We last met Sam Sweeney backstage at a Fay Hield concert, where he was playing fiddle in her band. Having been a professional musician synonymous with English traditional music for half his lifetime, he was a comfortable interviewee with forthright opinions on how he felt the music that he loves should progress. At the time, his life seemed to be characterised by doors closing while others opened: Bellowhead had come to an end (or so we thought), while Leveret were on the up, he was gigging with Hield, Emily Portman, and as a prominent member of The Wayward Band, and he’d been newly appointed to the position of Artistic Director for the National Youth Folk Ensemble. He was, unquestionably, a busy man.
That was five years ago. When we met on Zoom earlier this week, Sam was keen to look ahead to the arrival of his new Solo EP, the first in a series of releases that he has planned over the next two years, but he was equally at ease reflecting on the intervening years. From the effects of the pandemic, to the reunion of Bellowhead; from the pride he feels following his artistic directorship, to his collaboration with Martin Carthy, the conversation was wide-ranging and, at times, quite feisty.
One thing we can promise you: Sam Sweeney is a wonderful interviewee. Generous with his time (you’ll need a half-hour to get through this) and determined in his opinions, he’s a gregarious fellow, full of bonhomie, but frequently given to long pauses while he reaches for the right answer. Strap yourselves in for a wide-ranging read – this conversation went everywhere.
I don’t know what folk music is at the minute, and perhaps I never will.Sam Sweeney
It’s five years since we last spoke.
Yeah, in the dressing room in Andover, before a Fay Hield gig.
That’s right. You were there in Fay’s band, and we talked about you being a member of the Wayward Band, which you were at that point. You also had Leveret, which was really kicking off. You were freshly out of Bellowhead and you were starting out as the Artistic Director of the National Youth Folk Ensemble. We’ve obviously been through quite a few intense years since then. So my first question for you is: how are you, Sam? Are you okay?
[Laughs] Yes, absolutely. I’m alright. Even in non-COVID times, January is a very odd month, isn’t it? The weather’s minging (apart from today – it’s glorious), winter is rubbish anyway, and you’re looking at the year ahead and… I generally talk about it as “calendar panic”. I suffer from calendar panic a lot.
I’ve never heard of calendar panic before.
I think a lot of musicians get it. You look at your calendar and you go, “Oh my God, look at all this stuff.” I want to do it all and I love my job, but every so often, particularly in January, I look at it and go, “God, there’s no way I’m going to be able to do all these things.” So it feels a bit like that, with the added existential dread, of course, that things will still get cancelled.
I suppose it must be nice to actually have a full calendar in these tough times, though?
It does feel good to have gigs in, yeah. I think I was extremely lucky in November to manage my entire album launch tour with no cancellations and no COVID in the band, because you’ll have seen all the people who had to cancel their Christmas tours. So I feel very fortunate to have done that. But I don’t know how the next few months will look. I’ve got quite a lot of gigs with quite a few people. We’ll just see how it goes.
It’s a weird one, isn’t it? Because there’s this feeling that Omicron is not as bad as previous variants, but does that mean that people are going to be comfortable going out? Or does it mean, what with it being so infectious, that they’re going to be staying away? I went out yesterday and it was business as usual.
No, it’s weird, isn’t it? A year ago we were looking at the figures on the news and going, “There’s 26 people infected in every 100,000. It’s terrible!” And now it’s like one in a thousand and there are no worries at all. Back in the autumn, early winter, there was a 30% to 40% no-show rate at most gigs, and I can only imagine if anyone’s gigging now it will be at least that as well.
I think people are waiting for the very last minute to make their decisions before buying tickets.
Yeah, it was definitely like that with a few of my gigs. The ones that had been rescheduled three times had a lot of tickets rolled over from previous bookings, but for the ones that were fresh bookings, most of the tickets were sold on the last day. I did a slightly desperate plea on social media.
I remember seeing that.
I don’t think that people know the reality of the situation, which is that if people don’t book in advance, a venue isn’t going to put that gig on because they can’t afford the loss. But it gives everyone a bloody stomach ache, doesn’t it? I mean, artist, promoter – everyone just gets unbearably nervous. So I did that social media post where I just said, “Look, this is the plea. Please book a ticket.” That sold more tickets than any advert, flyer, poster, video, or anything like that. And I actually think a bit of honesty goes a long way.
