Sunday, February 6, 2011

Interview: Sam Amidon, Speaking In His Own Voice

These are the facts: Sam Amidon is a native of Vermont. He is the son of folk artists Peter and Mary Alice Amidon, and the brother of professional drummer Stefan Amidon. He plays a variety of instruments including, but not limited to the fiddle, banjo, and guitar.

When I discovered 2008's All Is Well, I was captivated. I heard songs that I thought I knew, but clearly- I was dearly mistaken because I had never heard them sound anything like this. His new album, 2010's I See The Sign, is equally as engaging and definitely worth an attentive listen.

After speaking with him briefly about his work, and then carefully re-listening to his albums while considering our conversation, my best shot at an attempt of describing his work is as follows:

Sam listens to songs. I mean he really listens to songs. He soaks them up, and not just lives with them, but goes deep within them. He pulls them apart, searches the terrain throughout each one of them, and works intuitively to find something new.

His vision is singular and I feel honored to have had the opportunity to discuss his work with the man himself.

How would you describe your own original songwriting processes?

Sam Amidon: Well, I’ve never actually written a song. What I do is take old folk songs from one source or another - a children’s singing game from the Georgia Sea Islands, a New England shape note hymn from the early 19th century, or a North Carolina folksong from Dock Boggs - and then I sing it for awhile and maybe rework the music and change it around.  

Can you discuss your recording processes and experiences behind your latest album,  I See The Sign?

Sam Amidon: For I See The Sign, I took my songs to Iceland and recorded them there with an enigmatic genius named Valgeir Sigurdsson.

I went there with my friend Shahzad Ismaily, who is an enigmatic sonic octopus.  He and I put down all kinds of tracks of him playing his guitar through a Moog synthesizer, or humming while shaking some weird percussion instrument. Then we went to the Icelandic Volcano Pool. Then we came back. Then we left.

Then my friend Nico came and added all of his beautiful crazy arrangements without asking me what I wanted them to be like first, so when I heard them they were a wonderful surprise! Literally, like a birthday present.  

Then I fell in love with the singer Beth Orton, so I brought her to Iceland, so that we could go drive around some volcanoes, and she sang with me on the album. 

And then Valgeir and I sorted through it all to see what happened next.

How do you see the trajectory of your recent recorded work: But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted to All Is Well to I See The Sign?

Sam Amidon: It’s basically been the trajectory of me learning how to sing and play guitar, neither of which I knew how to do 8 years ago.  I knew how to sing when I was little, but I sort of forgot when my voice changed.  And all I did as a kid was play Irish fiddle tunes on the fiddle.

I’ve really enjoyed your interpretations and renditions of traditional tunes. With such a wealth of traditional music that has been passed down over the years to choose from, can you talk about your process of selecting songs to cover?

Sam Amidon: Thank you. The process is highly haphazard but there are certain singers and groups of songs which I love.

I love Bessie Jones who collected children’s singing games from the Georgia Sea Islands and sang them with them and played insanely good tambourine. I love Dock Boggs who sang oldtime songs. My parents are great musicians and I love the songs they sing too.

I love an album they are on with another great singer named Lucy Simpson, called Sharon Mountain Harmony.  I love an Irish singer named Paul Brady who reworked Irish folk songs in the 1970s in a similar way (I hope) to what I do now.

Can you describe your process of interpreting and composing your own arrangements of these tunes? “Sugar Baby”, “O’Death”, “Rain and Snow” all come to mind as traditional ones, and  newer classics such as  “Head Over Heels” by Simple Minds and “Relief”  by R. Kelly. 

Sam Amidon: It starts with the song and just singing it. Or maybe not. Sometimes it starts with a guitar part, and/ or a little musical piece that I wrote, and then I realize that a song I have had in my head sounds good sung over it.

And maybe the two parts (the guitar/banjo part and the song melody) clash a little bit, so I see what happens next.  It’s just a way of hearing what the song has to offer and maybe if there are some little corners of it that other people haven’t found yet.

Having dedicated your last album to Dick Boggs, can you speak about the influence of his music  on your own work?

Sam Amidon: My friend Gabriel and I used to walk around Brattleboro when we were in high school and sing his songs.  He sang about dark things in a sweet way.

What do you think it is about traditional music that begs to continue to be passed forward?

Sam Amidon:
Simply, the fact that it is GOOD MUSIC.

Do you have any suggestions for your fans who enjoy your work and who may like to dig deeper into traditional music?

Sam Amidon: I'd suggest listening to the Alan Lomax Southern Journey Series. Buy a banjo.  Listen to fiddle music throughout the world (Kentucky fiddle tunes, Irish fiddle tunes, etc).  Learn a song. Go to Vermont.

Who are your influences?

Sam Amidon: Sam Bartlett, Sue Sternberg, Keith Murphy, Wild Asparagus, Nightingale, The Horse Flies, Andre Marchand, Tommy Peoples, Becky Tracy, my parents.

 What have you been listening to lately?

Sam Amidon:
Wes Montgomery's  Smokin At The Half Note
Pat Martino's We’ll Be Together Again ("For his sense of total melodic clarity")
Method Man's Tical
Marc Ribot's Silent Movies
Drake's Thank Me Later ("At first I hated it, but now I have come to understand that I don’t hate it. He is annoying, but good.  Some things in nature have a duality. His duality is ANNOYING … GOOD")

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