Following, somewhat fortuitously from an article here a few weeks ago on protest music, I’ve had the opportunity to interview self-identified Protest Singer, Sam Draisey, to talk about music as protest, the difficulties of trying to make it as a musician, and about the general state of DIY music in the UK.
Sam, from Wolverhampton, has gained a big profile as a folk singer and especially as a live performer, also with three albums under his belt and a continuous array of performances drawing media attention. He tracks much of his experience on a blog here, which is a real gigging performer’s blog. His new album, As I Live and Breathe, is also available now.
As someone with experience in an alt-rock band, playing gigs and struggling to make it work, it’s nice for me to talk to other musicians, especially those who are making a real go of it and in a big way and garnering a lot of richly-deserved attention, as well as Sam himself being involved in organising a music festival.
Sam Draisey’s accomplishments as a folk singer and guitarist are even more fascinating on account of what would for most people be a significant physical disadvantage (Sam is a guitar-player who only has one full arm): but listening to his recordings, you would have no sense of this whatsoever.
Here is the interview: and some of what Sam has to say about music, musician’s struggles, politics, and even Louis Armstrong and Johnny Cash.
BBB: Speaking from experience, it can be a massive uphill struggle to try to make a go of being a real musician, songwriter or performer. You can often be spending more money than you’re ever going to make and sometimes without much reward. What has your own experience been like…?
Sam: I think it’s a constant uphill struggle, and it’s important sometimes to look back and see how far you’ve come in order to not lose focus. It’s hard, it will continue to be hard if not harder, but I’m proud of how far I’ve come and I’ll continue to work hard for as long as I can.
I’m a very frugal guy, so spending money on my music always jars me a little. I have to weigh up every purchase and decide if I think it’s going to be worthwhile and if I’m going to make that money back. Whether it’s buying new instruments or PA equipment, or investing in getting merchandise manufactured, I always over-think it!
BBB: Is the underground or DIY music scene still thriving in the UK, in your opinion? And is there still a sense of community in it or is it more fragmented…?
Sam: Locally there is a real sense of community. Some of my best friends I’ve met on the local music scene, and you always seem to end up on a bill with at least one person you know. Further around the UK it’s a little more fragmented and can be a bit more cut-throat, but there are still loads of really good people out there willing to gig swap and help out when you’re booking a tour.
BBB: Who are your big influences as a songwriter…?
Sam: Like many songwriters, I have a large influence base. I would say that the main ones are Cat Stevens, Paul Simon, Billy Bragg and early Frank Turner. I’m also a massive Johnny Cash fan, so that tends to sneak into my music sometimes too.
BBB: Do you think of yourself as a protest singer…?
Sam: I do! I really believe that music has an important role to play in social change. Historically musical movements have ‘changed the world’, and while I’m not naïve enough to think that my music will do the same, I think to deny the importance of protest in music is to deny how important it has been in the past to things like social, racial and gender equality movements.
BBB: How much would you say your politics or political perspectives influences songwriting…?
Sam: My personal politics influence my songwriting (and my life) in a big way. I like to think I write music that is at it’s most simple an honest portrayal of who I am and what I stand for, so keeping my politics out of it would be disingenuous, as it’s such a big part of who I am.
BBB: Something I’ve written about here recently is the seeming absence of ‘protest music’ in the modern age. Is that something you’ve noticed too? If so, why do you think protest music or political music has gone out of fashion…?
Sam: I hear this a lot, and while it’s true that it’s pretty much gone from the mainstream, there is still a wealth of ‘protest singers’ out there for people who care to look. I think there is probably a direct link between the decline of the spotlight for protest music and the viewpoint of music being more and more of a business. As musicians are pushed to appeal to a wider and wider audience (and their music becomes more bland as a result) they are more likely to ‘play it safe’ with songs than express opinions that might turn some fans away.
There are many musicians who have been accused of ‘selling out’ like this, and though it’s their decision, I feel there may be a lot of pressure coming at them from labels to appeal to as wide a demographic as possible in order to sell as much as possible, rather than making the music that maybe feels more true to them.
BBB: Would you think of yourself as a folk singer…? I ask this, because I’ve noticed that folk singers seem to drift very naturally into protest music in a way that other types of performers don’t. I’ve always wondered why that is. Do you have any thought on that…?
