Art Talk with Sam Amidon
”… I love creativity and doing something weird and something that feels very personal.”— Sam Amidon
I can’t say for sure, but I’m guessing that it’s not every day you come across a new album that features both Civil War ballads and a cover of a Mariah Carey tune from 2005. But it’s also not every day that you run into a musician like Sam Amidon. While Amidon grew up in a house where Appalachian ballads and shape note singing were the norm, he’s no staunch preservationist. Instead traditional tunes are just the jumping off point for quirky arrangements that Pitchfork likened to “quilt-making, taking swatches of someone else’s melodies and words and stitching them together with his own guitar or banjo riffs and embroidering them with fiddle, piano, trumpet, or clarinet.” With collaborators such as Nico Muhly and lifelong friend Thomas Bartlett, Amidon riffs on the familiar creating music that’s both comfortable and disconcerting. We spoke with Amidon just before he embarked on the U.S. tour for his new album with Nonesuch Records, Bright Sunny South. He talked about being a pint-sized Irish fiddle snob, why he loves free jazz, and why he’s not much of a songwriter.
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest experience of the arts?
AMIDON: I was pretty swamped by them, growing up in Vermont. I started playing fiddle when I was three years old. So my memories go back to one of my first violin lessons. Sacred Harp song, that’s a very early memory, having people be in that. In Sacred Heart sings, people just got together informally, just like twenty people: parents, friends of my parents. [I remember] them being in the living room, and me being with the other children upstairs playing. We would hear the music coming from downstairs.
NEA: What was your journey to becoming a professional musician from there?
AMIDON: My parents are great folk musicians. They sing and play banjo, guitar, and the accordion. They went on tour and were more interested in folk music in terms of actual community music-making. That’s what it meant to them. They really were more interested in becoming teachers, helping people, leading sings for non-professional singers, community choirs, folk dancing, and storytelling and all that kind of stuff. That was more our world—participatory music, not based around being a performer.
We did perform as a family. The first time was when I was about six years old. They were presenting at a conference for about six hundred music teachers. They asked, “Hey! Do you want to sing?” I ended up singing and playing my fiddle for those people I’ve just performed consistently since then. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I decided, consciously, to become a musician as a job. But, I think it was well underway by then.
NEA: I’ve been listening to your most recent album Bright Sunny South, and I’m struck by the fact that it includes ballads from the Civil War. Why do you think it’s important to keep these traditional musical forms alive? How are they relevant in the 21st century?
AMIDON: To be honest, I’m the wrong person to ask about that. The whole point of singing these songs right now is to try and sing them without worrying about whether they’re important or not, but to just appreciate how good they are. Or take them as a platform to make creative music with my friends around. I really don’t like listening to somebody sing old-time songs if you feel like they’re trying to preserve something. Of course it’s important, obviously, but, for me, it’s been more about the music that’s kept alive and [is] being done because people want to do it for that reason, out of love for the music.
For example, the [NEA National Heritage Fellows] you mentioned, the people [the NEA] is honoring—it’s almost like they’re anti-preservationists because they’re just lovers of the music. Like Seamus Connolly—he’s an incredible, beautiful Irish fiddle player, and it’s great that you’re honoring him. I’m interested in hearing people where you don’t feel that [preservation element] at all, you’re just hearing a great player, the same way as if you were hearing Miles Davis or whoever, somebody who’s a beautiful musician.
But, the side-effect of that is preserving music, and there’s tons of great, young musicians who are fiddle players and folk singers and ballad singers who really study the music and play old-time tunes, and really keep the music alive in a really genuine way. I’m actually not one of those in a certain sense, because I’m really stealing it and changing it completely in different ways. But, of course, obviously that’s part of the folk process, too.
NEA: Can you talk about that, the way you create your music?
AMIDON: It’s very much a collage thing. I grew up around a lot of folk music. In high school, I started to listen to all kinds of other stuff. I love jazz, I love weird rock music, I love free jazz and anything kind of intense and strange-sounding. And I love great singers and I love singing and I love some instruments, but, I’m not that interested in songwriting. If I listen to the Beatles or Joni Mitchell. I get way more excited about her guitar playing and her singing, and the colors of the music on her albums. The lyrics are cool, but they’re not [my main focus.] I’ve always wanted to make music with people, but the idea of having to make your own stuff to sing just seems like a chore. But, at the same time, I love creativity and doing something weird and something that feels very personal. Because of growing up with folk music, for me to do something great as a performer, in a way there has to be a reason for me [to perform the music] beyond just that I can do it. When you come into contact with Irish fiddle players, it’s very noticeable that they’re just doing it in the corner of a bar. Often, they have a day job. They’re not doing it as an “ego” thing. What I found is that the folk songs can be an incredible platform to just use as a source material—almost like jazz standards— to make music with your friends. I really enjoy working with people who don’t have a folk background but who are super-sensitive musicians and can pick up on whatever I’ve done [to the songs].
NEA: Several times now you’ve used the phrase “making music with my friends.” Can you talk about that? Clearly collaboration is something that’s important to you.
AMIDON: Collaboration is just fundamental. I do a lot of work changing the songs around, I do a lot work before often walking into the room with [other musicians]. If I really like a song I’ll rework it, rewrite it, or write the music for it, or adapt a song before I take it to somebody else. Once I bring it into the studio, I have a pretty fully formed version of the song. I don’t like to go into the studio and say, “Hey! Let’s jam on this!” I so something very specific on my own first. Once that’s sort of set, it’s pretty solid, and it seems to be a pretty robust little thing that can withstand whatever, and that’s when I’ll take it to other people. I’ve been very lucky over a long time… When I first came to New York I was quite lonely, but over time the little bits gathered here and there. I have my friend Thomas [Bartlett], who I’ve been playing folk music with since I was a child. Through playing in his band I met this guy Shahzad Ismaily who is an amazing multi-instrumentalist, and we started trading guitar lessons for banjo lessons, and then, at the end, we would just improvise together. And then I met Nico Muhly, through Thomas, who is an incredible composer. He brought me to Iceland and did all of these gorgeous arrangements on my album. So, it’s just been this path from there. I’ve been very lucky. They’re just great players.
