Les Sampou is a Boston-based Rounder Records recording artist known for her powerful, lyric-driven music. She's won many prestigious awards including The New Folk Songwriting Award at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, Best New Artist from WUMB FM 91.9 FM in Boston and finalist in the Acoustic Underground competition. I enjoyed chatting with Les about “the business”, the blues and much more!
Hey Les! Where and when did you make your first appearance?
I was born on November 4, 1962; Monday I think. Early morning, about 3am. Way too early in the morning!...poor Mom.
[I now live] in Boston, Massachusetts.
How do you find the New-England Blues scene?
I"m more of a folk singer who does the blues, so I can't comment on the blues scene per se; however, the House of Blues is sure alive and well in Harvard Square and there's a cool blues festival at the esplanade every summer. Lots of good blues radio on WGBH and WERS!
Where did all that musical passion come from? It must be in your roots…
My family was musical in a down home way; Mom played a little Fur Elise, and Dad played three chord songs by Joan Baez & Peter, Paul, & Mary. We would sing together on car rides and around the kitchen when Dad was practicing those three chords, but that's about it. I loved to sing since I was very little but really found music late in life; I started playing guitar and seriously getting into music when I was 25 years old. A late bloomer.
A late bloomer?? Not hardly! I was given extra drive when Ann Rabson (of Saffire the Uppity Blues Women) told me that she didn’t start playing the piano until she turned 35…
…I think the most poignant musical memory in my childhood was memorizing "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," by Pete Seeger. I was about five years old and I remember working hard to memorize it. Going through each verse from the flowers to the young girls to the young men to the soldiers to the gravestones to the flowers and understanding the concept as well as learning what made up a song lyrically. When I was able to sing the whole thing, I must of sang it for a week straight after that.
Pete Seeger was and is phenomenal. I was so blessed to get the chance to sing with him last year…
Because we never had TV growing up, we listened to my parents music. I would have to say Joan Baez was my biggest influence until I became a teenager, and then Bonnie Raitt and Led Zepplin took over.
I know that you are adept at several musical genres. Do you consider yourself a blues or folk music artist?
I considered myself a singer-songwriter who "specializes" in country blues. I play the classics by Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson, Fred McDowell, John Hurt, etc. and I also write blues songs. I do the blues the best probably, it's easiest and come naturally. In addition, I have three other CDs that are eclectic: pop, folk and rock. I like it all. But lately, with this last CD "Borrowed & Blue" I've really gotten back into the blues. Paul Rishell and Annie Raines are two blues friends of mine here in Boston. I learned a bunch of songs from Paul way back when I was first starting out.
What about blues and folk attracted you? Did you ever consider doing the "pop" thing?
I would have loved to have done the "pop" thing and tour around in a big luxury bus with tons of cute little roadies and huge audiences, but it wasn't meant to be, and I didn't want it THAT bad...I preferred actually, to play alone. I did a band thing a few times and it was a hassle all the way around. Playing solo is dynamically so wonderful; plus you can make a living.
You perform a lot of music that is usually the stomping ground of male artists...what special interpretation do you believe you bring to the songs of Mississippi John Hurt? Blind Blake? , Etc...?
I think I bring to the "male-oriented songs" of Blind Blake and John Hurt, for example, the gender-bending attitude that any human being with spunk and cockiness is entitled to, but that women sometimes don't rise to the occasion for. And I like to treat men that way--with spunk and attitude…
You go girl! J
…it's like saying "Be good, or I'll walk out on you First and don't you forget it, cuz I may Want you but I don't NEED you! The great blues singers like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, and KoKo Taylor all demonstrate this. I'm a lot more subtle, but it still comes across I guess.
There are so many great women blues artists, yet it seems that women are often not featured as often as our male counterparts. In your opinion, is being a woman an asset or liability?
Being a woman in this business is neither an asset or a liability. I don't find it hurts or helps except in the area of booking maybe; I probably get more jobs than a male blues guitar player because there are not that many women who play country blues guitar.
