A British song collector expands the horizons of folk.
On the occasion of his 70th birthday in late January, I was re-reading my 2007 interview with Robert Wyatt. We were talking about national identity and about how, in spite of all his cosmopolitan influences and interests, Wyatt is always seen as an indelibly British artist. “No-one,” he said, “has allowed and welcomed, as a xenophile, non-English cultures so wholeheartedly into their lives and into their brains and into their food more than I have. And yet I don’t feel the slightest bit compromised or diluted or melted as a human being. I’m as English as my Staffordshire great-grandparents.”
The second terrific album by Same Lee, “The Fade In Time”, is driven by a fundamentally similar mindset. Lee is, notionally, a folk singer, and the 12 old songs on “The Fade In Time” are all drawn from British tradition, in many cases learned from gypsies and travellers. For all his meticulous historical research, however, Lee is not much of a traditionalist. Instead of preserving the songs in aspic, he treats his material as part of a living tradition, and subjects it to radical, internationalist treatments.
So a mystical Scottish hunting song like “Jonny O’The Brine” is given a woody, organic momentum, tablas to the fore, that makes it sound like a kind of acoustic techno, then layered with horns inspired by Tajikistan wedding bands. Japanese kotos and Indian shruti boxes underpin Romany laments and tales of sacred hares. Jazz trumpets and chamber strings tangle, elegantly, with banjos and fiddles. And, on the outstanding “Bonny Bunch Of Roses”, a Napoleonic ballad is played out over a crackly Serbian 78. But whatever Lee throws at the songs, their Britishness is never diminished, but critically augmented and expanded.
This kind of cross-cultural experiment is still a risky business, of course. Often, self-consciously modern updates of folk songs can end up compromised, driven by good intentions rather than sound aesthetic choices. Nevertheless, Lee and his large band of friends (among them co-producers Arthur Jeffes and Jamie Orchard-Lisle, lynchpins of the latterday Penguin Café Orchestra) prove uncannily empathetic in their decision-making; for all the ideas and juxtapositions that illuminate these songs, none feel jarring or tokenistic.
The “Fade In Time” is a phrase lifted from “Over Yonders Hill”, but Lee characterises it as “the textural decays, the transience of time we pass through while listening, and that temporal trance we enter into when listening.” In that spirit, Lee slips field recordings of old singers into his mix (as he did on his 2012 debut, “Ground Of Its Own”), prefacing his subtly orientalised version of the Scottish “Lord Gregory” with a moving recitation by one Charlotte Higgins, recorded in 1956. Time, cultures, national identities collapse again and again, with uncommon empathy and grace.
Lee is a charismatic figure at the heart of all this, as theatrically attuned as he is scholarly: other details on his CV include burlesque dancing, anthropology, performing with the Yiddish Twist Orchestra and being taught wilderness skills by Ray Mears. Occasionally, his adventurousness – and his serene, inflected voice – can recall Damon Albarn. On “Moorlough Maggie” and “The Moon Shone On My Bed Last Night”, Jonah Brody’s koto and ukulele – a frequently twee instrument transformed into something ethereal – are reminiscent of the way a kora added exotic, harmonious new dimensions to Albarn’s “Dr Dee” project.
“Moorlough Maggie”, too, exemplifies the force of Lee’s own personality on these songs, laden as they are with so much inherent and applied cultural baggage. A love song that involves grand promises of flocks of sheep, herds of cows and, perhaps optimistically, about a hundred ships, “Moorlough Maggie” is taken with such measure and emotional investment that it becomes Lee’s own “Song To The Siren”. In the midst of it all, he provides a calm, steadying anchor; ambitious, eclectic but, ultimately, dedicated to the enduring passions that resonate through this treasure trove of great song.
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“Memorials, Forensics!? This stuff is alive!…”: A Q&A with SAM LEE
JM: I was thinking about Robert Wyatt a while back, and about how, while he’s so often described as “quintessentially English”, he’s also such a committed internationalist, and anything but parochial. It occurs to me that this seems really relevant to The Fade In Time; is it something you recognise in your work?
Sam Lee: Yes, completely so. I look at my work and my representation of folk a little bit the way we imagine a walk in an English country garden. To anyone in it, it feels unquestionably like you’re in a garden in England, but in actuallity we are surrounded by imported plants from all over; the Himalayan mountainsides, South American temperate forests, Roman apothecaries etc. I want my music to feel local, a ‘home from home’. The sonic beddings which appeal to me most are ones that have an ability to induce, to transport, to alter the state of the listener and give the sense also of being part of a much deeper and geographically indefinite place. I don’t want to get stuck on how folk (or any song for that matter) should sound. To me, it’s a more ephemeral thing.
JM: Does having such a strong connection to Gypsy/travelling culture allow you to see British folk songs in a broader international context?
SL: I guess the nature of being close to a community seen as pariahs and ‘outsiders’ permits me to see the music with an objective freedom and not be so bound by too many assumptions or affectations. The Gypsy Travellers are imaginative geniuses, especially when it comes to appropriation and assimilation, which I admire and aspire to.
