The universe is making music all the time

Chosen One: Sam Amidon

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Interview with Sam Amidon.

“Any of the music that I really love myself comes from that; coming from the clashes and confusions that happen when people come together.”

— Sam Amidon

Words: Mark Carry, Artwork: Craig Carry


Born in 1981 and raised in Vermont by folk-musician parents, Sam Amidon sings and plays fiddle, banjo, and guitar. As a teenager, Amidon rose to acclaim as a fiddler, releasing five albums with his band Popcorn Behavior. A musician who glides through unlikely set of genres from traditional folk to free jazz, Amidon has released four solo albums, and also plays in the New York-based indie-rock bands Doveman and Stars Like Fleas. After a seven-year stint in New York City, Amidon has been fully itinerant since 2008 as he tours and collaborates with a roster of renowned musicians, including: Shahzad Ismaily, Nico Muhly, Thomas Bartlett, Ben Frost, and Valgeir Sigurðsson.

‘Lily-O’, a new album of reimagined folk songs by the gifted Vermont-multi-instrumentalist was released last year by Nonesuch Records. The album was produced by Valgeir Sigurðsson (Björk, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Feist) and features the innovative jazz guitarist and composer Bill Frisell, along with Amidon’s other frequent collaborators, bassist Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Chris Vatalaro.

‘Lily-O’ is out now on Nonesuch.

Interview with Sam Amidon.

You’re always so involved with collaborating with other people with the likes of the wonderful Bedroom Community artists and more recently, Bill Frisell on the new record, which is absolutely amazing. I’d love for you to discuss this whole idea of collaboration?

Sam Amidon: Well the thing is I grew up playing tunes. I grew up in New England playing the fiddle and I got really into Irish tunes and then I got into free jazz and more like free improvisation and all that kind of stuff. And in those worlds you don’t even use the word collaboration because everything is collaboration in that world. I mean traditional fiddle tunes consist of going into a pub and there’s someone playing in the corner and you play with them and you’re playing Irish tunes or French Canadian tunes or fiddle tunes and the idea of your solo music isn’t even a thing [laughs], you know what I mean. And same with free jazz and that spirit of just meeting people and getting to play. Any of the music that I really love myself comes from that; coming from the clashes and confusions that happen when people come together. Of course, I love The Beatles, I love Dylan and all that stuff but I’m not really into that idea of the lone singer-songwriter creating their music. I mean obviously art also comes from a deep internal space of course as well but the important thing is just playing with people, it’s a social form you know, it’s not like painting, it’s a social form.

I’d be curious too Sam, obviously you play so many instruments and it’s always amazing to witness the different instrumentation on your records themselves, I wonder which instruments came first?

SA: I really only played the fiddle until I was about twenty, I started the banjo when I was a teenager casually but not really until I was like nineteen or twenty. So really actually the multi-instrumentalist thing is much more the last fifteen years. From when I was three, I started the fiddle and that was the only thing that I played. So really my thing as a teenager was much more about just the whole idea of the mastery of an instrument and spending your whole life completely focused on that instrument. And my heroes were like Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, you know people who are not multi-instrumentalists; I was never really attracted to that idea, it was more about the idea of the mastery of the player who speaks through their instrument.

But I guess I changed from that in the last ten years because I just got curious about the guitar. I found that I went so deep on the fiddle in a specific direction – like the fiddle for me was fiddle tunes; Irish tunes and Kentucky tunes – and so when I started as a teenager there would have been a big difference in my listening and in my playing. As a listener, I listened to everything: indie rock, free jazz, new music, everything whereas as a player I really only played the tunes. So when I came to New York in my early twenties, I really wanted to break away from that and just get to play with different kinds of musicians and improvise. The problem with the fiddle was that I had such deep, specific attachments to it and so the banjo and the guitar I didn’t play as well and I still don’t play as well and I’m still really only learning to play the guitar, I’m not an expert guitarist, I’m a learner. But in a way it sometimes is easier to compose on an instrument you play badly because you can’t just flick your fingers all over it, you have limitations that cause you to write stuff. And still I wrote all my best stuff on the guitar when I was first figuring out what the deal was, what it was, you know what I mean. I’ve never written music on a violin because when I pick it up I can play any melody that I hear and I find that actually keeps you from being able to compose anything. But the banjo and the guitar, there is really strong limitations in terms of the instrument and my own abilities which cause me to write and compose.

