FEATURE: Sam Slatcher – My Inspiration | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Ahead of his first headline gig and EP launch at City Theatre Durham on Sunday 15th April 2018, folk singer-songwriter Sam Slatcher shares his story behind the song City of Sanctuary. The EP In Unlikely Places is released on Friday 6th April. Over to you Sam…

The opening track of my forthcoming EP In Unlikely Places is a song titled City Of Sanctuary which has been widely received through a music video posted to social media in January 2018. The song has been shared over a 1000 times, and viewed over 61k times, evoking memories, nostalgia and interest in the topic. Although recently published, the song was actually written over a year ago as part of a series of songs I had written and begun playing live to audiences in the winter of 2016/7. These songs were part of a project called Home Unbound that responded to the call of a national refugee support organisation to create a culture of welcome for refugees and asylum seekers who have recently settled in the UK having fled war, persecution and violence.

Let me take you back to autumn of 2016. The public mood in Britain was grim following a heated referendum campaign on Britain’s European Union membership. There was mistrust, lies and fear traded on both sides as well as the disturbing politically-motivated killing of Labour MP Jo Cox. Communities felt divided in a way that I’ve never experienced before living in Britain. Much of the debate around Brexit had been framed by immigration and some fractions of the Leave campaign had been whipping up fear around immigration to gather support for the leave vote. Just a year earlier, the public had woken up to the plight of refugees escaping war in North Africa and the Middle East, following the death of a three year washed up on the shores of Turkey. Amidst all this, I felt compelled to response to these dramatic changes. 

After a few half successful attempts to write some songs that responded to the refugee crisis, I had hit a bit of a rock. I felt uncomfortable about writing other people’s stories. Not only was I keen to avoid a Band Aid song of pity for refugees, I did not want to steal someone’s platform or speak on anyone’s behalf. Stepping back a bit I had to really ask myself, where am I placed in all these debates and what can I contribute? Eventually I settled for the idea that I needed to speak from where I could authentically write from. I decided to begin with the city I’ve lived in for the past decade; a place I’ve come to call home – my own sanctuary in many ways. I remembered something about the ‘sanctuary’ knocker on the door of Durham Cathedral, a principle that dates back to the Middle Ages allowing those subject to the harsh punishment of the law, a chance to find sanctuary before either fleeing the country or facing punishment for the crime at hand.

So, I took a trip up to the Cathedral, took an official tour, and was blown away by the stories throughout the ages… I re-discovered the origins of the city, learnt again who St Cuthbert was, and the community in exile who carried his body. I was in awe of sites like the Galilee chapel that was very probably built by the same hands who built the grand palaces of Europe’s southern cities in the 10th century, who were in turn inspired by the minds of the great architects from the then vibrant city of Damascus. A thousand years before modern day Syrian refugees fled to parts of the North East, little pieces of Syrian art was woven into the stone and now inspires millions of visitors every year. After the tour had finished, I was mesmerised and stayed in the Cathedral a good few hours, gathering my thoughts as I began drafting out some of the words of the song on a note file on my phone. The words ‘sleeping refugee’ came to mind, to describe St Cuthbert who many believed remained incorruptible as a saint throughout his journey across Northern England. The first verses of the song emerged, beginning on an Island in Northumbria more than a thousand years ago.

The song was completed in the following days after my visit to the Cathedral, as I began to put a melody to the verses. I ended up writing over 8 verses for the song, trying to include all the key parts of the story, as well as my own arrival in Durham. I also wanted to include the 84’ Miners’ strike for its centrality to the story of Durham, as well as recent arrivals to the city. It took several attempts to find the appropriate melody, eventually settling for a finger-picking folk sounding beginning, with a droning top ‘e’ string due to a strange capo arrangement I’d be experimenting with, with a more Dylan-esk strumming pattern as the song builds. Eventually I managed to fine tune the song into the first 2 verses about St Cuthbert’s exile, a verse for the Miners’ strike/Miners’ Gala, as well as a verse about refugees from the Middle East who have come to find a “home from home”, with a bridge that draws together all the various components as well as other sanctuary seekers: buskers, architects of bridges and railway, scholars, miners and pilgrims. I never managed to get the Galilee chapel’s Andalucian architectural history into the final cut… a song for another time!

In many ways, the outpouring of memories and nostalgia, and shared feelings of love for the city that followed the music video, confirmed for me the importance and relevance of the message of hope in difficult times. By showing that Durham has always had arrivals and refugees – from the body of an exiled saint, to recent refugees fleeing an ongoing civil war – I hope it can inspire a message that all can find a home in these ancient streets. I’m touched that it seems to have connected with so many people who feel a sense of sanctuary in Durham.

My first professionally-recorded EP In Unlikely Places will be released online on Friday 6th April that includes City of Sanctuary along with four other songs that feature stories of unlikely places being discovered. These include chaotic community houses with unlocked doors, to mountains of refuge for dementia sufferers, to the long distances migrant birds cross effortlessly without identity files. In Unlikely Places will be officially launched at City Theatre, Durham on Sunday 15th April, along with sets from Hang Drum player Simon Wood and musician and student Jordan Kirkup, hosted by Durham’s Down By The River. You can find more about my music on my website here, with regular updates on my Facebook page here.

Sam Slatcher releases In Unlikely Places on Friday 6th April. He plays City Theatre, Durham on Sunday 15th April.

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