Words by Julian May
Sam Lee has wandered throughout the UK and Ireland learning songs, and how to sing them, from travellers and Gypsies, particularly Stanley Robertson in the north of Scotland and Freda Black in the south of England. Along with the traveller’s lilting singing style, he has absorbed something more fundamental – a deep freedom. Lee lovingly creates soundscapes in which the dramas he sings unfold and live, using whatever means are appropriate. His band comprises violin, cello, percussion, trumpet and Japanese koto (zither). So the blaring brass, borrowed from Tajik wedding bands, in ‘Johnnie O’ the Brine’, a tale of hunting and poaching learned from Robertson, sounds not at all out of place. The archive recording of an East European cantor that introduces the Napoleonic song ‘Bonny Bunch of Roses’ becomes entirely appropriate.
In Arthur Jeffes, of Penguin Cafe, and Jamie Orchard-Lisle, Lee has found producers to match his imagination and ambition. Instrumentation ranges from driving piano, waves of brass and punchy percussion to the gentle harmonies of the Roundhouse Choir, wrapped like a blanket around Lee’s voice on ‘Lovely Molly’. At the heart of all this is that voice and sensibility, carrying these frail, powerful stories and melodies – that did almost fade in time – into our era in an entirely modern form.