Sam Baker paints wise, weary portrait of life

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Houston Chronicle
Andrew Dansby | September 6, 2017

AUSTIN - The dawn chorus has concluded by late morning, but the sunrise birds still fly through Sam Baker's mind.

Baker sits in his bright Austin studio and runs a China marker around the perimeter of a print of a bird he painted years ago. The original piece of art - a bird with its wings spreading - hangs on the wall. Titled "song of the sunrise birds," it was Baker's first painting. The reprint, on a hearty piece of 100-lb. muscle-tone black paper, is black and all manner of greys. Baker references artist Gerhard Richter, known for his affinity for grey.

"Richter said something like, 'No two greys are the same,' " Baker says. "I like that."

He then squeezes a slug of rich yellow paint onto the print and, with a palette scraper, pushes and pulls it into another rectangle. The radiant color only further underscores the variety of tones on the print. These many marriages of black and white clearly speak to Baker. In addition to his visual art, he's made five albums, each of which bears a striking black-and-white cover image, with all the greys in between. His latest is "Land of Doubt," which includes an evocative black-and-white photograph Baker took of a brush fire in West Texas.

The album includes an instrumental interlude called "Song of the Sunrise Birds." And in "Summer Wind," the first song, Baker also doubles back to that old painting: "Remember when you were a girl," he sings in his whispered, wheezing voice, "in pastures fit for thoroughbreds. Waking to the songs of sunrise birds."

Whether a color painting, a black and white print or a lyric to a song, Baker hears the sunrise birds. They can represent all manner of things, but most obviously their song announces a daily rebirth.

Baker built his Austin home himself. Though a guitar hangs on the wall of the studio and another sits in a corner, he typically keeps music in the house and the canvases and paint in the studio.

But like the phrase about the sunrise birds, Baker's various artistic outlets run together like tributaries into a river. He recently had a gallery show, "Dream of the Snow Geese," in Santa Fe. And in addition to touring behind his new album he's been working on a documentary and a play about his life and art, which is a rebirth story in and of itself.

Baker queues up a few instrumental pieces of music that sound related to some of the interludes on "Land of Doubt." For the play, he's envisioned about 30 scenes, each with a corresponding piece of music.

"This is the 'Panic Symphony,' " he says, playing an excerpt in which various voices blur together until no single one is audible. There's a humming drone, and trumpeter Don Mitchell slurs into an eerie line reminiscent of something from Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew." "That's for right after the blast, when I didn't know what was going on."

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The blast happened in 1986 when Baker was on a train to Cuzco in Peru, headed toward the storied ruins of Machu Picchu.

The Shining Path guerrilla group had placed a bomb in the luggage rack. The German kid Baker had been talking to was killed instantly. Baker survived, but barely. The femoral artery in his leg was severed by shrapnel. He suffered a brain injury and cranial bleeding. His left hand was all but destroyed and his eardrums ruptured. Soon after, he got gangrene from his wounds. Doctors didn't bother operating on his hand until they were sure he'd survive, essentially ruining it. The little finger on his hand still sits at an unnatural angle. Today, that's why the right-handed Baker plays guitar left-handed.

He plays other snippets of music composed for the play: "Jacked on Morphine" is a surreal tango-inspired piece with piano and trumpet in a wobbly dance, meant to convey a dream state. Another composition was inspired by his struggle with gangrene and renal failure.

Baker now speaks matter-of-factly about the experience.

"This is for scene 10," he says. "Where I went into this dying process, all that (expletive)."

Those were just the initial surgeries that saved his life. More would come - 17 procedures in total - at Memorial Hermann when he finally got back to Texas.

"I guess that's where the empathy comes from," he says. "You see people differently. You treat people differently."

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Baker relearned to live after the incident, and then he relearned to create. In 2004, he self-released debut album "Mercy." In his late 40s, Baker became an unlikely, highly touted newcomer in a cluttered field of Texas singer-songwriters.

But he had flocks of experience from which to draw songs, and he had a manner of expressing it that set him apart. Baker's speechlike singing voice isn't pretty by any traditional measure, but it's without any affectation. He sounded - and still sounds - weary, wise and willing to share his experience. His lyrics were Carver-esque in their efficiency or as he calls them "flash fiction." To my ears, Baker has yet to waste a line in a song. Yet the characters that live in his songs are described in such a way that full portraits emerge, beautiful and damaged.

On the new song "Love Is Patient" Baker sings, "I wish you would sing to me like you used to." Those eleven words could conceivably represent a biography of a marriage.

