Long revered for his virtuosity on a variety of instruments, Big Pond native Gordie Sampson has also played an important role in the popular music of Cape Breton Island. As a member of Realworld in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s he co-wrote some of Cape Breton’s first exportable pop songs and has since had a hand in a number of Top 20 singles in Canada including the Rankins’ current hit “You May Be Right”. In September his much anticipated debut album Stones was released.
It’s hard to believe he’s even had time to record this album. Still in his mid-twenties, the music keeps Sampson busy. Besides touring with the Rankins (he plays guitar in the band), he’s co-owner with Fred Lavery of Lakewind Sound Studios at Point Aconi. A well-respected guitar, he has played on dozens of recordings, even producing and co-producing the odd one. Most recently he’s been working in television on Rita MacNeil’s show and as musical director for shows like Celtic Electric.
Gordie grew up with traditional music. He taught himself to play guitar as a teenager but his interest leaned more towards Stevie Ray Vaughn than Eastwood Davison. Comfortable with any type of music (he played in the school band at Malcolm Munroe Junior High and Riverview High School) he’s found his way through the blues and pop/rock back to the traditional music of Cape Breton to become one of its finest players. But he’s oblivious to his mastery. When I ask where the music comes from he can’t understand what I mean, much less answer the question.
“I never really thought of it like that,” he says over the phone from Halifax where he’s just finished work on a Christmas television special that the Rankin sisters are doing. “I don’t think about it too much.” I don’t think that’s because he’s humble, though he is, I just think he doesn’t even notice. I know it’s kind of a silly question anyway: “Where does your genius come from?”, but I had to ask. I think I wanted to hear about that magic moment when he realized he was a ‘rock star’.
“It never really seemed to hit me. It never went bang. It seemed like it was the natural thing to do from as far back as I can remember. I can remember sitting on the piano stool with my grandfather who was a fiddler, Bernie Ley, and I can remember he was playin’ the fiddle and I guess my mother was playin’ the piano and I was up on the stool with her on the piano bench and I fell off, right on top of my head. And it hurt a lot so I guess that’s why I remember it.”
“I was born in Sydney. We moved to Big Pond when I was four or five. I can remember I would harmonize with my mother at parties. She’d play something on the piano, ‘Scotch On The Rocks’ was the first thing I think I learned, and I would harmonize with her on the second part of the fiddle tune. And then everyone would clap and I’d start to cry I was so embarrassed I’d run upstairs because everyone was making noise and it was loud. I couldn’t understand why everyone was clapping. So obviously at that point it seemed natural to me (to make music). And the fact that people clapped or enjoyed it was secondary.”
Making music may have been a natural impulse for Gordie when he was young, but as he’s become quite good at it, he’s had to come to terms with the fact that people want to see him perform and hear him play.
“Some people wanna write about themselves and say, ‘look everybody, shut up and listen to me. This is what I’m about: Me Me Me Me Me’. I would rather say ‘what do you guys wanna hear? Here it is’. I guess that’s why I like pop music so much, it just makes people feel good.”
Maybe not, but Sampson has a knack for touching deeply with his music. Songs like “Angels” written and recorded with Realworld and “MacDougall’s Pride” which Ashley MacIsaac recorded for Hi, How Are You Today stir the senses. Stones has its share of powerful moments too.
“Something like ‘The Blood is Strong’, the lyrics are much more heavy duty and more personal. Not so much personal to me but personal to the spirit of Cape Bretoners in general.”
For Gordie, writing songs is something that happens, it seems, more to him than by his hand. “It’s pretty natural, it’s just conjured up, the initial idea for a song is usually conjured up or manifests itself either as a melody or maybe a couple of lyrics like ‘Old Ways’ was… and when that hits you, it’s just like a little tumour and it will grow on its own and there’s not much you really can do. Obsessive compulsive kicks in at that point and you write the song whether you want to or not. I’ve written songs nobody knows about… you can’t say, ‘oh I can’t write that song because I don’t wanna think about it’, so it’s a great way to deal with little things that are in your head.”
Gordie is happy to finally have this album finished. He’s been working on it for two years and a lot is expected of him but he doesn’t feel any particular pressure.
“The only pressure is from myself. I’m not out to please anybody.” He interrupts himself acknowledging the contradiction. “Well I sorta am, but… “ (he lets out a big sigh before continuing in a less animated voice) “…in a way, with this record I just had to satisfy myself I think. I had a difficulty sort of making the common thread work, y’know, cause there’s a lot of different styles and things going on, but I was pleased at the end of it that it seemed to hold together.”
It holds together alright. A recording of Big Pond fiddler Dan Joe MacInnis gets the music going before Natalie MacMaster and Gordie take up the tune. Catchy songs and intricate instrumentals follow, each impeccably produced and featuring some Cape Breton’s finest musicians, both as players on the album and collaborators on the songs.
