Sam Lee: Let Nature Sing

A highly inventive and original singer, Sam Lee is also a renowned folk song interpreter and song collector, a passionate conservationist and an environmental campaigner and activist with Extinction Rebellion and Music Declares Emergency, a group that lobbies for a carbon-zero music industry. His involvement with the recent RSPB campaign ‘Let Nature Sing’ resulted in three minutes of birdsong entering the UK Top 20.

SF: I spent a sunny October morning talking with Sam, where he was performing as an integral part of the Change Festival near Kenilworth, leading a three-mile woodland nature walk, singing folk songs and telling stories along the paths. I suggested to him that the very word ‘change’ (as well as more than adequately describing where we are in the world right now) could also be readily applied to his music in general and how he approaches adapting the traditional songs he so loves.

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Sam Lee

Sam: Working within the folk music scene, there is a real sense of deep time and there’s a responsibility too when you’re working with an ancient material. I’m not just talking about songs, I’m talking about what brings us together as a community and what the struggles are in keeping it going, practised and appreciated. Everything about it has to change in response to a shifting environment, both ecologically and systemically within the changing of the music industry; how music is appreciated and consumed and performed. There are radical shifts happening in all areas and it’s so important that every kind of art that I, or anyone else, produces takes into consideration many other factors: how it is going to survive, how it’s going to be consumed and how it’s going to be relevant. But actually the solutions are all there, and the solutions are things that’ll make us healthier and more connected people, like localism and the building of community. And folk music is central to that.

SF: Your just-released new album, Old Wow, is your third and it follows 2012’s Mercury Music Prize-nominated Ground of Its Own and 2015’s The Fade in Time. How did you arrive at the album title?

Sam: It came from a while ago actually, back in 2013 or 2014 when I’d been in music a while and I was really unhappy. I was touring and travelling and in buses and trains and it was all very exciting but I wasn’t happy and I realised that I wasn’t happy because I wasn’t spending any time out in nature, where I had always been. Anyway, I took some time out one summer on a course at a wilderness school in Scotland and realised that my love affair with nature was in tatters and I’d lost something very important in my life. And in that moment of confused crisis, when I was kind of calling out for help, a buzzard dropped down out of the sky, really close to me, screaming his song at me, circling around me really ferociously as if to take care of me. And in that ‘wow’ moment the name just appeared: the name ‘Old Wow’ came out. It’s my name for that sense of magical thing that we’ll never be able to measure, or understand or quantify: the life force within everything. And in the first track on the album, ‘The Garden of England (Seeds of Love)’, I sing about how the Old Wow is so old, so indestructible, it’ll never wear thin, no matter what we do.

SF: The songs on Old Wow are grouped into three separate sections entitled Heart, Hearth and Earth: why did you choose this way of presenting the album?

Sam: There was nothing premeditated in any way, the songs rose up and I received them: the songs just appeared – these are the songs that need to be sung. In thinking about the track listing, some artists sweat for months about the order, but I just made a list and then swapped a couple around. It became apparent that there were qualities in the way the songs were grouped that were central to reconnecting with ourselves and what the environmental movement is trying to achieve: it’s about the Earth, but to make that change within our relationship to it, it has to start at home and it has to come from the heart. Unless people have a heartfelt moment connecting to the story within it, all the statistics in the world won’t have an impact and nothing will happen. Also, it’s essentially the same word: from ‘heart’ to ‘hearth’ to ‘earth’: there was a suddenly simple effective kind of cosmology.

SF: What did working with guitarist and producer Bernard Butler (Suede and McAlmont & Butler) bring to the album?

Sam: Bernard is old-school in terms of craft. And he knew that he was working with something very different here: he wasn’t working with a singer-songwriter, he was working with an art form that was not commercially shaped and he knew he was working with a music that was, dare I say it, far more spiritual than he’d ever touched before. It was a really wonderful thing to see how he reacted to that. He understands folk music because he was mentored by Bert Jansch – but he also knew that I’d never worked with a guitar player before and I had to accept that now was the time to bring the guitars in! But his sound on the guitar is so soulful, it sounds like strings, it’s like a violin. And we used old-school mics at RAK studios, with a drum kit from the 1960s, and we created an album that sounds timeless – it doesn’t sound like an album that’s been made today or made yesterday – and I like timelessness: that’s my style, creating something that is both contemporary and ancient.

SF: You’ve broken down the boundaries between folk and contemporary music, successfully re-inventing the assumed ways in which folksong is played and heard today. How do you go about adapting and exploring a traditional song in a way that’s contemporary and fully expresses what you want it to say?

Sam: The old songs have so much to give us, so much to say to us. The songs on Old Wow are about nature and what we’re losing, but in terms of the music, I don’t write chords and charts, I hear the song. I have a brilliant band of musicians who have a certain connectedness and they are all incredible musicians but really I’m not looking for virtuosity, I’m interested in how people relate to music and how they channel that. I have a good intuition in terms of what is needing to be said in a song and my skill is being singular in understanding what I’m trying to communicate and conveying the whole overall staging, the production, the sheer theatricality – I don’t mean that in terms of actual live performance – and where the character in the voice of each instrument is correspondent to the next one. Ultimately, what comes out has to be truthful, with integrity. I say this to young musicians all the time; that it’s so important to do what you’re doing for the right purposes. The great thing about folk music is that it’s more about the ‘we’ than the ‘I’ and building community in music is the most important thing. Creativity is most prolific in places of diversity.

Nicholas John

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