Sam Amidon – an old folk head on young shoulders
Vermont native Sam Amidon explains how he went from office typist to folk revivalist - and how he loves to jam with Martin Hayes on the Lower East Side
Sam Amidon is trying his hardest to rein in his inner fanboy, but it’s impossible. He just can’t help it. “I mean, Martin Hayes, ” he says with the glee of a giddy schoolgirl. “I got to play Irish tunes with Martin Hayes on the Lower East Side on Sunday night at one in the morning. It doesn’t get better than that.”
While there is no questioning the Irish fiddler’s eminent status and legendary talent, he doesn’t immediately strike you as the standard idol for a young lad growing up in Brattleboro, Vermont (population: 12,049) in the 1980s. Then again, while he could technically be described as a singer-songwriter, Sam Amidon isn’t exactly the type that lugs a guitar case full of soppy lovelorn paeans from city to city.
As the son of folk musicians Peter and Mary-Alice, the tradition is in his blood. A multi-instrumentalist who plays fiddle, guitar and banjo, his childhood in New England – where there is a custom of fiddle-playing based on the Irish style – was instrumental in shaping both the sort of music that he listened to and that he played. Over the course of six albums – including this year’s excellent Bright Sunny South – he has proven himself a superb interpreter of traditional folk songs, reworked and rearranged to put a distinct Amidon- esque slant on them. Yet forging his own sound from other peoples’ material has never proved problematic for the 32-year-old.
“When I was growing up, my favourite artists – who I thought of in the same way as Miles Davis and John Coltrane – were Martin Hayes, Tommy Peoples, Frankie Gavin; all great fiddle players,” he explains. “When you listen to their records, especially the ones from the 1970s, by and large, none of them is playing tunes that they wrote. It’s almost entirely traditional tunes. But I never really noticed that, because to me, I was so focused on their interpretation.
“To me, those albums are massive personal statements, and the deep, intense, tortured but also subtle expression of Tommy Peoples is so radically different to Martin’s, even if they’re playing the same tune. The fact that they didn’t happen to put those notes together for the first time is irrelevant to me. So growing up in the folk music world, I was just never that bothered by the question of what’s yours and what’s not yours, in terms of content.”
Bright Sunny South’s combination of Amidon’s plaintive vocal and a fusion of the music that he loves – from traditional folk, to free jazz and improvisational rock – means that songs like The Streets of Derry sit alongside his take on Mariah Carey’s Shake It Off with no jarring aural discrepancies. He is not precious about what songs he takes on, he says, as long as they hold some personal connection.
“It doesn’t have to be any kind of literal personal connection, but just a deep connection to the melody, or to something in the words,” he agrees. “When I’m putting an album together, I don’t think too consciously about which songs to choose. You can really let your instincts take a lot of the work on, y’know? A lot of the music on the album really reflects the place I was in at that moment, and it’s definitely a product of that. It’s just that simple.”
Amidon may have been in a different mental place for the shaping and recording of the album, but the somewhat sparse, melancholy feel to parts of the album can be attributed to his geographical displacement, too. Over the past few years, he has been based in London with his musician wife Beth Orton, their young son, Arthur, and Orton’s daughter, Nancy.
“It’s weird, because being in London has almost been like this solitary, monastic-like rural feeling to me, even though we’re in one of the biggest cities in the world,” he says. “Compared to New York, my experience of it is that it’s so quiet. I don’t know if other people have a wild, swinging London time, but we live in a quieter area and obviously have kids . . . so my universe there is much more solitary and traditional, in a funny way. But the constant drizzle keeping you inside drinking tea all the time can be good too,” he chuckles. “It’s a much more quiet life for me.”
His relationship with Orton also meant that he was exposed to British folk music in a way that he hadn’t been previously: people like John Martyn, Bert Jansch, Martin Carthy and The Watersons. He even hired Jerry Boys, who had produced albums by the latter, to work on his own album.
“That kind of English and Irish tradition of psych-folk, weird ’70s acoustic, very inventive records were not something that I was in a position to appreciate when I was younger; I was into either weird stuff like Jimi Hendrix or random field recordings,” he laughs. “It’s taken until now to figure out that there’s actually some really deep stuff there. I think that definitely seeped into Bright Sunny South. But Bright Sunny South is also very much an album of longing and of something that you’ve left: the song Bright Sunny South is about a guy looking back to a time in his childhood, and how fleeting the moments of his childhood were before he had to go off into the world. So that might be a theme that also resulted from being in a foreign place on my own, in a way.”
Because of the type of music that he makes, it seems that Amidon is somewhat resigned to being the sort of musician who remains underground: highly respected in certain communities, but probably never that well-known or commercial, Mariah Carey covers or no. Rather than a sense of progression being something that he struggles with, he says that he has “no conceptual need to ‘advance’, or anything”.
Perhaps strangely, he is not at all committed to being a professional musician for the rest of his life, having “burnt out” on the fiddle since playing professionally straight out of college. “At the same time, I was beginning to do this folk music thing and beginning to play with other people, but I just couldn’t do it because I always had gigs and stuff – so I quit being a professional musician and I took a job,” he laughs.
“I’m a very fast typist, so I took a job transcribing interviews at an office, and it was completely surreal because I never knew what kind of stories I was going to be hearing. And that day job was the most creative musical act of my whole life. Everything that happened in the last seven years came from that moment that I quit being a professional musician. I don’t think I’d still be playing the fiddle if I’d continued down that path; I didn’t have the constitution to just do it blindly. Now, it’s become this personal activity again, it’s become like doing Tai-Chi every day, to play some Irish tunes or some old-time tunes on the fiddle. So I have no idea where I’ll be in 20 years. I hope that I’ll still be playing gigs, but at the same time I’m not gonna just do it because that’s what I’m supposed to do.
Sam Amidon plays Whelan’s, Dublin, on October 25th, 2013. Bright Sunny South is out now