Sam Baker - happy building songs not houses
Sam Baker likes to do things in his own time. As a singer-songwriter working in a genre, Americana, where it’s common practice for two or more writers to book meetings where they’ll write songs together, Baker is a loner.
Words have to fit his singing style, which he concedes is not graced with wonderful technique, or he won’t sing them. A phrase he’s not happy with won’t be sung. Whole songs have been discarded because of a rogue word that Baker didn’t like but somehow couldn’t replace with another word that felt natural.
But if you think the Austin, Texas-based Baker’s songwriting is fastidious, you should try getting him to do a painting for you.
“Oh boy, I’m actually worse at completing paintings and drawings than I am songs,” he says down the line from a London hotel room, having just arrived for his latest UK tour.
“People commission me and they don’t take delivery, they get visitation rights. It’s like an estranged dad coming to see how his kid’s getting on, getting to take the painting out in the car for a run. Well, it might be if I can find it – my place is chaotic, with walkways through canvases. But it’s like songwriting. If I could master the fifteen minute song, I’d have a huge catalogue. And if I could paint quicker, I might be able put a plate of food on the kitchen table without having to move painting materials – or song lyrics.”
Baker has earned the right not to hurry things. His response to the trauma that affected him when a terrorist’s bomb exploded on the train that was about to take him to Machu Picchu in 1986 and left him at the mercy of the surgeon who repaired his femoral artery and saved his life might have been different. He could have treated his time as something that had to be occupied at every opportunity, tried to achieve as much as possible. That would have been an understandable reaction.
Instead, he’s realised him ambition gradually. When he last spoke to the Herald, in 2007, Baker was just beginning to make an impression in the U.S. and was about to play overseas for the first time. Never, as he’d freely concede, a virtuoso guitarist, he’d managed to switch from right-handed to left-handed due to injuries received in the bomb blast and had made an album, Mercy, in 2004, that he assesses now as a good album in a world full of great records that get attention.
He was still working on a building site at the time and had had to overcome stagefright that was so bad he could hardly speak. Audiences who have caught him subsequently might find this hard to believe – he could talk for Texas onstage now. After a year and a half of gigs at a roadhouse-diner on the outskirts of Austin, where people were initially more interested in eating and getting drunk, his stagecraft developed to the extent that he could get the audience on his side and listen to his songs, which he sings in a very individual, starkly compelling way.
A second album, Pretty World, in 2007, reached a wider audience at home and found favour with influential radio presenters on both sides of the Atlantic, including confirmed fan, BBC Radio 2’s Bob Harris. Baker’s gig diary started filling up and despite suffering from hearing loss, another effect of the bomb blast, which left him completely deaf in one ear and with only 50% hearing in the other, Baker was able to cope with working on festivals, where soundchecks can be minimal. Eventually, he was even able to afford the luxury of touring with a band.
“My hearing difficulties are tough but everybody has problems, you just have to get on with things,” he says. “I have a hearing aid that lets me hear all the high end stuff and closes out all the outside noise and I’ve learned to position myself so that I get the best out of the onstage monitors. Plus, as long as I can feel the kick drum, I can stay on the beat. It’s really been as much – or more – about the band accommodating me than me accommodating them and other than singing and providing a foundation, I stay out of the way and let them do all the beautiful things.”
For the tour that brings him back to Scotland this weekend, Baker is reverting to just voice and guitar, a modus operandi that allows him the freedom to re-introduce songs that have dropped out of the band set-list. He can also go off-script if the urge strikes, although he’s come through the phase that saw him flirting with stand-up comedy a visit or two back.
“I still chat to the audience, of course,” he says. “But there was a danger for a while that the humour might detract from the songs rather than enhance them. I’ve got a new electric guitar, which I can hear better, so I’m really enjoying working with that and getting the songs across. But then, I just enjoy my work generally these days because any day that’s not spent on a construction site, I’m in Paradise.”
From The Herald, June 5, 2014.
