INTERVIEW: Sam Sweeney | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Sam Sweeney is a busy man. When we speak, he’s getting ready to go on the road with Leveret – “It’s the second half of our tenth anniversary tour, so that’s nice” – but really he’s here to talk about his November tour with the Sam Sweeney Band to promote the Escape That album, which drops into Sunderland’s Fire Station on Thursday 23rd November. “At the moment it’s a terrifying prospect but I’m sure it’ll be good craic,” he laughs nervously.

Perhaps best known for being one-eleventh of folk darlings Bellowhead, Escape That is the sound of Sam taking a slightly different path to that and his previous solo releases – but rather than tentative first steps, the ongoing pandemic pushed him into running full pelt without looking back.

I don’t think I’d have had the balls to make an album like that if lockdown hadn’t have happened,” he says. “I’d probably have made a much safer folk album, whereas I just thought ‘Bollocks to it, I’m just going to make an album that is very personal and makes me feel wonderful’ – so that’s what I did. I feel like nostalgia of many things kicked in because we couldn’t see anyone, so I revisited music that reminded me of people and places, and it’s an album that spans my musical memories from the age of 12 to the age of 19.”

Folk fans familiar with Sam may be surprised to discover that he doesn’t consider his latest album to fit into that particular genre, and nor does he listen to much of it either – preferring guitar bands and Scandinavian pop.

I think folk music is an amazing thing but for me it’s not really something that I listen to,” he explains. “There’ll be five or six folk artists that I listen to regularly but if I listen to music I want an intense sonic experience and it doesn’t really hit the spot. At the moment I’m mostly listening to Norwegian pop. The other week we went to see one of my favourite Norwegian artists called Dagny. She was absolutely incredible.”

I just thought ‘Bollocks to it, I’m just going to make an album that is very personal and makes me feel wonderful’ – so that’s what I did

Curiously, although the violin is his main instrument, Sam says it’s not the one he used to initially write the album, explaining: “The goalposts are far too wide on the violin, whereas on other instruments my options are incredibly limited. If I pick up a guitar I can play a pop-punk chord sequence and it automatically appeals to me, then I can noodle around on another instrument and come up with something simple and catchy.”

Escape That’s title track is an exquisite example of Sam’s ear for a melodic hook, where violin and guitar intertwine to make a tune as uplifting and immediately memorable as anything that’s topped the pop chart, before in the next breath he’s breaking your heart with his chord choice in Pink Steps or Yodden. In conversation, he’s infectiously enthusiastic and punctuates many of his sentences with a chuckle as if to emphasise that while he clearly lives and breathes music, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. It can’t be a coincidence that, rather than a serious image, the cover of Sam’s album captures him halfway through pulling a sweater over his head – is this what he’s escaping from in the LP’s title?

It’s everything,” Sam says. “It became a silly catchphrase in my house during Covid, wanting to get away from absolutely everything that was happening. The writing process became a way of being able to forget things I didn’t want to deal with. It’s also kind of saying, ‘Look, this is what folk albums sound like and I’m done with that and actually this is what my soul sounds like’. OK, there’s a fiddle at the front of it but in my head it sounds a lot more like the music I used to like when I was a teenager than anything to do with folk music. So it was a little bit to do with sacking off the standard folk aesthetic and just making the music I wanted to make. I could sit you down and be like ‘Look, this track is inspired by this bit of the Killers and this chord sequence was inspired by my favourite song by Weezer.’”

Although he’s looking forward to the November tour, Sam admits he feels much more pressure playing under his own name than in someone else’s band.

I never planned it. I never wanted to be a solo artist. I was delighted to be at the back of the stage,” he laughs. “I wouldn’t consider myself a frontman. It just happened by accident really.”

When his band supported on the last Bellowhead tour, he would then take his place in the headline act each night having donned a sparkly green jacket and light up trainers – surely not the attire of a man who claims to shun the limelight?

He chuckles. “That’s true. I treated that tour like ‘What would I never ever do? Oh I know, I’ll wear sequins and flashing shoes and just go for it’ – and actually I felt a million dollars. I absolutely loved it!”

Despite the lack of sequins this time around he’s looking forward to playing the album live at last. “We’ve only toured Escape That supporting Bellowhead so we’ve only played five of the tracks live until now. I’m hoping it’ll bring a bit of the party spirit of those Bellowhead support slots that we did – I’m hoping that the vibe will be similar. That’s the plan. I love coming to the North East. It’s always wonderful and I’ve got loads of friends up there. It’ll be gorgeous.”

Sam Sweeney plays The Fire Station, Sunderland on Thursday 23rd November.


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