You are quite honest on your social media, aren’t you? You do use it as a straightforward, open conversation.
Yeah. I just think you can’t simultaneously be like, “Oh, I love the folk scene. It’s so familiar and so human and you can meet your favourite musicians”, and then be a pretentious wanker. You can’t do it, can you? It’s this: My gigs aren’t going to happen if nobody comes. I like that. I don’t really have time for pretentiousness.
Being the Artistic Director of the National Youth Folk Ensemble remains the most amazing thing I’ve ever had the privilege of doing.Sam Sweeney
So, where do we find you now, five years on? You’re about to release this EP, you’ve got a kick-ass band, you’re not the artistic director at the National Youth Folk Ensemble anymore…
Yeah. I stopped doing the Artistic Director job because that was a three-year contract. That job remains the most amazing thing I’ve ever had the privilege of doing. I loved it so much. And who knows, in 10 years, I might apply to do it again, once a few other people have done it. I think it’s an incredible thing. And I think people aren’t making anywhere near enough noise about it.
What was it about that job that really enthused you?
Actually, a thing that Louis Campbell said, the electric guitar player in my band and a former member of the National Youth Folk Ensemble, sums it up well. Through that programme, what the young people are getting is a sort of extreme fast-track education and an enormous amount of experience that none of my generation, and those a bit older than me, ever had access to. You’ve got a bunch of tutors who are largely self-taught, or people like me who have had been taught by the likes of Chris Wood and Rob Harbron, and they just have an accelerated way through for a few years. It’s an extraordinary experience.
It’s not like when I was a kid going to Folkworks, where you’d have 150 young people just razzing through tunes and playing music from everywhere – which is incredible, and I’m not knocking that. That was an amazing and brilliant thing. But actually, what you’ve got here is a bunch of 14 to 18-year-olds who not only love playing tunes, but they’re also really excited about delving into old manuscripts. I didn’t even know that was a thing when I was a teenager.
For me, the most important thing is just becoming obsessed with music and making music with other people, regardless of genre. We’ve got alumni who are going into pop music, people who are playing jazz, people who are playing some seriously experimental music. One member just did a season with Giffords Circus and toured the country!
It’s very exciting. And then Louis, he’s in my band, but he’s also playing with all kinds of people. So I think, really, the impact of the National Youth Folk Ensemble is just starting to become visible – just at a time where it seems that nobody will book young and emerging artists anymore. But there you go. That’s another thing, I suppose.
We’ll come onto that, I’m sure. You’re about to release Solo, which I’ve been listening to all week and very much enjoying. You have this team of crack commandos behind you on stage, and yet, for this recording, you’re alone.
I suppose, really, to explain this I have to go back a couple of years to The Unfinished Violin. Last time we spoke, Bellowhead would have just finished, and I was in Eliza Carthy‘s Band, Jon Boden‘s Band, Fay’s Band, and Leveret. None of those things had my name on it. I’ve always been a sort of serial collaborator, I suppose – just somebody who loves playing music and collaborating. I didn’t want my name on anything, and I never envisaged doing anything with my name on it.
You were in Emily Portman’s Coracle Band, too, weren’t you?
Yeah. We only toured once, which was such a shame because that album is one of my Desert Island Discs. I love that record so much.
Anyway, I never really wanted anything with my name on it. I did that theatre production, Made in The Great War, and I got phoned up by Ian Brown of Island Records, who heard me on Radio 4 talking about the WWI violin. He said, “I was in tears listening to that story. Will you make an album for Island Records to commemorate the end of the WWI centenary?” And I’m fairly sure he didn’t make the connection between me and Bellowhead, either. I think he just thought I was a folk fiddle player. So, reluctantly, I have to say, to start with, I was like, “I don’t know, I’m not a solo artist, and I don’t know about making an album of WWI music”. Anyway, I did some research and found that all the great marching tunes of the British Army are just traditional folk tunes that kind of needed reclaiming, if you like, from war.
So I did that and then we toured it twice. That band was Rob Harbron, Patsy Reid, Jack Rutter, and Ben Nicholls. I absolutely loved it. And that record went down really well. I found I liked gigging with my name on it, and it didn’t feel stressful. It didn’t feel like I was setting my stall out and going, “This is what I am”. It just felt like being in a band.