Sam: Historically I think that might be true, though there is an argument that blues and more recently rap music can often contain a very political message (again if you look past the slim pickings the mainstream spotlight is cast on). A lot of the famous folk singers that influence today’s artists were big players in things like the civil rights movement and advocates for workers and human rights and used to sing a lot of songs about such things, so it’s there’s definitely a tradition there for folk artists a bit more than some other styles.
One of my favourite quotes is by Louis Armstrong where he says ‘All music is folk music. I aint never heard no horse sing a song’ and I think he might have something there, though in the more stylistic sense I do think of myself of a folk musician. My music can be quite varied, but folk is probably where it finds a more comfortable home most often.
BBB: My own experience of bands and musicians is that there are generally two types of attitude or motivation: those who want to ‘make it’ in the industry and those who just have the passion and don’t care if they make it or not. My own psychology was always a bit schizophrenic and ping-ponged back and forth between both those attitudes. What about you…? Are you already ‘living the dream’ or is the ‘dream’ still on the horizon…?
Sam: I have no interest in celebrity, the whole idea of it is just crazy to me. I’ve always said that my biggest aim would be able to do what I love to do for a living, and right now I’m doing ok with that. I went full time with music last summer and so far it’s working out alright. There is a certain level of ‘notoriety’ that you have to reach in order to sustain a career (people need to know about your music in order to listen to it, buy merch and come to gigs),but I think it’s a long way away from needing to be a famous megastar.
BBB: What’s the story behind the song ‘The Day I Was Meant to Die’…?
Sam: It’s a song about reflecting on life based on your own mortality, and maybe about regrets. I’ve lost a few people prematurely over the last couple of years and that definitely influenced me with this song.
BBB: What draws you to a particular song when it comes to performing covers? I noticed you do a version of ‘English Civil War’ by The Clash…
Sam: I learned that for a Strummerjam gig for the Joe Strummer Foundation. We all had to pick a Strummer song to cover, and I chose that one as I felt it was a really appropriate song for what society can be like at the moment.
I have loads of reasons why I might learn a new cover. It could be a request for a gig, or because I’m doing a cover gig and I feel like my set is missing a certain kind of song. Then I might learn something because it’s a project and learning it might force me to work on a certain technique or improve as a musician. Finally (as is the case with most of the more political covers I do), I might just learn it because I like it!
BBB: What’s the story behind the current album..? Is there an underlying theme..? And what’s the reaction to the album been like…?
Sam: I really feel like it’s a personal album. While there isn’t a certain theme per se, I do feel like it documents a certain point in my life and what I felt about a lot of different topics at that point in time. The reaction has been really positive, both from fans and the press.
I’ve had some really nice reviews in local and online press, and people who have spoken to me have been really gracious about what they think of it. It’s been really nice to get praise on the production of the record too, because I recorded, mixed and mastered it myself, and I think it’s my best work technically, as well as my best songs to date.
BBB: Do you have a favorite location or venue you’ve played at? Or, for that matter, a favorite gig you’ve played…? For me, it was my old band playing the 100 Club in London. What’s yours and why…?
Sam: One of my favourite local venues is The Robin 2 in Bilston, just because it’s a great place and really supports live music. Outside of that I love playing at Codfest, which is the music festival I have helped to put on for that past 8 years.
One of my all-time favourite gigs was at Paul Murphy’s house for his songwriter’s café a few years back. Paul was a well known and loved Birmingham musician who put gigs on in his garden through the summer in this fantastic wooden structure he built. There were two or three other acts on, we went down there, had dinner with him and his family then played to an invited audience in a tiny seated auditorium he had made, and the whole thing was live streamed around the world on his website.
It was truly one of the most amazing experiences of my musical life.
Thanks to Sam Draisey for taking time to chat.
Read more: ‘An Ode to Struggling Musicians & How I Turned Down Amy Winehouse‘, ‘An Ode to the Bull & Gate, Kentish Town‘, ‘Dolores O’Riordan & the Lost Art of Protest Music‘, ‘PJ Harvey’s Hope Demolition Six Project – A Work of Art, Not a Manifesto‘…
See all MUSIC posts here.