Derbyshire folk musician and former Bellowhead member Sam Sweeney
PUBLISHED: 00:00 13 February 2016
Sam Sweeney talks about about life after Bellowhead and his recent appointment as artistic director of the National Youth Folk Ensemble
SAM Sweeney was six when he first picked up a fiddle, only 12 when he won Derby’s In The Tradition Folk Awards and just 18 when he was asked to join Bellowhead – one of the top folk acts in the country.
The 26-year-old, whose family home is in Castle Donington but who more recently has been living in Stoney Middleton, has progressed from being a prodigy of the Derbyshire scene to being named BBC Radio 2 Folk Musician of the Year in 2015.
Now, Sam is looking forward to inspiring the next generation of great English folk talent after being appointed artistic director of the National Youth Folk Ensemble. It’s an initiative that he believes is well overdue and one that he hopes will reignite a musical tradition that is in need of fresh vitality.
‘It’s the first job interview I have ever done,’ he laughs. ‘I was incredibly fortunate to join Bellowhead straight from school so I have never had a “proper” job. Then with Bellowhead splitting up, I saw this opportunity and I thought “that’s absolutely perfect for me”.
‘It’s the first time that anything like this has happened and I think it will inspire young musicians in embracing the English repertoire.
‘Now it’s about preparing and I am eager to get started. It’s a one year post initially but that might be extended if all goes well.
‘It’s being funded by Arts Council England, which is amazing. There is a National Youth Orchestra and National Youth Jazz Orchestra, so it really is time folk had an equivalent. Ireland and other European countries are well represented when it comes to traditional music but there is very little going on for young people in England, except in the north east with Folkworks.
‘This is national and it is a big deal. What we can finally do is hopefully inspire these young people in folk music and create the next generation of performers, writers and arrangers.’
The ensemble will collect together talented youngsters aged 14-18 and, with Sam starting out playing and performing at a very early age, he can call on his own experiences moving up through the folk scene, which began with success in Derby’s In the Tradition Awards – an annual search for the best up and coming talent in the area.
The following year Sam met Hannah James at the same awards, which led to the formation of Kerfuffle, who would release five albums over the next eight years.
He says: ‘A lot of the young people who audition for the ensemble will know what I have done since I was their age and part of my job is to give them the same kind of opportunities. I will co-ordinate the tutors and I’m going to get the best professional musicians I can find, all these amazing people they have perhaps always wanted to meet and who will inspire them.
‘The most exciting thing for me at 14 was connecting with the music on a deep level, finding manuscripts of dusty tunes that people hadn’t played for years. So I want to be a bit hands off, not bringing repertoire ready for them to play but encouraging them to go and do it themselves. I will ask them how we are going to sound as an ensemble. I want them to imagine what sound we are going to create and to make sure it’s an original sound as well. All the kids will be able to play, it’s taking things on to the next level.’
Sam believes he was lucky to come up through a supportive Derbyshire folk community.
‘It’s not the same everywhere,’ he says. ‘It’s an enormous thing in the north east with Folkworks set up in the 1990s. In Derbyshire, all it takes is someone like Mick Peat (folk musician and promoter) to have the conviction to do something for young kids and then it makes a huge difference. Before I knew about Mick and In the Tradition Awards, I thought I was the only young person in the country playing fiddle. All over the country there are 10 and 11-year-old kids who think they are weird because they play folk music because there is nothing in vast parts of the country to bring them together. So I was lucky being in Derbyshire. I just wish there were more people willing to put in the effort to bring forward folk music.
‘It is still a minority interest, which for me is a strange thing but I can understand why young people don’t play folk – mainly because they don’t know anything about it. In Shetland they still teach the fiddle in primary school. There is an enormous conversation to be had here about the benefits of kids playing folk music by ear, instead of playing classical grade pieces. If they did, I think there would be fewer kids giving up their instruments as early as they do. We just have a long way to go as a country in terms of telling people folk music exists and getting them involved. Hopefully, the profile of this ensemble will be so big that kids in school will say “I don’t want to be in an orchestra I want to play folk tunes”.
‘That’s why it is so important. It will raise the bar for folk music in this country which desperately needs that appeal.’
Sam began playing at primary school after seeing a classmate with a violin and being shown how to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
‘The fiddle had lots of shiny stickers on it so I decided to have lessons – and that was basically it,’ he says. ‘At the age of six no-one tells you that learning by ear is difficult so I just started playing all these folk tunes from my parents’ record collection. By the time I was 10, I was entering competitions and playing gigs and I never wanted to be a footballer or astronaut or anything. From the moment I picked up the fiddle I knew that was what I wanted to do – but I know I have been insanely lucky.’
