Interview with Stroud musician Sam Sweeney

Samy Sweeney (photo: Camilla Greenwell)

Samy Sweeney (photo: Camilla Greenwell) - Credit: Camilla Greenwell

Stroud musician Sam Sweeney talks about live streaming, being in Bellowhead, releasing his second solo album, and the challenges of social distancing

Unearth Repeat, by Sam Sweeney

Unearth Repeat, by Sam Sweeney - Credit: Archant

What can we expect from your new album Unearth Repeat, Sam, and how did the name come about?

In 2018 I made my first solo record, The Unfinished Violin, which was an album of music from the First World War, recorded on my fiddle that was carved in 1915 but left unfinished because the maker went to war and tragically never returned. It was an amazing thing to do and led me, among other things, to appear on Antiques Roadshow! Having made that record, which had a very strong theme and narrow goalposts, I wanted to create something that had no theme, no agenda and no purpose other than to make music that I love with musicians I love playing with. So if The Unfinished Violin was a concept record, Unearth Repeat is very much an ‘un-concept’ record.

The name has a few reasons behind it. In playing traditional music, I spend a huge amount of time unearthing old tunes, in the sense of digging them up, blowing off the dust and rediscovering them. But unearthing also has connotations of making something known or heard, which is another purpose of what I’m trying to do with this music. This music belongs to everyone; I just want it to get out there and be part of people’s lives. The ‘repeat’ part of the name has a few meanings too. The process of unearthing this music is one that I do over and over, but to repeat something is also to recall from memory, to say after another or to make appear again, which is also very applicable to the music I make. So really, the title is just two words that have multiple meanings that fit closely with the music and process of making the album. I hope that all makes sense!

You’ve collaborated on a huge array of music projects. What have been some of your most memorable?

There’s no doubt that Bellowhead was a phenomenal thing to be a part of. We played a final gig in Oxford (where the band formed) in 2016 and I miss that band very much indeed. When I joined as an 18 year old, the band became my family for the next eight-and-a-half years and we had such an amazing time touring and making crowds jump up and down all over the world. I hope we will play together again one day!

Another very memorable collaboration I did was at Buckingham Palace for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2018. I was asked to write and arrange a piece of music that celebrated some of the musical traditions across the commonwealth. It was a truly surreal experience to be playing in front of so many world leaders and something I’ll never forget. We even got the thumbs up from Justin Trudeau…

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I think the work I did around the First World War and my fiddle will always have a profound place in my heart. The story affected so many people and every night after the gigs people would queue up to tell me how moving the gig was, about a relative who died in The Great War, or a couple times about an instrument passed down their family that a relative played in the trenches! Something about The Unfinished Violin album moved people and, as a musician, that’s the highest praise in the world!

I so enjoyed your Unearth Repeat Listening Club on YouTube. Will you be doing any more in the coming weeks and months?

I’m not sure yet! It was a wonderful thing to do. We live streamed my new album with a live commentary on each track as it played. So far over 3,500 people have watched it and it’s still available online. It was lovely to know that a few thousand people were listening to the new record all together, all over the world at exactly the same time. It felt like a wonderful meeting of people – I felt quite humbled at the end. I went downstairs afterwards to make a coffee and said to my girlfriend, “I feel like I’ve just done a gig!”

How are you getting through this difficult time of self-isolation and social distancing – any tips for staying sane and busy?

I have had almost all my work cancelled until September, which is a very strange and daunting place to be. However, now that I am having to reinvent my whole way of making a living, I have never been so busy! I have just set up my own Patreon page, where people can subscribe and receive videos of me talking about my music, pick up tunes and fiddle-playing tips and get early access to some videos from my album. I did a live stream of my new album, as we just mentioned. I’ve done some online collaborations with other musicians, which have been really cool to do, and wouldn’t have happened if normal life were continuing. It’s a strange time for musicians, but we seem to finding ways through it, for now!

I have been overwhelmed by the support of my followers who have sent lovely messages, bought the new record and even sent donations to make up for my rescheduled album launch tour. I don’t think I’ve ever had a four-week stretch with no work, let alone four months, so it’s truly overwhelming to receive such wonderful messages and help from people who like what I do.

What are the three best things about living in Gloucestershire?

1. I have just moved house, from Slad closer to Stroud, and both Rodborough and Selsley Common are within a 15-minute walk from my front door. I love that within such a short (uphill!) stroll I can look over the five valleys and get away from everything.

2. Stroud Farmers’ Market is one of the best things about living here. Even in the current situation there are still people selling their food, while operating very strict rules on queuing and handling the produce, of course, or running ‘order and collect’ services. It feels like the people of Stroud are clubbing together to keep supporting the farmers through this situation, and I have always found that Stroud has that kind of community spirit. It’s lovely to be a part of and I can’t wait for the market to reopen in its usual form once things return to normal.

3. There’s a lovely little community of folk musicians in Stroud. For the last few years a small group of us meet once a month (ish) for a jam session in The Little George in the centre of town. It’s great because they let us use the back room and take our fish and chips in there! It’s fabulous – the best fish and chips in Gloucestershire (from Simpsons), great local beer and lovely music. I feel very lucky to be able to do that so close to home and I think the next time we are able to meet up and play music will feel very wonderful indeed.

Are you hoping to reschedule your tour dates?

Yes, absolutely! The May 2020 dates have all been rescheduled for May 2021, and I’m hugely grateful to all the venues and my agent for working so quickly on getting it all sorted. To those who were hoping to catch me in Stroud, we are rescheduling that one for December 6th so my home crowd won’t need to wait a whole year to hear the album live. Details of all the rescheduled gigs will be up on my website soon. I have everything crossed that the November and December dates will go ahead!

Sam Sweeney’s latest album Unearth Repeat is available in various formats from his website now: