Interview | The Very Talented Mr Sam Lee

Sam Lee is an interviewer’s dream. Put it this way – how many folk artists were trained in survival by Ray Mears with a background in burlesque music who have also won a BBC Radio 2 Folk Award whilst devoting themselves to saving the gypsy music tradition? Phew. And that’s not even the half of it. In his ‘spare’ time Lee runs The Nest Collective, an organisation dedicate to reviving traditional folk, and is a visiting lecturer at both Goldsmith College and Newcastle University. With debut album Ground of Its Own – a collection of traditional gypsy and traveller song –  recently released on The Nest Collective Records, we thought it was a good time to catch up with the one man institution that is Sam Lee, although we’re surprised he had the time…

You have a colourful background to say the least – Ray Mears-trained wilderness survival instructor, visual artist, teacher, burlesque dancer… What made you decide to focus on music?

Without sounding too fanciful, I think all the things I have worked on in many ways feed into the artistry of being a folk musician. It’s a massively visual music form and my training in Fine Art was about being able to see the creative and visual possibilities in this narrative music. ‘The Wilderness’ work is all about resourcefulness plus a love of and respect for the land, and ‘Folk Song’ is so much about roots and a world close to nature. It’s a song form that is a wellspring from our soil and speaks about our relationship with the land. As for the burlesque – that’s about sheer decadent pleasure and performance to balance the earnestness of the last two.

When did you first become interested in gypsy music?

When I heard them sing and realised what a bloody amazing community of singers, storytellers and yarn spinners they are. What a wild spirit they all possess – so full of passion. Romanticisms aside, they are a community with lots to learn from and a way of life that is as diverse as it is colourful and very much misunderstood – ever more so due to misguided Channel 4 crapumentories.

Are all the tracks on your debut album based on gypsy songs?

Mostly, bar two songs (‘George Collins’ and ‘On Yonders Hill’), but more broadly from the traveller community, both Scotts and Irish, all of whom I have spent a lot of time with learning about the songs, and the deep relationship that they have with the old songs.

Why did you feel it was important to document this musical tradition?

As traditions go I believe in conservation of this culture, leaving the freedom for creativity and evolution of the art form. I reckon there is a massive cultural loss about to happen in the next 15 years where all the last of the gypsy and traveller tradition-bearers will pass away and I am experiencing very little of their songs and singing craft being passed on to the next generation (most of whom prefer Adele to their grandfathers’ songs). However there is also a big cry-out from the whole community that they want to have access to the songs and be able to learn them, the old way, or that aural passing on has ended and the kids can only now learn off CDs and not via nightly campfire immersion as was the way when travelling was allowed. So documenting it means they will have access in the future as well as access to the music for the likes of outside ‘cultural agents’ like myself.

Was it difficult gaining access to this community, and what was it like learning from the gypsy masters?

The songs have always been an incredible passport into the community – once they hear you sing in the old style they immediately accept you. It unlocks a sense of cultural pride and dispels a deep-rooted mistrust of a stranger. When I am sitting with someone who sings songs of over 500 years old, who has learned their craft from an ancient line, and I know no one else outside their family has heard this singing – I feel immensely privileged. It’s like history is being telescoped forward and that the hundreds of years between the songs genesis and now are compressed forward to a timeless sense of presence. That song is alive now and when they finish singing, it will go back dormant into their mind until they next sing, which may be never. But at that moment, like a rare orchid that only blooms once every few years, you are there to hear it.

You have a very old-world voice and singing style – was  this a conscious decision or is your voice just like that?

When I started singing only 6 years ago I realised I had all the affectations of a kid brought up on West Coast, New World sounds and it was not my native voice – I had self-imposed this style. Much of my learning was to strip out any sense of style, and graft on all the wonderful stylistics I was hearing in the singers I surrounded myself with – all these regional accents and decorations. But worry not – I still have a bit of Whitney Houston in there ready for a big ballad!

Other than traditional folk, are you inspired by anything else?

Actually, I listen to very little contemporary folk. My musical inspiration comes mostly from world music and the contemporary alternative scene. I love Norwegian music and weird instrumental stuff that makes most people run – Mongolian Jews’ Harp bands and the like. But ultimately I’ll listen to as much live music as possible, which is why I run The Nest Collective folk nights so I can hear my favourite music from around the world in the flesh, and get that direct intimate experience of people playing for people.

Which current artists would you rate?

Ouch. Hard one! The Autumn season at The Nest is full of my favourites actually – Lisa Knapp, Alasdair Roberts, Firefly Burning, and also Sam Amidon, Valkyrien Allstars and Gerry Diver, the producer of Ground Of its Own’s monumental album ‘The Speech Project’. Loving Seamus Cater and Viljam Nybakka.

What do you think of the current state of folk music and where is it heading?

I think it’s doing ok, but I’d like to see it go further, take more risks and be tackled by more outsiders from the musical creative side and also by more promoters, curators and greater artistic institutions. It is seeping into some great places and being pioneered and supported by some amazing people, but my beef is always that there are not enough people bringing their own musical visions to the songs, too much replicative and derivative re-enactment. The scene has got to go forward, got to evolve, got to be a proactive musical sound-shaper and not a reactive responder to what is happening in the mainstream.

What’s next for you?

So much – I’m drowning in projects! I’m doing some wonderful work exploring a new folk sound with my live band as well as collaborations with some very exciting people  – no naming allowed just yet. Lots of gigging and trying to get a film made and launched on the Gypsy Traveler Community (a positive one, I add). I’m just back from a two week Song Collecting tour in Ireland with the travellers which launches the Song Collectors Collective, instigating a new generation of collectors, but also promoting the Nest Collective and my wacky new dance band the Ceilidh Liberation Front. Oh, learning the art of delegation too and the odd bit of wilderness escapism – poaching, river-swimming and star gazing when I can.