Sam Lee’s Mercury Prize nominated album, Ground Of Its Own, is the result of six years of complete immersion in traditional British folk music – but this doesn’t stop Hackney resident Lee from comparing himself to the King of Pop, Michael Jackson.
“I disagree that my music is a world away from MJ’s,” he explains. “I have always been fascinated with his use of rhythm and his sound production techniques. I love the way he would replicate acoustic instruments. Take some of his disco stuff like ‘Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough’, it’s all acoustic instruments but it’s got this extraordinary modern contemporary sound.
“I think taking a traditional instrument like the Jew’s harp, as I did, and giving it a really modern framework (works the same); I wouldn’t put (my song) ‘The Ballad of George Collins’ a million miles away from one of his songs.”
Lee believes that storytelling, something two of his musical heroes, Michael Jackson and Joni Mitchell, had down to a tee, is the basis for all traditional art forms, but that this has become more abstract as popular music has evolved.
“I’m a firm believer that the old ways are the best and I love hearing a good story. I am by nature a story teller. Not just in my music, everything I do I am making a story around it. I think it is really important to celebrate that.”
Lee passionately devotes himself to the folk scene, promoting shows in and around Hackney with his events company, The Nest Collective, which he formed in 2006. Its events have become very popular, winning the BBC Folk Club of 2010 award. Lee’s Mercury Prize nomination has helped boost the popularity of the nights and bring the lesser known fringes of folk music to a wider audience.
“Some of the stuff we do is a bit crazy and different, it’s not your usual folk sort of stuff. We do these crazy nights in a big hall in Hackney. The next one we’ve got is a samba band and a ceilidh band playing together. Things are always a bit mixed up.”
Recent years have seen a surge in the popularity of folk music. Artists like Mumford & Sons and Laura Marling have brought folk back into the lives of the everyday music listener under the banner of ‘new folk’. The Nest Collective’s tag line, ‘New folk. Old folk. No folk.’ suggests Lee is not too keen on the label.
“The songs I do are not new, they are old songs with a very new interpretation to them. And that comes from a very deep and rich community that’s been going forever really. There has always been a folk scene and that is a world I have been a part of for the last six years and it has been very supportive.”
Lee hopes his Mercury Prize nomination will capture the imagination of those who have already ‘been primed’ to enjoy this type of music by Mumford et al, and turn them onto his brand of ‘real, traditional, indigenous British music’.
However, he does not shy away from the possibility of taking home the prestigious gong and £20,000 prize when the winner is announced on 1 November. “I have every intention of winning,” he laughs. “and every expectation of losing.”
Lee has a huge amount of confidence in his abilities, and has no plans to turn his back on the genre that inspires him. “I’m not just in it for a quick hit,” he declares. “For me this is a lifelong journey of a musical form that I love and passionately believe in. It’s like jazz or classical, you don’t just sort of dabble with trying to be a jazz star or a classical star for an album or two and then retire off the proceeds.”
Longevity is at the heart of Lee’s campaign. He’s one in a long line of musicians and story tellers contributing to a timeless back catalogue of work and he plans to continue in this way for years to come.
“In ten years from now we may not know who half those nominations are or kind of choose not to remember, but folk music will always be there. It goes back so far and it will carry on for so long. It deserves to be there and I’m proud to be the one that is getting it there.”