A Conversation with Folk-Inspired Multi-Instrumentalist Sam Amidon

Sam Amidon is a multi-instrumentalist who grew up in a family and community of traditional folk musicians in Brattleboro, Vermont.  He creatively collaborates, improvises and composes music influenced by many genres, including folk, jazz and indie rock. His first five albums are reworked traditional folk songs, while his sixth album, The Following Mountain, consists of entirely original music. He has just released his limited edition King Speechy record, inspired by a novel he’s not writing, about the wanderings and travels of the mysterious and morally dubious King Speechy throughout the universe! The Cedar welcomes Sam’s return this Thursday, April 25th.

I think you want to sing and get as deep into the song as possible and into all of its intended mysteries.  I think it’s the mystery that draws someone to music.
— Sam Amidon
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MJ Gilmore, The Cedar’s Box Office and Office Manager, interviewed Sam Amidon through Skype from The Cedar’s Green Room as he talked from his home in North London.  Sam shared about his musical beginnings, the “act of listening,” reworking traditional folk songs, the role of empathy in collaboration, and much more.

MJ: Sam, we are happy to be talking with you in advance of your return to The Cedar this Thursday! How were you introduced to traditional folk music?

Sam: I was three-and-a-half years old when I started to play the fiddle.  There was a teacher in Brattleboro, David Tasgal, who was extremely eccentric and had the ability to communicate with a three-year-old and teach him an instrument in a wonderful and super fun way!  I don’t think I would have started so young, if it hadn’t been for him. He was a deeply creative person and Suzuki violin teacher. I was also in a world full of a lot of folk and contra dancing and the fiddle was the lead instrument in a lot of those groups, so there were a lot of great fiddle players around me.  Many of them became my teachers. Mary Lea, Sue Sternberg and Becky Tracy were three of my deep fiddle inspirations growing up. They are nationally and internationally known folk fiddle players based in Vermont.

My parents, Peter and Mary Alice, are folk musicians and my brother Stefan is a great drummer and singer. He plays in the band The Devil Makes Three.  It’s quite possible they have played at The Cedar! He also has a country band called The Sweetback Sisters.

MJ: What types of fiddle styles are prominent where you grew up?

Around age 10 I realized that I was really mostly drawn to the Irish fiddle style, because it’s so deeply detailed and ornate, yet still a rhythmically compelling and expressive style of music.
— Sam Amidon

Sam: The New England fiddle style is a traditional fiddle style that was around when I was growing up. The New England style is really a mix of French Canadian, Irish and Appalachian elements.  Around age 10 I realized that I was really mostly drawn to the Irish fiddle style, because it’s so deeply detailed and ornate, yet still a rhythmically compelling and expressive style of music. There is this incredible repertoire of tunes.  You can go in almost anywhere in the Western world and find an Irish tune session. So I really got into Irish music as a kid.

MJ: After many years of studying and playing the fiddle, was there a pivotal moment after your teens when you wanted to explore other instruments and musical styles?

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Sam: I had a contra dance band called Popcorn Behavior that played New England folk music for dancing. I played with my friend Thomas Bartlett and my brother Stefan. We put out five albums throughout the course of our teenage years and played at dance weekends and folk festivals around the country.  I was our booking agent, so I spent a lot of my teenage years on email booking gigs for the band and coordinating the album releases. At a certain point around age 20, I kind of recognized that I didn’t want to only be a fiddle player for a job anymore. I felt like I would burn out on it and I wanted to still enjoy it. So I still played fiddle, but started to expand into other things.  I went to New York and started to do improvised music and play in some more song-based indie-rock type bands. I mainly started to play the guitar so I could play in the band Doveman with my friend Thomas Bartlett, because he was moving to New York to become a session musician.

MJ: When composing music, how have you fused your traditional folk background with new influences?

Sam: It’s been a real organic process.  I didn’t just think that I was going to modernize traditional folk songs. It was more the process that I wanted to start singing, which I hadn’t really started singing solo. Growing up in Brattleboro, VT, my parents are of that folkie granola generation from the mid 1970s and they discovered all of this folk music.  My friends and I grew up with all of these songs and they were traditional and old folk songs, but they were never presented as old or vintage at all, it was just in the context of our lives. People would come over for shape note singing, or we would go to a contra dance, but we would never dress up in old fashioned clothes or something like that! It was all just in the context of our lives. The oldness of the songs is certainly part of what makes the music so beautiful, but at the same time it was never this vintage thing to me.

Once you start singing a song you almost trick yourself into thinking that you wrote it as a singer.  In terms of what the other musicians on the stage are doing, they are bringing their own backgrounds to it. For example, Shahzad Ismaily’s background is bringing improvisation and various traditional percussion styles. On some of my albums there's Nico Muhly who’s doing orchestral arrangements and loves Benjamin Britten and Steve Reich. Each person I would work with would bring their own life elements that they would bring into the picture.

MJ: What was your process when reworking traditional folk music on your first five albums and then transitioning to composing all original music on your sixth album.

