Sunday, 21 May 2017

Interview: Sam Gleaves

Born and raised in Wythe County in southwest Virginia, Sam Gleaves performs innovative mountain music with a sense of history and has now joined forces with Tyler Hamilton to release their eponymously titled album on June 16th via Community Music.

Ahead of a UK tour in July and August we spoke to Sam Gleaves and began by asking him about his new single ‘When We Love’.
My friend and music partner Tyler Hughes wrote this song. He wrote it, inspired by, the politics of America and when Trump was just a threat to us, and now he’s our President! It’s about the power of love overcoming division and our shared humanity.

Are political messages usual for your music?
What we’d hoped to convey through the song is that we do have more in common than we have different and that there’s a long tradition of people using folk music, taking up their banjos and guitars, and speaking out about political problems.

You write in the Appalachian style. How does that come out in your song-writing?
Tyler and I both cut our teeth on traditional Appalachian music. We both grew up in the mountains in South-Western Virginia and so we play traditional ballads and dance music and that kind of thing, for a long time before we wrote songs, so our songs out rooted in the place that we come from, our way of speaking and telling stories. It’s all very influenced by the Appalachian region that we come from, so it all sort of organically came together that way. Those are our voices and that’s how we write.

You released your UK debut album last year. What was that like to record and can you tell us a little about it?
That was a real thrill. I worked with my friend Cathy Fink, who has been a great mentor to me. She’s a dear person and she really believes in the future of traditional music in the younger generation, so I was really grateful that she took the time to work with me on this record. I wrote the songs over a period of the last 6-7 years and when I put them together she said she could think of all sorts of people who would be excited about singing those songs, so she brought in friends of hers that were real heroes, and heroes of mine also like Janis Ian, Tim O’Brien and Laurie Lewis, all kind of folks who I really admire. It was a thrill to record it; we recorded it in Nashville in January 2015, and it came out in the autumn of the next year in America. Last autumn I had the pleasure to tour with Peggy Seeger who has become a dear friend as well, and someone I’ve been inspired by: [by] her song-writing, her political stance, and her knowledge of traditional music. It’s been great to bring the songs from that recording over on the road with Peggy, and talk about song writing now and compare it to her catalogue of beautiful work.

You have a new release out in June with Tyler; what’s that been like?
We have worked together for about three years and worked up a lot of traditional Appalachian music from people that we love. The sources of our music are right from our home region a lot of the time. This album is full of the musical narrative of Southwest Virginia. There are light-hearted songs and fiddle tunes, and there’s some political songs, and a comedy song or two. There’s a gospel number on there. I wrote a song on the album based on the words of my great aunt. I recorded an oral history with my great aunt who’s in her eighties and it’s one of the first tracks on the record – ‘Stockyard Hill’. It’s all her story. It’s mostly traditional Appalachian music that we’ve interpreted in our own way.

You’re also a multi-instrumentalist. What’s your favourite to play?
I guess the banjo is my favourite. It’s the most recognisable instrument when you think of Appalachia. It’s a beautiful thing, the banjo being an African instrument that evolved into what we know and recognise as the native instrument we know from Appalachia. But it’s a real symbol of our inter-cultural heritage.

You also have a tour coming up in July and August. How would you describe your live show?
I like to tell stories and also put the music in context. I hope that it transports folks to the place where we come from. I’ve always strived to do that. The people that I learn from always told about the people and places the songs come from, so in addition to singing that’s what I try to do!

Finally what are your plans for the rest of the year?
Writing more songs and trying to finish up a new record in the autumn so that’s coming together and I’m collaborating with my friend Cathy Fink on that too. It’s just exciting to get to work with so many musicians and singer-songwriters on the road. My friend Eli Conley and Joel Price have just walked into the house and we’re playing a show tonight in Kentucky where I live. It’s great to collaborate with people who are doing things that you admire, and so much of my life is working with other artists.

Find out more about Sam Gleaves on his Facebook page.

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