By Michael Hamad
3:40 PM EST, December 11, 2012
Imaginational Anthem vol. 5, curated by Sam Moss, Tompkins Square Records, 2012.
Sam Moss, a 23-year-old fair-haired musician with a penchant for pre-war blues and drone-based folk, is an old soul trapped in a young man's body.
In 2010, one of Moss's solo tracks appeared on Imaginational Anthem vol. 4: New Possibilities, a compilation of guitar music produced by Tompkins Square Records founder Josh Rosenthal. "Maybe five or six months before, I had sent him the most recent CD in the mail," Moss told the Advocate by phone from his current home in Brattleboro, Vt. "At that point he didn't know who I was. A few months later he wrote me and said, 'Nice stuff,' and that was pretty much it. And a few months later, he wrote and said, 'Do you want to be on this compilation?'"
When Rosenthal started to put Volume 5 together, he tapped Moss to curate. "He just e-mailed me one day and asked if I wanted to do it," Moss said. "I guess he had sensed through Facebook that I knew a lot of players and was invested in that scene. It was a total shock." Moss invited guitarists Will Stratton, Daniel Bachman, Yair Yona and nine other guitarists to contribute tracks. The CD was released a few weeks ago.
"Everybody recorded something new, or at least something they hadn't done something with before," Moss said. "There was no direction given, really, just that the piece should be five minutes or less. That was really it. But I had a sense of what I was going to get because I was quite familiar with the work of the players I'd chosen... When I picked out these 12 players I had a vision of what the whole thing would sound like."
Much of Moss's own music involves drones, around which he spins simple chord progressions and rustic melodies. "I've always been drawn to [drones]," Moss said. "I have a harder time writing a piece that has a lot of changes... I've never been quite sure why that is, or why that's easier for me to grasp, but a lot of the early blues music has a huge element of drone in it." When drones eventually disappear, Moss said, when new harmonies or tonal centers pop up, they carry with them a great deal of weight.
"Like listening to minimal classical music," Moss said. "If you just repeat the same figure over and over again for 10 minutes... and then change one note, it's incredibly powerful. You feel a massive weight shifting. I think I'm very drawn to that, but it comes through on a much smaller scale in my music."
Moss grew up in West Hartford, devouring his father's collection of contemporary electric blues-rock — the Allman Brothers, Freddie King, Stevie Ray Vaughan — before discovering Robert Johnson. "I started to slowly trace back, go back a little further in time," Moss said. "That was a big discovery for me." A high school music teacher encouraged him to explore all kinds of American music: jazz, Western swing, bluegrass. "It really opened my eyes to this whole realm."
After one semester at Bennington College, Moss enrolled at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he studied classical composition and jazz violin. "I really wanted to get better at [composition], and I needed someone to guide me," he said. His training helped him with form and structure, even though he no longer has any use for notation. "I learned how to put together a piece of music that applies to any style," he said. "There's a lot there that I think about when I'm playing a fiddle tune or singing a Jimmie Rodgers song."
Moss withdrew to the country after graduation. "I wanted to get out of the city, or any city," he said. "I wanted to be in a place where I would have time to focus on being a musician." He has released eight full-length solo albums and EPs since 2008. This fall, he spent five weeks at the MacDowell artists' colony, working on material he hopes will help him get signed to a label. Moss has also put out three albums with Sewing Machines, a duo with Max Horwich, and two albums with Howling Kettles, an ongoing collaboration with his friend Jackson Emmer. (They'll be touring in the spring.)
On Neighbors, his most recent solo album, Moss sings about ghosts and devils, tombs and bones, solitude and alienation. He plucks at banjo and guitar strings, as his voice, bathed in reverb, cracks, howls and whispers. As a songwriter, Moss creates intimacy out of spare textures, leaving holes you can't help but jump in. "It's a quiet, quiet evening / Dad's around the bend," he sings on the second verse of "Spiders on the Ceiling," above a chiming guitar. "Grandpa's not in the graveyard / but he's not in his head." His natural tendency is withdrawal, to chase shadows rather than face hard truths. "It's a simple line to draw," Moss continues, "I saw it just last week / He's got blue eyes, I've got blue eyes."
Whose eyes, his own? His son's? Better to retreat, although distractions have a way of vanishing at the wrong moment: "Spiders on the ceiling / They're nowhere to be found / Go to where I'm feeling / Must be somewhere, some place around." Reality sucks sometimes, but it ain't going anywhere.