Contemporary folk singers don't come quite like this man. Sam Amidon has adapted a rich range of folk music from traditional stories of murder and religion to lyrics by less obvious singers for his genre, like R Kelly, or so we think he is. He's also played in a variety of duets and outfits, mainly the incredible Iceland-based record label, Bedroom Community. On his own however, he is a more than effective performer and storyteller for making an audience go wide-eyed, laugh and sing.

Conveniently for us we found out that he is currently living over in England, so we couldn't resist a visit, where we not only spoke to him about folk music, rain and the surreality of office work, but also recorded two songs with him. Here are the products:


We're in Dalston, where you're currently living. Is this a temporary thing, or are you here to stay?

I'm a travelling person, so I'm here a lot, but I still keep one half of a foot, sort of getting to be more of a toe at this point, in New York.

Other than business, what brings you to England?

Well, it's a beautiful place. I love rain because it comes from the sky all the time; that's really nice, but that's been thoroughly a disappointment of my English experience in the last month, because it's mostly been beautiful skies and warm weather. I can get that anywhere! I don't know what I'm doing here, but it's a good place and love calls some people to different places. Love and work.

We've been told that our summer has come early, so with any luck…

It'll be back. I'm counting on that.

In fact, I remember waiting to see your set at Green Man last year…

I know, that was brutal.

Pissing down!

I know! That was nuts.

Strangely nice in some way, I thought.

It was the right kind of rain.

Yeah, out in the pub garden with those walls, and before you came on they were playing Jeff Buckley's Grace all the way through on a loud volume.

That's fantastic.

Very ethereal, somewhat.

That's a very good soundtrack for the rain.

Essentially, being in that environment and hearing your music made me stop caring about the rain.

I'm glad to hear that.

It was a nice effect, but what effect do you want your audiences to feel?

Take two states, elation and discomfort. I would love it if the audiences had those two in alternating succession, but in a sort of matrix. If you look at the audience from above as a sort of matrix it would be alternating, so that each adjacent person is experiencing one state to the next.

When you play live, you seem to have two different versions of your setup. There are times when you're playing on your own, very much in a folk roots format, and then you're playing with people like Nico Muhly, with perhaps a small orchestra to accompany you, and you've got his arrangements to back you.

There are three setups, I'll play solo quite frequently, and then I often play duo, which is usually with one other musician who I trust enough that they don't have any instructions as to what they're gonna do, like Chris Vatalaro who I play a lot with here. They can make any sound at any given time. And then there's the work with Nico and the Icelandic people. They can be any kind of string arrangement and maybe some electronics, etcetera.

And when you're playing on your own you come out with these wonderful stories that often leave people very confused. I like it how you sort of instruct us on what we have to imagine for the next song. I remember once that you described a situation with an empty office.

Yeah! That's what one of the songs is about.

Could you describe that in full again?

No, because that is a description of a song that I would then sing. The thing is I could do that now, but in a way I can't because those stories emerge out of the inherent bizarreness of the fact that one's life often consists of sitting in a group of people, staring at one person while they do stuff, or the other way around. If you go on tour that happens every day for a while, and then with everything else in your life you're reduced to this state, like someone in a nursing home. Once you're sitting on stage, you become aware of the inherent surreality of it all. All of life is surreal though. I had three of the most hallucinatory days of my life when I was a temp in New York, about six years ago. There were thirty of us who had been hired for this legal firm and there was some kind of medical lawsuit going on, and we had no idea what side we were on. For all I knew I was helping 'the Man' destroy something, I didn't know what I was doing. But I was just sitting there at this computer screen, which scanned in about 5000 or 100,000 documents relating to this medical case, and I had to click through them like this...

rapidly taps his finger on the table, while making clicking noises

…and watched them move by. I had to catch the ones that had the word, 'redacted' on them, which was always in very small print somewhere, you never knew where, on the screen. And I was the one who they kept on for the extra day because I was so fast at clicking on the mouse, and eventually it was like 9am till 11pm for four days in a row, I was watching these diagrams of molecules move. They were actually animating themselves like cartoons, because I was clicking so fast that things would move by, and then I would hit 'redacted', my eyes would register the word, but it took my finger fifteen more clicks until my brain would realise what I had seen, tell it that, and then rewind the screen. That four day experience was like doing drugs because it would kind of just put you in a different space in your brain, because it was so blank, but also you were in this heightened state of concentration. So I know that life is surreal no matter what you do, but one of the kinds of surreal life is just the inherent quality of sitting in front of an audience and singing these songs. Eventually you want to try to explain to them what's happening, in case they haven't noticed yet.

And all your sound effects are derived from that are they?

Absolutely, when you sing every day, you need to warm up some how, and sometimes if you have something in your throat you can spend about twenty minutes trying to get it out.

Like your screeching in 'Wild Bill Jones'. I've seen you do that twice now, and the surprise that it inflicts on everyone is comical.

But if you come back and it's the same people, then you're placed in a paradox.

When playing all these old folk songs you've got all the fundamental elements. I was watching a documentary about the Icelandic Sagas the other day and they brought up the common things that were all central to human nature.

Absolutely. All folk songs are the same way. There are bizarre murders and strange, twisted family issues.

Tales of lust and revenge… What would you say is the most important out of them that drives us to tell these stories?

Great question, I think it's fear. If you make it into a story it kind of wraps it up into something that you can deal with for a minute.

What's your favourite of the stories that you adapt?

I love the song, 'Kedron', which is just a story of the crucifixion, it's a Christian story, but what I love about that song is that the words are just a description of the image, so they don't tell the story of that happening. It's almost more like a painting than a song. But also, as far as stories go, 'Pretty Fair Damsel' is a pretty good story. A pretty weird story.

I saw you play that on the Whale Watching Tour, with Bedroom Community, and you described the basic narrative of it, but Nico Muhly argued that it was about gays in the military.

He thinks it's about gays in the military. I'm not sure if that interpretation is true, but it's valid, but it's also just a wonderful dialogue.

And what about the R Kelly cover?

In the case of R Kelly, he wrote a folk song. I love most of his songs, he's a major songwriter of the decade, which if you'd said a few years ago I might have raised an eyebrow, but I think that's a widely accepted truth at this point. And there are many songs of his that if I sang I would sound pretty silly, because just like with Bob Dylan and the Beatles, most songs by people like that are hard to cover. But in the case of 'Relief' I just realised that he wrote us all a folk song for us to sing right now in this bizarre time, when shit feels pretty apocalyptic. It's kind of like 'Blowing in the Wind' except instead of a protest song, he wrote us a kind of denial song. I thought that was quite moving… comforting.

Going back to live music, you play quite a variety of places. Sometimes you'll be playing in grand halls and sometimes the corner of a small bar.

It even all happens in one night, in New York I'll be playing with Nico at Carnegie Hall and then by 2 in the morning I'll be in the corner of a pub playing Irish tunes. I feel lucky that there's just a weird malleability of spaces… Otherwise life becomes very boring.

And you have no preference.

Not at all.

All of you in Bedroom Community say that when you work together it shouldn't work in theory.

It's an incredible environment that Valgeir (Sigurdsson) created. He really had a vision with the studio that he built, and you're not just stepping into a recording studio. There's just an amazing sense of space there and community, and Iceland, which is this bizarre, ancient, tribal universe with swimming pools. Nico pops through, Ben (Frost) is in one little room working on some insane noise shit. Valgeir and I are upstairs editing Nico's tracks, working on other things… it's lucky to be connected with those people.

The comparison Nico made with it was farming and bartering.

Exactly, Nico did my arrangements, I'm on his records, we all do things for each other and it all evens out in the spirit of collaboration.

On the site recently we had ATP curating everything we do and in our debate section they asked for everyone's dream lineup for Don't Look Back.

Mine would probably be Chris Whitley playing Dirt Floor, but he's dead, so barring that it might be Tegan and Sara playing Sainthood. That wouldn't be hard to achieve, they played it last year. I'll probably have to wait a little while, but maybe they'll do it again. I'd love to hear Paul Brady doing Welcome Here Kind Stranger, that's an Irish folk record from the 70s.

