Friday, 24 September 2010

Sam Sallon

Fresh from supporting Rodrigo y Gabriela on tour, along comes Sam Sallon on a wave of expectation.

As a teenager he was listening to Snoop Doggy Dogg, Prince, David Bowie and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (“just the coolest band”), none of them much resembling the thoughtful singer-songwriter style he has now developed. At gigs people tell him he reminds them of Cat Stevens or Jackson Browne or Paul Simon: “People who don’t write music think there’s nothing odd about going up to a musician and telling them who you sound like to them. They say it because it’s a compliment, comparing you to someone they like”. Sallon is clearly flattered by all this, but also, I suspect, a little fazed. Probably because he worked out his own solutions to musical problems and only started listening to these big hitters when the comparisons came rolling in.

At school Sallon learned trumpet. Now, however, the guitar is his weapon of choice. Over the years he has finely honed his finger-picking style. I asked him who his guitar heroes were, expecting a roll-call of the acoustic maestros of the last fifty years. Instead, I learned that he’s largely self-taught and his style self-invented. His earliest songs, like ‘Keep Moving’ and ‘Give’, written when he knew little about technique, can be played with two fingers. Later he progressed to using five, until he realised you don’t need the little finger. “Along the way I’ve come up with some nice happy accidents!” he reflects. David Watson, the sharp-eared producer whom Sallon namechecks with reverence, helped him refine his style by listening to other guitarists who achieved similar effects but with less effort.

His technique requires acrylic false nails, the ‘Sallon talons’, which he has renewed every three weeks at a local shop. “I don’t meet many other people who do this, but it’s the closest I can get to a natural extension of the hand.” The manicurist may suspect him of being a ladyboy, small children may be afraid to shake his hand, but his girlfriend “doesn’t mind” and the thin, tough nails enable him to maintain the sharp, clear tone he wants.

“What keeps me up till 3 in the morning with friends is trying to get some sort of handle on life,” Sallon tells me. The outcome of those late nights of existential rumination is a bunch of songs in a highly melodic, aphoristic style, free of pretension. Each one is “more of a question that’s being asked than a statement being made,” he explains. “When I sing them I do feel that there’s a sense in them, and it’s not always the same one each time”.

He cares more about the songs than about any way of recording them. So he encourages remixes of his work. “Some people say they only listen to electronica,” he says in bafflement. Well then, fortunate that Edmund Squeeze has remixed ‘You May Not Mean To Hurt Me’ as electronica, which Sallon hopes will take the song to an audience he wouldn’t otherwise reach.

His debut album, One For The Road, is set for release later this year – by which time he expects to have “all of his ducks in a row”, as he puts it. At a superb gig at the Luminaire in Kilburn, North London, I heard him run through the entire material accompanied by the musicians featured on the album, including string section. It’s sounding good to me and I confidently predict this young man will be playing the festival circuit near you before the year’s out – with his ducks neatly in a row.

First published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel)


"It’s nice to be nice", a thoroughly British call for mutual respect, is the motto of TalkAwhile, the acoustic music forum. This friendly online discussion board was originally brought together to discuss Fairport Convention and Fairport’s annual Cropredy Festival but nowadays it’s much expanded to take in other artists and the festival scene as a whole. Steeleye Span, Ralph McTell and Pentangle get sections of their own, along with Fairport. But, with over 3,000 members, discussions roam widely across music and popular culture in general. Few things are off-limits, except personal abuse.

Visitors can read all the threads, but to post you need to register. Easily done – and well worth doing – although with the site hit by up to thirty spammers "and other low life" each day, the moderators have needed to put sensible precautions in place.

Here I’ve met some seriously well-informed people – music fans and practitioners, united by a passion. The new joiner (or "newbie") who starts a thread about Fairport’s work in 1967 may be surprised to find past or present members of the band chipping into the discussion. Past threads are archived and searchable once you’ve joined and logged on, so that the whole Forum doubles up as a sizeable database of knowledge.

Although the Forum is international, I detect a vein of very British humour running through it. Irony abounds (albeit flagged up with emoticons); old hands demonstrate The Importance of Not Being Earnest (well, not too earnest). Some threads have made me laugh out loud: a discussion of "gay folk" brought out the comedians while, I think, making clear that homophobes were not welcome. (Yes, "The Imagined Village People" really is a great name for a band..!)

There are other features. "YouTube Clips of Interest" is an early-warning system for must-see videos. Rest assured, if lost treasure ever turns up on film, someone from TalkAwhile will be first on the case. "Musician Talk" is a place for practising musos to swap tips about amps and tablature and guitar tunings. Other sections allow members to publicise upcoming gigs and album releases. The "Hancocks", named after one of the Board’s founding fathers, is an alternative to the BBC Folk Awards, taking in such categories as "All Round Good Egg Folkie". At intervals, noted musicians guest on the Forum for a month, answering questions from members online. Recent guests have included Dave Swarbrick and Kevin Dempsey.

And the sense of community is palpable. Some lovelorn swain who’d met a girl at Cropredy but failed to get her phone number started a "lonely hearts" thread. The communal search for "Emma from Brighton" went on for weeks. I wonder if Emma ever knew all these nice people were looking for her?

First published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel)