This time last year SERIOUS SAM BARRETT was looking forward to one of the biggest nights of his career, supporting country luminary Rosanna Cash in Leeds. For the folk and bluesman, who was born in West Yorkshire in 1980 and grew up surrounded by music, this was massive.
“My Dad and my uncle are both great folk singers and guitar players, in the Bert Jansch style. I learned from them,” he tells me across the wires from a snowy Yorkshire. “Pretty much as soon as I could get my arm round a guitar I was trying to copy them. I was probably six or seven.” But then disaster struck: shortly before the Cash gig, Barrett went and broke his wrist (not for the first time) in three places in a skateboarding accident, which left him unable to play guitar for two months. Barrett admits to being “in a dark place at that time” but he philosophically concludes that “you can’t wrap yourself in cotton wool; life’s dangerous.”
“There were always folk records being played in the house: The Dubliners, The Watersons, The Incredible String Band, Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention, Ewan McColl,” Barrett continues, as he picks up the thread of the rich musical education he received in his formative years. “Those records had a big impact on me as a child. When I was a kid I wanted to listen to Buddy Holly all the time. I loved the blues too. I got a Robert Johnson CD when I was 10 or 11. I used to just sit and try to play along with it all the time. I was lucky. My mum and dad had the raddest music taste.”
The use of the adjective ‘raddest’ in that last sentence is not a misstep, and in fact alludes to one of Sam Barrett’s other great passions, and the root of his injury: skateboarding. “I always had a skateboard but skateboarding became a big part of my life around 1995,” he trills with enthusiasm. “Skateboarding is the best thing in the world. It feels amazing and it makes you forget everything that brings you down. It’s also allowed me to meet the most humble, honest and down-to-earth people all over the world, and it makes you break your bones. I love it.” There are not many aspects of Sam Barrett’s life that you could call stereotypical but it might be fair to say, after that response, that he’s a typically phlegmatic White Rose man. So, in ‘every cloud’ mode, the hiatus and its attendant musings led him to name his new album Sometimes You Got To Lose, which he is showcasing on his upcoming UK tour, including a date at Bold Street Coffee.
The music Barrett makes takes in English and Celtic folk and American blues and country and I ask him if those trans-Atlantic styles sit comfortably together. “Yeh, to me they all work great together,” he confirms. “The English, Scottish and Irish traditions all have their own unique styles and I love them all. But there has always been a lot of crossing over between them, and they have a lot in common. I love the way American traditional music draws on all of them but also heavily on African folk music. That’s really what makes it so special. So many songs have existed in various forms in several countries and cultures. Songs aren’t bound by borders or language – they travel where they want.” The idea that songs aren’t bound by borders is translated into Barrett’s lyrics, which are scattered with references to his influences: he name checks Buddy Holly in Lullaby Of Leeds and Unchained Melody in Rock ‘n’ Roll Heart, and he seems able to take the exotic weft of his early American inspirations and the everyday warp of contemporary Yorkshire life and weave it seamlessly into something timeless. His playing is sharp and clean, in both his deft picking and his razor-sharp slide work. He plays a Stella 12-string which he picked up in Tennessee, the same model that Lead Belly used, and it has unquestionably helped to define Barrett’s sound. “I’ve played that same guitar since about 2006. I can’t imagine playing anything else. I love it,” he almost coos. I have an image of Barrett in a promo video, skateboarding down a gentle incline, guitar in hand, singing his latest release, and ask him if he’s ever tried it. “Oh no, man – I’ve broken so many bones, but I would never risk breaking my guitar.” The emphasis on ‘never’ is unequivocal.
His musical tastes don’t stop with the traditional either. In his early teens he got into rock and his skateboarding obsession developed alongside a love of metal and the US punk of Rancid, Minor Threat and Bad Brains. I put it to him that urban punk and rural folk make strange bedfellows but he rejects the notion. “Country, punk, rock ‘n’ roll, blues: they’re all kind of three-chord, short songs. They’re not ‘out there’ in structure; it’s straight down the line.”
“For years I preferred to play on my own because I wanted to prove to myself that I could pull off being a solo player and didn’t need anyone else,” Barrett continues, when prompted about the many collaborations he’s embarked upon over his career. “Eventually I opened up more to playing with other people; it’s taught me so much as a musician. I honestly love both for different reasons.” He’ll be doing both at his upcoming Bold Street Coffee gig, playing some numbers solo and others with another folk-blues player, David Broad. “Me and Dave met 10 years ago or more in a pub in Leeds called The Grove. It’s a really important pub for traditional music in Yorkshire and we were both playing a lot of old country blues at the time. We felt like nobody else was really doing it, so we started playing together a lot. We made a live album together in 2013; we share a love for traditional music, country and blues, and we’ve travelled and drunk a lot together. He’s a good lad.”
The Bold Street Coffee gig will also see the launch of an exhibition by artist Sami Graystone, another long term collaborator. Graystone’s punchy, screen-printed illustrations adorn Barrett’s three albums and, in his words, “make things look rootsy and bold. They’re in your face. She understands the music and I think it’s really important to have record covers that represent the music and complement it. Sami does that really well.” He’s played Bold Street Coffee several times and explains how it was his other love that helped him forge that connection. “I grew up skateboarding in Bradford and that city has good links with Liverpool in terms of their skate scenes. We used to travel back and forth all the time to go to punk gigs at the Flea Pit and to skate up at New Bird Street. I absolutely love Liverpool, and Bold Street Coffee has a heavy contingent of Liverpool skaters with Yorkshire affiliations, so it’s all carried on one way or another.”
Further afield, Barrett has toured with Alabama roots band Pine Hill Haints, and he’s even found time amidst this whirlwind of activity to run his own record label, YaDig!Records. “I do the label with a friend of mine who works at Jumbo Records. It’s worked out really well for me because I haven’t had to answer to anyone else or compromise in any way with my music.” The constant monitoring of various spinning plates would whittle away many people’s tether, but to Barrett it’s part of the thrill. Settling down is evidently not on his mind, at least not any time soon: I ask him if he had to give up music or skateboarding which one it would be, and I can almost feel his anguish on the other end of the phone as he mulls it over. Typically, he doesn’t sit on the fence, and after some deliberation he says he’d have to quit boarding, but only because, in the long term, “You can’t keep doing to your body what top end skateboarding requires… man, I hope I never have to make that choice.”
I think it’s safe to say that the ‘Serious’ epithet does not denote a po-faced attitude but rather a ‘whatever you do, go for it’ sensibility. Serious Sam Barrett, to coin a skater phrase, lives life to the max.
Sometimes You Got To Lose is out now.