Home Humans of Hackney Singing with nightingales: Sam Lee

Singing with nightingales: Sam Lee


Mercury Prize Nominated Folk Singer, Founder of The Nest Collective, The Song Collectors Collective Sam Lee:

“My mentor was a Scottish traveller called Stanley Robertson, who lived in Aberdeen on the road in caravans all his early life, he was the last of the great balladeers and storytellers who kept old songs and ways alive.”

“My first earliest memory is of me as a little boy growing up in Kentish Town. I remember being told how to light a fire in my back yard and shown how to cook soup using soup powder on a little pot we put over the fire. I must have been only about five years old, but I remember this being incredible: one could cook over the fire and make one’s own food. It was a very inspirational moment.

I wasn’t really ambitious at all. I do remember being at one point just assuming I’m going to make art. That was it. That what was I good at. I didn’t have any ambition to do this. I still don’t have ambition as such. I have loads of drive and excitement to make things happen, but I’ve never been target driven. But I think one of my earliest ambitions was to know how to build a light hut to live in. I was obsessed with this idea of trying to create my self sufficient home, which is why I went into wilderness survival.

I went to school in Kentish Town. I went to university art school: I went to the Chelsea College of Art, Camberwell College of Art. I was always working, I worked all the time to just like to make money from doing lots of odd-jobs, DJing, I used to be a burlesque dancer, anything. The art world was really great for teaching you how to be ingenious and find lots of ways to make things happen.

I had been singing all my life. My father is a musician and still plays. I’d sung songs all my life, particularly at school camps.
In the summers we would be around the campfire. That was never a professional thing, just the joy of singing together.

My mentor was a very important person to me, a Scottish traveller called Stanley Robertson, who lived in Aberdeen on the road in caravans all his early life, travelling across Scotland. He was the last of the great balladeers and storytellers who kept old songs and ways alive. I was very privileged to have four years of very deep mentorship under him being shown the old ways and becoming, as he put it, the keeper of the lore.

My musical influences are from all over. I’m always looking for interesting instruments from different cultures and traditions. So that is very much part of my artistic process. It’s about discovering sounds and interesting ways of playing instruments. I live in Hackney. I live in the caretakers’ flat over a church in the centre of Dalston. My flat is unique, very special.

It’s my little sanctuary and oasis, where all my music and work happens. I live here because it is an absolute hot house of culture. Yesterday I went to see a gig in Hackney and, walking past the glass front of Cafe Oto, I saw it was bursting with jazz musicians. I just thought wow, this area is just full of creativity and opportunity for artistic endeavours.

The idea of the nest came from the discovery of wider folk community tradition happening very much in the old way that it has done for decades. I love the music, but I couldn’t find anywhere to hear it that wasn’t full of old people, so I wanted to create an environment where that music could be heard by a younger audience.

It started off where it still is every month in the Old Queens Head on Essex Road, Islington, and has grown from being a monthly night with one or two acts to 150 shows a year. It’s all over the city and festival stages and also events outside of London. So it’s really become a platform to host lots of different ways of presenting all aspects of folk music, world music, traditional music and acoustic and stuff doesn’t fit into categories – just great music.

From that comes The Song Collectors Collective. The SCC is an organisation dedicated to the conservation and preservation of all traditions within UK and Ireland, and also abroad. It is a place for learning how to collect intangible vanishing culture, particularly songs, but also stories and language and culture and community – cultural caches can be discovered and carefully, sensitively documented and repatriated and made accessible online.

So it’s an organisation that teaches how to collect but also presents experts in the field in places where we can learn from them, including lots of conferences and gatherings and places where their stories can be heard about their engagement with indigenous communities all around the place. It worked particularly with Gypsy travellers communities in the UK and Ireland, because that’s my speciality area where the best of the song still exists.”