So once I’d done that I made Unearth Repeat, because I wanted to make an album that wasn’t themed around WWI and was whatever I wanted to make. The big change there was that I wanted to make an album with two guitarists, because all the best bands in the world have two guitars and a bass, right? [Laughs] And it’s weird because, in the folk world, in a non-folk rock context, that’s not an instrumentation that’s explored much, really, the two guitars thing. And, of course, that tour was cancelled and rescheduled three times. So, technically, we have only just done the first tour of Unearth Repeat, even though that material, for me, is three years old.
Solo is an EP. Six tracks of me playing in Stoney Middleton Church, which was the church opposite my old house in the Peak District. I used to just practice in there all the time. It’s worth a visit. The acoustics are incredible.
You can hear that on the recording. I imagine there’s hardly anything that Andy Bell needed to do to that, in terms of production and treatment.
Well, the recording process was interesting because the reverb is so big, as you say. So we had two close mics, and then we had some room mics up into the octagonal bit of the church above me. And then we were listening back and going, “Gosh, this reverb is pretty intense. It sounds a bit mad. Should we try and temper it down a bit?” We mixed it in a day, and we tried to bring the room mics down and just have a bit more of the close mics, but it sounded wrong. It didn’t sound how that room sounds. I like that, from the first note of the EP. It’s like, “Jesus, he’s in a good room!”
How about your choice of tunes? You must have a vast repertoire to choose from.
Really, there was very little thought put into it in terms of what repertoire would go on it and how it would be played. I had a list of over 20 tunes that I had become friends with, if you like, over lockdown. It was one of the things that I found uplifting in lockdown: I was trying to find new, undiscovered tunes.
I very rarely pick up the fiddle. If I have a week at home, it will most likely stay in its case for the whole time.Sam Sweeney
I was teaching on a fiddle camp on Zoom in America, and I was sent this old English manuscript by this guy whose wife ran the course. Most of the repertoire on the EP comes from this manuscript, which is exciting because I’ve never seen it in England before. It’s an English manuscript that’s now in America. But finding these tunes and trying to work out how to play them on my own was a cool thing.
Do you do a lot of playing on your own when you’re at home? Do you rehearse a lot or are you simply unable to leave the fiddle alone?
No, I very rarely pick up the fiddle. If I have a week at home, it will most likely stay in its case for the whole time.
It’s funny talking to Louis because he’s in his final year at the Royal Northern College of Music, and he’s practicing six hours a day. He was like, “What do you mean, you don’t play every day?” Well, no, I don’t play every day. I’ve got to do other things, like emailing and washing-up [laughs].
I think part of the thing with Solo is that the joy in music, for me, comes from playing with other people. Always has done, probably always will. I insisted that we record it in a really lively, beautiful space that I loved, because at least then you’re not in a dead environment where you are literally exposed and playing by yourself. It kind of felt like I was playing with the church, if you know what I mean. You’ll know this, but it’s possible to play with the acoustics of a room. You change how you play.
And a lot of musicians do love to gig in churches, don’t they? Is that the reason?
Yeah. It makes you sound expensive and, like, you have better techniques than you actually do [laughs]. So that was something that I really insisted on. And then it was literally a matter of having this big list of tunes, turning up, and setting up four microphones. Andy sitting in the lobby of the church and I was going, “What about this one? I’ve got this tune, what do you think?” And he’s going, “Yeah, that’s cool. Let’s have that one.”
Did you record more than six tunes, then?
I think there was only one surplus tune. We didn’t actually record that much more because we did the whole thing in a day and a half. And, of course, it’s all totally live. There’s no editing or anything like that.
But the plan following Solo is that there will be five more EPs over the next two years or so. The next one will be me plus a member of my band, so maybe me and Louis. Then I’m going to make one with Ben Nicholls, then one with Jack Rutter, and then I’m going to make one with Dave Mackay, who played the keys on Unearth Repeat.
I suppose, if they’re so easy to make and you can knock them out so quickly, that’s a really good thing to do.
I think we’ll see how easy they are to make [laughs]. The thing is, Ben toured the world with a punk band and played with Nadine Shah, and he’s also played jazz and folk and blah, blah, blah. I could make some amazing music with Ben, so let’s do it. And the same with Louis. He plays trad music, but he’s also massively into post-rock. So it’s like, well, we’ll never do that in the Sam Sweeney Band, but let’s do something. It’s just a way of exploring the potential of each member of the band.
Was there a specific reason for wanting to do Solo on your own?
