You Better Mind: An Interview with Sam Amidon

The son of renowned folksingers Mary Alice and Peter Amidon, Sam Amidon has been making music for a long time. Whether with he’s collaborating with childhood friend Thomas Bartlett on the latter’s Doveman records, singing with Nico Muhly, working with brilliant NYC “lamp rock” collective Stars Like Fleas, or making his own gorgeous and harrowing albums under the name Samamidon, the quantity of Sam’s work is only outpaced by its astonishing quality. He admitted to me once that he thinks he’s an awful songwriter, which is probably part of why his solo work consists of reworkings of (mostly) traditional music (with the odd Tears for Fears or R. Kelly song tossed in), but once you’ve heard what he can do with old songs of love, God, and murder, it’s hard to doubt the man’s talent. With his fine new album I Saw the Sign out on Iceland’s excellent Bedroom Community label, Sam sat down to answer some questions for PopMatters, and the answers are as playful, wise, and idiosyncratically compelling as all of his work.


PopMatters: With the last two albums, you recorded your parts solo and then handed those recordings over to, respectively, Thomas Bartlett and Nico Muhly. Did you follow a similar process with I See the Sign?

Sam Amidon: Not as much.  I arrived to Iceland with my friend Shahzad Ismaily, who I met while playing in the band Doveman, and who I got to know because we started to do a trade where he’d give me a guitar lesson, and I’d give him a banjo lesson, and then we’d do some free improvising together.  He has many long arms. When we went into the studio in Iceland, we put many of the basic tracks down live together, with him playing bass or drums or percussion or strange noises or Moog or electric guitar, basically playing everything there was to play.  Some he’d do live with me, and other parts he’d add later – he is able to play many instruments at once, but not all of them.  He has many limbs.  When he was playing his drum parts, I sat at a very large oak table in front of the drum kit and waved my arms in the air and drew

diagrams for him to follow or disobey.

After that point, it took on more of the shape of the way I made the last few records – Nico’s arrangements were added without my presence, I arrived last summer and there they were in all their mind-altering twinkling glory; and Beth Orton came with me to Iceland to sing on a number of songs and we did those together, and then Valgeir [Sigurðsson, musician and co-head of Bedroom Community with Muhly and Ben Frost] and I spent time carving things away from everything that had been added and figuring out what we had.  That’s one way of making music!

PM: How do you choose your source material? You mostly record traditional songs. Is it just that the ones chosen have personal meaning for you, or that you have a good idea for how you want to rearrange them? Are there any legal or logistical issues that come with recording these songs, and with changing them? Has the relative dearth of covers of modern songs been because it’s more expensive and difficult to get permission to cover them? How hard was it arranging the R. Kelly cover on this album?

SA: It’s pretty much a song that gets stuck in my head, and then it goes away, and then awhile later I’m playing my guitar and I think of a little thing to play on the guitar and then maybe the song comes back in a different form and then I change everything around a little more if it needs to be!  And you make a good distinction between covers & folksongs — a cover is when you play somebody else’s song, like in the case of the R. Kelly song; a folksong is something where it’s not something that one person wrote, it’s a mysterious object that’s gone around and through many people and places and nobody really knows where it came from or how it was different before the one you just heard.

PM: The shorthand for the kind of music you adapt has tended to be “Appalachian folk songs,” but there’s more of a range to them than that. I know you’ve done some songs from the Georgian Islands and so on, do you go looking for songs from different era and places? Do you consider part of what you do to be preserving these songs and introducing them to younger people that might not have heard them?

SA: It’s true that they come from a lot of places — the songs that come from the shape note tradition (such as “All Is Well” or “Kedron”) that have their roots in New England folk choral singing; the songs from the Georgia Sea Islands are mostly children’s singing games.   Those are the songs I have heard the most because my parents had shape note singers in our house when I was growing up, and they teach a lot of music to children and they love those singing games.  Anybody who likes music and rhythm and words should immediately buy the [Bessie Jones] album Put Your Hand On Your Hip And Let Your Backbone Slip.

PM: One of my favourite moments on I See the Sign is the way “Pretty Fair Damsel” doesn’t actually resolve itself, and after doing some research I see that there is another verse which you didn’t include. How do you make those kinds of decisions, especially about songs that may have multiple lyrics to choose from? How do you decide how much to change a song, and which variant to use with very old songs? How much of the process is selection and how much of it is creation?

