Lianne Kolirin chats to Mercury Prize nominated folk musician Sam Lee, who’s currently on a nationwide tour.
Sam Lee describes himself as a song collector. He may have been born and bred in Kentish Town, but the 34-year-old folk singer has spent much time recording the songs of Romany gypsies and Irish travellers. An unusual vocation for a nice Jewish boy, but one that has garnered him success and acclaim within the music industry.
Lauded by critics, his 2012 debut album Ground Of Its Own was nominated for a Mercury music award. Three years later, he has garnered more praise with his second album, The Fade In Time. Set against a backdrop of twenty-first century beats and world music instrumentals, Lee’s sound is a distinctive and radical reinterpretation of the British folk tradition.
“I go around recording old people’s histories. That’s my whole raison d’etre and where my music comes from,” says Lee.
“I have spent a lot of time in the gypsy traveller community recording a lot of songs from their past.” Lee credits his fascination with oral history to his time spent in Forest School Camps, an outdoors movement which ran communal camping trips.
“My love of music was about communal singing around the campfire and being outside,” he says. His career path has been an unusual one. Having gained a fine art degree from Chelsea School of Art, he went on to practice and teach bushcraft and wilderness living. There’s also been a stint of burlesque dancing and he’s studied anthropology too.
“I love ancient cultures and people who live close to the land,” Lee explains.
“At about 25 I discovered that some of the songs that I sung growing up all had their roots in ancient British culture so I started investigating them. I then discovered that there was this whole enormous tradition of song and a culture of folk celebrations that disappeared and I fell in love with singing the music.
“So I spent the next several years in the library researching folk songs and learning about the people who were singing them originally: farmers, ploughmen, and gypsies. That oral tradition existed right up into the last century when radio and television eventually killed it off.”
His plan was to revive those old traditions in his own distinct style, influenced by a “rich diet of anything and everything” – from Joni Mitchell to Michael Jackson. “My music is a very modern interpretation with many instruments from around the world. It’s an interesting arrangements and isn’t how folk songs would have originally sounded,” he says.
Lee was recently given a recording discovered at the British Library of his grandparents describing their migration to the UK. “Suddenly I was experiencing that sensation of what it’s like to experience your own family life left on record. It was a taste of my own medicine!” he says.
The new album was recently launched with the Temple Tour, four intimate gigs in sacred spaces: two churches, a Quaker meeting house and Sandys Row Synagogue in London’s East End.
“I believe folk songs connect us to the land and it’s a relationship that is deeply spiritual. “I wanted to take them to religious paces that are used to having lots of rituals,” he says. Lee is now touring Britain and Ireland, before travelling to the USA for a run of summer performances.
For more information visit http://samleesong.co.uk/