Itasca-born, Austin-based songwriter Sam Baker may be a product of Texas, but it was on the far off plains of Peru that he was reborn. Baker was traveling to Machu Picchu when terrorists blew up the train he was on, killing the German family surrounding him and leaving him with a mangled hand, partial deafness, a brain injury and many broken bones.
Baker actually died and was resuscitated. When he made the transition back to this side, he seemed to have been dipped in some otherworldly pool of creativity. Either that, or wisps of songs from the other side clung to his broken bones as he struggled to come back into this life. How else would you explain a person who never had written songs creating music so elegantly honest, so gentle and brave, so deeply revealing of each crevice and curve on the face of human existence?
But it’s not just songs that Baker is immersed in. He spent a recent residency at The Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, where he worked on a play and a soundtrack for it during some cold winter months. His first exhibition of his paintings was in Santa Fe in September of last year. He is working on editing a documentary. He is also readying some live albums for release.
But it’s the songs that people first fell in love with, songs that seesaw between ethereal and earthy. After releasing a trilogy of albums starting with 2004’s Mercy, Baker moved on to 2013’s Say Grace. It wasn’t until then that he gained popularity in his native country, being named the creator of one of Rolling Stone’s Top 10 Country Albums of the Year. His most recent album is last year’s Land of Doubt.
“I’ve been to Europe a lot,” Baker says from Ft. McLeod, where he is about to play a show in advance of his appearances Friday, Oct. 12 and Saturday, Oct. 13 at Wide Cut Weekend, before heading back to a show in Banff Sunday, Oct. 14 at the Margaret Greenham Theatre. “It’s been wonderful, really. I was building apartments when that first record Mercy came out and CKUA’s Alison Brock (founder of Wide Cut Weekend) picked it up pretty early as did Bob Harris (radio host of BBC2) and Stewart Cruickshank (Scottish radio personality.)
“And the Dutch out of Amsterdam picked it up, too. So that my career actually started more in Europe and Canada. I didn’t even know how to play live and my hands didn’t work and I was deaf. And the relationship with the sound system and monitors is a pretty desperate thing because I don’t hear that well. It has to be so loud on stage that it was really uncomfortable, I think, for my side players and it was hard to get things that didn’t feedback. But all my time in Europe has been extraordinary as it’s been in Canada.”
Baker’s first show was in Amsterdam and he toured the Netherlands, England, Scotland, Ireland and Italy. Pretty good for a guy who already died once. “It’s all been miraculous.”
Baker says that the exposure to new cultures didn’t necessarily impact the style or content of his songwriting. “I think the emotional content of what I do transcends, for me personally, the individual. I use story lines that are more universal, not to try and put an angel on the head of a pin, but I think it’s more a common emotional foundation as opposed to about a beer in Berlin. Does that make sense?”
Yes, it does. Baker’s characters ring true — be they the burned lover who finally calls an end to a relationship in Leave, the teen who bolts from home only to return tight-lipped years later of Truale, the preacher who burns to wash the bare legs of an attractive young woman clean in Palestine I, or the people who perish in the desert while trying to find a better life in Migrants. Baker says that’s because he writes about life’s basics.
“The way people love their children or love to take care of each other. I think that has reinforced a lot of things like (quoting from Say Grace’s Go in Peace), ‘Go in peace, go in kindness, go together.’ No matter where you are in the world let’s walk out into our lives and really try to be helpful; that we all are finding out.
“What I learned in all that terrible stuff in South America is that if people can hurt someone else so their lives will get better, it rarely works that way.”
But it’s still easy to get really irritated and short with someone, to disrespect them. It’s easy to flip someone the bird on Deerfoot. Too easy. Baker agrees.
“We all do that, every one of us does. It helps for me, and this is just my experience, to pause and remember that I am so easily triggered by so many different things and if I can just shut up in my own world, if I can not say the first thing out of my mouth, my life would generally go better. If I could be a little bit more empathetic. But I’m like everybody else; I’m ready to rock and roll.
“The fear of something different, doesn’t have to be a trigger. The fear of something different like a different culture or a different country can be a portal we can open and understand each other more deeply. Or it can be a thing that scares us stiff and we want to fist fight. But I think a lot of that is a conscious decision.”
Having travelled extensively and connected with so many in the intimate way that only songs can facilitate, Baker says, “My experience is that our similarities overwhelm our differences.”
“Really the things that separate us are mostly someone’s trying to push our heads around. I’d feel more confident in our leaders if they said, ‘We’re all in this together, so what can we do to pave the road so that it’s easier for everyone, for the people that are super-fast and for the people that have trouble walking?’ ”
Sam Baker appears at Ironwood Stage Friday, Oct. 12 and The King Eddy Saturday, Oct. 13 as part of Wide Cut Weekend. For tickets, go to https://widecutweekend.com/. He’ll also be at the Banff Centre’s Margaret Greenham Theatre on Sunday, Oct. 14. For tickets please go to https://www.banffcentre.ca/.
Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer.