Sam Amidon on Bright Sunny South, melodic presence and Mariah Carey

“My old friend / this song’s for you.” There’s a deeply personal feel to Sam Amidon’s new album, Bright Sunny South. Amidon, who hails from Vermont but is now based in London, here turns his relaxed, soft American drawl to a set of mostly traditional material, with a few well-chosen covers thrown in. sam amidon bright sunny south

But although you’ll recognise many of the song titles, Amidon’s arrangements are delightfully idiosyncratic. He does gentle, yearning melancholy beautifully, as on the opening title track. And My Old Friend (video below) is homely and affectionate. But there is more to Amidon than that – there are surprises too, such as when the floating, woozy He’s Taken My Feet warps into a furious, feedback-soaked meltdown, for example. As I Roved Out – often a song of stillness and sorrow, here gets a swaggering, punchy drums ‘n’ banjo arrangement. In both cases, it feels like the most natural thing in the world.

Mariah Carey aficionados will be surprised to find a solemn, piano-led version of Shake It Off (“I gotta shake you off / Just like the Calgon commercial”) on the album. Amidon’s take on it is far removed from the fluffy original – filling it with a substance you never knew was there.

For such an intimate record, Bright Sunny South is lit up by a large collection of instruments. Kenny Wheeler’s classy, smooth trumpet lights up I Wish I Wish, flute breezes through the hypnotic Pharoah and unpredictable, dragging fiddle adds intensity to the already pretty intense Short Life (it begins with the lines: “A short life of trouble / a few more days of woe” and goes from there).

The album ends with the winning double of Streets of Derry – a richly affecting version of Derry Gaol – and shapenote hymn Weeping Mary, which blends woodwind with a sweet, strangely uplifting vocal and subtle electric guitar. Amidon calls Bright Sunny South “a lonesome record”, and this may be true – but in its variety, mystery and warmth, it’s also an album you’ll want to share.

Sam spoke to Folk Witness about making the album, Jimi Hendrix and seers…

FW: Bright Sunny South is a very calm, even quiet album. Is this a deliberate attempt to return to a similar sound to your first record, or did you just feel these songs leant themselves to more sparing arrangements?

Sam: It is a more internal album. I’ll tell you how this came about. Jimi Hendrix spoke to me through his grave. He was all, “I’m cold. Can you make some warm music?” I was all, ‘whatever you say, if you whisper it to me, I will repeat it.’ But then he never whispered anything! Classic bullshitter. So, I went and made this record.

I like the notion in your press material that every song is a facet of your personality. But you also refer to it as a “lonesome record”. Is that a reflection of you, too?

My press material was written by a seer (wise being who has extra vision). I try to put seers all around me. Just four or five seers in a little semicircle around me.

I was lonesome when I made the record. But only in a metaphysical sense, you feel me? Whether you the listener are lonesome while listening to it is really up to you. It depends on how many seers you have collected by that point, and where they are in relation to you (semicircle, triangular formation, random scattering, all very near, or all on their lunch break and far away from you, etc).

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Lonesome Sam. Photo: Terry Magson

How did the recruitment of Jerry Boys (Martin Carthy, Ali Farka Touré) as engineer affect the tone of the record?

Jerry goes for total clarity. When he came in, I said, “I know you’ve spent most of your life being called Jerry Boys, but the moment you step through the door into the recording studio, you should think of yourself more like a seer. A wise one, who sees all. We can call you Jimi Boys Seer.” And he was so into that. He is a master engineer, a master documenter of sound, and a master capturer of musicians and their spirits. He would notice any time we had something going on. He would say: “pretty cool”. And then we knew we were on to something.

Your arrangements are interesting – what made you want to add a jazzy trumpet line to I Wish I Wish, for example? Or the avant-garde-rocking ending to He’s Taken My Feet?

Each of those sounds that you refer to is a talisman. Each sound emerged through an exhaustive process of noise sculpture and time sculpture, which I had been engaged in on a daily basis for the previous four years before recording commenced. Haha, just joking. Your questions assume a much greater degree of intention than I am even capable of having!

The intention was simply, ‘I want there to be a presence on this album that is from another dimension. Another era. Somebody who can shred. Who could that be?’ And then the next thought is, ‘Fucking hell, Kenny Wheeler, he lives in London, somebody mentioned that to me recently!’ And then the next thought is, ‘call him up and ask him’. And then when he comes into the studio, let him rip on a couple things and see where it all goes. And somewhere in there, meaning emerges, one hopes. I don’t think his playing is jazzy at all – he’s a pure melodic improviser.

One way I think about this album sometimes is, it’s sort of a series of duets between my voice and another melodic presence, which transmogrifies through various instruments throughout the album… the organ on Bright Sunny South, the trumpet on I Wish I Wish, the fiddle on Short Life, Shahzad’s guitar on My Old Friend, Chris’ drums on As I Roved Out, etc.

Why did you decide to cover Mariah Carey’s Shake It Off? You bring a kind of melancholy to it…

I played it on the piano one day, years ago, and it came out like that. Sometimes things require a lot of work, but that one sort of emerged on its own. The rule, always, whether it’s a folk song or something else, is simply to work with melodies and words that really get stuck deep down in you, on their own, even against your will. They get stuck there and so then you bring them back out.

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Tabletop Sam. Photo: Michael Wilson

What’s your approach to a traditional song? Could you perhaps talk us through As I Roved Out, for example – where did you first hear it and what made you want to do a version of it?

I first heard As I Roved Out sung by my friend Bruce Greene on the album Come Near My Love, which is duets with his wife Kore Loy McWhirter. They have an album of ballads that they sing in harmony with no instruments, just voices. It’s a very intense and brilliant record. His version was called As I Walked Out. That phrase (but usually with “roved” instead of “walked”) is in many a ballad. Most of them are sorrowful and mopey. Bruce’s version had not only sorrow, but also a kind of humour and cracked energy that I liked. In his version those elements are very subdued, so I slapped a little banjo and drums under there and brought it all out a bit.

You have a very personal connection with the song Weeping Mary – did it feel important or special to be recording a song that your parents had recorded too?

It felt comforting. I’ve stolen many of the songs I sing from my parents, or from places my parents led me to. Weeping Mary is a shapenote song from a book called the Southern Harmony, which was published in the 1850s. “Are there anybody here…” My son is nearly two. He has a small banjo ukulele which is really not in tune. He is singing some super badass shit along to his banjo ukulele right now; I wish you could hear that!

One final question, Sam. What is your favourite sandwich?

Is a hamburger a sandwich?

Bright Sunny South is out on Nonesuch Records on May 13 and Sam’s short UK tour starts at Bush Hall in London on May 23. See here for dates.

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