Sam Amidon was raised on Irish fiddle tunes and early American folk-hymns but has left that history far behind. The 32 year-old, Vermont born-and-bred multi-instrumentalist and vocalist (now residing in England with his wife, musician Beth Orton) spends more of his time uncovering folk melodies in songs spanning many eras.On his most recent outing, Bright Sunny South, Amidon even pulls off lonesome covers of Mariah Carey (“Shake it Off”) and Tim McGraw (“My Old Friend”). Produced by legendary folk producer Jerry Boys, Bright Sunny South is quite a departure from Amidon’s 2010 I See the Sign, but it is also a statement to his versatility as an artist.
The Rumpus: How did you choose the songs that comprised this record?
Sam Amidon: This record was done over quite a long period of time. I started gathering up these songs possibly when I was making my last album, I See the Sign, but definitely in the three years since then. So they were kicking around. Even though I’m mostly reworking folk songs, I don’t actually know that many folk songs that I could sing. I’m not somebody that has an encyclopedic knowledge of ballads and could sit around a fire and sing songs for three hours. I basically only know the songs that I’ve taken on and reworked and recorded. I’ve listened to a lot of folk songs. That’s not my area of expertise.
I know more about Irish traditional tunes. I could play thousands of those. I’m not really a folk singer, but I love the music and there’s certain lines that will get just stuck in my head, and they seem to be stuck there for a reason, and I start singing them. A big part of the process often is not around the songs but around music. I’ll write the music first. Like, the guitar part will come first, and then I’ll be playing and just realize that a song I’ve been kicking around can be wheedled in there.
Rumpus: You play so many instruments! Does a song always come through on guitar or does it tell you which instrument?
Amidon: It would be guitar or banjo. It wouldn’t be fiddle. There are some people who do great stuff singing and playing fiddle at the same time and doing that kind of arrangement. But I think [I don’t do that] partially because I’m still a loner on the guitar and banjo. They’re instruments I pick up and mess around on in a naive way. That’s where composition happens for me. If I pick up a fiddle, I don’t compose on it, so much as I just play whatever. Guitar comes more out of its limitations for me, like putting it in a weird tuning and then just go places.
Rumpus: Your voice is so distinctive. Did you have to come to terms with rather literally finding your voice and developing your style?
Amidon: Yes. The whole thing of singing on my own has been accidental and random. I sang a huge amount as a kid, and I was a boy soprano. I didn’t do that much classical music; I did a little bit. I had a lovely voice. And then when my voice dropped, I didn’t worry about it consciously because I wasn’t that invested in my singing at the time. I was much more of a fiddle player. But when my voice dropped, I didn’t feel good about it as a solo instrument; it didn’t sound that good to me. I still loved to sing and I was still a good singer, but I only sang in choral shape note music. As a teenager, I did loads of singing in a choir doing shape note music, but I would never offer myself up to sing a solo. I had no interest in singing folk songs at that age. I really only started singing again about seven years ago now because I was learning to play banjo and guitar. It’s like, this is how you learn to play Beatles songs or Bob Dylan songs, you play chords. I was alone a lot at the time, so I just started shyly to myself kind of singing some of these folk songs. Because I’d taken time off from doing it, I came back to it and it felt right then. It still felt kind of funny, but it felt right. It felt comfortable.
Rumpus: I was surprised to read that you said this record is more dark and comes from a more internal and lonely place.
Amidon: Does it not sound that way to you?
Rumpus: It’s more winsome, definitely…
Amidon: …but it’s not as much as I make it sound?
Rumpus: Well, I think ‘dark,’ and my mind goes to murder ballads.
Amidon: Yeah, that’s a good point.
Rumpus: Where do you think that darkness came from?
Amidon: It is genuine. That element of it–I had a kid and I was not in America when that was happening, so it was a more isolated time in a way. I wasn’t touring. I wasn’t alone because I had a family. But in a certain social sense, it was a more interior time. I wouldn’t put it on external things necessarily; I wouldn’t say it was because of this or that. You go through choices in life and cycles I think, and [this music] happened to come out of a more internal one. And the music that was of interest to me at this time told the story of that kind of narrative. I was really into Paul Motian, the drummer. I listened to his music a lot.
I didn’t want to make an album that just had one sound all the way through. There’s two styles of albums. There’s the style [where] you put it all in that space. It’s background music. The sound of the music and the emotion of the music are consistent. And for this one I wanted it to have it be more like, well, you don’t know where things are headed all the time. There are those internal transformations you’re not aware of. I have no idea if I succeeded. But that’s what I was thinking when I made the music.
Rumpus: How did you decide on the Mariah Carey cover?
Amidon: That came from a while back, that arrangement. Thomas, who plays on the album with me, has a band. A few years ago we were touring more with that group and we had a tour where we were playing that indie house concert scene in America with that band The Robot Ate Me. I guess it was when that [Mariah Carey] album came out and it was also when the Tim McGraw album came out, and those two things were the only things we listened to that entire trip.
So we listened to those two albums, and they both definitely have that quality of an interior journey. When I do older folk songs, I’m not doing them because they’re old. I have no interest in reviving or continuing a tradition. I’m just doing them because they’re great songs. And they have some sort of mysterious quality. I just loved the melody of that song. It was with me all the time. That melody, again, it seemed to have a sad quality that that version doesn’t explore. It’s in the melody.
Rumpus: Who produced this record?
Amidon: I recorded this album in England with a fantastic English producer named Jerry Boys. He recorded a lot of English folk people in the 60’s and 70’s and I really loved the raw quality of how he recorded that stuff. And he also did Ali Farka Toure, the African guitarist, in the last ten years. Again, I loved the raw quality of just documentation. There was nothing ornate. It was this raw sense of capturing sound. He wasn’t polishing it or anything; it was just this pure vibe. That’s what I was interested in, someone to document. It’s less of a soundscape than the last albums have been, but there’s a little more detail on individual sound of the instruments.
Rumpus: Is there anyone you admire musically that you could never, ever sound anything like?
Amidon: Most of my favorite musicians are like that. I am a complete jazz nerd. There are so many; I listen to that 90% of the time. Today I was listening to this record by Paul Desmond called First Place Again. It’s incredibly gorgeous. There is nothing better that you would want to get from music than you get from that record.
Yeah, most musicians. If I said who I was influenced by, it would be really weird and pretentious because it would be people who have nothing to do with what I do. From a listening perspective, there’s just something in their playing that I’m inspired by.
Rumpus: One more question that I always ask. What do you like to read?
Amidon: I’ve been reading early Evelyn Waugh, like Decline and Fall, his early books. My friend Thomas got me into that stuff. And I love Herman Melville, everything from Moby-Dick onward. Especially a very late book called the Confidence Man. It’s fantastic. It’s ridiculous. I like to carry around extremely pretentious books, and I don’t know if I can read them, but if I hold them near me, it imbues me with a sense of powerful intelligence. I love Henry James. The Wings of the Dove. Fantastic book. Reading books is fantastic. I didn’t do it until ten years ago. It’s great. I’m just reading a hilarious book right now called The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien. It was a short novel, Irish, written in the 1930’s or 40’s, very funny. It’s somewhat unreadable, but it’s good to have nearby.