At the age of 18 Sam went to university to do a folk music degree but lasted just 14 days.
‘I hated it,’ he says. ‘I went to see my old teacher and said, “What on earth am I going to do with my life?”
‘Then I got a phone call asking if I wanted to join Bellowhead. I went from thoughts of going back to university to do something like French to being full-time in this amazing band – which has been my life for the last nine years.’
Bellowhead have released a string of successful albums, played to packed houses wherever they have appeared and have established themselves as a major force on the folk music scene. Sam joined the band for the second album, replacing founder member Giles Lewin, but had no idea just what a phenomenon they would become.
He says: ‘Bellowhead were formed for one gig but then the first album came along and they were invited on Jools Holland and the second album came out and every step of the way something amazing happened. We never expected it. It has been magic and that’s why we are all going to miss it now it’s coming to an end.
‘It’s very much a good thing to go out on top, with a bang, rather than to let it fizzle out, doing smaller and smaller gigs. At the same time it is all I have known for the last nine years and we are better than ever. We love each other so much and, as a band, we are selling more tickets than ever. We sold 27,000 tickets in three days for the latest tour so part of me still can’t believe it is ending. It feels weird that from 1st May I will never play with these people again.
‘It’s like losing my clan, my mates, so there will be a lot of tears. I’m not looking forward to the last day at all.’
Sam has always done other projects while being in Bellowhead, including taking the musical story of his 100-year-old fiddle, Made in the Great War, out on tour.
‘At one time I was playing in seven bands,’ says Sam. ‘It’s brilliant. It’s what I have always wanted to do. The constant variety makes it so special but Bellowhead has been what has enabled me to earn a living and do other things so it will be a strange couple of years.
‘I will be still playing with Leveret with Derby’s Andy Cutting and Rob Harbron. I’m playing in Eliza Carty’s Wayward Band, which is a big new thing. Who knows what else, things always come along. And 2017 is the centenary of the death of Richard Howard, who made my fiddle, so we will do some shows of Made in the Great War to mark that.’
Indeed, Sam has already done so much, you forget that he’s still a youngster in the folk music scene.
He says: ‘I was really fortunate that Jon Boden from Bellowhead asked me to join his band the Remnant Kings and his partner Fay Hield’s band. They nurtured me from a young age and gave me enough work to be self-employed.
‘Being a musician you have to make it work, create your own projects, but I am lucky as a 26-year-old to have already done what I have done.’
Sam has recently moved to Gloucestershire as part of an artist residency at a music venue but misses Derbyshire.
‘I class Derbyshire as home and it has been good to me,’ he says. ‘And there’s a lot of talent in the county.’
Sadly, Sam believes the folk scene in general could be healthier and he worries about the future.
‘I think there was a time ten years ago when it was very much on the up and people were playing English traditional music. Now, folk festivals are becoming crowded with non-traditional music or singer-songwriters and a lot of it is generic. It’s a bit worrying and I can’t think of any really young people at present who are going to change the music and become the next big folk name.
‘There has been a lot of amazing talent that has come out of the scene but it’s in a weird place at present and the standard of our music is way below countries like Ireland, so it’s in a dangerous place. I could be wrong but that’s my opinion.
‘How many young up and coming acts can you see at folk festivals? I’m not saying Kerfuffle were great but we played a lot of festivals. You don’t see many under 18s these days. These things happen in cycles and hopefully the ensemble will help and if you play the fiddle or melodeon you won’t think you are alone and we can raise the profile of English music and make an incredible band out of it.’
The National Youth Folk Ensemble
Sam Sweeney has been named as the inaugural artistic director of the English Folk Dance and Song Society’s (EFDSS) new National Youth Folk Ensemble.
Sam will work closely with EFDSS to develop the programme in its first year. He will lead on the artistic vision of the ensemble, collaborate with a team of professional folk artists, devise content for the residential courses and co-create repertoire with the young musicians by drawing on English regional traditions and styles.
Recruitment for the first cohort of young musicians to join the ensemble will begin in spring 2016, with the National Youth Folk Ensemble formally starting in October 2016. A series of sampler days will take place across England between March and June 2016 as the first level audition process for joining the ensemble.
Katy Spicer, EFDSS chief executive, said: ‘Sam is such an exciting appointment. He is a well-respected and highly sought after performer who has such an enthusiasm and commitment to develop the next generation of folk musicians. We are delighted he is joining EFDSS and are so looking forward to working with him.’ Keep up to date with news about the ensemble at www.efdss.org/nationalyouthfolkensemble