In a curious way, singer-songwriter Sam Lee has managed to expand the parameters of traditional folk music, even as he’s embraced its essence. He studied at the Chelsea School of Art in Great Britain, took various day jobs as a wildlife expert while moonlighting as a burlesque dancer, and then quickly immersed himself in the music of the British Isles. This last part came after meeting the traditional Scottish singer Stanley Robertson, who offered him an apprenticeship that lasted four years. In ploughing his way forward, Lee’s actually gone back to the past, becoming a student of the seminal music that not only took root in England early on, but then traveled across the ocean and gave birth to the form we now know as Americana.
In the liner notes of Lee’s new album, aptly titled The Fade in Time, Lee notes that the disc is dedicated to “Those custodians of the old songs and the keepers of the lore.” But in many ways Lee himself can be counted among that number. As proprietor of the folk club The Nest Collector, he’s been responsible for helping to nurture traditional music by sharing its legacy with other folk enthusiasts. Yet he’s not above using modern resources like his iPhone and laptop to expand the reach into that much-revered past. He’s expanded the form’s musical boundaries by incorporating a wealth of varied instrumentation, from brass and strings to koto, choir, and all manner of Eastern percussion, for full symphonic effect.
“I’m a huge fan of world music and songs from far flung lands,” Lee told me in a recent interview, when I asked about his varied template. “I love Scandinavian music and the whole fiddling tradition,” he added, “but I’m equally as keen on contemporary electronic experimental music.”
That shows in his sound, which eschews a scholarly approach for the meticulous but mesmerizing vibe reflected in the new album. It’s not Lee’s first attempt either. His previous release, 2012’s Ground of Its Own, garnered him the UK’s 2011 Arts Foundation Prize and a nomination for the 2012 Mercury Music Award.
“I have never been a goal-orientated person,” Lee concedes. “The Fade in Time was more of an exploration, gathered and arranged through intuition and a more emotional construct than simply thinking, ‘I want to make this sort of an album.’
“I think it ultimately conveys the musical sensation and emotive questioning I wanted to invoke,” he adds. “I’m pleased and possibly a bit pleasantly surprised.”
The fact that Lee has found a new formula for traditional music that remains true to his muse is what elevates him to a new level within the folk vanguard. It’s a distinction he’s mindful of as well as a challenge he’s ready to take on.
“The album is about stories and American folk is all about the story,” he explains. “So if you like rich narrative telling archetypal tales of love and loss and the human condition, this album is bursting with those Old World stories. But I think the quintessential difference is that we’ve managed to create a sonic space that doesn’t rely on the one instrument ubiquitous in American folk [music], which is the guitar. So I guess it’s a challenge to the established audiences to see how a musical palette can be created and potentially succeed without that defining sound, while still holding its own. It’s a direction I hope will be taken well and appreciated, and maybe even influence the making of a few Americana records with Japanese koto and frame drums.”