Folk singer Sam Lee’s debut album ‘Ground of its Own’ was released last year, immediately gaining attention by receiving a nomination for the 2012 Mercury Prize. With songs from English Gypsy and Irish and Scottish Traveller communities, ‘Uncut’ have described the album as “blessed with courtly, uncanny, subtly radical treatments sounding at once ancient and, in a relatively original way, contemporary.” I spoke to him about collecting folk songs, the relationship between music and landscape, and contemporary perceptions of folk music.
Do you think that folk music is currently undergoing a ‘revival’?
It sure is. Some say a resurgence, others say revival… It’s hard to define it because every revival is very different. This is the third episode of attention from the mass media and of course the world is completely different. Folk holds a very different place in society than it did once upon a time in the 50s and 60s, and it serves a very different purpose. I’d say there’s a resurgence but not so much a ‘revival’ – I don’t like the word revival.
A ‘revival’ does rather suggest that it died out at some point. When you say it serves a different purpose – how do you see its role, is it finding a localised sense of place?
Definitely. It’s a musical form that has a sense of local identity, a community evolving around it. It is a form that is about defining a sense of humanity, the condition of where and who we are on a broader level than the very subjective and personal.
Do you think that’s particularly important at the moment when we have a very globalised way of listening? You can put anything into Spotify and it will come up with tracks from all over the world. Do you think that’s related to the interest in folk at the minute?
It’s something wholesome, holistic, connected, that isn’t born out of a PR stunt.
Do you think then that there’s such a thing as ‘authentic’ folk?
That’s a very dangerous word – authentic. I use it as much as I can and as carefully as possible. In terms of my music … you get the polarisation of where I’ve learned it from, which is deeply connected to the ancient origins of the music, which means that there’s deep authenticity but also a fallacy in the way I do it as I’m completely re-inventing it. And I think that’s the same in a lot of cases – the search for authenticity is a very troubled one.
It’s a very difficult path to go down especially when what you are creating is ‘authentic’ folk for the 21st century. Do you collect all your songs yourself?
Not all the songs from the album but certainly I’ve searched out many from wonderful places and people.
Do you think it’s possible to write a landscape into folk music?
That’s a very hard question… Well yes, sure you can. The Aboriginals do it, they sing the Songlines. I can’t topographically refer to some landscapes – there are musicians who have tried, to play the contours of mountains etc. But I think you can give a strong impression of a world that people can identify with and relate to… I try and do that, but that’s the point of being an artist – I spend my time in nature, I’ve spent a lot of time living in and absorbing the land. I try and pour that out in my music and ideas.
Are you involved with any environmental groups?
Yes, very heavily. I’m a strong woodland campaigner and for Right to Roam… I spend so much time with a lot of my friends who are part of those movements of well so I spend a lot of time campaigning. I see myself as …. here to usher a sense of respect, which is really what it is about. My belief in the way that you encourage good stewardship is that you can’t force it upon people. You have to introduce it in a way that gives them a sense of connection. When they experience something they have a sense of value over it. The ash fungus that is devastating the ash forests – how many people have walked in an ash forest and know its ecosystem? They don’t, so when they hear that it’s gone they don’t see how it affects them. If you give people an experience of that, teach them how to do green woodwork or pickle ash keys – or something like that, there are so many uses for ash – when they hear that they are dying then there is a sense of losing something. So that’s my policy.
Folk has been present in our classical music for years – to what extent do you take inspiration from classical music? You have Massenet’s ‘Thaïs’ Méditation in ‘Wild Wood Amber’.
More than I can claim to be classically trained. I love classical music in a very ignorant and haphazard way in that there’s a lot of stuff that I adore and just don’t know a lot about. I’m surrounded by it a lot of the time. I think the classical reverence of ‘Thaïs’ was about a search for authenticity and ‘purity’… It was about an idea of finding music that was created by people who had never been touched by outside influences, that they’d lived in a vacuum of pure, traditional songs. This is of course complete rubbish. The singer that I’d learned that song from was just as easily listening to Caruso as she was listening to ancient ballads, or country and western. The music exists together and they affect each other.
I notice in your video for ‘The Ballad of George Collins’ the choreography looks similar to Pina Bausch’s ‘Rite of Spring’.
Perhaps there is some Pina Bausch in it! The guy who choreographed it and played the main role, Andrew Graham, has danced with Pina Bausch in her company. And I, as an ex-dancer, love her work. And I wanted to bring that sense of sexual awakening [to the Ballad].
Folk music is essentially a ‘popular’ genre. How do you mediate the divide between what is now considered ‘popular’ and ‘folk’, as we seem have a strange disjuncture between the two?
I think you literally flood the market. I don’t think you can change pigeon-holes, people who create them want them. So I can’t tell Amazon to create a folk category because they don’t, they have an ‘acoustic’ section. I think you have to flood the market so much that people [realise] this isn’t fitting into a box any more.
Do you think academia is some way of changing people’s opinion? Do you think that a re-appropriation of certain types of folk music in academic study can be a way of getting round the bridge in people’s perceptions?
Totally… Get into the colleges, into the education system – which in some ways is like Cecil Sharp’s approach which was to create a song book and get it into schools. That’s the same thing – I love being at the Royal College [of Music] and at Goldsmiths College because there are musicians who are going to the next Adeles and Katy B’s of their time who are all blank canvasses and are open to everything. They hear folk songs, and see where they come from, and it’s very different. Everybody wants to be ‘different’, so they hear something they’ve never heard before and some of them are really influenced by it, and that’s great. They’ll take it and do incredible things to it with no pre-conceptions.
Is that what you lecture on?
It totally depends upon the course, I’m not didactic in telling them what they should be doing. I let my music and my approach be an example of appropriation. I just present it to them and show my passion for it, and hopefully them seeing a 32 year old who is doing quite well in music is playing this and doing interesting things will make them think ‘Maybe I’ll try it. Maybe I’ll walk all over Sam Lee.’ And they’ll probably do it better than me and be better musicians than I am!