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Author: Richard Skelly. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 22, 2000. All rights reserved.
Back to Basics Folk Singer: Les Sampou
Les Sampou may be a relative newcomer to the folk
festival and basket-house circuit, but she writes songs as if she
has lived nine lives. The Boston-based Sampou released an album on
her own label, "Sweet Perfume" in 1994. The album got her
noticed by college and public radio station folk music programmers,
and her career was launched, with its next sighting Saturday, march
25, at the Mine Street Coffee House in New Brunswick.
"I had to make the leap of faith and drop my job, drop the health
insurance, and drop everything," Sampou says of her decision to
become a full-time musician in 1995. Sampou (pronounced like "shampoo")
had been working a three-day-a-week job as an editor for the state
of Massachusetts’ historic preservation department. She began doing
gigs on the side while holding down her day job.
In 1996, her debut album, "Fall From Grace," was released
by Rounder’s Flying Fish label. Last June, Rounder released her third
album, a folk-rock oriented affair simply called "Les Sampou."
"I’m not of the starving artist mold," she explained recently,
in a phone interview from her home in Hingham, Massachusetts, just
south of Boston. "I like to keep up my car payments, have nice
things in my apartment and take vacations once in a while."
"It was perfect timing and I didn’t have to starve at all,"
she says of her decision to go full-time with her music.
In concert, Sampou performs an artful blend of traditional blues and
original songs. "On all three of my albums I’m backed by a band,"
she explains, "because when you play alone all the time, the studio
and the album projects are the only opportunities you have get a bigger
production and arrangements behind these songs.
"The songs I’d written for my third album demanded bigger productions
and the hooks and arrangements were very modern in feel, and kind
of radio-ready. The songs on the latest album are three and four minute
tunes that adhered to a lot of commercial chorus qualities, so when
it came time to record a new CD, I knew I couldn’t just put a couple
of fiddles behind my new songs," she adds.
Sampou admits she listened to a lot of rock ‘n’ roll to get production
ideas for her latest release, including the music of Counting Crows,
Sheryl Crow, the Wallflowers, and a Daniel Lanois-produced Bob Dylan
recording. "For this project, I wanted to be co-producer, and
my vision for the album was so strong that I knew I needed to be in
the co-pilot’s seat," she says.
The Boston-raised Sampou didn’t get the music bug until she was in
her early 20s, after seeing Canadian blues guitarist and singer Ellen
McIlwaine at a coffee house in Cambridge. But in her childhood, she
spent quite a bit of time listening to her parents’ collection of
Sampou’s mother stayed at home to raise five kids (Les is No. 2), while
her father worked as a mechanical engineer for the Instron Corporation.
Her dad graduated from MIT and grew up during the Depression. "It
took my dad a while to believe in what I was doing and see that I
could make a real living with this," she says, "but now, the
two of them are definitely my biggest fans."
Sampou says she had never seen an acoustic act in a club before she
saw McIlwaine’s live performance. "I was blown away, watching
this powerful woman up on stage, singing and playing guitar and doing
her own songs by herself, with no band, nothing. I remember going
home and thinking, `I’m not gonna turn 40 years old and say that I
should have done this when I could have done it.’"
Shortly after this revelatory experience, Sampou began guitar lessons
with Boston acoustic blues master Paul Rishell. Rishell taught basic
chords and enough fingering so she could find her way around the guitar.
She continued putting her lyrics to music.
Sampou’s debut, "Fall From Grace," demonstrates her proficiency
as a songwriter and guitarist. She is equally at home playing traditional
blues as well as her own self-penned ballads. On "Holy Land"
she talks about growing up poor in a trailer park on the banks of
the Mississippi River, while on "Bullseye," a risque blues
featuring harmonica player Jerry Portnoy, Sampou tells her lover exactly
how she wants to be loved.
Her next project will take Sampou back to what she did in 1994: she’s
going to record her own album and release it on her own label, selling
it over her website, www.lessampou.com, and at her shows. "This
is the best way to go at this level," she says. "The only
thing a record label is good for is to learn why not to have one,
and this way, the money you make from selling CDs over your website
and at your shows is yours. To me, if you want to be master of your
own universe — if you need to hire some people to be your own
record company and be your own manager — then hire them. Basically,
the indie labels really count on the artist to tour their butts off,
often without providing any marketing budget for them, so you tour
with very little publicity or marketing support," she observes.
"Other artists with independent labels may have had completely
different experiences. I think it all depends on if you have a champion
at the label, and that’s true if you’re signed to a major label as
well," she says.
Sampou says she has three people working for her on a part-time basis:
a webmaster, somebody who helps with bookings, and another person
who helps with developing new marketing strategies. "Don’t get
me wrong, I don’t want to sound too negative about record labels.
The one thing a record label is good for is they’ll give you a budget
to record an album with, and that’s really worth something, depending
on where you are in your career," she adds.
Sampou will also continue to tour on her own terms, taking plenty
of time off from the road to write songs and reflect on her experiences.
"I get many of my song ideas on the road, and write them down
on my little scratch pad. And then I save all my little pieces of
scrap paper and work on them when I get home," she explains.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about Sampou is knowing that many
of her best songs are yet to come, as she continues to grow as a guitarist,
singer, and songwriter.
— Richard J. Skelly
Neilson and Bayard streets, New Brunswick, 732-390-4545, ext. 128.
$5. Saturday, March 25, at 8:30 p.m.
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