As you say too Sam, a very special album – it was the album that introduced me to your music – was ‘All Is Well’ like all your albums, there are really gorgeous arrangements and your voice and everything about it is just so rich.

SA: Thank you. Well that album was very special for me too because it’s an album totally of discovery. I came to Iceland and I put the songs down solo first in a couple of hours late at night with Valgeir [Sigurðsson] and we barely knew each other at that time. As I said, I hadn’t really been singing for that long as a solo singer and I wasn’t that confident on the guitar. I mean the whole thing was just so new, you know and I feel like Valgeir’s strengths as a producer was to allow that to exist in the record. He didn’t cover that up, you can hear the tentativeness in the playing and you can hear the shyness in the vocals, he preserved those qualities and that maybe part of the reason why people connect especially deeply with that record I think of all my albums. ‘All Is Well’ is probably the one people connect most deeply with and I suppose part of that is because they can reach and connect to that vulnerability that was very real in that moment.

That’s the wonderful thing when you look across someone’s work is how each record tells its own unique story and something different from each one.

SA: Yeah I’ve tried to approach each one in a new way and because I was aware of the journey of those albums, you do have to create a space where you’re uncertain what’s going to happen. I’m very fearful of competence, you don’t want to come in and do it well, I mean nobody responds to that. There is a reason that it’s very compelling, you have to set up some situation where there’s going to be something you’re a little bit scared about or some element of real discovery which gets captured on tape.

On the new album ‘Lily-O’ it’s quite wonderful that it was all recorded live and very little overdubs?

SA: Yeah that was the fun thing about this one. All of the previous albums had been very much built up in a certain way like I put things down solo, people over-dub and that’s been a fun way to sculpt the albums because you can have someone really just focus on their own discovery in that moment and see what happens whether it’s Nico [Muhly]’s arrangements or Shahzad Ismaily playing electric guitar. But on this album that was the new thing for this album, it was us literally just playing together and the song structures were intact but basically everybody else was hearing them for the first time. I would teach the song to the musicians, I didn’t send anybody the music before walking into the studio and they hadn’t heard any of the songs. What the process was I would teach the songs to Bill [Frisell] and Shahzad [Ismaily], they would make some notes and would learn the structure and then we would just all start playing and once we had a moment Valgeir would press record and we’d put down two takes and then we would move on. The album that you hear is very, very close to that moment. Sometimes I re-did a vocal or just a couple of very subtle shifts after but basically what you are hearing is what those musicians discovered in that process.

I must say I love – and even the way it’s placed as well – the album’s title-track, it’s a really lovely space on the album too.

SA: Yes, to have that long story that you can kind of live in that world for a while.




I didn’t realize but you actually met Bill Frisell a long time ago?

SA: One thing about growing up in Vermont and playing traditional music as a kid was that many of my heroes were people that I got to play with, my heroes were people that were in my neighbourhood and they were my favourite musicians. One of my heroes was Tommy Peoples, the Irish fiddler who I then, when I was fifteen I came to Ireland and I went and I found him and played a session with him, I sat in a pub and played tunes with him. So, I had this idea of whoever your heroes are, just find them and for Bill it took longer [laughs] because it was a more distant thing but it was almost similar where I would just go up and say hi after a gig and I just listened to his music all of the time and he was very inspiring to me frequently.

Eventually I got to play with some musicians who were in his world, who play with him like Eyvind Kang and Shahzad Ismaily and Eyvind introduced us properly and I gave him one of my CDs and he wrote me what was almost like a fan email like ‘Hey I’m listening to your music, maybe we can jam sometime’ and that was like a hugely exciting moment just to see that email was amazing for me. But I didn’t record with him then –well I’m sure I could have hired him sooner – but we work together on different projects; I played on some things of his and we did some duo concerts that were much more like a little duo kind of thing. I waited to record with him until I wasn’t scared of him, you know, I didn’t want to come in feeling intimidated. I’m still in awe of him, he’s still one of my heroes but we’re friends enough so that when we go out to the studio I really felt like equals with him and Shahzad and Chris [Vatalaro] who did incredible work on the drums on that album. The thing about Bill which is cool is that he is this legend but at the same time he’s still very innocent in his love for music and so he was just as much getting turned on by what Chris and Shahzad was doing as we were by being in the room with him.

And to witness the chemistry between you and Bill, it’s like you’re in close dialogue with your instruments.

SA: He has so much experience with singers you know, playing around singers and working with that, it’s beautiful.

I wonder looking ahead, would you have ideas for other records and projects?

