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Sam Lee on soothing eco anxiety with bird song: “A screeching buzzard gave me the most incredible answers, helped me reconnect with the natural world”

If so far the musical trend has been for acknowledging climate change, perhaps 2020 will be earmarked by the trend for artists writing about ways to actually cope with climate change and eco anxiety. Rather than talking about the dreadful situation, musicians are actually offering ways to deal with it for us all.

Folk musician Sam Lee, who was Mercury Prize-nominated in 2012 for his album, Ground of its Own, offers his own method of escapism to listeners of his forthcoming album, Old Wow, which is largely inspired by Lee’s midnight trips to the Sussex countryside to listen to birdsong.

“I am super lucky as much of my work involves me getting out into nature,” he says. “So I get really well resourced, but am also experiencing first hand the incremental effects of climate change and species loss in real-time all around me all the time.”

Though it isn’t all doom and gloom. Sam’s seasoned listeners will be surprised to hear electric guitar on the record for the first time, for instance, marking a distinct change in sound. “Having Bernard Butler, who’s one of the world's most wonderful players, meant I just had to use him and the guitar!” he says of the LP, which also features cello, piano, violin and percussive segments inspired by “a deeper knowing of the natural world.”

Ahead of Old Wow’s release on 31st January, Sam tells Run-Riot more about how birdsong works as a coping mechanism to quell tidbits of the fear and horror of our climate emergency, and reveals more about the creative process behind the album.

Adam Bloodworth: Hi Sam. Congratulations, we’re really excited about the release of Old Wow. How would you sum up the album to people unaware of your sound?

Sam Lee: This is, old song made new. A collection of ancient British Folk songs that connect in with a deeper knowing of the natural world and our relationship with them.

Adam: The album’s sound is incredibly eclectic: alongside cello, violin, piano and percussion, you’ve recorded with electric guitar for the first time. What was the decision behind that?

Sam: I’ve hesitated on all previous albums to use guitar but this time having Bernard Butler, who’s one of the world’s most wonderful players, meant I just had to use him and it! And actually it turns out he’s a super sensitive player. He really felt his way into the songs and didn’t try to overpower them. But also with the rest of this album it was about setting a core sound first with the band on piano, bass and percussion and adding onto that.

Adam: The album’s taken a collaborative approach, with a whole range of incredible guest musicians. Was that always your intention for Old Wow, or did that just sort of happen?

Sam: I came with very little intention for this album, but really the sound and message formed itself in the initial residency where I invited some musicians who I thought were soulful sound beings and in an incredible few days the songs just slipped out. From there it was a case of nurturing and growing them and seeing what they needed… If one song needed Elizabeth Fraser’s vocals we went and asked her. If the other needed Japanese Shakuhachi we’d call my mate Adrian Freedman or Cosmo Sheldrake; or Alice Zawadzki for violin. I wasn’t really in control of this at all.

Photo of the band: (l-r) Jo O’Keefe (violin), Josh Green (percussion), Bernard Butler (producer), Elizabeth Fraser (guest vocalist), Sam Lee, James Keay (keyboards), Misha Mullov-Abbado (double bass)


Adam: Your 2012 album Ground of its Own was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. How do you reflect on that period now?

Sam: With enormous gratitude and disbelief. It was a case of going nought to sixty in about ten seconds: bits of me didn’t survive. Other parts have swelled beyond sensible proportions and are still like so unto this day.

Adam: You say the album’s about how the climate crisis affects each of us personally. It feels like there’s a lot of discourse right now about the mental health effects of climate change campaigning. Do you have a particular method or way of coping with all the bad news yourself?

Sam: I am super lucky as much of my work involves me getting out into nature and doing lots of real nature connection practise (like Singing With Nightingales or the Campfire Clubs I run, and the pilgrimages too). So I get really well resourced but am also experiencing first hand the incremental effects of climate change and species loss in real-time all around me all the time. How those who don’t have the privilege or fortune or opportunity to be out in nature yet are being bombarded with information and crises is beyond me. How people deal with that eco-anxiety and don’t collapse is incredible. I regularly experience states of real grief but I know I am surrounded by some of the most spirited, and defiant people and through music and gathering we are actually becoming more resourced and stronger people... Music is a wonderful agent for this and I feel really lucky that I get to sing and explore a music form that is so connected to the whole environmental emergency and actually directly speaks about and to the intrinsic emotions and issues of separation from nature so powerfully.

Adam: And if the album has one particular message or promotes one particular action, what is it?

Sam: Pay attention! Be watchful, be open and alive and porous to whatever it is for you that I call 'Old Wow'.

Adam: Tell us about how the album title, Oh Wow, came about...I believe there’s a good story there?

Sam: Ahh well since you ask…:) I went through a bit of a tough time five or six years ago when I’d become swallowed up by music and tours and career goals and found I was not doing anywhere near as much nature work as I used to. I got a bit down and found life getting really tough. I took a week off to do a nature connection course up in Scotland and while on a mountain side when I was really wrestling with my inner self an incredible thing happened. I was carrying a question of, ‘How can I love you more?’ and I was asking this of the natural world, feeling a bit like we were lovers who had fallen a bit out of love with each other and in a moment of despair a buzzard came screeching over and dropped down above me crying out over my head and then spiralling upwards singing wildly down onto me... It was the most incredible answer, and in this moment the name ‘Old Wow’ came up... I wrote it down in prose and realised this was the name I had for the power of the natural world: that magical energy or resonance that exits in all things; that particle of greatness that animates the world around us that is so powerful in nature, this became my name for that and then I took it onward for the album. Old Wow also exists in the songs too.

Adam: The album is an ode to the natural world and you spend much of your free time immersed within nature, particularly listening to bird song in the British countryside. How did you first discover how rewarding this would be?

Sam: I’ve never known any different. It was more about discovering people who don’t have it in their lives and showing them it. And seeing through years of teaching and stewarding people in the really special places, and showing them the magic out there: what it does to people in animating them and finding solace and strength. I sound a bit preachy but the more I see nature being lost or taken away from us, I see how much people are feeling that sense of poverty.

Adam: What are your tips for stressed out Londoners who want to understand more about birds, and perhaps want to have a similar connection with them?

Sam: You know it’s different for every person. There is nothing for me more wonderful than leaving a late night out at a party or something and finding a blackbird howling from a tree and I just stand there and become an audience member for a few minutes and notice how powerful that is. It’s not just about birds for me. Yes come and do a 'Singing with Nightingales’ event with me and get the needle up the arm of nature connecting - adrenaline to the heart sort of experience - but birds need to be in their context and so spending time in their domain on their own time in their way is what we need to do more. If you can find the time, that is.

Adam: And more broadly, for those of us addicted to city life, what’s the easiest and the best ways for us to begin being more connected with nature?

Sam: For me it’s about commitment and making sure you make the time. I’ve just written a huge chapter on this in my book about the nightingale, coming out in April. I am someone who loves being outdoors with people. It’s about connecting in with nature but also finding ways to play in that world. The chapter talks a lot about how to find projects and environmental charities or organisations or NGOs that get people doing something that is actually contributing to conservation efforts. It’s positive, it’s healthy and it gets you outside. It’s just about trying to find the route in that suits you.

Adam: You’re involved with Music Declares Emergency, the organisation of musicians promoting the fight against climate change. What’s next on the agenda there?

Sam: Well world domination and a carbon free planet. That is the ultimate aim.. to get the music industry to lead the way on climate action... So far we have achieved incredible things and at only 9 months old it’s unbelievable. 2020 is going to be a crucial year to see members turn their commitment into action and making as many events and opportunities for musicians to action their commitments. I will keep you up to date on it I promise!

Sam Lee: samleesong.co.uk | Twitter | Facebook | YouTube

Sam Lee
at EartH
Mon 17 Feb 2020
19:00 - 23:00
Tickets and info: earthackney.co.uk

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