NEA: Is there something in particular that will draw you to a song?
AMIDON: People ask this, and at first I was like, “I don’t know.” But I’ve thought about it a lot to try and pinpoint what it is, and I think that the songs that grab me the most in that tradition tend to be songs that have something ancient sounding in the melody and mysterious in the melody and words, and strange that you don’t quite get and almost alien, but at the same time, [the song is] deeply comforting. That combination of paradoxical ingredients, that seems to be, [it’s in] some of those beautiful Appalachian ballads. It’s like this weird melody and the singer sort of has this intense, moody voice, maybe, and they’ve forgotten the third verse so their telling of the story is totally elliptical and vague and you don’t know what happened between the dude stealing the ring and the other guy…. And so there are these bizarre things, and you’re just like, “What?” And it has all these strange, arcane phrases that you’ve never heard in America, yet there’s something about the sentiment that just feels so close, and those are the ones that get stuck in me and that I end up messing around with.
NEA: So then how do you get from those songs to doing a cover of Mariah Carey’s “Shake It Off?”
AMIDON: That’s a great question. It’s exactly the same ingredients—that intersection of something ancient and strange and yet somehow familiar and comforting. Mostly, I find those in 19th-century ballads or fiddle tunes, that’s where I tend to find these, because that’s what I know and those are a particularly intense batch of material. But you can find it anywhere. There’s no reason you couldn’t also even hear those qualities in a beautiful, strange, kind of odd Mariah Carey melody. There’s no reason you can’t find it in a Tim McGraw song. When I do those [covers], It’s the same thing as a folk song. Often there’s something in the song that I can sort of hear in there that the performance is not expressing. With the Appalachian ballad, there’s a phenomenon which I love…. with the Appalachian ballad you often have this thing of a song which has a really happy melody, really fast and happy, but the lyrics are totally depressing. It’s a guy with a banjo, and he’s like, [singing] “And I left my wife and it’s so depressing….”— you know that kind of a phenomenon. You listen to it first and you’re tapping your toes, then you really start listening, and you’re like “Oh my god, this is so dark.” With the Mariah Carey song, it was kind of similar when I heard it. There’s a bopping, sweet melody and funky dance number, but the lyrics, there’s something very deep and sad in them. That’s not a bad quality of those other things, it’s fantastic when we do it in art. It’s been fun to actually pick them and place the lyrics in what to me feels like a more literal context but actually end up being kind of odd.
NEA: When I was doing my research I read a review and the writer hinted that you have a lot to say about the links between jazz and old-time fiddle playing. So can you say a little bit about that?
AMIDON: It’s basically free jazz from the 1960s with Albert Ayler or John Coltrane, that moment in the 1960s when there was really an abrasive, intense kind of screaming saxophone that. That was something that I totally fell in love with as a teenager. Until I was 14, I was an obsessive traditional Irish fiddle player. When I was a kid, my parents played banjo and they played Appalachian music. But I myself, as an Irish music snob, I didn’t like the old-time music. The American fiddle style sounded very crass and rough, and not very interesting compared to this incredibly elaborate and ornate and lyrical Irish style. That’s what I learned first. I just never got into the old-time stuff. I just found it kind of scratchy and weird. And then as a teenager something happened when I heard that screaming saxophone and that abrasive free jazz sound, and I got so into that, I loved that. I thought it was so hilarious and beautiful and strange. Through that, that allowed me to learn, to really start to appreciate the Appalachian fiddle style because I realized that what I loved in the free jazz sound was a certain kind of abrasive intensity that was still beautiful, but the initial sound is very harsh, and then you sort of find the beauty in it. And I realized that that was totally the whole point of a lot of Appalachian music that I’d kind of liked but not been really able to understand coming from that Irish [fiddle] background.
NEA: What’s on your iPod that you’re listening to right now?
AMIDON: I’ll check. One second…. I still listen to jazz almost all the time so I have some John Coltrane, Don Byas, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker playlists because I’m always trying to learn bebop music on my guitar cause I’m not a very good guitarist. That’s mostly it. I have some Andy Irvine, this great traditional Irish singer who was in the band Planxty. Andy Irvine and Paul Brady are two Irish singers who made an album together in the ‘70s, which is very much like a super major inspiration and kind of a blueprint. What I’m doing with the Appalachian songs they did with total mastery to Irish music in the 1970s. They did it to the point where what people now think of traditional Irish music is actually something that was invented in the 70s based on Joni Mitchell’s guitar playing and Greek bouzoukis. They imported all these instruments, at the time it sounded totally strange to people, and now you hear it, and it just sounds like beautiful Irish music. So it’s those guys and a lot of be bop basically [that I'm listening to].
NEA: What does the phrase “Art works” mean to you?
AMIDON: [Art] does what it is there to do in our world, whether it’s a ballad singer or fiddlers in the corner of a pub. It has different ways of working also. If I have to think of all the different functions and uses it has in the world, some of them are sitting in the hall listening to musicians play, some of them could be so much more social or just dudes in the corner, or just someone on the street walking by, it can be in a million different places.
Interested in other ballad singers? Check out parts one and two of our podcast with 2013 NEA National Heritage Fellow Sheila Kay Adams. And don’t forget to tune in to the livestream of the 2013 National Heritage Fellow Concert Celebration on Friday, September 27.