I have to be a bit careful here because people get a bit prickly about this, but part of it is that there isn’t very much solo English fiddle recorded music out there, unlike Scottish music, where there are countless solo fiddle records. I just wanted to put something out there: this is traditional music collected in England on a solo fiddle. I’m not making a statement about this being what English fiddle style is, or anything like that It’s just that it’s not a thing that’s done very often. Bryony Griffith has done some solo stuff, and I’m a big fan of hers, but other than that, I’m not aware of very much solo fiddle stuff.
It’s interesting you say that because when I first listened to it, I remembered something that you said the last time we spoke. You were quite angry about it. You said, of people studying the English fiddle, “They study the playing of Willy Taylor, a shepherd from Northumberland who probably never re-haired his bow.” And you were quite het up about the idea that, in your words, people don’t set their aspirations high enough. I wondered if that had something to do with you wanting to create a solo recording that shows what can be done with English fiddle playing.
Maybe I’m less angry than I used to be [laughs]. I don’t know. Eliza Carthy set up the English Fiddle Symposium – it happened at the Sage years ago. I wasn’t able to go, but there’s a lingering Facebook group and people seem to have blazing rows on there about whether the source players of English fiddle were any good. There was an article written by Chris Haigh, which seemed to cause a lot of people a lot of anguish when it was published on that Facebook group. It was saying, because the recordings of source players we have aren’t that brilliant, English fiddle players haven’t set their sites very high. We’ve got nobody to look up to. And I tend to fall on that side of the argument.
What I’m really interested in is a sort of fictional, romantic relationship I have with the people of the 17th and 18th century.Sam Sweeney
You get a lot of people saying, “Well, most of the repertoire I have comes from the playing of Stephen Baldwin, and it’s absolutely brilliant playing.” Obviously, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but, for me, there isn’t a single English source fiddle player that I would aspire to play like. But that’s okay. I think people are so prickly and so quick to say, “That’s sacrilege! How dare you disrespect the source players!” But that’s not what that was for. They were just recordings of people playing repertoire in their dotage. You can’t compare my Solo EP to Stephen Baldwin. They’re completely different things. One is record-keeping, trying to put something in a nutshell and show what was happening, and the other is a commercial venture. Do you know what I mean?
It’s the same with singing, isn’t it? It takes a particularly devoted person to sit through The Voice of the People and go, “I enjoyed all of that”. It was never intended to be enjoyed in that way. It was a historical document.
Yeah. And when people say, “I sat through all of The Voice of the People collection and I loved it”, it’s like, “We’re not talking about music in the same way.” Which, again, is totally fine. But I think people just need to relax. This is the thing I’ve realised over the last few years. Let people do what they do. And I’m sure that if anybody reviews my Solo EP or comments on it, I’m sure that there’ll be people going, “Well, it doesn’t sound very English. Sounds a bit Swedish. And he’s using such and such a French ornament”. I’m sure that will happen and it’s fine. It doesn’t bother me.
Does the historic aspect of traditional music mean much to you? Are you interested in that side of it, or is it all about the tunes?
What I’m really interested in, and I guess this became a really exciting thing for me with Unearth Repeat, is, if you like, a sort of fictional, romantic relationship I have with the people of the 17th and 18th century, and what music they were making and writing. Most of the tunes that I play, and all the tunes that Leveret are playing, are 17th century. Therefore, it’s not the repertoire that we get from Jinky Wells or Stephen Baldwin or whoever. That repertoire, that lumpy English thing, is very different. I’m not really that interested in that.
The historical side that I love is that feeling of, “My God, somebody would have been delighted with themselves for writing that 3-2 Hornpipe.” Someone had a little idea for a tune, they wrote it down, and I’ve got it written down, and it’s just lovely. I’m just a human in 2022. And really, that’s as far as I go with the history.
So it’s the link through time that excites you? A sense that you’re connected with a person from a time gone by?
For sure. Absolutely. And again, people get prickly, but I cannot imagine that anybody will have been that excited by traditional English music that was played boringly or lumpily. I’m not saying Stephen Baldwin was a bad player at all, but when he was recorded, he was ancient. He’d been to war! He was in his 80s. I don’t believe that’s what it sounded like when he was on fire. Equally, when you see these Playford people with their funny costumes walking around a room today, I don’t believe that’s what it was like. This music has to have been more appealing. So, for me, I find it easier to have this sort of romantic, fictional view of what people might have thought, how people might have enjoyed it, because any kind of recreation or re-enactment or whatever, none of it works. They all care far too much about the details and not about actually making music, as far as I can tell.
