“say grace”: A Conversation With Sam Baker
Sam Baker released a trilogy of simple, personal, sometimes painful but always powerful discs (mercy, pretty world and cotton) between 2004 and 2009. With his Kickstarter funded album say grace (2013) Sam erases any doubt (if there ever was any) that he ranks with the best of the best singer-songwriters/storytellers working in Americana. In any genre. I am in awe of the strength, the hope, the power, the grace and the artistry of Sam’s fourth album. say grace was previously given a well-deserved glowing review on NoDepression so let’s cut to the chase. I am honored that Sam took the time to answer some questions and offer some insight into his influences and the creative process. My interview with Sam follows the very moving video where Sam vividly describes the bomb blast on a train in Peru that nearly killed him and segues into a plea for peace and finally a version of “Angels”. Get yourself a handkerchief. Following the interview you can stream “Ditch” and there’s a video of Sam performing “Broken Fingers”. Do yourself a favor and don’t wait until you are reminded when you see say grace on some end of the year “best of list”.
HB-I’ve included a link to your video “Angels-For Bombing Victims. Everywhere.” so I won’t ask you to revisit the details of the bombing in Peru. Were you playing music before the trip? How did the experience of recovery shape you as an artist and as a person?
Sam Baker-Yes. I played. Right handed and mostly covers. A few originals but they were terrible. I don’t know on the recovery. Suffering is a great teacher. I don’t know that I can point to any specific thing. Empathy? A sharing of being alive and in pain? An ability to more accurately describe suffering? Joy? Ecstasy?
HB-The first time I listened to “say grace” I felt like I was watching a play and coincidentally a huge thunderstorm rolled through as you sang “rain is coming, that’s how it feels”. Pretty cool special effect Sam! “say grace” with its cast of characters reminds me of some mythic small town, maybe an updated Texas version of Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology”?
Sam Baker-Thank you. That is an interesting observation.
HB-“say grace” isn’t a departure but it has a different feel from your fantastic trilogy: “mercy” “pretty world” or “cotton”. There’s quite a bit of piano, cello, horns giving it a fuller cinematic feel.
Sam Baker-I agree.
HB-Some of the characters from “say grace” feel familiar. Do characters ever reappear, perhaps older or younger from song to song, album to album?
Sam Baker-Yes of course. I generally write about the things I am close to and that changes slowly. So the characters or their sisters or brothers or mothers or fathers or friends- someone is always there that I know or have known or should have known.
HB-You write with sympathy and honesty about the disenfranchised and damaged. Many of them are the working poor that seem to struggle no matter who is in the White House. It’s easy to see how they might be apathetic about politics but it is often their sons that are sent off to war or lose their jobs.
Sam Baker-hum… I just try to write what I see happening life. I am not astute enough to get into peoples heads about what they believe. I’ll leave that to others.
HB-I love the simplicity, repetition and power of “Signs” from your album “cotton”. Could you talk about that song specifically and the creative process in general?
Sam Baker-I saw a woman on the street corner with a sign that said help me. I am pregnant I have lost my husband. The sign was upside down. That is where the song came from. I don’t understand the creative process but I know it works better the harder I work.
HB-Sam Baker, singer/songwriter, but also a painter. Which came first?
Sam Baker-Small town boy from a big loving family on the prairie came first. Everything else came after. Songwriting before painting.
HB-You’re surrounded by great songwriters in Texas. Could you talk about some influences: songwriters but also poets, novelists or painters?
Sam Baker-Lots and lots. And lots more. Kesey at one point Faulkner, Hemingway. The great poets, Yeats, Dickinson, Borges, Paz. Newman, Dylan, the Texans Hopkins, Clark, VanZandt; Bach, Gershwin, Picasso, Matisse, Chagal. Really there are too many and I am leaving so many powerful influences out.
And this list just a fraction of the influences. Bonhoeffer, Mandela, Gandhi and a bunch bunch bunch of others.
There are so many others. Many unknown. People of courage and strength who have done miraculous small and great things without recognition without acknowledgment. The world is filled with every day heroes.
It is their strength and their inspiration that gives me guidance.
HB-I hope this comes across as a compliment when I say you don’t write “silly love songs”. There is a lot of love but also loss and sadness and struggle. Life. But the verse from “Ditch” makes me laugh each time I hear it:
“my wife god bless her and for what it is worth
thinks she and taylor swift
were twins at birth
separated at birth
earth to wife
wife to earth”
Sam Baker-I love love songs. Silly or not. Thank you and good wishes to you.