Mark Harkin stumbles across Sam Semple, supporting the Webb Sisters, and becomes intrigued by Semple’s soulful and heartfelt songs.
A Clearing in the Woods: Sam Semple’s ‘Mystery Songs’ (Proper Records, 2014)
Rueful, self-mocking and bearing up manfully to the unbearable lightness of being: that’s Sam Semple.
Whelan’s of Wexford Street, Dublin 2, famed for good music and physical discomfort, usually fills up early, with first-comers scrambling for the few available seats by the stage. It’s the May Day bank holiday and English group The Webb Sisters have come to town. Early as I am, I still find myself wedged into a corner, standing with no hope of a seat, while my feet swell in the rising heat to a size or two beyond their usual 10½.
Finally, the support act takes to the stage, a singer/songwriter called Sam Semple. By my estimation, he’s a man somewhere near my own vintage (43 this year, worse luck), in contrast to the headliners who are young, pretty and blonde (and a musical marvel, to boot). I don’t expect much from the warm-up guy, to be honest, but he soon proves me very wrong. He’s clearly an old hand: totally at one with the audience, chatting and joking and winning them over, and within the space of a single song, has them singing along with his brand of folk/rock – and it doesn’t feel remotely cheesy. The songs are soulful and heartfelt, and even with my feet bursting out of my shoes and people heaving into me, I’m transfixed by this lone figure on stage who at times I’m convinced is talking directly to me. There is no doubting his charisma or common touch. He then informs us that his debut album is due out shortly; he is, he confesses, a late bloomer. Towards the end of his set, Sam Semple takes the entire crowd by surprise by playing a song he wrote with Tom Baxter for his own wedding day, Better – made famous in Ireland of course, by Boyzone. All too soon, his set is over, and the stage is empty once more as we await The Webb Sisters. I repair to the bar for sustenance.
I’m intrigued by Sam Semple. He’s clearly a seasoned performer – lovely baritone voice and nimble fingers on his six-string – and an accomplished songwriter, yet it’s only now that he’s getting his album out. I’m reminded of that rather sombre Coen brothers film from 2013, Inside Llewynn Davis, and the struggle of its protagonist for recognition and success (ultimately a futile struggle in that film’s dimension of circular time). I wonder have I chanced upon someone who’s come out the other side of such a struggle, someone who hasn’t been defeated by the cold-hearted music industry; someone who has in fact won. I make a note to get my hands on an advance copy of Sam’s album before the night is out; then I grab another quick pint in time for The Webb Sisters.
It’s the sound of Generation X casting off Prince Hamlet’s dark and inky cloak, saying enough is enough. Youth is over, that confused, painful period whose passing we regret with such pangs. We have come to the clearing in the woods
Mystery Songs doesn’t fail to deliver on the promise of Sam Semple’s live act. It’s full of melody, poetry and rock-solid musicianship (he’s an excellent if understated guitarist – shades of Nick Drake, even). Every song glows with loving care, each one of them the product of constant nurture and attention. The seam of quality is consistent throughout, though there are of course, numerous highlights. The soon-to-be-released single (29 June), Baby We’re Alive, is the first track (and probably the most obviously commercial), a song of hope and faith which sets the tone for the album’s theme and mood. It’s given quite layered treatment by the producer here, and having seen Semple perform it on his guitar, my heart lies with the sparer, acoustic arrangement of the live act. (I know, I know, singles need a bit of beefing up for radio play.)
Another song from the Whelan’s gig is Spoke On The Wheel, for my money, the outstanding achievement of this album both lyrically and melodically. Philosophical, reflective and brave, it captures a man at the halfway point in his life – and would almost bring a tear to a listener of a certain age. It’s about going on, accepting loss, and embracing the present and the future. In doing so, this particular song captures a presence lurking in the background of the entire album, that of suffering. While few of the songs allude to it specifically (with the exception of the eerie and unsettling No Way In, which could’ve come from Thom Yorke), they all resonate with a sense of pain that has been lived through and overcome. Whatever the anguish or torment may have been, the only clear inference is that the suffering was for real. It happened. It’s something that gives Mystery Songs so much of its maturity and depth, and makes it so personal for both the artist and the audience. It also helps to mould the album into an artistic whole: while these songs are all distinct individuals, they also belong here together as the record of a survivor.
The penultimate track, the almost anthemic Things Change might well have made for a rousing finale but for the sequencing. ‘Things change, they fall apart and they grow again’: it sums up so much of what Semple has to say, and it also features the most inspired whistling on a record since Otis Redding’s Dock of the Bay. That’s our lives whistling down the wind there, whether you like it or not, and there’s not much we can do about it. Rueful, self-mocking and bearing up manfully to the unbearable lightness of being: that’s Sam Semple.
The album’s final word is Forgive And Forget, the quiet and humble resolution of a man no longer at war with himself or his past life. It’s the sound of Generation X casting off Prince Hamlet’s dark and inky cloak, saying enough is enough. Youth is over, that confused, painful period whose passing we regret with such pangs. We have come to the clearing in the woods.
Whether or not Sam Semple’s life has played out like a latter-day version of ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’, I cannot say, but unlike that film character, he has got there in the end. This self-confessed late bloomer’s debut album is due for release on Bloomsday, 16 June 2014, on the Proper Records label.