Tell us about your recordings…
I have put out four CDs in the last nine years. In 1993, I published "Sweet Perfume" on my own label, MoNando Music and it was a good break for me. Got lots of local folk airplay. Then Rounder Records signed me and I put out "Fall From Grace" which charted high in the Gavin American Charts nationwide. I won the Kerrville, Texas songwriting award, which was previously awarded to folks like Lyle Lovett, Nancy Griffith, and John Gorka, so that helped my career as well. I did a lot of touring around the time of the second release, all over the country, Canada (Montreal Jazz Fest and the Winnipeg Folk Fest) and Europe (Prague and Italy). My third CD "Les Sampou" was my second release on Rounder and my attempt to reach a younger and broader audience as a result of a bunch of songs that came out over a two year period that were really rock oriented and demanded a rock production. In some ways, that is my favorite CD. Then this past autumn, I released "Borrowed & Blue," which is all blues, no band, just me and my guitars. It's the way I sound when I tour. So it's real honest and funny thing, it sold more copies than any of the others relative to the time it's been released. People love the rawness and simplicity...and the blues! I love to record, and all the studio experiences were incredibly different. I had producers for the first two, co-produced the third, and produced the fourth, so there has been an evolution in my own understanding and ability to produce as well.
Have you ever toured in Europe?
Yes, in Italy and Prague, New Czech. I would like to tour again, especially festivals that promote the blues.
Are you a full-time musician?
I do music full time, and have been doing it full time for about 8 years now. I had a part time job for ten years previously that helped me while I woodshedded and grew my business skills in booking and publicity. Over the years, I've had four agents, one manager and one record company and I've ended up these past two years, doing it alone with an assistant - and I'm loving it that way. I like wearing all the hats and keeping my career in my own hands. I don't think art and business can be separated for a working musician unless you have someone working for you that is working FOR YOU, if you know what I mean.
Did you learn the hard way, as in did you find that agents and managers were NOT working for you?
One agent was terrific albeit limited in her venues and ability to grow with me; all the others were so-so, with one bankrupting me out of sheer laziness on her part. As for the manager, he was inexperienced but very eager, and the record company had too many artists and not enough staff. So, to answer your question, some good people, some bad but mostly I believe if you want to get it done right, do it yourself. Plus you save a ton of money. However, if you want to go BIG TIME, you absolutely need good managers/agents and record companies all of whom work to make the others work like a well greased machine, which will ideally allow the artist to simply do art. But I am not too sure that exists at a "folk level." The lack of skilled business people is a huge void.
What contemporary female artists do you listen to?
These days I've been listening to Billie Holiday--she comes in and out of my CD player from time to time and just takes over. I've also been listening to Patty Griffin for her incredibly voice and Edie Brickell for her wonderful way with words and overall musicality. I want to pull out Sarah Vaughn soon--she's been on my mind. I feel like singing along with her. That's how I learned to sing. Along with records.
It seems you have learned a lot on your musical journey. What advice would you give to aspiring singers?
I would advise aspiring singers to find a really good vocal coach only if they are having troubles breathing or relaxing, or with pitch. But if you got chops and know how to use them, stay away from teachers. Find a good safe warm up technique and sing sing sing! It's like working out: don't over do it and don't underdo it. Your vocal folds are little tiny mucus membranes that are affected by diet and everything else you put in your body. There are very very few really good teachers, who really understand the physical FACTS of singing and the human anatomy as it pertains to singing. Most of them show you these funky diagrams but don't have a clue really how they work, although they sure act like they do. I've been given all kinds of inaccurate information and found and some teachers can actually hurt you as in my case. I ended up going to a vocal therapist (in a hospital) for six months to repair the damage (vocal therapists are the folks who should really be teaching us singers) and re-learning how to breath and talk correctly and my singing has gotten a lot more relaxed and much improved. I learned all about the body and how it produces sound because of that therapist.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
In five years my recording studio will be done and I'll be putting out more albums on my own label, touring at my own speed, and hopefully doing some European festivals in the summers. I'll be a Mom by then, and have a couple horses, so I'll be sticking closer to home for the most part. I want to keep writing, keep playing and keep recording, but according to a sane, holistic schedule.
As I ask all of the ladies I am so blessed to chat with, how do you want to be remembered?
I'd like to be remembered as a musician who delivered passion and who wrote honestly.
Visit Les' website at http://www.lessampou.com