SAM KELLY talks to Folking’s Su O’Brien

Sam Kelly

Pretty Peggy, the much-anticipated second album from Sam Kelly and the Lost Boys is released on 6th October, so Folking.com caught up with Sam, freshly arrived back at home in Cornwall, to find out more.

“I’ve not been back for about two months”, Sam admits, as The Lost Boys have busy been cementing their award-winning position as a firm festival crowd favourite, gigging every weekend over the summer.

“We’re having loads of fun doing it and having a great time and I think that comes across in the live shows”, says Sam, conceding that it’s not necessarily the healthiest of lifestyles and he’s “always one of the last to quit and go to bed”.

Still, it must be nice to get home and recharge, sit around in your pants, catch a bit of rubbish tv, maybe read a book or play a video game? Well, yes. Except that what was meant to be a brief respite before the album launch will, for Sam, revolve around moving house instead. So much for relaxing. Fortunately, though, Sam sounds as though he’s taking this, and everything else, pretty much in his stride.

Remarkably, it’s already two years since The Lost Boys’ debut album was released. Although an acclaimed album, in retrospect it seems that the band was still finding its feet.

“With the first album it was obvious that we were going to call it The Lost Boys as an introduction to the band.

“I always wanted to get a band together. I always heard songs with a full band arrangement in my head. At first we couldn’t afford to do other than a trio: we could all go in one car – nice and easy! There was always going to be a full band when I could afford it – and when I met the right musicians. I wanted it to be collaborative, not a ‘backing band’”.

Looking back, Sam reflects on the less-than-ideal recording conditions. A piecemeal affair, fitting around the band members’ day jobs and wherever they could set up their equipment, it involved such unglamorous distractions as having to wait for Gatwick planes to pass overhead between takes.

“With the first album, there was no other way of doing it. We were all working full-time. It broke the immersion in the process.

“I was pleased [with the album], but it felt quite rushed compared to this album, and the EP we did at around that same time, Spokes. Listening back, Spokes better represented the band’s sound. I would change lots in terms of the nitty gritty – mixes – and, also, some of the songs didn’t quite reach their potential, as they’d been in my head. It’s all part of the learning process”.

Additionally, as the album was effectively a calling card to attract bookings, it tried to capture something like the band’s live sound, leaving little room for studio ingenuity.

When it came to recording Pretty Peggy, however, the band opted for a dedicated period of studio time, staying there full-time so that they could all concentrate fully on it and be more experimental. Not that getting all seven band members together was a simple business.

“We only had two rehearsals with everyone together, it’s so difficult to get time. It was at Jamie’s parents’ in Cumbria – which is a hefty drive from Cornwall – so there was not much chance to get together and write. We worked on a few of the tracks while chilling at festivals. Stuff happens organically like that, but it can’t always, because you can’t always find the time”.

Just as well, then, that they have an established habit of recording demos as they go along, working on songs, thrashing out the basics of tempo and arrangement. It helps speed up the recording process, which is useful considering the expense of studio time.

“This was all recorded in Cornwall in two weeks. We all had the time booked off and knew most of the songs anyway. We sat down and allowed ourselves to be creative for a couple of weeks. The tracks are presented in a way that suits each track more. We had more time to step back and listen to what each song needed.

“Everyone has been involved in the creative process, in recording, instrumentation-wise, orchestration-wise. We lost our inhibitions of trying to do only what we can do live.

“All my favourite albums are the ones that treated the recorded format as a separate art form. On the folk scene this is perhaps done less often, but that’s ok, too: people want to capture particular kinds of sound. But if the album’s treated as a separate thing, it’s different and exciting when you see it live: it’s a different show, wondering how they are going to do that live”.

From squeaky chairs, reverse voices and a fire extinguisher, to grand piano strings plucked with a plectrum, everyone has had a hand in offering up ideas and suggestions for the final mix. The Lost Boys are keen to emphasise their collaborative efforts and have clearly had fun exploring the studio’s possibilities for “headphone moments”.

“My favourite album is Grace by Jeff Buckley. I still listen to it through studio monitors and notice little things I never noticed before. There are little “Easter eggs” buried in the mix”.

Sam, Graham Coe and Jamie Francis also produced the album, allowing them full control over their sound and their treasure hunt of Easter eggs. Sam says he would prefer an external producer – Gerry Diver’s name comes up – but opted to self-produce this time rather than risk hiring someone who wasn’t quite right, given the short timescales involved. Sam enjoys producing, though, and is proud of his production duties for The Company Of Players, whose album is due for release next year.

Working with The Changing Room’s Tanya Brittain gave Sam the inspiration and confidence to ask for musical contributions from guest artists, including Mike McGoldrick, who, following a spectacularly late-night Costa Del Folk jam session, set his fee at “50p and a can of Red Stripe”. Cara Dillon added beautiful harmonies and vocals to ‘Bonnie Lass Of Fyvie’ (the source of the album’s title) and Damien O’Kane provided hot guitar on ‘If I Were A Blackbird’. Geoff Lakeman, dropping by to hang out as the studio was close to home, ended up supplying virtuoso spoons on ‘Angeline The Baker’.

“I didn’t realise then how willing people are to play on things. I forget that these people are all in it for the love of the music. All the people I’ve met on the folk scene are so supportive of young people and of the next generation coming through. It’s very inspiring. It’s the opposite of ‘never meet your heroes’”.

All these factors lend Pretty Peggy an added richness and depth of sound. It’s a heavier, altogether meatier album than the first one, but it’s evident that ‘Chasing Shadows’, the lead single, is quite different in tone. Consciously attempting to make something with greater mainstream appeal, the band then found that the 4-and-a-half-minute track couldn’t easily be edited for airplay. But with some radio play already, it still stands every chance of opening-up The Lost Boys to a wider audience.

Rooted in personal experience, ‘Chasing Shadows’ steps away from traditional third-person storytelling songs, evoking instead a contemporary, emotional mood.

“I’m not a prolific writer, I have lots of ideas that don’t materialise into full-blooded songs. But that one just came out. I didn’t think ‘I’ll write a song for a friend’. I was just moved by what happened and wrote it. If it helps someone stop doing something silly…” Only after he said this, did we realise it was World Suicide Prevention Day, adding a topicality to Sam’s words.”

It’s that ability to combine personal, contemporary songs with traditional material and have them sit seamlessly together that Sam most admires in his favourite songwriters, such as Chris Wood, Chris Drever and Karine Polwart.

For now, as the band prepares to tour the album in November and December, with a second leg to follow early in 2018, The Lost Boys are already beginning to think ahead to the next album. They know it will take time to come to fruition and they fully intend it to be another step forward in working together as a unit.

“We have big plans for next year to get together and write a whole new album with everyone involved in that process, to see what we come up with”.

So, the band continues to evolve and, despite his protestations that he is bad at planning ahead, there are clearly plenty of longer-term ambitions bubbling in the mind of Sam Kelly. He has the confidence and assurance of one who has come a very long way in a few short, hectic years. This is a young man determined to savour every moment and treat everything as a learning opportunity.

Sam Kelly

“I’m conscious of not looking too far ahead, and enjoying the present. When I first started, I was always looking forward to the next thing, but then I realised that gigs and things were going past too fast.

“I think back to when we first started playing 20-30 minute sets at our first festivals. We were keen to prove ourselves and worked on creating dynamic sets, hoping to blow the crowds away and win the audience onto our side. Now we like to have lots of fun and play up-tempo things to get people dancing. But we’re not really trying to please anyone but ourselves.

“We have more creative freedom because we’re not trying to please anyone. We’re known in the folk scene now and are more comfortable with where we are and what we’re doing. We’ve got a licence to be more experimental and creative with the music. It has been a kind of growth and realisation process.

“There’s always going to be something else I want to do, some other goal: wanting to be the best musician you can be.

“I’ve learned to trust my own ideas more. Even if I make a mistake, it’s my mistake. I would rather make things that are maybe not as successful or popular, but I can be proud of it because it’s mine”.

Having proved his credentials in the folk world, he has nurtured the band he always wanted and achieved goals he once considered unimaginable, let alone attainable. And it feels like he’s only just getting started.

Su O’Brien

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Artist website: http://www.samkelly.org

‘Chasing Shadows’ – official video: