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Mercury Prize nominee Sam Lee talks about his Sage debut

Rising star Sam Lee is giving a new lease of life to the music of traveller and Gypsy communities

Lottie Davies Sam Lee
Sam Lee

With his tousled hair and air of the great outdoors, Sam Lee looks every inch the wilderness survival expert and artist that he used to be and the folk musician he has become.

Those earlier passions have given way to his true calling, which sees him driving around the UK making pals with traveller and Gypsy communities as he explores the roots of their musical traditions.

And his much talked about music – a contemporary and unconventional take on old songs and stories – comes across as so honest and intuitive you’d think he was steeped in those folk traditions right up to his neck.

So it comes as some surprise to learn that Lee is actually a city boy who came to folk just six years ago.

Having carved the perfect niche for himself, the Londoner’s talent was recognised with a Mercury Music Prize nomination for his 2012 debut album, Ground of its Own, which showcases the traveller songs that he learned first-hand.

“It’s a paradox I’ve had to deal with my entire life, being born in the middle of a city,” laughs Lee who has the kind of easy manner that opened doors in the communities he chanced upon on those cross-country drives – once they’d got over their suspicion that he was from social services or the inland revenue, he adds.

“I’d get a weekend off and be on the road driving then I’d pull over at a caravan site and knock on the door, a kind of cold call,” he explains.

“It’s been like building up a social network.”

In the capable hands of Lee and his band, The Friends – who have also collaborated with the likes of Secret Cinema and Laura Marling and had a TV role in BBC hit Peaky Blinders – the resulting music offers something different for those who tend to lump all folk together.

“From discovering this music, I fell in love with it, started learning as much as I could about it then had my personal perspective on it.

“I became passionate about it, then my life became it and nothing else was able to exist.”

And he felt compelled to abandon his former work as a trained visual artist and teacher of wilderness survival, something that had developed from his love of being outdoors and close to nature.

The man who also admits he worked as a burlesque dancer to pay bills during his student days says the common theme throughout his adult life has been creating something from nothing: “Folk music is like wilderness survival!”

As well as reinterpreting the old songs and stories of the Scottish, Irish traveller and English Gypsy communities, Lee is creating an online archive of them in an effort to preserve a tradition that is fast dying out.

“I record and document their songs, their life,” he says.

“I try to find older member of the community but when I ask families about their songs, they might say their mother or father would know but has passed away.

“It’s disappearing so fast. It’s really like trying to capture it before it’s extinct, as the songs are not being passed on – they’re not being learned by a younger generation.

“By putting the old songs online and making them accessible, there’s a real sense of repatriation, of returning them to the community.”

Ahead of a second album due in October, a four-track taster EP, More For To Rise, comes out on May 12 with stirring numbers developed from the songs he learned.

They include the haunting Over Yonders Hills, about a mistreated woman, which Sam learned from the Birch family of Cornwall and has melded with elements gleaned from Gypsy singer Freda Black.

Another of the songs was taught to him by a travelling family encamped under the Shepherds Bush flyover in London.

“There are wonderful songs and some are used for my own material, learned over the years and embedded in my repertoire,” he says.

“Some songs from the new album which I’ll be playing on tour have literally just been learned and recorded – fresh from field to table.”

Others might be around for years before they “find their moment and reason to come out”.

So immersed is Lee in the folk world that critics remark on how fully he inhabits his songs, as north audiences will hear when, three days after his EP’s release, Lee’s accompanying UK tour will brings the songs live to us at Sage Gateshead.

Having toured with his band in Japan, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Bangladesh and across Europe, it seems surprising that this is to be his debut at the venue, especially given the North East connections he’s already forged through teaching at Newcastle University and starring in a film by Newcastle-based artist Matt Stokes which was exhibited at Baltic in 2009.

In The Gainsborough Packet, a folk song-filled celebration of the life of a certain John Burdikin and based on the finding of a letter he’d written in 1828, Lee played the main man and sang the songs too.

It was an artistic collaboration that came about through his regular visits to the university in his earlier working life – “one of those moments when the old and new world kind of collided with each other”.

He’s excited about his debut. “Would you believe it, considering how many time I’ve come up there?” he says. “I’ve only done one tour of the UK before and didn’t make it there.”

The man whose ear can pick out “amazing variations” and community differences, even among the common traveller melodies which to outsiders might sound the same, says our own famous tradition of Northumbrian folk song is “one of the most distinctive”.

He especially likes the approach of The Unthanks and Kathryn Tickell.

“I love the storytelling in Newcastle. My drummer Josh Green’s father (Malcolm) is a Newcastle storyteller.

“Growing up, I loved the Geordie songs, the industrial ballads, although they’re not in my repertoire because I’m not from Newcastle which is such a strong custodian of them.”

Folk music is soaring in popularity these days but Sam hopes people will come along to hear his new sound, pointing out: “There are very, very significant differences in repertoires and material and approaches.”

To hear more, join Sam Lee & Friends, hosted by Folkworks, in Hall Two of Sage Gateshead at 8pm on May 15. Visit www.sage.gateshead.com or call 0191 443 4661.

More For To Rise will be available on The Nest Collective label on May 12.

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