A photo of Sam Lee in black and white against a yellow background with the words "21 questions" in the bottom right hand corner

‘Extinction is humanity’s way of saying we don’t really care’: 21 Questions with Sam Lee

The musician and author of The Nightingale on Richard Mabey, the books that shaped his career, and his passion for riding rivers on his small, nutshell-shaped boat.

Chances are you know Sam Lee as a musician, first and foremost. The British folk singer has been performing for well over a decade now; in the meantime, he’s released three albums – the first of which, Ground of Its Own, garnered a Mercury Prize nomination – and won a BBC Folk Award.

More recently, Lee combined his musical side with his connection to nature and love of the wild in the form of Singing With Nightingales, an annual music festival that sees Lee and a cadre of likeminded musicians take to the woods to perform around a fire in the woods – and then, once night falls, step quietly into the deep forest to hear the nightingales sing up close to celebrate the arrival of spring.

This year, Lee is releasing The Nightingale: Notes on a Songbird, a book-length ode to the inspiration of those musical nights. To celebrate the its release, we asked Lee our 21 Questions; he responded by telling about his burlesque dancing past, the joy of singing in harmony with friends, and the book from his childhood he never found again.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

I think right now I would have to say Robert Macfarlane is a huge inspiration. His lyrical thinking and eye for nature’s detail is magnificent, so how my imagination wanders the land and thinks upon it.

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?

Funnily there was a book I read when I was about 10 that I know not the name or the author of, but it charted the journey of an 1800s Native North American family rescuing a white settler which fired my youthful fascination for the wild so much. I do wish I could find what book it was.

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

'My strangest job – let me see, would that be my job as a burlesque dancer?'

Slightly more prosaically, it was the SAS survival handbook that went everywhere with me. But actually it was a book called Nomads of the Wind that accompanied a BBC TV series that got me obsessed with Polynesian culture.

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

In a funny way, Cecil Sharp’s English Folk-Song, Some Conclusions, much of which I don’t necessarily agree with, but which introduced me to the world of folk songs and what collecting songs meant and how they existed in the oral tradition. That book got me on the road to being a folk-singer.

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?

Now let me see, would that be my job as a burlesque dancer? Japanese lacquerer? Or pretending to be a Gypsy wedding singer for my cameo on Peaky Blinders? I’m still not sure.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

Somewhere back in my early music-making days a mentor once said to me in respect to being creative: “You can only vomit what you eat.” It has always stayed with me, that line.

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)

Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica has always been a favourite go-to book that I pore over again and again, especially in springtime when I am being reacquainted with all the plants reappearing and wanting to be reminded of their stories.

What’s the one book you feel guiltiest for not reading?

I think the question should actually be ‘Which shelf of books in your home do you feel guiltiest of not reading?’

If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______

I’m not really an author at all – I was quite happy just being a nature-loving folk-singer before all this happened.

What makes you happiest?

Singing in harmony with friends round a campfire.

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

I love being in my coracle on rivers… it’s a bit of a passion for me, coracling.

What is your ideal writing scenario?

This I am still trying to find out.

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?

Somewhere back in my early music-making days a mentor once said to me in respect to being creative: 'You can only vomit what you eat.'

I remember going to hear Rachel Lichtenstein, an author I really admire, talk at a festival. It was a washout of an event: torrential storms, flooded site, sleepless nights. I sat in a tent with about three other people listening and I was right in the front middle, so basically looking directly at her. She hit so many nerves I just sat there sobbing unconsolably and unable to contain myself.

We became great friends thereafter so my emotional incontinence won out, but how my burning cheeks were soothed by my tears that day… strange refreshment.

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

The ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, and we’d eat a meal entirely made of fly agaric mushrooms.

What’s your biggest fear?

My first is the extinction of our world’s species, and my second is rejection – which on reflection is kind of what extinction is, on a global level. It’s humanity’s way of saying to nature we don’t really care or like or need you.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

The power of flight, without question.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?

I adored and was blown away by Ben Macdonald’s Rebirding – radical yet utterly obvious.

Reading in the bath: yes or no?

Yuck no.. I’m just not a bather.

Which do you prefer: coffee or tea?

Hand-picked herbal tea for sure!

What is the best book you’ve ever read?

I think Hugh Brody’s book Maps and Dreams had a hugely profound effect on me when I was young, and I’m still grateful for how it affected my journey in life.

What inspired you to write your book?

My editors’ promise of sex, celebrity and speed boats if I agreed to write it – or perhaps the determination to reveal the incredible world of nightingales surprisingly never told.


The Nightingale by Sam Lee is out now..

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