Sam: Five of the six song albums I have made are reworked traditional folk songs. So I'm not really a songwriter, but I am a singer of songs and writer of music. The thing with a folk song is that when you sing a folk song you are not doing a 'cover.' There is no single original version like there would be with a pop song cover. There's many, many different versions that are shifting and changing, so it’s a great platform for other things to happen. The stories are so mysterious and strange, but also very comforting, sad, or intriguing. I love singing the songs, but I also just love them as a zone of composition of where I can write music around them, and also in collaboration where I can bring people in to add their elements. The structures of the songs that I come up with tend to be open enough to allow other people to bring their elements into it.

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My most recent album is called The Following Mountain. It's my first album of entirely original music, writing the music and songs from scratch. The lyrics are mine too although one song is adapted from a 17th century English poem, and there is another that has words from a folksong as well. When it came time to make this album, I knew that I needed to take a break from adapting folk songs because I didn't want it to become a gimmick. I felt I had to go back to zero and start from there.

Making this album, stripping things back to zero and growing them back up again, was truly an interior journey and adventure.
— Sam Amidon

What I did is, I heard from Shahzad that he had been working with Milford Graves, the incredible and legendary percussionist, philosopher, apothecary and acupuncturist. (There is a fantastic new documentary about Milford called Full Mantis which you can find online) I put together a day of improvisation in New York at Figure 8 studios with Shahzad, Milford, the saxophonist Sam Gendel, and, a little later in the day, the percussionist Juma Sultan who played with Jimi Hendrix. I brought in a few ideas of melodies and things to play and we just played music to see what would happen. I then brought those recordings back to London and worked with the producer Leo Abrahams. We grew the album from there. The last track on the album, 'April,' is from the first day in the studio. The whole rest of the album was grown with Leo in his little studio in London, sometimes using other elements from the New York recordings. Making this album, stripping things back to zero and growing them back up again, was truly an interior journey and adventure.

MJ: I heard you say in a radio interview that what you look for in other music is, “Internal sentiment of the wandering soul.”  Why is the act of listening so important to you?

It’s a very magical experience to meet people who you have been listening to their albums for years and then be next to them on stage and hearing that sound coming out and interacting with it.
— Sam Amidon

Sam: How poetic! Listening to music is one of the main joys of life. A lot of the decisions I have made about music collaborations and ideas for my albums all come from the act of listening. It’s a very magical experience to meet people who you have been listening to their albums for years and then be next to them on stage and hearing that sound coming out and interacting with it. I’ve been lucky to do that with a couple of my heroes, my friends, and people that I have met in different places along the way.

One thing I think about with the CD era compared to the current era of music listening, is that nowadays, you hear a piece of music and maybe you don’t like it, so you don’t listen to it again. Or you like the song and listen to it again. You decide immediately what your response is and you act on it. Whereas when I was a kid, I would go to a music store in Brattleboro, and our music store didn’t have a listening booth, so I would just have to buy the CD based on what I'd heard about it, what the cover was, or the band name. I'd pay $15 for a new CD and bring it home and listen to it. Maybe I'd listen to it and hate it on the first listen, but since I spent money on it, I wanted to get my money’s worth! So I would listen a hundred more times just because I had it, just to make that $15 worth it. And sometimes these albums would become some of my favorites, or even if they didn't, it was still powerful to spend time listening and trying to make sense of something that you didn't initially respond to. This was a powerful experience. I remember when my dad gave me Miles DavisBitches Brew. It didn’t make any sense to me for many years, it just sounded like alien music, and it is still alien music that I love and is beautiful.

MJ: What was it like meeting and performing with one of your guitar heroes, Bill Frisell?

Sam: I would go see him play any time he was in New York, and would sometimes go up and say hi to get an autograph or something. Eventually I made friends with the great musician Eyvind Kang, through Shahzad, and gave Eyvind some of the music I was working on. He passed it along to Bill, and one day, about six months later, I got an email out of the blue from Bill saying that he was interested in playing some music together with me. I freaked out!

I think part of why Bill Frisell is such a great musician and how he has been able to sustain his music for so many decades so creatively, is because he has a quality that when he is on stage with other people, he makes you feel that he’s the lucky one to be there. He has this incredible empathy as a musician.
— Sam Amidon

Performing with him was was a miracle. It was partially that wild feeling of hearing the sound that I knew so well from listening on my headphones for so many years and now he was right next to me.  Also, I think part of why Bill Frisell is such a great musician and how he has been able to sustain his music for so many decades so creatively, is because he has a quality that when he is on stage with other people, he makes you feel that he’s the lucky one to be there. He has this incredible empathy as a musician. No matter how nervous I might have been, even in the moments right before I first played with him, I’m thinking what am I even doing here, this is ridiculous, I shouldn’t be up here, but the moment we started to play, the warmth of his music and personality made me feel very comfortable to be playing with him.

MJ: Will you talk about your experience performing and collaborating with musicians Shahzad Ismaily and Glen Hansard?

