Sam Amidon returns to Vermont to celebrate his Nonesuch debut, "Bright Sunny South," which is released on May 14. He will be joined by multi-instrumentalist Chris Vatalaro.
Sam Amidon was born and raised in Brattleboro, Vermont by folk musicians Peter and Mary Alice Amidon. He has released three albums of radically re-worked folksongs: "But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted," recorded at his then-home of Harlem in 2006 with Thomas Bartlett; followed by "All Is Well" in 2008 and "I See The Sign" in 2010, both recorded in Iceland with producer Valgeir Sigursson. His upcoming "Bright Sunny South" his first album with the prestigious Nonesuch record label.
Sam started on fiddle at the age of three and by eleven had formed a band called Popcorn Behavior, with childhood friend Thomas Bartlett and younger brother Stefan, to play New England fiddle tunes. They toured internationally, gathering attention from NPR, CNN and The Boston Globe and releasing five albums by the time they graduated from pretend high school which they did not really go to (at the time it was called "homeschooling").
By 17, Sam had taken up the banjo and fallen in love with free jazz, Miles Davis, early indie rock, drone minimalism, mountain ballads and Buster Keaton films. But it wasn't until he moved to New York City in 2002 that he began to play and experience first-hand all of these other kinds of things.
"I moved to New York to get away from folk music and to start playing the music that I was listening to. To try improvising, to play in rock bands, whatever and now what I do largely is these folk tunes. I guess, partly, that singing these songs was just comforting. You're new to New York, you're singing these lonesome tunes, it feels good. But, at the same time, you have to pay attention to what people respond to. You have to find what's meaningful to you, and you find out what that is by being with friends. I found that this is what I could bring to the table, to other musicians, to Nico, to Thomas, to Bill Frisell, all these collaborations. The element I can bring that is meaningful for a musical dialogue has been folk songs."
Amidon's particular gift is not to compose new songs, but to rework and repurpose traditional melodies into a striking new form that makes them feel very much his own. He delivers these songs in a hauntingly plainspoken voice, one that encompasses sadness and stoicism, vulnerability and wisdom. As Pitchfork has said, "his interpretations are so singular that it stops mattering how (or if) they existed before."
Sam has toured throughout the United States, the UK, Europe and Australia, performing solo and collaborating with a myriad of artists including Nico Muhly, Thomas Bartlett, Beth Orton, Shahzad Ismaily, Glen Hansard, and Bill Frisell.
Bright Sunny South, Sam Amidon's Nonesuch debut is, he admits, "a lonesome record." Despite its often elegiac, solitary feel, this is a work borne out of friendship and intensive collaboration, recorded in London with a small coterie of virtuosic multi-instrumental players: Thomas Bartlett, Shahzad Ismaily, and Chris Vatalaro. The folk songs, shape-note hymns, and country ballads that Amidon performs deal on the surface with the darkest, most fundamental of issuesthe specter of death, the looming clouds of war, unquenchable longing, unrequited love. Yet there is beauty and comfort in these time-tested words and well-worn melodies and in Amidon's simple, emotionally direct delivery of these songs, as captured here on tape by the legendary English recording engineer Jerry Boys.
Bright Sunny South is Amidon's fourth disc in six years and is close in spirit, he feels, to his spare 2007 debut effort, the homemade But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted, in which he and fledgling producer Bartlett, recording under the group name samamidon, learned as they rolled tape: "It was very much a process of discovery for the both of us. At that point, the final take was the one where I was able to get all the way through without messing the guitar part up." He recorded two subsequent albums with producer Valgeir Sigur?sson for the Iceland-based Bedroom Community label, All Is Well and I See the Sign, in which fellow New England native and frequent collaborator Nico Muhly contributed adventurous orchestral arrangements that artfully counterbalanced Amidon's stark delivery.
As Amidon reflects, Bright Sunny South "went a little bit back to that interior space, the solitude of the songs of Falsehearted. There was an atmospheric quality to the last two records on Bedroom Community; the albums are like this garden of sounds. But this one is more of a journey, a winding path. The band comes rushing in and then they disappear. It comes from more of a darker, internal space."
He sought out Jerry Boys, whose lengthy resume includes classic work in the 1970s recording English folk legends Martin Carthy, Maddy Prior, Sandy Denny, and Steeleye Span. Explains Amidon, "I love especially those albums with Martin Carthy. And then in the '90s, Jerry started doing world music stuff, like Buena Vista Social Club. More importantly for me, he did the Ali Farke Touré/Toumani Diabaté duet records. Those are so beautiful. I listened to all of that. I loved that sense of documentation, the unadorned quality. Everything sounded so clear." He joined Boys at London's Livingston and then SNAP studios: "I went in for a couple days and put down versions of songs totally solo because I wanted that to be a starting place. Then Thomas and Shahzad and Chris came and we had four days together, mostly playing live, no click tracks. Sometimes we would all play live, sometimes we would overdub over the solo versions I had recorded. It was an intense time, definitely not relaxedbut in a good way, I feel, because the intensity is part of the music."
The sessions, though brief, were exploratory and adventurous, with no set role for any of these players: "It was a kind of charged atmosphere because we hadn't done something in a room all together before, and each of them had specific ideas of how to play in a duo setting with me. They all play everything; all three are multi-instrumentalists. We had to decide who was going to jump on what instrument at any given moment."
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15 Kimball Hill
Putney, VT 05346