The word mountain takes on manifold metaphorical roles with singer-songwriter Sam Amidon’s latest release, The Following Mountain (Nonesuch records). Like wild peaks, the melodies meander in spurts of intensity, a beautifully balanced soundscape of jazz-tinged folk. Like mountains fixed in time, legendary musical giants Milford Graves, Sam Gendel and Shahzad Ismaily guided Amidon towards higher visions in song and composition, and like a mountain digs its roots into ancestral soil, the album is deeply grounded in American tradition.
Michelle Davis: Tell us about your new record. Was it challenging to write and record original material and was that the “mountain” you had to climb to reach new creative heights?
Sam Amidon: Each album I have made has been a new adventure in some way. This one started with a great day of improvisation in Brooklyn with Shahzad Ismaily, Milford Graves, Sam Gendel, and later in the evening Juma Sultan came by. These are all inspiring musicians to work with. They also brought with them their memories of playing with some of my musical heroes: Milford from playing with Albert Ayler and Sonny Sharrock, and Juma from playing with Jimi Hendrix. It was a new challenge to start an album from scratch and to build it up through writing, instead of using the folk songs as I have in the past. It was good to go back to that state of fear where you simply don’t know where it is headed and allow it all to grow. Leo Abrahams was crucial in giving me the context for this all to happen.
MD: Speaking of peaks, it appears that mountains have always piqued your interest. Your fifth album’s first single Lily-O was titled Blue Mountains and I See the Sign included Climbing High Mountains among its tracks. Even this record’s first single is called Juma Mountain.
SA: There’s a small mountain near the town in Vermont where I grew up. It’s called Mount Wantastiquet, which is a Native American name meaning “rattlesnake mountain”. When I was a teenager I would walk up to the top of this mountain every few days. I always wished I could bring it with me when I travelled. I imagined that I could someday have a “following mountain”, which would follow me everywhere I went, so that I could walk up it if need be!
MD: The album’s gestation involved moving across the pond, as it was recorded between Brooklyn and London. How did this affect the turnout? You’ve actually relocated with your family to the British capital. Are you enjoying your new homebase?
SA: Yes, the first couple of days, working with Shahzad and Milford, were at Brooklyn’s Figure 8 Studios, and then the rest of the time I was in London recording the rest of the album at Leo Abrahams’ home studio. I would drop my children off at school, take the train out to where Leo lives and make crazy music all day long, and then go pick the kids up from school. It was very satisfying, like a day job. I do like London and I love being able to travel all over Europe to play music.
MD: The word jazz seems to have consolidated itself into the Amidon lexicon. Tell us about how your style has changed and if you are leaning towards the idea of tackling other genres in the future.
SA: I love jazz, but I am definitely not a jazz musician. It is more that I love improvisation and I am interested in improvisation as part of music. But I am open to whether that improvisation is coming from the perspective of a jazz musician, or free improvisation, or even the improvisation in the phrasing of a great folk fiddle player, or the improvisation that you hear in somebody like Nico Muhly’s orchestral arrangements, where his composition has such a playful and open quality that you can hear it is resulting from his own listening in the same way that an improvising musician would work.
MD: Coming from a musical tradition that mostly lived on thanks to oral transmission, becoming live material that changed and warped through time and interpretation, how do you think changes in technology and fruition have affected the development and spread of folk music?
SA: I think the advent of recording was a huge change in the early 20th century, as soon as you could record a folk musician singing and playing instead of just transcribing the notes onto paper which wouldn’t really capture what they were doing. In a way, it’s a great thing that happened then because it gave us the chance to document so much incredible music before it disappeared. But what’s great about a lot of folk music is that much of it is still going strong.
MD: Are you looking forward to mixing your Cali-Appalachian folk roots with the Italo-Western vibes of the Po Valley marauders Guano Padano this February? How did this unique collaboration come into being?
SA: I can’t wait to meet and play with Guano Padano. The musicians from this group wrote to me a while back, and as soon as I was living in London again I wrote to them about putting something together. It will be interesting and fun to combine our music. There is a lot of overlap between our repertoire and sound, but there are also some interesting differences. In their music I hear the amazing tradition of Westerns, including the great Italian elements of that tradition, whereas my music has more Eastern elements in terms of British folk and New England where I’m from. So yeah, it’s gonna be great!
Sam Amidon will be live at Sala Vanni backed by Italian band Guano Padano on February 10.