-associate Ben Frost, Björk’s (and now Feist’s) go-to producer Valgeir Sigurðsson and Beth Orton all make impressive and unusual contributions.
In a way I See the Sign, and his preceding album, the attention-grabbing All is Well are demonstrations of how to integrate disparate talents into a powerful, uncluttered whole.
“It ended being an apocalyptic little batch of songs,” says Amidon of I See the Sign. “Most songs came from New England, some from the Georgia Sea Islands; hymns, children’s songs. I find songs from all over the place, Alan Lomax’s field recordings, singers that I love, folk music singers today, my parents or whoever, it’s a random process.”
“I’m not a scholar, I don’t have a huge archive, but a song has to be something that gets stuck in your head. And it’s not like I live the songs,” he says laughing. “If my life expressed the predicaments of my folk songs in a literal way I’d be a gangster rapper.”
“I don’t play folk music,” he states matter-of-factly. “If I did I’d play the songs as I learned them or first heard them, but I make these albums only when I feel I’ve done something to them musically. I’m not against people singing them straight, I’ll make one of those one day probably, but all of these songs I change around a lot.”
Though it’s noticeable that his songs have often undergone decades of refashioning or disappearance only to emerge as new again, interpreted by Amidon and enhanced by his friends, which gives him a role of a conduit as much as a musician. “It’s true,” he says. “The big step is reworking the songs. Often, I’ll find some lyrics to a folk songs, which will fit to a piece of guitar that I’ve written – I never write the lyrics but the music I do – which changes the meaning of things, and maybe I’ll change the harmonies around; that’s the step that happens before I take it to Nico or my collaborators.
“Once I bring it to them, it’s almost like a series of exchanges; I never give them direction, and they’d probably ignore it if I did. I’ve always loved improvised music, if you sit down to play free jazz with someone, and have no idea what they’re going to do you have a dialog at that point, which seems more interesting to me and better for the songs, than giving directions. Making the album is almost like an improvisation process.”
This improvisatory process is something we can expect to see at his forthcoming shows. “For a couple of gigs I’ll have some amazing multi instrumentalists and you never know where Beth Orton will turn up,” he says with an audible grin. More than that, he won’t say. “I’m working on a new album at the moment but…uhh…I can’t really talk about that either,” he laughs. “I won’t be working with the same people as before, I’ve got a whole new team on board, I do know that.”
Since he gained attention and plaudits for All is Well Amidon has been straddling the folk and indie rock worlds in equal measure, despite thinking of himself as a ‘jazz nerd’. “I think the folk and indie worlds are very different communities, but I do see myself as fitting into both. I maybe don’t fit into one of them alone, but that’s part of the whole New York thing,” he says pausing. “In this day and age with the internet, scene or genre distinction is not so important. One night I’ll be with Nico Mulhy in a classical music hall, next night I’m in an indie rock club, then I’m playing Irish fiddle tunes; three days in a row in totally different environments, and I love that.”
So, is this proclivity for interpreting old or unusual songs – I See the Sign does include a subtly stunning version of R. Kelly’s “Relief” – simply due to the fact that there are too many songs in the world already? Amidon laughs. “As a listener I often feel that way, but as a musician, it’s less conceptual than that. These are songs I’ve found that I love singing, it’s not like a conceptual art project in that sense, at the same time it’s a project for that I’m surprised I’ve stuck with for as long as I have. Maybe I won’t do it forever, but at the moment these songs are much better than songs I can write,” he says with another open laugh.
– Andy Hazel