Sam Lee on Friends, folk and The Fade in Time: ‘Enjoy it, but don’t inhale!’

He seemed to spring from nowhere, but Sam Lee’s debut album Ground of Its Own was an unqualified success. Lee’s sincere, passionate and no-guitars-allowed approach to songs learned first-hand from gypsy singers saw him pick up a host of awards within the folk world, and even land a nomination for the high-profile Mercury Prize.

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So, how do you follow that? Lee’s answer is to get his mates involved. His second album, The Fade in Time, is recorded in collaboration with his band of ‘Friends’ – Francesca Ter-Berg (cello), Jonah Brody (koto and ukulele), Steve Chadwick (trumpet), Josh Green (percussion), Flora Curzon (violin) and Jon Whitten (dulcimer). The group have added further depth and texture to Lee’s still-distinctive sound.

The Fade in Time is a touch funkier than its predecessor, without losing any of the first album’s finely crafted feel. Percussion plays a greater part, as is immediately evident from pulsing, exotic opener Johnny O’ the Brine, a magical hunting song augmented by brassy rasps and birdsong (the latter a recurring motif). Drums add uncertainty and mystery to Bonny Bunch of Roses, and cymbals a certain jazzy adventure to the magnificently urgent Blackbird (see video, below).

But it’s not all hands-in-the-air stuff. Airdog captures the strangely moving atmosphere of Ground of Its Own’s Tan Yard Side, but instead of a love song, it’s applied to the story of a man hunting with his dog, forcing a hare to “squeal murder”. There’s a similar peace and stillness to The Moon Shone on my Bed Last Night, the last song taught to Lee by his mentor, Stanley Robertson.

Elsewhere, the strings are exceptional – witness the tumult of Mourlough Maggie or the ebb, flow and astonishing climax of Willie-O. Lee’s voice remains wonderfully engaged: every phrase considered but not overthought, as his sensitive performance on album finale The Moss House proves. And that’s before you mention the mini choir adding a quietly beautiful outro to Lord Gregory (and a noisily beautiful one to Lovely Molly).

In between tracks, meanwhile, singers discuss and sing snatches of songs, adding context and a feeling of timelessness. It all adds up to something quite magical: familiar songs thoughtfully, wildly, lovingly arranged. If Ground of Its Own was a success, The Fade in Time deserves to go stratospheric…

Folk Witness spoke to Sam Lee about reinterpreting, workshopping and returning songs… And his favourite sandwich.

Folk Witness: The new album has ‘and Friends’ on the cover – it’s not just ‘Sam Lee’ any more! How have the Friends influenced your sound?
Sam Lee: Very much so… the Friends are the live band I’ve been working with since around the time Ground of Its Own came out, and who I have been collaborating with a lot, so many of the songs were made in workshopping the songs together.

Before you made Ground of its Own, you spent a lot of time on research: living with gypsy singers and learning songs directly – do you still do this or have these songs come from new influences and places?

Absolutely. Probably more field work has been done since the first album. As you will read in the album notes each song has a great story, passed on from the people I learned them from. Also the website is great for showing all the field work I’ve been doing in the last three years and hearing the voices and films of those I’ve been collecting from.

Given how many you must have learned, what is it about a song that makes you want to arrange and record it?

You never know, they just leak out! A song will be wonderful to sing in the old style without instruments but just doesn’t want to be with a band, other songs leap out when a sound or an instrument appears. It’s an alchemy really, and it’s unpredictable what will work and where the matching is needed until you are working with them.

How are your interpretations received by the singers you learned them from?

They love it. I have made a film that can be seen on my Pledge Music crowdfunding page where I return the song Bonny Bunch of Roses to the old gypsy lady Freda Black. It’s really emotional for her and her whole family loved it.

Was it important to you to include the voices of the people you learned the songs from? Who’s speaking at the start of Lord Gregory, for example?

Yes it’s very important. I wouldn’t have done so otherwise. They are just wonderful voices so needed hearing. The voice on Lord Gregory is Charlotte Higgins, the Scots traveller who is family to Stanley [Robertson] my teacher. It’s a 1950s recording that captures the poetic style of speaking you once heard.

Ground of its Own did really well – what effect did the Mercury nomination and all those album of the year prizes have?

The Mercury effect was amazing. It helped my career unbelievably, however all that attention for me: my rule is enjoy it, but don’t inhale! It’s been great for getting the music out there and internationally too. I have had the pleasure of playing all around the world and taking the music to all sorts of wonderful places through it.

I’ll end with the FW traditional final question. What’s your favourite sandwich?

I’m an egg and cress kinda guy.

The Fade in Time is released on March 16. See Sam Lee’s website for details

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