“It was a cool chance for me to work with all the people I’ve played for over the last number of years and since left. Now I’ve asked them to come back and play on my album. People like Ashley (MacIsaac) backing me up on the piano on a track and I used to work for him. Jamie (Foulds) is singing backup on a track and I used to sing backup for him. It’s just kind of neat.”
Through the past ten years, Sampson has worked with a staggering variety of musicians. But his professional career started with a bar band touring the Maritimes, playing places like Smooth Herman’s in Sydney.
“Well, Ricochet was the first band I toured with after I got out of high school. I was 17 years old. I made $100 a week. We toured the Maritimes for six months. I was pretty skinny at the end of that one. And then, of course, I got hooked up with Realworld which was a tremendous learning experience. Those were the formative years for me musically.”
With Realworld, Sampson started writing songs and recorded for the first time. Three cassette singles were recorded on four-track by singer Jamie Foulds and received regular airplay in the local area. The band became very popular and after winning the first Music Spirit East contest sponsored by CJCB radio, they recorded an album which charted three top twenty singles nationally. Later that year, 1994, Realworld broke up Everyone’s individual interests were taking up a lot of time and there was little interest in keeping it together. They’d toured for years and recorded an album and done videos and it was time to move on.
One of the bands Sampson played with next was Green Eggs & Jam, an informal collection of friends who would often find themselves at the same parties playing music together. Performances were based on jamming familiar songs and dealing with requests. The music was loose and largely unrehearsed so there was a real “anything goes” attitude. Here and there Sampson would slip in a fiddle tune he was learning and the rest of the band would struggle to make sense of it and keep up with him. He was taking a great interest in Cape Breton’s traditional music at this time and could often be found searching through collections of tunes at the University College of Cape Breton’s Beaton Institute. He was learning them at a mad pace.
“It just became natural,” he explains. “Once you start to play fiddle tunes, there’s a certain part of your brain you use and after a while you find yourself going out and hearing a tune being played down once and you pretty well know it.” As his repertoire of tunes grew, he started playing shows with John Allan Cameron and the Barra MacNeils.
“Celtic music was something that I suppose I probably easily could have been more consumed with when I was growing up because I had lots of chances to be exposed to it. There were lots of fiddlers droppin’ around the house in Big Pond. People like Dan Joe MacInnis would come in from time to time but I wasn’t interested, I wanted to play rock’n’roll music, you know? At that time Celtic music, there wasn’t a big stronghold in that part of the island. There wasn’t enough drawing power for me at that time. It wasn’t until I got outta high school, when I was around 20 years old that it hit me. And then it was like, ‘I can’t believe I missed this’.”
His next gig was with Ashley MacIsaac who was experimenting with different ways to present traditional tunes. With Ashley and Mary Jane Lamond, he wrote “Sleepy Maggie” which went on to become a huge hit. Gordie played electric guitar in the band that would become the Kitchen Devils but opted out of the show before the touring got really crazy. Around that time he started working with Rita MacNeil’s band, on the road and on the television show. Before long he was also touring with The Rankin Family, which is his current job. Working with the Rankins has been the highlight of his career as a musician so far.
“The most excited I have ever been playin’ on stage has been with the Rankins. They let me turn my guitar up real loud and they’ve just got so much soul. We do a version of ‘Mull River Shuffle’ now, it’s probably about 20 minutes long. And from the top of the tune to the end, it’s just like the history of the world. There’s everything, strathspeys, reels, blues, James Bond . . . everything happens in that tune.”They give me incredible freedom and the more I try to go outside, they like it, they like what it brings to the picture so it’s really fun for me. Their music is so great. Jimmy Rankin is an incredible songwriter, Cookie as well, Heather, they’re all writing now, they don’t write a song unless it’s perfect.”
It’s his favourite gig for now, but with an album of his own to promote it’s time to concentrate on his own music, which may prove difficult to work into his schedule. “I’ll continue opening for the Rankins. I just finished a television show, which I sort of like doing but it’s really not my thing. I’m looking forward to just being able to focus on being a singer songwriter. Musically there have been a couple of different things I’ve been doing. I’ve been doing the singer songwriter thing and then working on a television show or at the recording studio. It’ll be cool to go out and do the first gig (in support of Stones).”
When it comes right down to it, Gordie just hopes people like his album. “I’d give them all away if it was up to me. But someone else owns the record, the record company owns the record, so their mandate is to sell them, it’s not mine really. I just hope that people enjoy it. The record’s not out much yet but a couple of people are starting to quote little bits of the songs, so they’ve played it a few times. That feels pretty good.”