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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

folk records.

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

Les Sampou, Mine Street Coffee House, First Reformed Church,

Neilson and Bayard streets, New Brunswick, 732-390-4545, ext. 128.

$5. Saturday, March 25, at 8:30 p.m.


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