Mercury Music Prize: Sam Lee

The Kentish Town singer is up for tonight’s prize

A big collection of curious and little-known instruments does not automatically make for interesting music – nor, still less perhaps, music with a simple bit of fun about it. Luckily Sam Lee seems to have plenty of talent and bundles of joie d’vivre to go with his Jew’s harp and his Alpine horns, not to mention his Swiss hang drum, his hammered dulcimer and his shruti box.

Three records that might be described as “folk” have made it on to the shortlist for this year’s Mercury Prize for Album of the Year, with the winner to be announced on Thursday night. But whoever takes the overall title, Sam’s contender – A Ground Of Its Own – is indeed among the most fun and almost certainly the most interesting nominees. You may well have never heard of him, and his debut album is ranked among the outsiders for victory by the bookmakers despite garnering a string of glowing reviews. But trust us: the singer and his LP are well worth your attention, and for that we should thank Hampstead Heath.

While the 32-year-old spent his early years living in Kentish Town before moving to Dalston, Sam says with warmth in his voice: “I really grew up on the heath.”

“When I wasn’t at art school, I was off making my money from teaching wilderness living and bushcraft skills,” he explains. “I’ve always been a very nature-based person, even though I grew up in London, so that helped me understand the relationship with the natural world in the folk tradition.”

Listening to his album, the influence of the heath – as a rare and glorious area of green wilderness located inside an otherwise bustling world metropolis – is clear. Sam has created a record that is simultaneously deeply traditional and startlingly innovative, mixing urban and rural inspiration.

Its eight songs are genuine folk numbers in the truest and often forgotten sense of the word. None of them were penned by Sam himself, but instead are time-honoured musical tales that have been passed down from generation to banjo-playing generation – with age-old origins lying hundreds of years in the past in some cases.

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You might not be surprised to read this if you listen to the first minute of his album’s opening track, The Ballad of George Collins. There’s the tentative plucking of strings beneath Sam’s fingers, the Celtic lilt of the notes fluttering from his throat, the air of an England that ceased to be so long, long ago. But then – well, suddenly there’s a beat that his friends and fellow nominees Django Django would be proud of, an edgy rhythmic thrust that is distinctly modern. The lyrics are rich with history, but his interpretations of the words and arrangements of the music enveloping them are strikingly original and invigorating.

And what of the subject matter? Is this opening track a gentle story of village life and family love? Not exactly. “The lead song is about sexually transmitted diseases between a man and these six women who all die because of George Collins,” says Sam, “and it’s all set in London. There is a very strong pastoral element to it, but there’s also a very strong industrial city-based aspect to it.”

This cotemporary edge represents another side of this multifaceted musician. Before becoming a recording artist, and when he wasn’t busy teaching people how to forage for fungi and build shelters around trees, Sam was performing burlesque dancing shows in Soho.

“I’m very rooted in tradition but at the same time I’m a thoroughly modern man,” he continues. “I love modernity and the trappings of the city, and I think there’s a wonderfully natural way of combining the two. I don’t want my music to have all the associations of what people expect folk to sound like. A lot of what people expect folk to sound like is a modern interpretation. The whole ‘60s and ‘70s folk revival created this assumed sound for folk music of guitars doing diddly-dee diddly-dum, but that’s not how folk music sounds.”

The singer developed an innate love for the purity of real folk music as a boy but without realising it. He spent some of the best evenings of his youth singing around campfires with a North London camping club – though he adds: “It was only six years ago when I began investigating where these songs came from that I realised there was this brilliant, massive folk tradition that had been going on for ever and ever.

“I was captivated by both the music and the stories of the people singing them, and the style of singing too: these old recordings of open-throated, open-hearted singers who were so unaffected by pop conditioning.”

In the last few years of course, folk – or at least the mainstream impression of it – has become quite heavily imbued by pop, particularly through the commercial success of Mumford & Sons.

“Mumford & Sons are not folk music by any stretch of the imagination just because they play banjo and guitar. But if people look back on folk music because of them, that can only be a good thing.”

Nevertheless, he is appreciative of Michael Kiwanuka’s “beautiful” album Home Again, which like Ben Howard’s Every Kingdom has also been loosely placed in the folk bracket on the Mercury shortlist. While Sam applies a stricter definition to folk music, he doesn’t believe that this prevents the movement from evolving and taking on fresh ideas.

“I do get frustrated that not many people in the traditional music scene are looking at it from outside the box, because there is so much possibility,” he says. “Folk should be a pioneer of sound and not just stepping in the old ways.”

This passion – he classes himself as a folk “evangelist” – led Sam to establish an ongoing series of music events to showcase talented musicians, known as the Nest Collective, long before he released his album. And it was through his DJing and promoting that he met the psychedelic indie band Django Djano, one of this year’s hot Mercury favourites.

“When the shortlist announcement was made, I was at the launch and there they were,” Sam recalls. “I’d booked them for a huge concert at Halloween last year, and I got to know them. They said: ‘Oh, what are you doing here Sam?’ and I said I’d been nominated. They said: ‘No way, we thought you were just a promoter!’”

This anecdote is symbolic of the fact his music lacks of the profile of other nominees, and perhaps that will count against Sam when it comes to Thursday night. But his nomination alone has already begun attracting more people to explore his much-loved genre, and the promoter in Sam makes him proud of this achievement. “It’s great that people are finally paying attention,” he says.

Sam Lee’s Nest Collective is hosting live folk events at Cecil Sharp House on Thursday 8 November and at St Mark’s Church on Saturday 10 November.