Today sees the release of Sam Amidon's fourth album, Bright Sunny South. I won't go into too much detail about the record as Larry Day has already written a fair review of it, available to read here. I will say however, that this was an exciting listen for me, as the albums of his that I really got into were released on the Bedroom Community label. Live solo performances aside, the Sam Amidon that I think of is the one in collaboration with Nico Muhly and Valgeir Sigurdsson, constantly making some beautifully produced, outlandishly reinterpreted folk songs.

Bright Sunny South takes us back to a sound akin with his first album; the supposedly 'lonesome record'. Taking a second opportunity to interview the man, I met him at the Queen's Head in Kings Cross, and while nursing one of their great dry ciders, I asked for an explanation of what it was like returning to that format after spending so long with Bedroom Community. While munching on one of the pub's hearty cheese sandwiches, he told me: "I wanted to make an album just where you were aware a little bit more of each individual instrument or sound. Albums with Valgeir, which I love and I'll do more of, are like a garden. I think Valgeir makes a garden of sounds; a sound garden. It's like you're placed in this space, this environment, that can be more layered up. I guess for this time around I just shot for something that would be a little more focussed on an individual sound and an individual interior for the soul." I reflected that that was taking 'lonesome' quite literally. "Exactly. And also I wanted to explore some of these other musical collaborations that I have left out for the past couple of records; Thomas Bartlett, Chris Vatalaro, Shahzad Ismally. I've had these intense duo relationships with these musicians, and this album explores those a little bit."

Thomas Bartlett, known for his band, Doveman, is a long time friend of Sam's, and while on tour together they would listen to songs used on the new album such as Tim McGraw's 'My Old Friend' and Mariah Carey's 'Shake It Off'. I wondered if this was a fanboy thing or something more. "I'm not a huge fan of either of those musicians, and don't know anything beyond one of their albums..." he states, "...but I would say that listening to music is one of the very most important activities in my life, and in some ways listening to music is more important than making it for me… or not overall, but it's a more important daily activity. Thomas has been my best friend since we were six years old and for us, listening to music together has been a huge part of our friendship, and the way that people hear music changes so much over time. So, it's just a little tribute to that collective listening experience with Tom."

Reading about Jerry Boys' involvement on the album was quite exciting as well because I had never realised beforehand that he had worked with the renowned Malian musician, Ali Farka Touré. Working with him was a welcome opportunity for Sam: "I wanted this album to be little bit more raw and have that organic sound of the instruments, and I didn't really know Jerry's name before but the Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté duo records more recently are incredibly beautiful albums. I love those records that there's so little going on, it's just the two instruments, and yet you can get lost in a whole world with just those two. And I looked back to his stuff in the sixties and seventies where he was recording with Martin Carthy, this legendary folk singer who I knew as a kid, and I loved that raw documentation that he did. He had no connection to what I'd done previously, and we had never met 'til he walked through the door in the studio." I put it to him that if Valgeir Sigurdsson makes a garden, then Jerry Boys' work is more like a desert, to which he replied: "Exactly, it's a raw desert where one sound comes cracking down from the sky some place."

I brought up the connotations that many of the folk songs that Sam plays provoke. For me, it's often the very quiet atmospheres of modern westerns like The Assassination of Jesse James. There's a narrative in these stories that he picks up on: "Often I'll take verses out of the folk songs that I'm working on and get them down to that weird, elliptical narrative, which is what I love about them; those weird terms that leave you without knowing where you're heading." I pointed out how modern he's able to make these sound, and he explained that it's the "genesis of interacting with people like Shahzad and Tom. They can make anything into a homemade sounding instrument, even if it's the most alien sounding thing. We always have to have that because we're always trying to sonically explore. Even if you're dealing with a more acoustic situation, you're still trying to explore sonically."

It also seems important to him to explore the songs from his childhood. 'Weeping Mary', the closing song on Bright Sunny South, is a hymn sung by his parents: "I've stolen a lot of songs from my parents. 'Weeping Mary', like a number of songs that I've done over the years, is from traditional shapenote, sacred harp singing, old New England folk choral form." As part of a 'travelling hippie choir', his parents released an album through Nonesuch Records in the seventies, made up of songs usually meant for "when twenty people get together in a house on a Saturday afternoon and sing, and have a potluck dinner. That's the tradition. But the words have a lot of beautiful and strange imagery, and there's spiritual ancient language. I just like the weirdness of the grammar in that song, like, 'Are there anybody here…' Just that little turn of phrase has some weird ancientness to it. It's like a bad translation from another language."

While developing a lot of these bizarre traditional folk songs, Sam Amidon also has an enthusiasm that lies in jazz. A year ago he had a chance to perform with one of his idols, Bill Frisell: "It was the fulfilment of a life-long dream. It's weird for me to even be saying that he's a friend now, he's someone I went to see play eighteen times when I was in New York, and that was like Jimi Hendrix for me. Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot are my favourite guitar players, and we talked about doing stuff for a long time, but finally last year we got together and played a little duo tour. It felt like playing with an old friend immediately, I just thought, 'Oh yeah, this is easy'. He's not on this record, but we're gonna do more down the road."

The mention of tours made me bring up his own upcoming live shows. What could we expect from him this time round? "I'm gonna be touring always with Chris, the drummer. I'm most comfortable on stage in a duo or trio setting because that leaves a little bit open something to happen. With more people you have to plan a lot, so I like having a bit of openness. We'll probably have some special guests, but the future is always uncertain no matter what happens." There was also a mention of Kenny Wheeler, the legendary jazz trumpet player, possibly being included: "... he's another one of my heroes, an amazing jazz player who played trumpet on a couple of tracks on the new album. But he's in his eighties, so I don't know how much he's playing out right now, but we might see him at Cafe OTO."

The last time I had interviewed Sam, I asked what reaction he wanted from his audiences. This time round I quoted his original answer to do with 'alternating between states of elation and discomfort', to see if his desires had changed at all. He gave me this story: "They're like little creatures staring from behind trees, but they don't realise that you can see them. That's the magic to performing. My favourite environment for it is a completely dark theatre. This happened recently, where I had achieved something I had been looking for, for a long time, where you want to create a visual image to look back at. So recently, I was in Australia, in a completely dark theatre. There was one woman texting on her phone the whole time, while eating an ice cream cone, and the only light in the whole theatre was of the phone that lit up her face as she ate the ice cream during the entirety of my set. And for each song I had, she had a little less ice cream left at the end of each song. I thought to myself, 'I can retire now, because I've achieved the visual image that I've been searching for all these years.'"

I said what a change that makes from other artists' complaints of people viewing a gig through their phone screens, to which he replied: "They're just not appreciating the visual stimulus of that image. The audience is creating a visual matrix of phone lighting for them. They should be thanking the audience for holding their cellphones up the whole time." And what of the threat of people moving on to using their iPads? "Now, that… I can't even joke about that, that's too depressing. I hope not. We'll see. I'm bringing a new device to my concerts, which replaces all of the information on everybody's phone in the room with text from the Herman Melville novel, The Confidence Man. So, if you wanna get a free copy of The Confidence Man on your phone then come to my gig and your phone will be wiped automatically. The moment you step through the door and the music begins, each note from the banjo adds a word of text from The Confidence Man into your phone and takes away a contact or recently written email etc."

Sam Amidon's mass viral distribution of The Confidence Man will begin soon. Check news of his upcoming shows here to ensure that your phone's data doesn't get wiped.


Bright Sunny South is out now on Nonesuch Records.