SA: Yeah, I’m definitely starting to work on something else but I’m not sure how it’s going to grow yet so I can’t say much about it because I don’t really know much about it. But I have a list of other musicians who I’m curious to get into a room with and see what happens and we’ll see where it goes.

I’m sure when you released that first album, ‘Solo Fiddle’, that must have been a very important album too because that was obviously all the music I presume you grew up with from a very young age?

SA: It was kind of a farewell album in a way because I made that album when I was eighteen or so and it was just solo traditional fiddle tunes and it really reflected on my teenage years of living in that world of those kind of tunes and those melodies and those styles. The thing is I knew at that point that I was going to start learning different kinds of music and learning to play different kinds of songs like on the guitar and violin and I had an awareness that that would affect my playing: my fiddle playing had a purity at that time because I really only did that until that point. So I wanted to capture my fiddle playing in that pure state where it didn’t have any influence on jazz or whatever. My listening was very broad but my playing at that time was so limited, I knew that I was going to start studying different things  and learning different techniques, I wanted to capture where it was in that state of purity.

A lot of them are Irish tunes which is lovely too in the sense that there is that connection to Ireland too.

SA: Yeah certainly, I mean it’s funny because you know I’m not Irish at all, ethnically or whatever but the New England fiddle style, the style of fiddle playing that is in Vermont which was the style that I was born into and then when I was around ten I realized that the New England fiddle style was just a mix of Irish, French Canadian and old-time tunes and I was just so drawn to the traditional Irish style because it’s so ornate and beautiful and developed and the repertoire is amazing. There are so many great players: Tommy Peoples springs to mind, Kathleen Collins, so many wonderful musicians and it’s just a whole world. And so I just got lost inside that world as a teenager for sure and I still am and so hopefully I’ll grab some tunes when I come visiting.

Are there certain albums that you’ve been hugely enjoying lately?

SA: There is a trumpet player Kenny Wheeler who played on ‘Bright Sunny South’ – he plays trumpet on the album ‘Bright Sunny South’- and he died last winter and he’d been on my album, he was very old when he played on it. He has a bunch of amazing records, he’s definitely a jazz trumpet player but he’s just an amazing composer and powerful musician. I listen to a lot of old jazz like a lot of Don Cherry and Sonny Rollins. I love all that improvised music you know, all that stuff.


Another thing I love is your collaboration with Thomas Bartlett, your longtime friend.

SA: Yeah it’ll be really fun when I come to Ireland this time, I’ll be doing two projects with Thomas. Thomas is curating an evening celebrating Yeats’s 150th birthday in the National Concert Hall and so we’re putting some of his poems to music, which I’m sure a lot of people have done but I’d like to do our own little crack of doing it and there will be some other musicians, Anna Calvi, Robert Forester from The Go Betweens. And then a week later we’ll be back in the National Concert Hall, I’m hosting a celebration of Pete Seeger. A lot of great Irish musicians will be there, Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, Paul Noonan, Beth Orton from the UK, and the new band Lynched who are great and so that’s going to be really fun to have some adventures with Thomas, my old buddy.

One last thing, you’re obviously from a very musical family and stuff but would you have certain moments – when looking back – that were very important for you in order for you to pursue your own musical path?

SA: Well my parents were very influential, not just folk music but just because even though they were very specific in their thing – they only played folk music – both of them were very adventurous listeners. So when my brother and I started bringing back stuff like you know, Nirvana and Beck, I mean I remember Beck especially and you know bringing stuff back to the house, I started bringing back free jazz, Marc Ribot. They were really interested in the music, just like in an analytical way; they would have interesting comments about the music. So my Dad and I would listen to music on long car rides –we’d often have long car rides to gigs and stuff – I put on the band Morphine or Beck or whatever and we would talk about it and analyse it and debate things. He really loved ‘Bitches Brew’, the Miles Davis album, he gave me that album when I was fourteen and I didn’t really like it at first – you know I listened to it a lot and of course I love it now – it was an almost scary album but that whole thing of just being a very curious listener but still critical but curious.




‘Lily-O’ is out now on Nonesuch.

Written by markcarry

September 10, 2015 at 6:24 pm

One Response

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  1. An informative interview with a perceptive and exceptional musician. Anyone interested in Sam Amidon’s various connections with Bill Frisell might like to check out ‘Good Dog, Happy Man’ and ‘Gone, Just Like A Train’, two Frisell albums from the late ’90s that Sam has said “changed his life”.


    September 12, 2015 at 12:26 pm

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