(photo by Alex Harvey-Brown)
This interview is an extract from the June 2017 (#128) issue of Songlines. To read the full interview order a copy of the edition at: http://ift.tt/2lbcV5M
As Sam Lee brings his Norwegian-British sound-jam Vindauga to this year’s Songlines Encounters Festival and pushes folk onto the big screen in Guy Ritchie’s new film, Nathaniel Handy steps into the headspace of folk music’s polymath.
Sam Lee is a song collector. More than that, he favours full-immersion baptism in the Gypsy and Traveller folk singing communities from which he has gleaned an oral repository. Yet he is not only a conserver of song, but also a conservationist more broadly. “Before folk music, I worked in nature studies doing a lot of wilderness training. It’s my first passion,” he tells me. And should the son and heir of Madonna and Guy Ritchie one day become a famous survival expert, we may well have Sam Lee to thank for it.
He brought his bushcraft to the Ritchie household in Wiltshire when he was invited to discuss a new film project with the director. “Guy likes folk music,” reveals Lee. “He was making a film set in the first century and he wanted folk music. He wanted that sense of authenticity.” The film in question is the blockbuster King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, a sprawling epic of English braveheartedness set for release on May 19.
“I’m using the same principles as conservationists of rewilding certain areas of land into being musical places”
“I went down to his house in Wiltshire and he took me on a tour round the grounds,” Lee remembers. “I taught him and his son a few things about the outdoors and he was like, ‘Geezer, how come there’s this Jewish kid who knows all about folk music and the outdoors?’ He just couldn’t get his head around it. But he said, ‘Right, we’ll get you in the film’.”
Lee visited the Warner Bros Studios in Leavesden where he saw the sheer scale of a film that was also shot on location in Snowdonia, the Forest of Dean, Windsor Great Park and the Isle of Skye’s distinctive Quiraing region. “It’s enormous,” says Lee. “Castles. Cave systems. What they’ve built is phenomenal.”
It’s not the usual setting for English folk music, which is what makes Ritchie’s punt so brave. “He just put me in a studio with some scenes and said, ‘Sing’,” Lee explains. “I actually went for Scottish Traveller ballads, because they’re my favourites, but also because they have that sense of drama. A little bit of the song ‘The Wild, Wild Berry’ came to me.” It was to become the soundtrack to a trailer that has gone viral. “They said they’d never had a reaction to a song on a trailer like it,” says Lee. “I was immediately bombarded by people asking, ‘Dude, what sort of music is this? Where can I find it?’ It’s unbelievable what’s happened to it.”
These are certainly strange environs for folk music. The trailer reveals classic Hollywood treatment, with a fantastical monster and CGI galore. It is English myth remade for the action movie age. Such big screen treatment of British folk song might make some uneasy, but Lee believes it’s high time it got the exposure. “The art of cinema is about trying to create an experience,” he says. “Folk music is a brilliant way to transport a viewer, which is why you get bagpipes all the time; they’re a great way of getting a sense of drama, ancientness and ensuing battle. It’s amazing that British folk hasn’t been utilised more in the way that American folk music has been in so much American cinema.”
+ DATE Sam Lee will be at Songlines Encounters Festival at King’s Place on June 3: http://ift.tt/2rDsEgm
+ PODCAST Listen to Sam Lee talk about Vindauga on the Kings Place podcast: