Sam Baker: moving on from the music that charted his recovery
Sam Baker has cut his hair off (no, really! It was much longer before). He thinks maybe it’s because he’s finished his trilogy of albums.
“A friend said that women many times when they go through a break-up cut their hair off,” Baker says. “I don’t know if I’m saying I’ve had a break-up with my records or not. It just felt like the right thing to do.”
Baker’s trilogy is far from straightforward. He considers his most recent album, Cotton, as fitting between the two previous ones, Mercy and Pretty World, and he made each without knowing whether there would be another. But for him they stand together, documenting his coming to terms with the moment that shaped his life.
Baker was on a train to the tourist site of Machu Picchu in Peru in 1986 when a bomb set by Shining Path Guerrillas exploded in the luggage rack above his head. The people he was sitting with – a German couple and their son – were all killed, and Baker himself was critically injured. His recovery took years, and left many scars, both physical and psychological. The damage to one hand forced him to relearn to play the guitar left-handed, the explosion left him almost deaf and he has a continual ringing in his ears.
Even when he was better physically, Baker still had a long recovery to undertake.
“I moved so many times. I was afraid that rooms would explode, that places would explode, that cars would explode, that as I passed glass windows the glass would shatter into a million pieces and become projectiles and move through a room and chop everything into small pieces.
“What doesn’t kill us can break us, but then at some point it does make us stronger,” he says. “I’m much more empathetic, much more, I think, connected to the world.”
Baker says the trilogy says three big things that he wanted to say.
The first he encapsulates in the line from the song “Angels” on Mercy, Everyone is at the mercy of another one’s dream. The album also contains the song “Steel”, which describes the moment that the bomb hit.
The second, in Cotton, is how to get through the hardest times and start to recover.
“How do you get in when it is difficult and recovery is slow and it seems forever dark, how do you do that? The way out is to begin to forgive ... For so long I held on to so much, so much anger, so much sadness, that became awfully cold. And then at the point where I began to forgive the sky began to lighten.”
The third, Pretty World, reflects the way out, and Baker’s post-explosion view of the world around him, with all its “exquisite subtleties,” he says.
“Why is it a trilogy? Because it is, and I feel relief. I finished, cut my hair off, I go about the world. I don’t know what to say.”
That doesn’t mean that Baker’s intending to stop writing or recording, just that he thinks the bomb and its aftermath may no longer be the focus of everything he writes.
“I’ve got new material. I’m actually doing some stuff that I’m crazy about. I think that the process is a murky process but very beautiful. It’s a heavy sweet fog that settles in. It’s a lovely place to spend time. And then sometimes when I come out of it I wonder what was I doing in there, you know.”
“I don’t think it’ll be that different. (But) I think it means that as far as this stuff in South America, the dying, I think it feels like it either closes a door or begins to close a door about what I want to say.”
Baker, 55, a native Texan based in Austin, still has only limited recognition in the U.S., but he’s achieved a great following in the U.K. and he’s deeply respected by his peers. His is the first name out of the mouth of producer Gurf Morlix when asked to talk about the exciting artists in Austin, and singer-songwriter Carrie Elkin is planning to make her next album in Baker's living room. Baker himself is now branching out into art, and the picture on the front of Cotton is the first oil painting he ever did.
And though performing his songs in public was something that came to long after he started writing them, Baker isn’t planning to give that up either, even though he had to overcome stage fright to get to where he is now.
“There are many wonderful writers, players and singers out there, and I do what is needed for what I need to say, but it’s not traditional beauty, so I think I’ve always felt a bit unsettled with the act of performance. But once I’m on stage, I’m fine ... The lights go up and I'm home. I can't imagine not playing now."
Baker has a UK tour booked for September, and he doesn’t see any immediate changes, which is good news for his fans.
“I’ve got new material, I don’t know what I’m going to do with it right now. I’ve taken up painting which I’m completely crazy about. I’m pretty happy in the creative process. I’ve got stuff to do.
“The future I’m sure is somewhat like the past. Barring exploding windows and acts that are hard to describe I’ll probably continue doing pretty much what I have been doing.”
Sam Baker on Backroads