Like many other songwriters, when pressed, Sam Airey finds his own music a particularly difficult thing to define. For Sam, his writing is a vehicle that often serves to document darkness, but predominantly is also concerned with finding beauty, however hard that may be. A multi-instrumentalist, his songwriting process is personal (perhaps sacred), often cathartic but rarely a collaborative experience. However in terms of recording and performance, Sam has very much an open-door policy, inviting friends to join him wherever and whenever possible. While Sam may claim otherwise, his music feels inextricably bound in the concept of “hiraeth”, a Welsh-language word for which there is no direct translation. This idea is something that constantly and perhaps subconsciously informs and underlies his work; a sense of nostalgia, homesickness tinged with grief, and a longing for the past - maybe more specifically his own past and upbringing on Anglesey, an island off the north-west coast of Wales. However, Sam would argue his music rarely exists in just one place, whether in a geographical or musical sense. It is both stark and expansive, something he hopes is also reflected in the live show when joined by a full band, while still retaining the pin-drop reverie that his solo performances have been credited with.
His debut album “In Darkened Rooms” is a collection of songs that have led Sam to this moment in time. “I guess usually a debut record is a snapshot from a certain time in an artist’s career..”, says Sam, “but as this was made over a longer period than most I think stylistically maybe reflects a wider palette of influence, and as a result it sees me sonically exploring a few different routes”. The result is a record that audibly draws inspiration from a number of places, including confessional indie-folk, post-rock, americana, and traditional folk music, along with other cultural and literary influences. But ultimately, says Sam “it all still comes from the same voice - these are my songs, and I live and die by them”. In light of this, many of these tracks are recent but some have had different lives, and the hope is that they will continue to do so. Sam is very much of the belief that a studio recording doesn’t necessarily have to be the definitive version of a song, and with this in mind he often changes arrangements for live performances too. This concept has also extended to his time in the studio where over time he learnt not to be overly precious with his initial visions for songs and their structures, something gained partly by watching the Wilco documentary “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”.
The title of the record is a lyric taken from the track “In The Morning” but also reflects the winter period during which Sam finished writing the record. Despite for the past few years living in the musically-rich but landlocked city of Leeds, Sam returned to the coastlines of North Wales where he spent a week alone, overlooking the mountain range of Snowdonia (which is depicted in the cover art, shot by longtime friend and collaborator Sam Bond). Between sessions he would gather his thoughts on long walks, and was struck by just how quickly and dramatically the light and scenery could change. Consequently, Sam took his ideas back to Leeds where he recorded with producer and friend Whiskas, engineer Paul Thompson, and the help of his bandmates and musical friends. Older songs are revisited on the record; the lyrics to intro track “Camera Lens” taken from a poem written by Sam as a teenager, and the inclusion of “The Blackout”, an early single which on its initial release was named BBC Radio Wales’ track of the year. The newest songs, however, hint at a future musical direction - from the bravely sparse and introspective “Lacuna” (partly inspired by watching Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), to album closer “Nantucket”, with its slow build, whispered harmonies, and its textured, crashing finale.
Along the way there have been both triumphs and setbacks, and while Sam is the first to admit that this process has taken considerably longer than he’d have hoped, his own record has not always been the only priority. Sam co-runs respected Leeds-based label Hide & Seek Records, and in the past year alone has overseen releases from Post War Glamour Girls, Dancing Years, Mi Mye, and Department M, 3 of which were albums. In the past few years, Sam has been booked to play festivals such as Latitude, Leeds festival, Festival No 6, Kendal Calling and Bluedot Festival, and most recently has played multiple sold-out dates on tour with Matthew & the Atlas. In many ways a songwriter’s songwriter, his musical admirers include Midlake, Damien Jurado, Sharon Van Etten, Daughter and Anais Mitchell, most of which he has shared a stage with, along with shows and tours with the likes of The Low Anthem, Villagers, Willy Mason, Lucy Rose and Benjamin Francis Leftwich. In Leeds, Sam has gathered huge crowds at headline shows and festival appearances, including playing the city’s prestigious town hall, and most recently a special sold-out show at Holy Trinity Church, an ambitious collaboration with friends performing Bon Iver’s “For Emma, Forever Ago” in full, an event endorsed by Justin Vernon himself.
In addition to this, Sam has also benefited from support and radio plays, interviews and live sessions on many shows across the BBC network, and his champions include Huw Stephens (BBC R1), Lauren Laverne (BBC 6 Music), Steve Lamacq (BBC 6 Music/R2), along with continual support from BBC Radio Wales’ Adam Walton and Bethan Elfyn.
In relation to the making and release of his record, Sam stressed the importance of “the time needing to feel right, which hasn’t always been the case”. Eventually, though, you have to let things go, to put them out into the world and just see what happens”. For Sam, this certainly feels like the time.