JM: Of the many tricks you pull off on The Fade In Time, I think my favourite might be the way you plant the old Serbian record into “Bonny Bunch Of Roses”. Can you tell us a little about this, and the thinking behind it?
SL: Am really glad you like that one. You have picked out exactly where I’m sonically trying to explore the idea or process of ‘The Fade in Time’; the textural decays, the transience of time we pass through while listening, and that temporal trance we enter in when listening… I wanted to touch upon the boldness of that Slavic choral music in this east meets west, as it kind of honours my own Eastern European Ashkenazi routes. Some of my predecessors were tailors to the Tzars’ army, so I wanted to explore the sonic landscapes of the east. This is folk song which I’ve loved for so long.
JM: How do the old singers and folk musicians that you know react to your experiments with tradition? I guess I’m thinking especially of Stanley Robertson; does The Fade In Time exist in part as a memorial to his cultural knowledge?
SL: Less memorial, more safari.. It’s certainly not dead, even if most carriers of the ‘keepers of the lore’, as Stanley called them, have passed on. They seem, for the most part, thrilled by the music – sometimes overwhelmed by the journey it has taken and get very emotional.. When I played back “Bonny Bunch Of Roses” to Freda Black (the 86-year-old Gypsy who taught me the song) she cried and said it gave her a feeling of her mother singing. That meant a lot…
I am actually making a film at the moment capturing the act of returning these album tracks to the families and then asking the singers to take me to where the song came from, be it a known location or tell me about their history of the song. It’ss really fascinating seeing their reactions to the material. Most of the time…
JM: What are your favourite memories of/stories about Stanley?
SL: Our first meeting will never leave me… It was in a mighty gale, climbing the cliffs at Whitby. He reached the top, with me, nervously, following behind, waiting to introduce myself. Stanley was clutching a giant whale bone arch. I stopped him to thank you for his songs in the concert I had just discovered and he turned around ‘wee a stern look in his ee’ and he growled out in full proud drama “ I ken a thoosand ballads”. It was awesome, like a moment out of Tolkien… You just sensed this ancient magic about him and a power… he had such incredible psychic abilities. He would tell me everything about my life, even things I would deem very private… He’d just announce them as they hit him, usually in really inappropriate moments, too. He would travel alongside me when I went abroad and tell me on the telephone things that were happening in my life he had no way of knowing (he called it the astral travelling). To me it seemed real and indisputable, nothing was private and nothing could be hidden. That is the Travellers for you. They are a very gifted people.
JM: Do you think the possibilities of history and tradition are underused in contemporary British music?
SL: ‘History’ and ‘tradition’ are such loaded words. The world of contemporary music is all about the forward thinking, the now, the new, the next. The closest thing we get to history in a lot of music I hear is all the stuff that references the ’70/’80s, electronica or sounds that were engineered within recent memory. That’s history for a lot of listeners and makers. And I think that is great! I love modern sounds and the ephemerality of it. However, I think there is much more scope to marry these styles with a musical connection to the more distant past, dare I say to explore a more ‘spiritual realm’ – without being millstoned by stereotypes. I’m interested in re-wilding and getting back to the roots of things.
JM: How long does it take for you to put together an album like this? It strikes me that, long before the music is even started, there’s an incredible amount of forensic fieldwork involved?
SL: Memorials, Forensics!? This stuff is alive! I guess this new album has taken a couple of years to put together, but that’s only in a very practical sense. It’s not been a direct journey from field to table (record) with many of these songs. Some I’ve sung for years and are longtime friends who have just found their way into the record. Others I’ve been told about, heard other singers along the way – or have developed songs with the band until they felt right to include. There are a few songs on the album which didn’t spend very long in transit till they reached the pot. Others, I feel I’ve known my whole life.
JM: Could you ever envisage yourself making a record without that level of deep research? A set of original songs, say?
SL: Yes. I’m sure that time will come, but right now I have the luxury of being able to forage for these songs, an experience I love. I love the people who I learn them from. I feel a profound honour in both spending time with these ancient remenants of an ancient world and helping to bring a bit of attention to their unbelievable treasures. I think the world can probably wait for my own latest heartbreak/confession etc a bit longer.
JM: What do you find so appealing about singing stereotypically “women’s” songs – songs from someone else’s perspective?
SL: Funnily enough, I don’t see these as women’s songs at all. They have been sung for generations by men and women alike; with no particular rules of appropriateness to gender or sexuality. That seems like a relatively recent way of looking at things. I like to sing songs that bare their heart, and those songs told from the women’s point of view are often ones that deal with universal themes most honestly abandonment, rejection, loss and compassion. These are things men and women experience equally. Folk music allows men and women to tackle big issues in a powerful way. It’s a bit like group therapy. I often get grown-men crying at my gigs. I think that’s pretty cool.