October 2014 (e-mail)
Sam Parsons is a British guitarist & singer/songwriter with a unique style that blends traditional British folk music with West African blues influences creating something that doesn't sound like your typical blues or folk. On bandcamp one can find the 5 albums he's released since 2011, showing a musician exploring the intricacies of his influences as he makes them his own over time, capped off by his December 2014 release Premonitions.
I've long had a soft spot for the blues, but with Sam's music I was hearing a style I was totally unfamiliar with. He was good enough to take some time to discuss his influences with me, thus enlightening me to this new sound, plus his approach to playing the music in his head including alternative tunings, his composing & musical growth.
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AJ: At home in the United Kingdom, the influence of traditional British folk stylings on your music is obvious, but how did you connect with West African blues as an influence?
SAM: When I was around maybe 15 or 16, my dad & big sister used to listen to Ali Farka Toure & musicians from West Africa, in particular the country of Mali. I just loved the unique blues guitar sound of Ali Farka Toure & started trying to mimic it!
AJ: Your websites specifically states "West African blues influences", which I thought was interesting as you're listing a particular region, versus the more common "blues" a la the American south. I think most people are familiar with the American blues tradition/sound, but take me into your world & tell me the difference between the 2 blues styles. What are you bringing into your music from the West African tradition either emotionally or technically? Though, certainly, listening to your music it doesn't sound American bluesy, but there is some bent notes & picking styles that are reminiscent of some Son House or Charlie Patton era blues, or maybe something more akin to the more unstereotypical Blind Lemon Jefferson.
SAM: I support the theory that American blues came about via the slave trade & that the original blues originates from Africa. My knowledge of history is not great, but if I'm correct the Western coast of Africa was most hard hit by the slave trade. Mind you, the natural music of Africa is a lot more jolly, upbeat & positive; just listen to Seckou Keita or Oumou Sangare. I think that American blues was influenced by the songs that slaves used to sing whilst working &, of course, the influence of being enslaved changed their music into much more of an expression of sadness, anger & hurt. Thus the combination of these 2 factors led to blues being perceived as mainly an expression of sadness. I therefore feel that West African blues & American blues are 2 separate but inter-related styles & as such I am much more influenced by the West African Style. The West African blues influence is not as much reflected in my more recent music as I began listening to different music, for instance Bon Iver & IRON AND WINE. As you mentioned, the influence is most notable in the guitar style; the way I hammer on & off rapidly and bend notes is most definitely influenced by West African music. Also the rapid fingerpicking style of the right hand can be traced back to this influence.
AJ: What musicians do you turn to for inspiration in the folk & also West African styles ... or, to put it another way, if someone wants to explore these directions further where would you recommend they bend their ears?
SAM: Okay, this question is easier! Ha. Folk: John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, Nick Drake, John Martyn. African Blues: Ali Farka Toure, Seckou Keita, Boubacar Traore, TINARIWEN & many more I can't think of right now.
AJ: You use open guitar tunings frequently. What are you using?
SAM: Yes, I am now mainly the using the same tuning but altering it with the capo as opposed to changing the pitch of the strings. Without the capo, the guitar is tuned to open D which is DADEAE, but I don't play any songs without a capo. I have been enjoying experimenting with using a capo but not covering all the strings. For instance, on the upcoming single, "All Night", the capo is placed on the 7th fret but only covering the bottom 4 strings, which makes the tuning AEABAE & allows me to fret the top 2 strings behind the capo!
AJ: Does your choice in open tunings come out of the British or the West African influence or elsewhere? If you can, for the non-musically minded where an array of notes has no meanings, to you how do the open tunings feel? For example, in my own guitar playing I know of a particular open tuning that has a lot of droning & puts me in an Indian mindset with the music being very hypnotic.
SAM: I stumbled across this particular tuning when trying to learn Ben Howard's "Everything". I gave up on learning the song because I get a bit of Attention Deficit Disorder when learning other people's music ... but fell in love with the tuning. I have used this tuning on everything since The Angel & The Diver. I feel it has a very bright sound possibly created by having 3 different notes each appearing twice. Before Long is mainly played in DADF#BE, which I believe is a tuning often used by Jose Gonzalez & sounds great with the repetitive droning of the lowest string played with the thumb in a fingerpicking style.
