Sam Amidon is an eccentric performer, prone to baffling remarks and fits of screaming. Sometimes, in the middle of a set, he will drop his instruments and do push-ups onstage. He is apt to ruin a perfectly nice folk song by taking a bad jazz solo on his acoustic guitar. And by “bad” I don’t mean “free” or “experimental.” Just ... bad.
Amidon’s antics have an intentionally discomfiting effect on his audience, but he can be warm and funny and not merely weird. (You can see this for yourself on June 19 when Amidon plays at TT the Bear’s Place in Cambridge.) His style, he says, is “pretty random and really did come out of playing 30 shows in a row totally solo in Germany or whatever. ... You’re gonna go a little nuts doing that under any circumstances.”
Of course, Amidon is known best not for his strange stage presence but for his dark and atmospheric interpretations of folk music. His parents, Peter and Mary Alice Amidon, were (and still are) folk singers by trade, so the soundtrack to his childhood was a patchwork of shape-note hymns and Appalachian ballads and old field recordings. As a teenager in Brattleboro, Vermont, he became a very accomplished Irish fiddler. His earliest collaborations were with his best friend Thomas Bartlett (also known as Doveman), a piano prodigy who eventually moved away from folk towards jazz, experimental, rock, and pop, at times taking Amidon with him.
Amidon’s songwriting process is a bit backwards; often, he writes a guitar part first and then lifts words and melody from another source, usually a traditional song in the public domain. His last two albums, “All Is Well” and “I See the Sign,” were the result of a similarly unusual process: he recorded the basic tracks alone or with a percussionist, accompanying himself on guitar or banjo, and then handed them off to modern classical composer Nico Muhly, who fashioned huge, intricate sonic structures in which to house them.
For his latest effort, “Bright Sunny South,” he returned to a more conventional recording process, tapping Bartlett and multi-instrumentalists Shahzad Ismaily and Chris Vatalaro to join him. Amidon characterizes himself as a “passive bandleader,” and he basically let the musicians loose in the studio, with surprising results.
“They all usually play with me in a duo setting where they can control everything other than me,” explains Amidon. “And so it was quite odd for the three of them to have to deal with each other. And it was kind of awkward in the studio.”
In fact, “Bright Sunny South” benefits from the same sort of uneasiness that Amidon cultivates in his performances. An avid jazz listener, he points to Miles Davis as a source of inspiration: “His whole thing was putting musicians together in contexts where they were quite thrown-off and uncomfortable,” Amidon explains, “because he was aware that that’s how people listen the best.”
Like Amidon’s previous two albums, “Bright Sunny South” is composed of mostly folk songs with a couple of pop covers thrown in. The jazz influence is more overt, thanks to trumpet solos contributed by Kenny Wheeler, a legendary veteran of the London jazz scene.
Most noticeably, the album is sparer than its predecessors. Amidon explains that he wanted it to have “more of a dynamic range” and a “winding road quality.” On “Bright Sunny South,” a song that begins in soft, contemplative tones is bound to end in a long, cacophonous breakdown. Amidon is equally capable of singing with boyish wistfulness and in a harsh, anguished cry. A cover of Tim McGraw’s “My Old Friend” hews close to the original, while a version of Mariah Carey’s “Shake It Off” is hardly recognizable, stripped of its R&B attitude to become instead a slow lament with the barest piano accompaniment.
The presence of mainstream covers among the otherwise esoteric material is far from incongruent in Amidon’s mind. Folk music, he says, is “strange and alien and ancient but also comforting and familiar. And that’s something that’s sort of true about any of the songs that I would work with, even if it’s an R&B song. The R&B songs have the same quality for me. They’re kind of alien for me ... but there’s something in there that feels good and close.”
“Bright Sunny South” came about during a time of personal upheaval for the 32-year-old singer. It was recorded in London just after he had moved there to join his wife, the singer-songwriter Beth Orton, and around the same time that they had their first child. Away from his community and friends in the States, Amidon found making music to be a particularly solitary experience, and intensely personal.
Yet this curious, interior quality is something he has long perceived in folk music, especially the field recordings collected during the 1950s and ‘60s in remote parts of the country. Folk music, he points out, long touted by aficionados as a social form, was just as often the pastime of a lone musician, playing and singing to herself on a porch way up in the mountains.
“There’s a lot of really weird stuff in those field recordings,” says Amidon. “They’ll stop halfway through a verse and start blabbing on about something ... It’s a whole catalog of strangeness, you know?”
The pop music on “Bright Sunny South” is just as personal for Amidon, who remembers a tour five years ago during which he and Bartlett listened to Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying” and Mariah Carey’s “The Emancipation of Mimi” on repeat “to the exclusion of anything else.”
Amidon even recognizes something of his own process in the glossy twang of McGraw’s 2004 platinum-selling record.
“It’s almost a very similar thing because, you know, that’s the classic country music system—they still have a team of songwriters who write for an artist. And yet, this album, ‘Live like You Were Dying,’ is such a personal record of Tim McGraw’s. And it’s so much about folk-music-kind-of-themes, like death and the loss of culture,” he muses. “It’s a very, very personal and emotional record—and yet, you know, he didn’t write a word of it.”
Amelia Mason is a writer and musician living in Cambridge. Those pesky “day jobs” she has to “make money” really aren’t worth mentioning. Naturally, she also has a blog: blog.ameliamason.com.
This article was originally published on June 13, 2013.
This program aired on June 13, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.