SA: Well in the case of “Pretty Fair Damsel,” the recording I got it off of didn’t have that last verse that everybody else does, so in that case it was accidental. I guess Clarence Ashley also believed that the plot twist in that last verse people usually sing is annoying … either that or he just forgot it and it turned out better that way.  To answer part two of your question – the words I find from the song and don’t change; the melody I might alter a bit from how I learned it … and then most of the rest is changed.

PM: Your music now seems to be getting at least some attention from both the folk or traditional music community and the indie rock community. Do you ever feel like a fish out of water, that these communities aren’t quite sure what to do with you? With the kind of hybrid music that you make, have you found that people who follow different types of music embrace or reject what you’re doing? Is there any resistance to the kind of music you make?

SA: My experience is that people are extremely generous in their listening and I’ve had all kinds of people from both sides of that spectrum telling me different and unexpected things.  Like one guy said, “I like your version of the song ‘O Death.'”  And I said “Thanks!” and he said “I sang that song with my brother, as a joke, for our dad’s 50th birthday.” And I said “Oh.” And he said “And my dad died a year later, in a terrible accident.” And I said “Wow, I’m sorry to hear that.” And the guy said, “Yeah, but isn’t that hilarious?!”  And at that moment, I didn’t know what to say!

PM: In some of the songs you play, like “Wild Bill Jones” or “Rain and Snow,” it seems like the narrator is unreliable — modern audiences aren’t likely to approve of what happens in them. The way you perform these kinds of songs kind of undercuts the narrator – you sing sincerely from their perspective but it doesn’t seem like you or the music approves of them. Do you think that kind of complexity always existed in these songs, or is this a case of bringing a more modern sensibility to songs that have attitudes we’re no longer comfortable with? Are there traditional songs that you wouldn’t want to perform because of their content?

SA: I learned a lot of fiddle tunes from a guy named Bruce Greene who went to Kentucky in 1970 when he was 20 and he learned how to play fiddle from guys who were in their 80s and had learned their tunes when they were teenagers from ex-slaves and Confederate veterans.  He said that more than one of them had killed somebody in their lifetime. Lawlessness exists in the world.

PM: A lot of older music is religious, and you’re one of the few artists I know who puts religious songs like “Prodigal Son” or “Kedron” on an album that isn’t ostensibly a gospel or Christian rock (or whatever) album. Are you at all ambivalent about the religious material? Is there ever a case where you perform a religious song with the same kind of narrative remove you sometimes use with a song like “Rain and Snow”?

SA: Jesus knew a lot about land surfing.  Like, he did the water surfing too, but I think he really knew about surfing on various forms of land.   Who’s singing the songs? Me, or the guy who’s talking about killing people or looking at Jesus hanging patiently on the cross?

PM: So far your musical approach has changed from album to album, but this is the first time you’ve had any other singers featured prominently on your album. How did you wind up working with Beth Orton? Do you have any plans to work with her or other singers in the future?

SA: I met Beth a year ago through Antony, after a show he played in London.  She is a really great singer; there is so much sound and feeling and depth in her voice, it’s not just a pretty voice, I mean it is pretty, but it’s also a lot more.  I was so happy that she could come to Iceland to see some volcanoes and sing with me, it’s amazing.

PM: You play with a lot of different bands and musicians: Doveman, Nico Muhly, Stars Like Fleas, and many others. How do you decide what will be Sam Amidon (or samamidon) music? Do you think you’ll keep active in so many different projects if your own work continues to grow in popularity?

SA: I haven’t gotten to play so much with Stars Like Fleas lately, and I think they might be on hiatus, or maybe just morphing and shifting in shape.  That is a great band.  Doveman I play with whenever I can; in fact I just did two glorious shows with that band at the Kitchen in New York, where the band was Thomas Bartlett (aka Doveman), Nico, a few guys from the National, me, Oren Bloedow from Elysian Fields, master drummer Dougie Bowne, and a string quartet.  It was amazing! I have been playing music with Thomas for 21 years, but only seriously for the last 18 years. Once in awhile Nico calls me and decides that we should go for a bacon sandwich and then tells me that he has some insane scheme involving one thing or another and I go “yes!” And then when it comes time for me to sing some songs I have them all help me too.