With over a decade’s worth of gigging, touring and songwriting under his belt, Serious Sam Barrett has established himself as a steadfast veteran of the Yorkshire music scene. His records have been lauded by the likes of Marc Riley and Gideon Coe and been dubbed “Yorkshirecana” by the music press. This label is a pretty accurate description of Barrett’s folksy, American-influenced tunes penned towards lost loves, skateboarding and the touring life, all nestled within the nostalgic affection for his cultural heritage, the “rolling hills back home” of Yorkshire.
I met up with Barrett in a cosy pub in his hometown of Ilkley, to talk about his newly-released third studio album, Sometimes You’ve Got To Lose. True to form, Barrett arrived fresh from a morning walk on his beloved moors, all pepped-up and ready to talk about his new album.
Alun Evans – Hey Sam, how would you describe your approach to making records?
I suppose people might say it’s a DIY approach, but I didn’t deliberately intend to do that or have that in mind. Just this way basically means I can do exactly what I want: I write the songs, record them, and have them sound exactly how I want them to sound. But it wasn’t like I had a particular commitment to the idea of DIY or anything like that, I wouldn’t preach about it. I just thought ‘let’s make a record’, so I made it (laughs).
And the artwork and the printing of the records – it’s all done in-house right?
Yeah, it just makes sense to me. Especially in an age where people buy and sell digital files instead of records or something tangible, it seems like the best time ever to make something that’s more homemade. A record which is homemade and where the artwork really means something, it’s a lot more of a soulful thing to produce. I much prefer making vinyl than anything else.
The thing is, I never had a business plan. I just thought it’d be cool to make records, so I did it. Looking back on it now I’m actually really glad that I did it this way. When I see how people have been treated by labels and management I just think, after ten years of doing this I’m pretty glad I did it the way I did, because I’ve never fallen out with anyone and I’ve always got enough money from the last release to pay for the next one.
When did you first start playing guitar?
Soon as I could get my arm round one really, because my dad always played with my uncle and I just learnt from watching them. My dad played folk stuff and he always felt a bit inadequate, ‘cause he couldn’t read music. He wanted me to have proper lessons, and so I went and had these free lessons at school – peripatetic guitar lessons; classical guitar and stuff – and I hated it. I did my preliminary grade, grade one, and then I was like ‘Can’t do this, hate it’. I just wanted to play along with Robert Johnson records when I was a kid, and not be told how to do it (laughs).
Aside from Robert Johnson, what are your other influences?
When I was a kid I loved blues. I watched that Crossroads movie all the time – the one with Ralph Macchio in – and that was a big influence. It’s the cheesiest movie ever and I love it. It’s kind of like Karate Kid but with blues guitar instead of karate, which is pretty cool. I watched it all the time, and he just travels around Mississippi and the Deep South playing guitar, and I was like ‘Yup’.
So it was mainly American influences?
Yeah, but then my parents were really into Irish and British folk so I grew up with that as well. And my dad taught me how to play in a folky kind of way, ‘cause he’s a fingerpicker and he plays like Bert Jansch. So I learnt that kind of fingerpicking from my dad and my uncle. But I learnt mainly from listening to Robert Johnson and Ry Cooder and musicians like that, just playing along with them.
Can you describe the new album for me?
I’d like to think that the new album’s brought together the best elements of what I’ve done before. There’s bits of country in there and there’s more blues in it than the last record, without there being any traditional songs on there. I do a couple of songs in this modal tuning which makes it sound a bit Olde English and also a bit Appalachian, so it gives the record more of a rootsy old sound.
When I originally started making music I used to record everything live, because it sounds more natural. And then, with the last record I got into recording vocals separately so that it sounded more like a perfect performance. On this record, I went back to doing everything completely live again. I’m really glad I did, ‘cause it suits the songs more. I also think I record a lot better when I do everything live; because I’ve always sung and played at the same time, I really struggle to get good vocal takes if I’m doing them separately.
I wanted everything to sound like I was just playing in a room, just honest, and if you were in a room with me that’s exactly how it would sound.
You seem to tour in America a lot – do you enjoy touring?
Oh yeah. I mean, the longer I’ve been doing this, the more just the act of touring is an influence for the songwriting. It’s like a circular thing, because you get inspiration for writing songs from being on the road and then you play those songs when you’re touring, so it all comes back.
What is it about America that draws you to playing there so frequently?
It’s just from being a kid, listening to Buddy Holly and Robert Johnson and old Blues records from being really young, and watching those movies as well: Smokey & the Bandit and Crossroads and what have you. It’s just always been there in my head, like dreaming about America and where all those records were made, where Rock n’ Roll came from, where Blues came from, where Country came from… it’s just a massive, massive part of my life.
You can check out songs from Serious Sam Barrett’s latest album at Bandcamp at the link below, or you can order yourself a copy at Vinyl Tap.
Alternatively, check out some live performances of new album songs filmed in Barrett’s local barbershop.