The song particularly illustrates one small part of what sets Baker apart from other post-folk type musicians: His apparent disinterest in the mythology of the Texas singer-songwriter.

"I love Lightnin' Hopkins," he says. "He was just so real."

Despite the admiration, Baker never fell into the time-honored apprenticeship system that followed Hopkins' long fingers as they worked the neck of a guitar. Baker clearly admires the work of Hopkins followers, like Townes Van Zandt, but when the conversation about songwriting turns to the nuts-and-bolts rudiments, his North Star is the 19th-century work of Stephen Foster, considered by many "The Father of American Music" who penned standards like "Oh Susanna."

"His sense of melody is as good as I've ever heard," he says.

"I probably should've hit it a little harder, but 'Love Is Patient' is just 'Beautiful Dreamer,' " he says. He sing-speaks the Foster song. "Some of his songs were exquisitely beautiful. That's what I was trying to do there."

There are times Baker sounds like he knows his Tin Pan Alley. "Leave," another new song, echoes Paul Anka's "My Way," while a song on his last album borrowed a melodic snippet from "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" without blinking.

The title track closes the album and was designed to be almost a piece of plainsong.

"That chorus, I guess to somebody it'd seem like a prayer," he says. "You say something in unison, then follow it with something different. The hope was it would be interesting enough to where when it was over you start the album again. I think a lot about entry and exit points, the idea that they form a union."

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"Let's drink some coffee," Baker says. He disappears and returns a few minutes later with a cappuccino. "I like coffee and I drink Topo Chico. I need something to drink in my hand."

"Mercy" drew a lot of attention to Baker, partly because his songs were so good, but also because his backstory involved surviving an act of terrorism. "Pretty World" followed two years later, then "Cotton" in 2009. Between "Cotton" and "Say Grace," which he released in 2013, Baker quit drinking. Though Baker at his shows always projected a Zen-like calm, clearly there were still tangles in his life that he'd kept inside.

The new song "Same Kind of Blue" is about a Vietnam vet who struggles with acclimation back home after the war: "He said the only time he felt alive was crawling through a tunnel with a loaded .45."

But Baker sees such a rush as applicable beyond combat. "Junkies, climbers, fighters, that heightened thing where you feel hyper-alive," he says. "I had to give up all that stuff. But first I tried just about every path that it offered."

As good as his first three records were, "Land of Doubt" and "Say Grace" benefited from the newfound clarity. His characters struggled just as much in the new songs as in the old ones, but the degree of empathy in his writing deepened.

And his consumption of art - visual, literary, musical - has only increased. At any suggestion of a piece of music he doesn't know, he quickly queues it up and smiles as it washes over him.

Baker talks at length about not just Richter, but contrasts the brush strokes used by Caravaggio with those used by Van Gogh. He's clearly read up on his favorites, like Richter and Picasso.

"People always say natural light, and look, I'm grateful for what I have here," he says. "But Picasso would start at 11 at night and paint into the dark with a bottle of wine and an electric bulb. With just those things, he had everything he needed."

He still makes choices based on his preferences. When the World War II film "Dunkirk" comes up, he recoils visibly.

"No interest," he says. "Everybody's gotta find their path. And I've found mine. I don't like violence and (expletive). For me, the whole thing has gotten real simple: Just don't kill people's kids. It won't get you what you want. The people who did that (expletive) in South America. They didn't get what they wanted by blowing up that train. They killed that boy, and now he's gone. But they didn't get anything."

"Land of Doubt" is the sort of title that could project a certain cynicism. Baker sees it differently.

"Doubt is this great unspoken thing in our culture where certainty soars as a fundamental value," he says. "We treat it like a weakness. But I think doubt is the foundation, at the core of finding out who we are. It has been for finding out who I am. If you shore up a doubt, you're on more solid ground. Now I'm talking more psychically and spiritually and physically. It becomes a bigger problem when it applies to a paycheck or health insurance."

The corners of his eyes sink into a sad grimace when he thinks of Itasca, the little town south of Fort Worth, where he was born and raised.

"When I tour I see all sorts of little towns that are dying, and they remind me of home," he says.

He recalls playing a show at a Woody Guthrie event in Guthrie's hometown of Okemah, Okla.

"I stopped at this little cafe, and I asked the waitress if they had any sparkling water," he says. "She said, 'It all sparkles if you get it in the right light.' "

He smiles and lets loose a laugh.

"How about that, right? People have made songs based on less than that."