Sam Baker - Inspiration in a flash
Sam Baker has a simple philosophy. "You do what you can with what you’ve got," says the Austin, Texas-based singer-songwriter whose work is beginning to make big waves in the Americana field. "And if you start looking at what you don’t have, well, you’re lost." An upbeat character whose conversation is punctuated at regular intervals with easy laughter and whose ability to talk for Texas sits at odds with the spare economy of his songwriting, Baker has reason to count his blessings.
In 1986, while he was visiting Peru, a terrorist bomb exploded on the train that was about to take him to the Inca city of Machu Picchu. The German family sitting opposite him and with whom he had been sharing typical tourist chat were all killed. Baker passed out, came to on the operating table and felt sure that he wouldn’t survive either.
His recovery was slow. His left femoral artery had been severed and his left hand was, he says, "badly chopped up". Following emergency surgery in Peru, he had to undergo seventeen corrective operations back home in Houston. At first he couldn’t walk or feed himself and for a long time he expected every room and every car he sat in to blow up.
Eventually he got back to work. Before the incident he’d been a carpenter and a rafting guide. But he found a job in a bank and in his spare time he began writing short stories to try and make sense of what had happened to him.
"It’s a surreal experience, of course, because we’re not living in that kind of situation all the time," he says. "One minute everything is normal and safe and I’m speaking to this German kid who’s translating for his mum and dad, who are sitting so close our knees are almost touching. Then suddenly this red backpack in the rack above the mum explodes. It blows her head off. The kid is pinned to his seat by shrapnel through his chest and I can’t breathe with the force of the explosion. I remember thinking, this is it. I’m not going to make it."
The long-term physical consequences for Baker were complete deafness in one ear and only seventy per cent hearing in the other and when he got back to playing the guitar, he had to adapt to playing left-handed.
"I wasn’t exactly a virtuoso before. I’d had piano lessons as a kid because my mum played piano and organ in the church and there was always music in the house," he says. "But I soon gave up music for baseball and football until I was about nineteen and then I bought a guitar in a pawn shop and taught myself. That was terrible, though. Your hands hurt and it sounds dreadful."
Looking back, the songs he began writing in his twenties were, he says, pretty awful, too.
"They were all that kind of ‘I love you and you don’t love me’ thing and it wasn’t until the year 2000 that I decided to try and get serious," he says.
Writing fiction had given him what he considers his most valuable tool: the ability to pare down words and just accept that sometimes it’s necessary to take something he’s laboured over for hours, if not days, and "boot it out the door."
The songs on his first album, Mercy, which came out in 2004, were so sparse that even their titles consist of only one word. It’s an approach that’s worked, though. When influential musician and producer Gurf Morlix heard the atmosphere Baker’s songs created, he immediately started telling everyone he came into contact with about this great new songwriter, and Radio 2’s Bob Harris has just pronounced Baker’s second album, Pretty World, one of the albums of the year.
"I’m not trying to capture whole lives in these songs," says Baker. "They’re just moments because you can cover so much in two or three minutes. Something can happen, as I know from that train in Peru, in a flash and you have the basis for a story right there. I often start out with a lot of stuff and start peeling away, and if I can get it so that there’s not one phrase that annoys me and where every word carries a lot of implication without sounding false, then I’m happy."
With his hearing difficulties, taking his songs onto the stage hasn’t been easy. But as with a guitar style that he describes as ‘three chords and a cloud of dust but I’m working on getting more expressive,’ he has persevered. He’s due to play his first concerts in Scotland later in the year and says that since live performing is part of the reality of being a singer-songwriter, he can’t let physical problems become an obstacle.
"When it’s quiet and the onstage sound is good, I’m okay," he says. "At other times, it’s like experiencing the Braille equivalent of music. I know when it feels right through my hands and my vocal cords. In the end, though, if you have something to say, you have to do it and find ways of working round whatever comes along. If it doesn’t all fall apart, that’s great."
From The Herald, August 2, 2007