Having gigged with Peter Case and Fischer Z's John Watts, an album by SAM HILL was long overdue. As Jonathon Day reports, the waiting is over.
There is something engagingly time less about a man alone on a stage, accompanied only by an acoustic instrument. I imagine some Greek twanging his lyre and singing of the wine dark sea, or the plaintive songs of African accompanied by the seven stringed Nanga or thumb piano. Sam Hill live is one such; a mike, guitar lead and chorus pedal the only concessions to technology. Sam grew up in the Brethren Church and in a Preston parallel to Aretha Franklin or Whitney Houston learnt his music there. 'The Brethren had a very strong tradition of music and my father was very radical within the Brethren; long hair and big sideburns, he was in love with music. My sister was in love with Paul McCartney and my father bought her a guitar for Christmas. He could play three cords on the guitar and taught me to play cowboy gospel songs when I was ten. The hours that man spent with me. I was brought up in a very musical household!"
Sam identifies a definite point of commitment in his life, notwithstanding his Christian upbringing.
"When I was 21, I basically said "help, it's over to you now". In that I knew exactly what I was saying". Sam refreshingly doesn't disguise the difficulties of serving and seeking God.
"Life hasn't been easy since then. I was getting cloned. That was probably as much my fault as everybody else's'. I had to write Christian songs and get involved with Church. There was probably a lot of value in me doing that for a while 'cause we're all really screwed up aren't we? As Billy Strachen said "the church is God's hospital". Sometimes we need hospitalising for awhile, to be in an atmosphere where there are supportive Christians around us and in that you do tend to get sucked into a way of life. There's danger in slagging it all off, but it's taken me fifteen years to start to find out who I am again and discover that God actually loves me and is pleased about what I am doing, instead of getting really uptight about it. I don't have to be like everybody else. That is the biggest thing I've discovered recently. God actually wants to use us with all our weaknesses."
How did music figure during these years?
"I played in bands when I was a teenager,... but I left one band because I didn't like the drummer. Not long after that I became a Christian. I did the Christian Coffee Bar scene before my wife and I had children, then did nothing for years. I went through a very painful period when the children were small and we were broke. I was confronted with myself and was living on the edge all the time. I had panic attacks for about a year. God started to tell me to sing. I'm not being hyper spiritual here. I wasn't gigging, not involved in a church and the only place I could read my Bible was in the toilet. For the first time I said to God "What do you want me to do?", instead of trying to do everything for God. He kept saying "I want you to sing" but there were no opportunities. Then my wife went back to college and there were four years when I couldn't sing, just doing the odd engagement. After my wife finished college I started in business. A friend of mine sent a tape we'd made off to a couple of clubs. I got a gig at the Mean Fiddler in London. I think I played the Mean Fiddler eight times in eight months in '89. It was at the Mean Fiddler that I met Peter Case. We shared a dressing room and I got to know Peter. There were some Greenbelt people there that night including Martin Wroe, and between them Martin and Peter put me on at Greenbelt."
Despite spending years "in and out of studios" Sam's debut album Thunder and Rain' has only recently been released. It's on his own label, Mainstream, which begs the question 'why didn't he go with an established label?' "We tried that last year and we seemed to have people interested but that didn't get anywhere and was quite painful. I decided not to put time and effort into that but to pursue gigging and writing. We decided to do an album ourselves, on our own terms, and we have our own distribution. It's one day at a time. It's very easy to get careerist and competitive as an artist and I really don't want to do that. I want to enjoy what God's given me to do today. It's easy to say that, living it out is a challenge."
Many of the songs on the album reflect the pain which seasons our
planet, and some of which seem autobiographical though he often, like
Dylan, replaces the subjectivity of 'me' with the objective 'you'.
Other songs speak lyrically of the hope he sees: "Rescue me" and "I love the way you call out my name" while others still shout at the world.
"My songs are about things which make me angry, which make me cry, about people I love, about the news, issues which make me upset. I'm not a person who is a member of lots of things, my way of support is to write a song and share it with people. Hopefully we'll think about it more."
"The album was recorded at Loudwater Studios with my friend Richard Mitchell producing. He's a well known writer of film and television music, Hollywood and British features, BBC films and the like."
Not an obvious choice for an acoustic album!
"No, but we both believe in each other musically. Interesting things happen when we go into the studio, we argue and sometimes the tension comes across in what we've done. I'm happy with the results of us working together. Richard has an ear for beauty in music, he's good at creating atmosphere."
Sam's set was enthusiastically received by the packed sweating audience at Greenbelt's The River' venue. Its roots acoustic feel, with effective fiddle and guitar details replacing the album's atmospherics, will commend Sam to acoustic audiences anywhere. Along with Christian musicians in styles as disparate as thrash and rave Sam continues to take his music into non-church venues around the country as "a singer who is a Christian."
With the mainstream success of Amy Grant, BeBe and CeCe Winans and Kings X and the specialist market penetration of Seventh Angel and John Hiatt we are seeing a wave of Christian artists salting contemporary music. Despite the tensions which 'being in the world, but not of it' often creates between musicians and the church, and to which Sam himself alludes, this is where we need to be. Long may Sam continue?The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.