Features - Interviews

Quare as Folk: An Interview with Sam Amidon

Ahead of his highly-anticipated return to DeBarra’s in Clonakilty on 19th May, Vermont folk master Sam Amidon discusses the ways in which lineage and collaboration interact with constantly pushing forward.

Go here to buy tickets to Sam Amdson at DeBarra’s

Hi Sam.
It has been a typically busy period for you. One happening I would’ve loved to have experienced was the 10th-anniversary show for your LP Lily-O, Was it, as I assume, really fulfilling evening, revisiting the record in that way?

It was a beautiful night! It was actually the first time the four of us who made the album (Bill Frisell, Chris Vatalaro and Shahzad Ismaily) were playing together as a quartet since being in the studio in Iceland 10 years ago. Bill was on fire.
It’s been four years since your wonderful self-titled debut LP came out.

Featuring radical reworkings of nine traditional folk songs, it was ranked up there with the best albums of 2020. I can’t think of many modern releases that are more palette-spanning. Was that your core intention going into the project?

Each of my last few albums has explored a different side of what I’m up to musically – on Lily-O we made a classic live band record connected to my love of Frisell’s music; on The Following Mountain it was the personal challenge of having an album of entirely original music (as opposed to folk song adaptations) and connecting to some of the more experimental sides of my musical interests. For Sam Amidon, the 2020 self-titled album, the idea was to bring all these different elements of my music together into one whole – just make a kind of complete snapshot of my musical world in one tapestry. We recorded it mostly live in a short period of time.

You have also recently performed at Celtic Connections, as well as dates through the States and Canada. How have you found being on the road? Is it much the same as ever, or has there been little revelations along the way?

It’s been a great feeling to tour this past four months. In a way, my trip to Ireland will be the final stretch of this run which started at Celtic Connections in January and continued in North America for the next few months. The best part of the tour has been the various collaborations. At Celtic Connections, I was playing in a double bill with the fantastic old-time Appalachian duo Tatiana Hargreaves and Allison De Groot and we played a few tunes together; in February I was supporting This Is The Kit in North America; in April I had various concerts with different people including Sam Gendel and Sam Wilkes in Los Angeles. Now in Ireland, I will have one of my favourite bands supporting me, Bernice; and Thom Gill and Philippe Melanson from that band will be my band at the concerts, on electric guitar and drums. I love playing as a trio with Thom and Phil, we have had so many great shows in Canada, and it will be a blast to have them playing with me at some of my favourite venues in Ireland.

I enjoyed your recent video of your visit to Nonesuch Records, where you selected some records from their collection including Junun and Kronos Quartet. In general, have there been recent albums that you’ve had on rotation?

Always! I try to buy a new album or two on Bandcamp every week. Lately, I’ve been listening to Zosha Warpeha’s beautiful new album of hardanger compositions and improvisations, a newly reissued live tour from 1959 by Sonny Rollins called Freedom Weaver; and the new album from Elysian Fields.

You also performed at The Songs of Joni Mitchell at In The Round Festival. It looked like an incredible tribute. How was it to perform in honour of one of the true greats?

It was a great night. So many powerful musicians such as Kate Stables, Eska and Olivia Chaney paying tribute to the great master. I sang ‘The Boho Dance,’and ‘Shine’ which is from Joni Mitchell’s underrated 2006 album.

As the son of renowned folksingers Peter Amidon and Mary Alice Amidon you, of course, come from a really strong folk lineage. If you can be objective about it, in what ways have the particulars of your heritage influenced you most in recent times?

The main thing that came from growing up around a lot of folk music was the idea of music as part of community, and music as something you do through your life in different ways. It’s not always about being a complete expert at something. It can also be about being a beginner at various elements of music at various stages of life. And even though I love various kinds of experimental music, there is nothing like a good tune session.

In general, you have traversed so much territory within folk and beyond it. And you’re still very much a young musician. What is inspiring you most at the moment to continue to push forward as an artist?

Well as you move through life, the beautiful thing is that new people come along with new sounds and new ideas! I’m very inspired by the various young musicians I’m hearing all over the place who are taking the sounds and ideas of their universe into new directions and spaces. But I’m also deeply inspired by artists such as Marc Ribot and Bill Frisell, who are hitting 70 and pushing ever further into deeper and deeper sonic territory.

DeBarra’s is rightly considered one of the very best venues in Ireland. You’ve played the venue on several occasions, most recently last May. What makes the venue special for you? 

DeBarra’s is the best! It’s the best place to play. Actually most recently I was there for a brief visit for Samhain this past October – and I’m psyched to be coming back again!

is the editor of The Thin Air. Talk to him about Philip Glass and/or follow him on Twitter @brianconey.