What do you hope to get out of this coming year?

I have a number of top secret projects that I'm not at liberty to discuss, but I am doing a concert with Bill Frisell in Germany in a couple of weeks, in a baroque castle. He's one of the world's wonderful, great living guitarists and he's been one of my heroes since I was young. I'm very excited about that. There'll hopefully be a new record, let's see what happens. And, you know, one can't predict the future, but it holds things.

It seems you've got a repeat coming up, because you're playing End of the Road, which has quite a similar lineup to Green Man last year, with the likes of Beirut and Joanna Newsom.

Yeah I noticed that. That'll be a fun little reunion. It's gonna be a good year. A varied year.

Last year was the first time I had seen Beirut, but had discovered them a long time before, so many of my years of listening to them had been building up to that moment. Have you ever had that experience with a band?

This guy, Chris Whitley, he was a singer/songwriter in the 90s and 2000s, very blues-based. I saw him play like 7 or 8 times. Bill Frisell was like that for me, I would go and see him every year, and Mark Ribot, the guitarist, I remember the first time I saw him, that was very exciting. When I was growing up it just didn't occur to me that you could go and see somebody play a concert. I would go to folk festivals with my parents and saw wonderful folk performers, and I knew a lot of musicians and played gigs, but once I started getting interested in other types of music, like free jazz, weird indie rock or whatever it was, I didn't realise that they would come near to where you were and play, I thought it only existed on CD. When I moved to New York it was this huge explosion, I would go to this club called Tonic all the time and hear everything that I could hear.

Are each of the songs you play all inherited folk songs?

Unless it's a song by R Kelly or Tears for Fears, but those are just new folk songs, but as far as the old folk songs go, yeah, I don't really write my own words, I just find all these old tunes and change them around.

You'd never consider having a go at starting your own story?

I'd consider it, but I'd also consider becoming a great jazz guitarist. I'm not sure if either of those things are gonna be half as good. I'll probably become a mediocre jazz guitarist. Not mediocre, but just amateur. Advanced amateur jazz guitarist, that's what I'm shooting for. Whether I'll ever write a song or not, who knows. It's not really something I worry myself about that much, because since I grew up playing fiddle, that was main thing and still my main skill. That's how I made my living when I was a teenager. My parents paid for my food, but I was playing professionally into my 20s and that was sort of my world, and because of that world, the most important, informative musicians to me were people in that scene, like this Irish player, Tommy Peoples, and some fiddlers from around where I was growing up, and old time players like a guy called Bruce Greene, another Irish player named Kathleen Collins, so all these different fiddle players were all my main teachers of music. They wrote tunes, but the most important thing wasn't what they wrote, but how they interpreted a melody, how they twisted it around, their sense of rhythm, and my second love, which is jazz, is the same thing. Those guys do write some music, but mostly they're improvising and they're also often just interpreting melodies of standards, so it's kind of the same thing, and those are all my heroes, like Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, all those fiddle players I mentioned, weird free jazz people, a guy called Tony Conrad, who's this drone violin player. Because of that, that whole thing of songwriting is not something I'm bothered by. Beth Orton, she's a great songwriter, a scientist of songwriting, she thinks about how a song fits together, but I'm much more excited about melody.

Now that you mention Beth Orton, where did your duet with her, 'You Better Mind' come from?

That's an old gospel song. The version I got was from one of my favourite singers, Bessie Jones, who lived in the Georgia Sea Islands, which were an interesting part of America because they were these islands in the gulf coast, home to an extremely autonomous black community, and unlike mainland US, where different kinds of music got passed through different races and got mixed up, things were a little more separate there. They had a lot of great music there, Bessie Jones would make recordings from children's singing games, somebody my parents really loved and taught me about. So when I met Beth I brought her to Iceland and Valgeir had the idea of us singing that as a duet.

Once we finished talking, Sam disappeared upstairs. I heard the sound of his fiddle starting up and he came back down the stairs as he played it. We moved into the garden and recorded the following:

Photo: © Anika Mottershaw