Samm Bennett: Accessible music from some unusual instruments

By John Benson

It’s during multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter Samm Bennett’s description of a mouthbow that he aptly describes his philosophy when it comes to music.

“The mouthbow uses the same principal as a jaw harp, where the mouth is a resonating chamber and you sort of create a series of overtones with it,” said Bennett, calling from New York City. “But it’s not a small thing. It’s like an [archery] bow. The mouthbow is one of the most ancient instruments. At one point, some hunter heard the twang of the bow and went, ‘Aha, that makes a sound.’”

Aha, that makes a sound accurately describes the music that Bennett, who makes his Youngstown debut Friday at the Royal Oaks, has been creating for decades. The Alabama native studied music in Boston before moving to Nigeria and drumming in a traditional funeral band. From there he moved to New York City and was a leading member of the Knitting Factory improvised music scene that spawned bands such as Carbon and Curlew.

Over the years he toured a lot and lived in Europe before moving to Tokyo, where he’s spent the past 20 years.

As far as his style, Bennett’s music has been described as an amalgamation of techno, old time-y and blues. His most-recent effort is “Roomful of Ghosts,” which he said was a studio project with a lot of overdubbing.

“I wanted to make a record that included a lot of percussion and a lot of unusual sounds, but to try to shape them into something that’s pretty accessible,” Bennett said. “Kind of my version of pop-folk music. It’s probably not exactly like anything else that I can really put my finger on. It’s fairly unique but, at the same time, it’s not especially weird, although the components of it are weird.”

One thing that stands out in Bennett’s career is the fact many of the people he’s worked with — Sebastian Steinberg (Soul Coughing) and Billy Martin (Medeski, Martin and Wood) — have been involved in projects that have attracted mainstream attention; however, such national exposure has eluded Bennett. It turns out that’s not by design.

“My music is certainly hinted toward mainstream,” Bennett said. “Now as far as mainstream success and getting a lot of attention or a record contract, for whatever reason, the musical gods of the dollar bill have not smiled down upon me. But you keep going and you keep playing your music and see what happens.”

Bennett went on to say that he’s always viewed himself as a semi-professional musician supplementing his income with part-time jobs such as teaching Kindergarten kids back home in Japan. Whereas some folks would be ashamed or view such a situation as a failure, this creative spirit sees such freedom as providing a certain amount of authenticity in his work that perhaps erroneously is often viewed as being esoteric.

“Truth be told, my live shows are for anybody who is really into songs because it’s really all about the lyrics,” Bennett said. “And melodically, it’s by no means weird. What I’m doing right now in the solo concert is probably some of the most accessible music I’ve ever done.”

Aha! Does this mean Bennett is selling out?

“I’m selling out; I’m going to cash in big time,” Bennett said, laughing. “They’re going to drive dump trucks full of dollar bills up to my house.”

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