Sam Lee interview: 'We are living in the age of extinction, culturally as well as ecologically'

Matt Writtle
Matt Writtle

The night before we meet to chat about his new album Old Wow, Sam Lee was up on Parliament Hill communing with the moon, asking it to bless and protect our increasingly fragile environment and the natural world.

If he sang, which it’s likely he did, it was a tune from his arsenal of centuries-old folk songs, which he often reworks with contemporary lyrics and moody instrumental arrangements. Current single The Moon Shines Bright, with its otherworldly guest vocals by Elizabeth Fraser of cult Eighties group Cocteau Twins, is a plea to take note of our surroundings, to live our brief lives mindfully.

“All the songs I sing are about relationships to the land,” says the Mercury-nominated folk singer, 39, sitting in a café near his home (with its patch of wild garden) in deepest Dalston. “They’re expressions of a time when we as people were as in tune with the natural world as any owl, fox or badger.”

Whenever he can, Lee likes to sing outdoors: in forests and around campfires, with members of the Romany Gypsy and Irish and Scottish Traveller communities that he visits regularly, and at rallies for environmental campaigns Extinction Rebellion and Music Declares Emergency, for which he lobbies alongside Radiohead and Billie Eilish for a carbon zero music industry.

Then there are the UK-wide events hosted by his folk club the Nest Collective, including the celebrated project Singing With Nightingales — starlit woodland walks that feature Lee and his musician friends duetting with the melodic and endangered songbirds.

“We have the biggest ever nature crisis happening in Great Britain right now,” says Lee, a Chelsea School of Art graduate whose CV ranges from teaching the wilderness survival skills he learned from TV bushman Ray Mears to dancing in a burlesque club in Soho dressed in red sequined hot pants. “Mass agriculture is draining the soil of nutrition,” he continues in his likeable, animated way. “The majority of our parks are too manicured. We are losing our wild habitats, our meadows and hedgerows and connections to nature. If you haven’t grown up climbing trees and getting dirty then you won’t be bothered when, say, the local forest is turned into a car park.” He pauses. “We need to fall back in love with the natural world.”

All of which lends a sense of urgency to Old Wow, with its airy tracks buoyed by piano, bass and percussion, and producer (and former Suede guitarist and lyricist) Bernard Butler contributing deft, barely-there guitar. Lee’s baritone voice floats rhythmically, at angles, the way an unaccompanied singer’s voice might, through stories of new life and wildlife, sea and sky, and the effect of the ecological crisis on our psyches and the psyches of generations to follow.

The tunes came to Lee, not the other way around. “The belief of many Indigenous and Traveller communities is that songs exist outside us, and you call them. I tuned into the ones that had a deep, almost spiritual connection to nature. An ancient life force, an ‘old wow’, that you can feel if you’re open to it.”

Some tracks Lee recalled from the Forest School Camps (think an organic, plain-clothes version of the Scouts) he’d attended as a boy growing up in northwest London, one of three children born to a graphic designer and an educationalist who encouraged grubby outdoor play.

Others he memorised in his early twenties after falling for an album by The Watersons, the first family of British folk, and going on to discover the finger-in-the-ear likes of The Copper Family and Scottish Traveller songstress Jeannie Robertson.

A stint doing research at Cecil Sharp House, the London headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, sent him to the source.

“I became obsessed with these songs that had been passed down over hundreds of years and had such strong connections to the natural world,” he says. “I was worried about their future. When I was dancing in Soho I’d look out and think, ‘How can I get people to love this song by an old shepherd as much as I do?’”

Lee embarked on a quest, knocking on doors in Aberdeen, visiting camps in Oxfordshire, seeking permission to take the old songs to a new generation of music lovers. The younger people told him they’d never thought to ask their grandparents about the tunes Lee learned as he sat on the steps of wagons, or in front rooms crammed with ornaments and chintz.

His late mentor Stanley Robertson, nephew of Jeannie, taught him ballads over a four-year period, and made him custodian of the songs.

When his 2012 debut album Ground of its Own was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, Lee became the face of the British folk revival. He sang to camera in an episode of Peaky Blinders; co-produced a “stars of folk” feature for UK Vogue; was in demand at festivals as well as on radio and TV. In 2015 he released his follow-up record The Fade in Time then literally went to ground, working on projects including soil conservation and re-wilding the habitats of turtledoves.

With the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds he co-produced Let Nature Sing, three minutes of birdsong that chirruped into the UK Top 20 charts last year.

“That tricky second album thing was totally true for me. But this recording fell into place,” he says of the magnificent Old Wow, “even if lots of stuff happened along the way. [My music team] were affected by eight deaths and two births, and I found out the mother of my child fell pregnant.” Lee co-parents his first child with a friend.

“There was a sense of the cycle of life that felt relevant to nature and to what we were doing.”

The album’s theme of death and renewal is palpable in tracks such as the stirring American spiritual Lay this Body Down — the accompanying video sees Lee, writhing, root-like, amidst Rambert dancers — and The Garden of England, a reworking of the classic English folk tune Seeds of Love. “The Old Wow never wears thin,” run the new lyrics. “Out of decay new life springs…”

Lee squares his shoulders. “I feel like we are living in the age of extinction, culturally as well as ecologically,” he says. “My hope is that by looking to the past we can strengthen our resolve to protect the future. What I’m doing is making the richest compost I possibly can.”

Old Wow (Cooking Vinyl) is released January 31. Sam Lee plays EartH, N16 (earthackney.co.uk) on February 17

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