For those less acquainted Sam Lee is many things, a committed conservationist, an expert in traditional music, and collector of ancient songs from traditional Gypsy and traveller communities. All of which lends itself well to his primary creative outlet as a folk singer. His extraordinary debut album, released in 2012 was shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize and featured a magical array of instruments from the Jews Harps, fiddles, banjo and the drone effects of an Indian Shruti box to create an innovative and highly original sound.
Most recently he’s announced his Bernard Butler produced third album, Old Wow, out January 31st, 2020. The brilliant LP which features a rare appearance from Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser, is a reworking of traditional folk songs such as ‘Seeds Of Love’ and ‘The Moon Shines Bright’, and is set for more serious acclaim. With an accompanying national UK tour, Sam is going to be a bust boy come 2020. Before he hits the road we sat down to ask him some pertinent and some downright silly questions. It’s time to Meet the Musician.
The MALESTROM: Tell us about how you got into music…
Sam Lee: The road I took into music begins really in my mid-twenties when I, having never had any music lessons or any aspirations to be a musician, suddenly discovered some of the old folk songs (quite brilliant) and started to learn and listen to them, and start singing them and before I knew it I was going to Folk clubs and trying these new songs that to me felt really special and beautiful and that’s how I got into the singing at least.
TM: What are your prime musical ambitions?
SL: I’d say that for me I want to bring as many people to the depth of ancient and kinda history of folk song and also how I can use those songs to allow people greater access into the natural world and those songs being a bridge into a more ancient way of being in nature.
TM: What would you be doing if you hadn’t had a career in music?
SL: If I hadn’t had a career in music I would have probably ended up working in ancient conservation, teaching wilderness work and developing outdoor experiences which is kind of what I’m doing it now but through music. So I’d probably just done it a long time ago.
TM: Where do you call home?
SL: I call home London, Hackney, where I’ve been for many many years.
TM: Your least favourite instrument?
SL: It’s not about the instrument, it’s about the instrument list. Surely, even the weirdest of instruments when played by masters is incredible. Also, in disrespect, I’m going to say the Casio keyboard, haha!
TM: You’re hosting a meal for 3 guests, they could be famous, friends, dead, alive, whatever, who are they?
SL: Well, one of them would be Joni Mitchell, the other would be Michael Jackson and the third one… I’d like it to be the naturalist John Muir who lived in America a hundred and so years ago.
TM: You’re stranded on an island, you only have one album, which is it?
SL: It would actually have to be Joni Mitchell’s “Hejira”.
TM: Who’s the one person you call in a crisis?
SL: Ironically I’m the one always being called in crisis. But, I always call my best friend Tiff, he’s the one who always has the right answer to everything.
TM: What’s your musical guilty pleasure?
SL: I don’t feel it as a guilty pleasure… I LOVE the early work of Tina Turner. There, I said it.
TM: Can you cook? If so, what’s your signature dish?
SL: Today I did my favourite dish, I roasted a cauliflower with lots of oil and smoked paprika and lots of salt.
TM: If you could collaborate with any musician alive or dead, who would it be?
SL: I think I’d like to collaborate with Donny Hathaway, the legendary RnB soul singer whose music I always loved. But, I’d also really like to sing with Sarah Vaughan. I just like the idea of doing a duet with her, it would be just wonderful.
TM: What was the last book you read?
SL: The hip life of trees which is absolutely GREAT. I am re-reading it again ironically, because it is so dense I wanna get deeper into it a second time.
TM: Who would play you in a film?
SL: It would have to be Ben Whishaw.
TM: Tell us about your new music.
SL: Well, I’ve re-written a lot of beautiful old folk songs to speak about today’s situation with both our connection to nature, our connection to our heart and our connection to each other..and it’s an album I’m very proud of, produced by Bernard Butler and some wonderfully gifted musicians. It’s a special thing.
TM: Your upcoming live shows are in support of the extinction rebellion, a subject close to your heart.
SL: Yes, I am a great supporter of XR as we call it. The importance of civil disobedience and the need to protest and to protest by breaking the law. I do not believe that marching and organized protests in the old way actually works. I’ve been on too many and seen too little happen.
So, for the circumstances that we’re facing with climate change and the environmental crisis, ecological crisis and the fact that I’m seeing the loss of so many beautiful species in places I know and also don’t know, show that we need to disrupt the order of the way we are behaving and acting to bring about a change in society. We need to act radically in light of the radical situation we are in.
TM: Can you give us one piece of wisdom you’ve learnt from your time as a musician?
SL: I think the advice is to remember always that us musicians are decorators of silence and the importance of honouring that space is so important. We are servants to our songs and they guide us in what they do, not the other way around.
Sam Lee is on tour in 2020 for more info & to buy tickets visit: https://samleesong.co.uk/
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