How many traditional English folk singers do you know who come from North London, studied at Chelsea School of Art, worked as a forager and wilderness expert while moonlighting as a burlesque dancer until a chance encounter led to the door of the great Scottish Traveller singer Stanley Robertson, and an extraordinary four-year apprenticeship into the arcane, living world of traditional song that few outside the Traveller and Gypsy communities have ever experienced?
Since bursting on to the folk scene at the end of the Noughties, Sam Lee has blazed a trail as an outstanding singer and song collector, the driving force behind the eclectic, award-winning folk club The Nest Collective, which has brought traditional music to all kinds of new stages and venues, and founder of a burgeoning song collectors’ movement that inspires a new generation of performers to draw on living source singers rather than books and records.
Lee is a 21st-century artist, collecting new versions of old songs on his iPhone and laptop, but his repertoire is steeped in the reek and smoke of folk history and lore, its tales of love, parting, exile and murder bound by a sympathetic magic still resonant today, parting the veil on vivid scenes from our islands’ deep history.
Awarded the 2011 Arts Foundation prize and nominated for the 2012 Mercury Award for his debut album, ‘Ground Of Its Own’, he has taken his music worldwide to more than 20 countries, appeared in Peaky Blinders on TV, and joined The Unthanks to commemorate the Great War at the Barbican in London. Lee reached an even larger audience with his performance of ‘The Tan Yard Side’ to the accompaniment only of a nightingale on Radio 4 on 19 May 2014. This remarkable recording marked the 90th anniversary of the first-ever outside broadcast of ‘Singing with the Nightingales’ by cellist Beatrice Harrison on 19 May 1924.
Sam Lee and his band comprise cellist Francesca Ter-Berg, trumpeter Steve Chadwick, violinist Flora Curzon, percussionist Josh Green and koto player Jonah Brody. They entered Imogen Heap’s Hideaway Studio in Essex with Penguin Cafe’s Arthur Jeffes and Jamie Orchard-Lisle as co-producers, and spent three months laying down tracks and layering music for Sam’s new album, The Fade In Time. “There were a huge amount of toys and instruments to play with at Imogen’s,” says Lee. “We had these tools at hand, a lot of percussion, big drums. We didn’t go in with an agenda. It was taking the live band and seeing how we could expand on that, layering the strings to make it more orchestral, thickening up the brass.”
Impassioned and hugely ambitious in scope, The Fade In Time is a major statement from an artist and group extending the borders of their music beyond its national boundaries to encompass Bollywood beats, Polynesian textures and contemporary classical music. From the blaring brass and martial drums of opening track, Johnnie O the Brine through to the softly closing account of The Moss House, with just Sam’s voice and Arthur Jeffes’ beautifully minimalist, elegant piano, the instrumental textures and vocals –augmented by
the Roundhouse Choir on Lovely Molly – make The Fade In Time a distinctive and radical reinterpretation of the British folk tradition.
Sam Lee’s tracks