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, Mercury Prize nominee Sam Lee has blazed a trail as an outstanding singer and song collector. He’s also been 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, as well as the 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 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 is also an award-winning promoter and live events producer through his 2010 BBC Folk club of the year ʻThe Magpieʼs Nestʼ, now “The Nest Collective”. The Nest has played a key role in the resurgence of the live folk music scene and is behind many innovative concerts across London, festival stages around the UK and radio and television appearances.
Sam Lee and his band comprise cellist Francesca Ter-Berg, trumpeter Steve Chadwick, violinist Flora Curzon, percussionist Josh Green and koto player Jonah Brody and Dulcimer player Jon Whitten. 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.
Several of its songs, including opener Jonny O’ the Brine, were learnt from Lee’s mentor, Stanley Robertson. It’s a tale of hunting, poaching, slaughter and magic, and to form its soundscape, “I wanted something with rhythm, punch and drama to it,” says Lee. “I heard this tarantella approach, and the horns are hunting horns, inspired by Tajikistan
wedding bands, spattering and spitting out these sounds. They’re characters in the song,” he adds, “recreating this world of the green wood.” Lee recalls Robertson taking him to Monymusk in Aberdeenshire, where the story took place – its hero and his dogs in slumber after drinking the blood of the venison, and the sound of the foresters approaching. “The connection I had, knowing where it came from, the hunting of the deer, the communion of drinking the blood,” says Lee. “It has such poetry and romance.”
Also from Robertson comes the great ballad, Lord Gregory. Lee’s version begins with an archive recording of Hamish Henderson with the singer Charlotte Higgins, an elder cousin of Robertson’s. “It’s an old song, old and a long, long time ago’ says Higgins as Henderson coaxes the words from her, and you realise you’re putting an ear to something ancient, stories thought extinct but found alive and well in your own backyard. “Stanley learnt it from his mother, who recited it as a poem,” says Lee. “He’s condensed it with absolutely everything there is about rejection, love, conviction, forgiveness, empathy and compassion. It’s the song I’m most proud of, singing-wise. That’s the one I’m emotionally most connected to. It’s the centre of the album.”
Poignantly, The Moon Shone By My Bed Last Night, was the last song Robertson taught Lee. “It was the last song he’d learnt from his aunt, the great singer Jeannie Robertson,” says Lee. “One day Stanley said to me, I want to teach you a song, and that was the one. It holds a very special place for me.”
A classic song with its own special place in the tradition is The Blackbird, recast here with propulsive piano, strong percussion and a wall of brass. “This is one of two songs on the album that I didn’t collect,” says Sam. “It comes from May Bradley, a gypsy singer from Shropshire who was recorded in the 1950s. “She has this amazing modal tune for it, unlike anyone else’s. And lyrically, hers is so much more punchy and tenacious – about loving this soldier, being pregnant, being cast out by her community – ‘Let them go talking say what they will, while there’s breath in my body I’ll love my lad still’ – I just love that conviction.”
The powerful, condensed version of the famous Napoleonic song Bonny Bunch of Roses comes from Freda Black, an octogenarian gypsy singer Sam has visited many times on the Hampshire-Sussex borders. As Lord Gregory began with the voices of Henderson and Higgins, so Bonny Bunch begins with an archive recording, an Eastern European cantor singer from whom Sam takes the lead as the band rises with a driving fife and drum accompaniment. These and Lee’s own field recordings have a key role on the album. At the close of Over Yonders Hill, a staple of the band’s set and a tragic lament that deals with herbal remedies and plant spirits, we have the voice of Freda Black reciting the song’s verses to the soft metronomic sound of a clock in her sitting room, quietly reframing the expansive arrangements we’ve just heard against the raw nerve of the song’s source. “I want to take listeners back to that magic land,” affirms Lee. “It was such a dreamlike moment – you could hear the process of her remembering all these fragments jumbled in the deep past, and extracting them out of this stream of consciousness.” And the clock going in the background, time ticking away.
Which brings us to the title, The Fade In Time. “It just came to me,” says Lee, “It’s not something I’d heard elsewhere. It’s the fade-in time, and the fading out that happens in time. Which reflects the songs – what happens to this stuff; how it dissipates, disappears there and reappears here…” Steeped in drama, love, violence, lore and magic, all evoked with a charged mixture of imagination, ambition and experimentation, The Fade In Time roves the centuries and radically renews a living tradition, a delicate and richly embroidered ecosystem of song uncovered, cultivated and propagated for present and future generations.