Experimenting with the random: A raw conversation with Sam Amidon

Sam AmidonPhotos by Diana Cordero // Written by Molly Kish //

Getting a first glimpse of the newly remodeled, subterranean restaurant/bar of the Swedish American Hall (formerly Cafe Du Nord), Showbams sat down with Sam Amidon before his co-headlining show with Little Wings earlier this month. Before Amidon’s soundcheck, we talked to him about his early career and recording process over a meal that included craft beers, burger mishaps and a complimentary plate of thinly sliced cucumbers.

Showbams: You grew up in Brattleboro, Vt., and were in a family of folk artists and musicians, hence your multi-instrumentalist background (guitar, banjo and fiddle). Before your full-length debut, you released an album of fiddle … (Our waiter interjects with Amidon’s burger, which is too rare and gets sent back to the kitchen.)

Amidon: I can explain … my burger was so good, but it was extremely rare, which is cool, but I just don’t know. I’m just not that adventurous an hour before going on stage.

Showbams: So, before your full-length debut, you released an album of solo Irish traditional instrumentals on fiddle called Solo Fiddle. Were these songs that you picked up as you grew up or was this actually a more general direction you were trying to head in professionally?

Amidon: Solo Fiddle was a farewell album. It was the end of my life as somebody who was exclusively a fiddle player. I knew that I was going to start playing different kinds of music.

I was 18 years old. I had been a fiddle player since I was three, and I had been gigging professionally as a fiddle player since the age of 14. I had put out a bunch of albums with a band I had been in since high school and had played with a bunch of bands around New England. The fiddle style of New England is a mix of Irish, French Canadian and old-time tunes. I was like a New England fiddler because I was from Vermont. I’m not Irish at all, but I really gravitated toward the Irish tunes in the mix. As a teenage, I was obsessed with traditional Irish fiddle playing, and I thought about it and did it 24 hours a day. As a listener, I was listening to all different kinds of stuff, but as a player, I just played fiddle tunes.

So, when I was 18 and went to New York, I knew I was going to start playing all different types of music and trying out different stuff. I knew that there was this huge gap between my playing and my listening that I wanted to close. But at the same time, I was aware that would really affect my musicianship, so I wanted to kind of preserve my fiddling as it was at that point when I was just this kind of pure musician who just had done this one thing for all his life. That was Solo Fiddle.

Sam Amidon

Showbams: What spurred you to make the transition into more of a classic Americana and folk background then?

Amidon: Well, it was a mistake. I made a mistake, and what’s happened in the past 12 years has been the results of the mistake. My goal was to completely stop playing folk music because I had it around me and played it all growing up. I really wanted to experiment with all different types of music and just play something totally different.

So, I came to New York and studied free improvisation with a guy named Leroy Jenkins, and I started learning guitar and played in an indie-rock band called Doveman. I also played in a crazy experimental psych/indie-rock band called Stars Like Fleas. That was my whole thing. I was like, “I’m in New York, and I’m going to play in whatever kinds of settings and not do folk music anymore.”

Then, as a way to learn how to play guitar, I started learning folk songs because it was natural and I started writing guitar parts. Then, I started realizing that it was kind of fun to sing bits of the folk songs over these weird guitar parts I was writing. I realized I loved singing, and it was a really fun thing that I hadn’t done since I was a little kid, at least as a solo singer. I had sung in choruses and stuff. Then, I started playing those recordings I was making very quietly at my house for my friend Thomas, my friend Nico Muhly who was a composer and all these different musicians — all these people who played the kind of music I wanted to play. I started playing them my recordings of my weird versions of folk songs, and they loved them and started asking if they could play on them and adding stuff to the recordings. So, that just became this platform for what I did.

I don’t think of the albums I made as folk records. I know they sound like they are folk songs, but to me, I grew up with folk music being something where I would play fiddle tunes in a corner. It didn’t mean playing guitar and sitting on a stage with some weird electronic music going on. I think of this as a platform to make music with really interesting and strange musicians that I love and a chance to just sing and write music on the guitar but within the trappings of folk music.

Showbams: You also worked with other types of performance art with your live-media-installation-turned-series-of-lectures Home Alone Inside My Head back in 2003. Can you elaborate on that project?

Amidon: Well, in the folk music world, there’s this tradition of field recordings. Alan Lomax and other people went around and recorded people in their houses. When you listen to those recordings, there are a few qualities to them. One is the material, which is great. But another is that it is very strange to encounter that your main phenomenon is to listen to recorded artists who went into a studio together. You know these field recordings are somebody, him going into somebody’s house in the mountains in the 50’s when they didn’t just record themselves on tape recorders all the time. You know, it was not a thing.

The field recordings are like this crazy, weird document of somebody alone in their house who’s very, on the one hand, subconscious because they have a recording machine and on the other hand, are very unconscious because they have no tradition of recording. Home Alone Inside My Head, which I started doing as a recording in 2003 and then have done since then at different times as a performance (including comics, videos, stories and music) is like self-inflicted field recordings. It’s like me trying to explore that field-recording side of things but doing it to myself and removing the folk-song part. It’s like, “What is left?”

Sam Amidon

Showbams: You recorded your first full-length album But the Chicken Proved False Hearted with your friend and fellow Doveman bandmate Thomas Bartlett before taking off to Iceland, where you recorded All Is Well in 2008 with Valgeir Sigurðsson. Was the recording location simply one out of convenience in order to work with Sigurðsson or was Greenhouse Studios an actual recording destination for you personally?

Amidon: It was a community that Nico brought me to because he was working with Valgeir on a bunch of projects. When I got there, it was just this magical place with all of these wonderful people. You were feeling like you were kind of on the moon. I really loved the idea of working with Valgeir, who is an amazing engineer and producer, and it just happened very organically. Nico had brought me there for something else, and while I was there, Valgeir and I thought, “Oh, let’s do some recording.”

Showbams: You also recorded the album I See the Sign with production from Sigurðsson as well, then joined the record label collective out there. What made you want to sign with them as opposed to shopping around and recording your albums stateside?

Amidon: Well, the whole thing was one thing: the studio, the label, the friends, the community — it was a little world. That was what their whole idea was. You sleep in the studio upstairs, you eat together, you record whenever and you’re in this beautiful place, which Valgeir also hires out as a producer. But you can be there as long as you want, and it was just that exchange of playing on each others’ records for free and not charge, but to enjoy it.

Sam Amidon

Showbams: Eventually in 2013 and 2014, you released your third and fourth albums on Nonesuch Records, which brought you the chance to work with jazz legend Bill Frisell. How was that experience for you?

Amidon: It was beautiful! I made friends with Bill over the years. He was my hero since I was a teenager, and I would go see him play when I was a kid and as I got older. I gave him some of my records, and he just wrote to me one day about possibly playing. We had played together in different contexts over the past few years — sometimes in his ensemble, sometimes in mine or we would just duo. But I really loved the idea of bringing him to Iceland and having him play with my friends on the record. It was a beautiful experience, and it was so fun.

Showbams: Beyond surrounding yourself and collaborating throughout the years with some amazing talent amongst your fellow musicians and friends, you have managed to marry and have a beautiful son with “folktronica” powerhouse Beth Orton. How did you manage to pull that off?

Amidon: Everything in the world and in life happens randomly and without knowing what’s going to come next. I was touring in Europe about six years ago now, and I met Beth and now there’s a little Arthur. He’s on tour with me right now.

Sam Amidon

Showbams: You two also tour together. Is there any future collaborations you guys would want to work on? (The waiter interjects with “Here is your burger. I’m very sorry about that. These are compliments of the chef.”)

Amidon: No worries, that’s totally fine. Thank you! That’s a whole new burger! That’s amazing.

Showbams: (Pointing at the complimentary plate.) And a cucumber salad!

Amidon: And four pieces of very thinly sliced cucumber, as a complimentary dish … um.

We definitely will. I mean, we’ve done collaborations with each other. She’s sang on my record, and I’ve played on hers. We tour off and on, and I actually accompanied her a couple nights ago at a show, which was super fun. I’m sure one of these days we’ll get it together enough to just like jam.

Showbams: Having grown up in a family of musicians and now raising Arthur in one, do you guys encourage him to get into music and that kind of lifestyle?

Amidon: They’re inundated with it whether they like it or not and he has some instrument lessons, but I don’t force him to practice or anything. I’m just letting him see how into it he is. I’m sure he will be, but it’s up to him, which is the same thing that my parents did with me really. They kind of immersed us in it but never said, “You have to play.” But he’s a very deep music listener. He just turned four, and he can tell the difference between Bud Powell’s and Thelonius Monk’s piano styles, so I am very proud of that as a father.

Hear the full interview with Amidon here.

Sam Amidon