Where does your love of the tunes come from?
It’s a good question. I’m not a singer. I’ve always been into playing tunes since I was a child. I do struggle with folk songs a lot.
That’s interesting. In what way?
I probably said this last time, but I don’t listen to folk music, really. There’s not a thing I would put on to listen to. It’s interesting because I often feel quite out of touch with the scene. I don’t really know what’s going on because it’s not a thing that particularly interests me. Of course, there are folk singers and folk albums that I absolutely love, but I find it harder with folk songs because of the subject matter. I can’t sing about working in a mill or being a farmer. No judgment elsewhere intended, but I, personally, would feel like a fraud singing that stuff. I’d just feel like a bit of a tit if I was to do that. I appreciate that there are singers like Martin Carthy completely rewriting verses and so on, making new versions of stuff and making them his. I think that’s amazing. And I love him so much. And I can listen to Martin a lot.
And he seems to love you, too. I interviewed him about three or four years ago for this website. He was extremely complimentary of what you do.
We had a brilliant time playing together. We did two gigs, and I wish we’d been able to do more. Actually, it’s weird because I’ve heard him say twice that he learned a lot from me, which is preposterous! I was just sat there, like, just feeling his groove. His harmonic brain is completely bonkers. I remember playing this tune, ‘The Bonny Miller’ with him, and he spent ages trying to find the harmonic centre. And he sort of found this augmented fourth thing, which he was just gronking away on. And I was like, “Your musical brain is absolutely crazy, but I love it. It’s amazing.” We had a really good time playing together. It was great.
Given that you’re so fascinated with the tunes, but you can take or leave the songs, what is folk music to you?
Oh, god! Jon!
Sorry, but I’ve asked so many people that question and you’re the one that seems the most awkward with it. Sam Sweeney is a name connected to folk music, and yet your relationship with it seems slightly different from a lot of the people that I talk to. They often have this level of obsession that you don’t seem to have in the same way.
Yeah. I don’t really know how to answer that. Maybe I’ll have a couple of gos [laughs]. If you were to look at what music I listen to, it’s 90% pop music. Lately, electronic-based pop music. And I think part of the reason I’m obsessed with pop music is that I’m fascinated, and always have been fascinated with melody. Pop music is just hooks. It’s just bits of melody that stick in people’s minds. And it’s exactly the same with folk tunes, it’s just that the hooks in folk tunes are linked together so you can make a perfect tune out of them. Essentially, I have the same fascination with traditional melody or contemporary folk melody that I do with pop music. “You came up with that? That’s so cool. You are amazing, Mr. or Mrs. Anonymous. You’re incredible. I love that you’ve just given me this anonymous present that is one of the best melodies I’ve ever heard.” So, I think, certainly in the last few years, that’s really my obsession. It’s an obsession with melody and the fact that all these melodies are free and are written by human beings. We don’t know who. They’re just there for you to play with.
So my obsession is the fact that I’ve been given this enormous present. And, certainly, for the last few years, that’s where my thing with folk music is.
I was sort of looking at the festival lineups last year and thinking, good grief, we’ve had two summers to have a little reset on this scene and go, “Actually, we could change some stuff here and really up our game a little bit as a scene”. But when I looked at the lineups, I thought, “It’s just all this again.”
I think there’s an expectation in the folk scene that we’re one music, and we’re not – which is a good thing.Sam Sweeney
You asked me what folk music is, and part of the reason I feel like maybe I’m very distant from it is because I feel it’s something that needs distancing from, for my own sanity and happiness. I think there’s an expectation in folk music, isn’t there, that we are one scene, one family, one music. And it’s bullshit. You wouldn’t find it in any other genre, in rock music or whatever. You wouldn’t have all the bands going, “Oh, yes. I’m off to see such and such. I just love their music.” Of course not. I think there’s an expectation that we’re one music, and we’re not – which is a good thing, but I wish it was more acknowledged, more accepted that you can be ‘in’ the folk scene while not really relating to much of it. We’re not one scene. We’re not one music. It’s multiple scenes. As far as I’m concerned, Leveret is far closer to, I don’t know, my favourite pop music than it is to, say, some of the bands that you see headlining the folk festival stages. Do you know what I mean? If you were to make a Venn diagram of Leveret and those bands, there would be literally nothing shared between them. Like, literally no crossover. And yet we’re all lumped into the same scene. And I just think it’s bizarre.
People need bums on seats, right? We’ve had a pandemic and no one’s got any money. The guaranteed sellers will always sell. Folk festival audiences are lovely – they are hugely supportive and loyal, something I’m hugely grateful for – but people like what they are told to like to a large extent. The audiences aren’t that discerning and I wish they were. We could have a scene that people all over the world were excited about, but we don’t and I can’t see it happening if things don’t change. I just think it’s a shame we haven’t had a bit of a grand reshuffle and thought, “Hang on, let’s do something different, shall we?” So, yeah, I don’t know what folk music is at the minute, and perhaps I never will, but that’s fine.
Thanks for giving it a go. Back to Solo. Rachel Wilkinson, who also writes for this website, has asked me to ask you this question: how much does your connection to an instrument affect the way that you play? Rachel said that she’s got a couple of violins and one will just do folk tunes, and then she has another that just won’t.
Yeah. Fiddles. God. Emma Reid, probably my favourite fiddle player in the world, grins the entire time when she’s playing. People tell me I smile when I play, too, but actually, the truth of the matter is that at least 80% of the time I’m deeply frustrated with how bad it sounds. Fiddles are temperamental. My fiddle sounds really good between May and September. It likes hot and dry. For the rest of the year it’s like, “Give me new strings. Please send me away to the luthier. Just do stuff to me!”
I tend to write music on instruments I can’t play.Sam Sweeney
I do love my fiddle, but I don’t write any music on it. I’ve written, in my entire life, one tune on the violin. Everything I wrote for Unearth Repeat, and everything I’m currently writing, I haven’t touched the fiddle in any of the writing process whatsoever. [He points behind him to a room full of instruments] See? Bass, guitar, archtop electric, Les Paul, dulcitone… There’s a mandolin down here. There’s a concertina over there… I tend to write music on instruments I can’t play.
I’m sure you can play them.
Very poorly. But that, for me, is where writing is at.
Is there a reason for that? Does the fact that you find it more challenging to play those instruments affect the way that you write music?
I think it’s almost that. I think it’s that because I’m so limited in what I technically can do, for example, on the guitar, that ideas come very easily. I’m so limited in what I might do with it. So, a lot of the stuff I’m writing at the moment, it’s literally press go in Logic with a little metronome click going on, play some silly bar chords, come up with the chord sequence, lovely, and then get my funny little fellow out, hang on… [rummages ominously beneath the screen] it’s my Midi keyboard! I’ll set it up on some kind of synth sound and just go plink, plonk, or whatever. And it’s OK. I’m playing the synth with one finger, or I’m just playing the bottom three strings of a guitar. I don’t have everything open to me. I think that’s the only way I can do it because, on the fiddle… technically, I’m better at that instrument than anything else, so the goalposts are too wide.
When you move the tune onto the fiddle from those three-finger bar chords, are you moving that restrained creativity over there, as well, or is it that you’ve painted a backwash onto which you can be a bit more flamboyant?
Have you set up a stage for your flamboyance, Sam?
[Laughs] I don’t know, really. I think a lot of this will become obvious in the next few years if I do stuff with any of this new music that I’m writing. But there are tunes on Unearth Repeat which I wrote on the guitar. For example, there’s a track on that record called ‘The Old Wagon Way’, and the first tune in that set is called ‘Swift Hill’, which I wrote about this hill where I used to live. I wrote it on the guitar. It’s not a fiddle tune. You give that to a fiddle player and they’ll go… [makes an unimpressed face]. And I would never play it in a solo gig because, as I say, it’s not a fiddle tune. In the context of the band, it works because it’s kind of a piece. And I think I view most of my writing as pieces.
So, all these things that I’m writing now, which may yet result in the next record, they’re not going to become session tunes. They’re not things that people are ever going to want to play. It works with two guitars, bass and fiddle. And I like that. Maybe one day I’ll come to writing tunes that fit in the canon. Who knows? It’s not really what I’m doing at the minute. I can’t write like that. I wish I could. Andy Cutting and Rob Harbron can just do it. I’ve sat next to Rob in the car – he’ll be in the passenger seat with his concertina on his leg, and he’ll just piss out this incredible thing. And then, next year at Sidmouth Folk Festival, you’ll hear people playing it in sessions. Now, that’s a talent. But I haven’t got that.
You’re taking Solo out for some gigs, aren’t you?
Is that something you’re nervous about doing on your own?
There’s no safety net, I suppose.
No, there’s no safety net. I’m doing it for a few reasons. Number one is, how many English fiddle players can you name who will do you a 90 minute instrumental set of traditional folk repertoire? Not many. And there’s a little bug there in my brain going, “Can I do that? Will anyone come and watch 90 minutes of traditional English fiddle repertoire with no songs?” And that’s a stupid reason for doing gigs, but it’s part of it. It’s like, can I actually keep people entertained for an hour and a half? So we’ll see. I’ll let you know in March [laughs].
Another thing is, I need a kick up the arse every so often. And you’ll know this as someone who sings and plays: your learning and improving goes like that, doesn’t it? [Makes the movement of a hand walking up a staircase] “Yeah, I got better. Shit, I just spent two years maybe getting a little bit worse.” And I need that. I desperately need that. I feel like I haven’t progressed in a long time. And particularly after COVID, I need a reason to try to progress. So it was like, come on, just put some gigs in. If I’ve got a deadline, I’ll work towards it. So it was a kick up the arse thing.
Two more reasons [laughs]. A lot of this repertoire that I found wouldn’t work in any band that I’m in. So, the first track that came out was one of those funny waltzes, but they wouldn’t work in Leveret, and my band isn’t doing trad repertoire at the moment. And I’m not in any other bands, so I didn’t have a place for all this repertoire. I haven’t got a place for it other than just playing on my own. So again, I wanted those tunes to be in the air, circulating, back in the real world and off the page.
And then, of course, the fourth reason is the fact that I need to do it, because touring a five-piece band isn’t really financially viable, right? I’m going to do some solo gigs every year to try to save up and make my band possible. It’s not possible to tour a five-piece these days. It really isn’t.
Which leads us rather neatly to the fact that you are in another band, they’re much bigger than a five-piece, and they’re touring at the end of the year.
Oh yeah! Hopefully. My god. COVID had better not mess that up, I tell you.
Was that easy to get back together?
Yeah, it was, actually. I was kind of amazed at how easily and quickly that happened. What happened was, in lockdown, a lot of people were doing those videos with split screens. I just emailed Bellowhead and said, “Everyone video yourself and record yourself playing ‘New York Girls’. I’m going to put it together. Let’s just do it.” And then we put it out and it had a quarter of a million views on Facebook within a week or something insane. The outtakes that I’ve got from people’s videos are just some of the funniest. And a lot of us were very humbled. I think we maybe underestimated how important Bellowhead is to a lot of people. So, as a result of that, we did a big streamed gig last December. And again, that was crazy. I mean, was it 20,000 people who watched that or something? I can’t remember how many people exactly. It was ridiculous.
I think we maybe underestimated how important Bellowhead is to a lot of people.Sam Sweeney
And so it just became apparent that people miss Bellowhead a lot. And particularly after the two years we’ve had, it sort of felt like Bellowhead just brings people extraordinary joy, and that maybe we should just get back together and have a party. And there was nobody, as far as I’m aware, that needed convincing. We were just like, “Yeah, let’s just do it. It’ll be a huge amount of fun.” And because the pressure is off – we’re not writing a new album, we haven’t got a record label, there’s no direction for us to go – it’s the Broadside anniversary tour. So it’ll be that record, plus the greatest hits.
And quite a busy night for you at each gig because you’re supporting with your band as well, right?
Yeah. That’s amazing. That is exciting. It is going to be crazy. I mean, Paul Sartin supported Bellowhead with Belshazzar’s Feast years ago, and then Benji Kirkpatrick did it solo once as well. So it’ll be fine. It’ll be exhausting. Those Bellowhead tours were always ridiculous, and we always used to get incredibly ill and very tired and all that sort of thing. So yes, it will definitely be exhausting. But I’m more excited than anything else. And again, if I have a deadline, if I find out I’ve got a thing to do, I’m going to work towards it and make it the best I possibly can. So, yeah, I can’t wait. It’s going to be the best three weeks of the year.
For more information on Sam Sweeney, head to samsweeneymusic.com. To order the EP, SOLO, head to hudsonrecords.co.uk.