AJ: Looking at your EP's on bandcamp a theme of movement comes across with such songs as: "Home", "Going Solo", "Standing Still", "You're On A Journey" (from Salvation Army, 2011), "Time To Run", "A Fortune To Leave With Dignity" (from Before Long, 2012); yet there seems to be a changing life in later albums with: "I'll Leave My Worse Behind" (from The Angel & The Diver, 2011), "I Ain't Got No Worries On My Own", "It's All Over Now", "I've Seen You Change" (from Ain't Got No Worries, 2012) ... maybe this is just my own perception looking for a trend where none is ... but let me ask, what inspires Sam Parsons the songwriter?
SAM: Great question! Wow, it's hard to put into words. Before Long I feel was about the frustration of not having yet achieved what I thought I ought to have done; whether that be in work, relationships or recognition of my music. Hence the title Before Long - wanting things to improve quickly. The Angel & The Diver is a dedication to my father who passed away in December 2010. He was an artist. The cover art is a painting which he painted for me in May of his last year & he named that painting "The Angel And The Diver." I believe what he meant is that his influence is continuing spiritually; with him being the angel, interacting with me from a spiritual realm & with me being the diver; who has to take risks & put himself in danger in order to try & reap rewards or find sunken treasure. I am close to releasing a brand new EP called Premonitions. I decided on the name at the end of the process as I realized that the songs on it were actually much more related to situations I found myself in after I had written the songs than to what was going on at the time of writing them. So it was almost as if the songs became true after they were written. My next release is going to be all about being a millionaire & having super model girlfriends!! Ha. Not! But in all seriousness, I feel that this demonstrates that for me the writing process is quite ethereal & intangible as music is my best way of connecting to feelings/emotions within me that I can't seem to get to otherwise, which I guess is a big part of why I do it.
AJ: Your 2012 release Before Long & The Love Fires from earlier this year feature a violin player on a couple tracks. Who is this? He or she have a very interesting sound I have trouble describing, but might call it a lazy moan that brings visions of English countrysides & famed country vet James Herriott to mind.
SAM: Zachary De Santos is a superb viola player & a great friend. He lives in London now, about 6 hours drive from my home, & we plan to perform live together when I have shows in London.
AJ: Since November 2011 you've released five EP's on bandcamp of voice & acoustic guitar. But, 2012's The Angel & The Diver EP has the most unique feel of your albums musically & thematically to my ears.
SAM: The combination of my father's passing & the discovery of the open D tuning led to a much different sound.
AJ: Your newest release The Love Fires EP from this past February not just features the return of violin but also a different version of I've Got No Worries On My Own. What inspired you to reissue this song, along with giving it a new musical life?
SAM: For better or worse I can be a perfectionist & I felt I could do it a lot better, which is why you will sometimes hear the same song on different releases!
AJ: Your earliest bandcamp releases sound much more West African bluesy, while later releases sound more folk, if not even a bit more mainstream folk. How do you see your solo music changing over the years & where is it going?
SAM: Naturally, my musical taste is changing & developing. Most recently, I have been listening to music such as Bon Iver, DAUGHTER, Sufjan Stevens & Hozier. I can't seem to name what genre these are but it is more mainstream without losing its taste & quality in my opinion. In the last few months, I have become a lot less 'solo'. I now have the pleasure of playing alongside an excellent percussionist & awesome bass player, which is why I am excited for you to hear the Premonitions EP. Also featured on a couple of tracks is an outstanding female vocalist called Ruth Zewge who is actually Ethiopian, which ties in with the African influence in a lovely manner.
AJ: You've been playing guitar for close to 2 decades. What's your musical background?
SAM: Has it really been that long! Ha. Maybe I ought to be better at it by now! Basically, I just started playing guitar as a teenager & fell in love with it. I had 4 guitar lessons at school before deciding that I didn't want to learn the shit the teacher was teaching me & just stopped going. I taught myself from then on. I learnt punk rock songs from tablature on the same acoustic I still have now. I never had the patience to learn to read music. I eventually got tired of learning other peoples music & just wrote my own music all the time. I would just sit & play for hours on my own.
AJ: Keeping this shorter, let me end with the question ... anything else you want to share? What's next in your musical journey?
SAM: Next up is the release of the Premonitions EP & performing more regularly with the band!