Sam: Shahzad Ismaily has been one of my favorite people to play with.  He’s an incredible multi-instrumentalist and deeply, deeply creative person.  We started by trading banjo lessons for guitar lessons many years ago in New York and that grew into working together.  He’s been a big part of all of my records from the third record on.

I have met a lot of people through my friend Thomas Bartlett. We moved to New York at the same time when we were eighteen years old. Thomas was very driven to get out into the world and try and find and meet and play with people who thus far we had exclusively encountered on the covers of CDs we bought at home. Artists like Chocolate Genius, the singer Arto Lindsay, Marc Ribot, Laurie Anderson, and all of these different creative artists that we loved.  When we went to New York, Thomas was very driven to find these people by going to their shows and saying hi to them afterwards. It took a lot of work, but fairly quickly he starting playing keyboard with bands like The National and David Byrne. Through playing in Thomas’ band, I was able to meet a lot of incredible musicians in New York City.

Live In London October 26th, 2010 with The Swell Season

During that time, Thomas was listening to a lot of new music and finding different things. He met Glen Hansard well before his success as a solo artist. Thomas really loved Glen's music and Glen became a close friend in our world.  I played violin with his band The Swell Season right before the movie Once came out. Glen has been an incredible supporter of my music ever since. Glen has this big heart personality where he’ll invite me to come on stage and play one of my songs during the middle of his set at The Beacon Theatre in New York or The Royal Festival Hall in London. Glen has a real warmth and big spirit.

MJ: How have ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins’ Southern Journey field recordings influenced you?

Sam: The Alan Lomax collections were hugely, hugely important for me, both in the background in the sense that my parents learned a lot of songs from the recordings so I would have heard my parents singing songs that they had learned from the collection, without my realizing that's where they got them from. Then, as a teenager, a lot of the Lomax recordings were reissued on CD and I would buy the reissues and bring them home. I was hearing all of the original recordings of songs I had heard sung growing up and new songs that I hadn’t heard. These recordings have been a foundational source for me.

I had a really cool experience a couple of years ago.  There’s a British folk singer named Shirley Collins and there is a documentary, The Ballad of Shirley Collins, that recently came out about her. She was a really well-known folk singer in the 1970s in the United Kingdom.  In the late ‘70s she quit singing. She’s now in her early 80s and she just made a new album. I knew her records, but didn't know much else about her. I was invited by the documentarians to go and interview her as part of the film. They took me down to her home in a little town about an hour south of London. As she and I were speaking, I found out that she was Alan Lomax’s girlfriend and that she went on some of his most important field recording trips with him as his secretary. Many of the Southern Journey recordings that we know and love were actually recorded by Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins together. She was often running the tape machine, keeping a log of the songs, befriending the musician’s wives, and making the people feel at ease.  

She played a very fundamental role in those recordings. This was an amazing thing to learn, because I have been listening to these recordings for years and I had been reading liner notes in the CDs and yet I never knew her involvement. I definitely recommend watching this documentary about Shirley Collins. I think it is helping people learn her important role in making some of the most important recordings in American music.

MJ: Please talk about your book Notes on the Twitterographer and your newly released King Speechy record.

Sam: In the early days of Twitter, it was a little more free form and open before it became political.  There were no graphics on twitter, just sentences. It was just a place for one’s stray thoughts to arise.  My book is also partially inspired from the book Notes From a Cinematographer by Robert Bresson. He was a French filmmaker who wrote a book in the 1950s about his random thoughts on French filmmaking. His thoughts are all Twitter-length. So my book is my own random handwritten thoughts.

I will also be bringing a very special newly released vinyl record with me to The Cedar on Thursday called King Speechy.  This is a real album, but the content is fictional. It is inspired by a novel that I am not writing, about the wanderings and travels of the mysterious and morally dubious King Speechy throughout the universe. I have printed a hundred limited edition records, I'm mainly selling them through my website, but I have just a few that I'll bring on tour.

MJ: We are excited about your return to The Cedar Cultural Center!

Sam: This will be my first time performing at The Cedar with a band. I think I've always played solo before. I have a great band, a trio with a guitarist and drummer.  They know all of my music, so I can throw any song at them in the moment and we can get into it. So I am really excited about this show! In the spring of 2017 I worked with The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO) and I also performed at Justin Vernon's Eaux Claires festival. Justin has been a very supportive source to me and many others, and I’ve gotten to meet so many creative people through him and the festival, including performing with John Prine a couple years back. This is my first headline show in Minneapolis in quite a while so I'm excited about it.

MJ: I would like to close this interview with one of your reflections about a couple of your music videos: “Went into the woods with John Hardwick to uncover the deepest secrets of this song...to reach the outer limits of consciousness and uncover the true hidden nature of the corporeal universe.”

Sam: That’s deeply poetic! This is about the music videos that John and I made together, of the songs 'As I Roved Out' and 'Warren.' I think you want to sing and get as deep into the song as possible and into all of its intended mysteries.  I think it’s the mystery that draws someone to music.


Catch Sam Amidon performing with his band and opener Humbird at The Cedar this Thursday, April 25th. Tickets are still available here.