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How Norfolk's Sam Kelly went from Britain's Got Talent finalist to folk star

PUBLISHED: 15:11 23 November 2017 | UPDATED: 16:44 23 November 2017

Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys who are performing at Norwich Arts Centre. Photo: Rob Bridge

Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys who are performing at Norwich Arts Centre. Photo: Rob Bridge

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Former Norfolk Britain's Got Talent finalist Sam Kelly has gone on to carved out a niche as an acclaimed folk performer. Now his band Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys are bringing their new album for a hometown gig in Norwich.

Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys who are performing at Norwich Arts Centre. Photo: Rob BridgeSam Kelly & The Lost Boys who are performing at Norwich Arts Centre. Photo: Rob Bridge

When Sam Kelly appeared on Britain’s Got Talent as a fresh-faced 19-year-old you could have been forgiven for predicting he would follow the path of most previous finalists, a brief pop career followed by ‘where are they now’ obscurity.

But that would have been to hugely underestimate the now 24-year-old Norfolk-raised, Cornwall-based folk singer, producer and multi-instrumentalist.

Having already recorded and produced over 10 acclaimed records, had multiple live sessions and airplay on BBC Radio 2 and 3, and had his regularly featured on Sky Arts and Sky Sports, he has subsequently enjoyed award-winning success on the folk scene, all a far cry from BGT pop covers.

Playing guitars, bouzouki and mandolin he undoubtedly has instrumental prowess, but it is the effortless soft-edged, stand-out voice that has fast tracked him to the top tier of the scene whether in his trio with banjo genius Jamie Francis and percussionist Evan Carson, in Cornish band The Changing Room band, or spearheading his own Lost Boys.

Former Britain’s Got Talent finalist Sam Kelly heads home to Norfolk on UK tour with his band The Lost Boys. Photo: SubmittedFormer Britain’s Got Talent finalist Sam Kelly heads home to Norfolk on UK tour with his band The Lost Boys. Photo: Submitted

Just three years after releasing his first EP, Your Way Home, which created a buzz of interest in the folk scene, Sam scooped the coveted 2016 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards “Horizon” title, which recognises the best emerging talent.

His debut album, The Lost Boys, was released in 2015 to wide acclaim. His version of Wayfaring Stranger was even heard on Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks.

Now the musicians that backed him on that album –Francis and Carson, along with Ciaran Algar on fiddle/tenor guitar, cellist Graham Coe, Toby Shaer on woodwind, and Archie Churchill-Moss on melodeon — have joined forces to release the follow-up album Pretty Peggy, this time as a band, Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys.

“This is our first full length album as a band,” said Sam, who comes from a family largely made up of Norfolk dairy farmers and grew up in Spixworth.

Former Britain’s Got Talent finalist Sam Kelly heads home to Norfolk on UK tour with his band The Lost Boys. Photo: SubmittedFormer Britain’s Got Talent finalist Sam Kelly heads home to Norfolk on UK tour with his band The Lost Boys. Photo: Submitted

“With this I really wanted to create something that all of the guys were equally creatively involved with. They all have good ideas for songs and whenever I get a song together, or Jamie and I work on a song, I always hear the song as a full arrangement in my head. It is then about bringing those parts into it and getting what is in your head and translating it. It is great to work with a bunch of guys who think like that as well and we have all just been bouncing ideas off each other.”

Coming from a family of dairy farmers left Sam with an unmatched experience of singing in front of hurtfully disinterested Friesians, but the band have become one of the most in-demand bands on the UK folk scene. Next week he will be bringing them for a hometown gig in Norwich. Expect to hear haunting harmonies, soaring tunes and melodies, all led by Sam’s unmistakable vocals.

As child he spent many a night enraptured, listening to his Irish grandfather tell folk tales, sing songs, and play tunes on his melodeon.

Trawling old songs and tunes for this melting pot album, Sam and his band have captured this Celtic feel. The album starts with rousing whaling shanty Greenland Whale and ends with a driving, full-blooded take on the trad English song The Keeper.

Giving the album its title, the Scottish ballad of a thwarted romance between a soldier and ‘pretty Peggy’ – Bonny Lass of Fyvie, previously recorded by everyone from Dylan to The Grateful Dead, features two of the biggest names in folk Cara Dillon and masterful pipe playing of Mike McGoldrick.

The album also offers a gentle take on the trad Irish song If I were a Blackbird which breaks into a midway tune based on Chris Wood’s Ville De Quebec and features Ulster’s talented Damien O’Kane on electric tenor guitar.

It is all a far cry from his “massive whirlwind experience” on Britain’s Got Talent when he strummed his way into the final in 2012 picking up the most public votes in his semi-final heat with a stripped-back version of the Goo Goo Dolls’ hit Iris.

Although failing to make the top three in the live final with his performance of Rascal Flatts’ Bless This Broken Road, the show did rewarded Sam with a management deal, floods of offers for personal appearances and a huge boost in his profile.

Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys latest album Pretty Peggy. Photo: Navigator RecordsSam Kelly & The Lost Boys latest album Pretty Peggy. Photo: Navigator Records

However from the off he had different ideas than simply riding the BGT bandwagon. Rather than seeking a pop hit he heading off to play gigs in small venues up and down the country.

BGT did also bring some unwelcome attention too, particularly due to his lifelong love of Norwich City. “One tabloid kept ringing me up about girls and eventually I said I fancied Delia Smith to get them to go away - and then there was a massive article about how I like older women and Delia being tasty,” he recalled at the time.

Whether playing to 13 million people on prime-time television, or to 10 people in a tiny pub, Sam’s child-like fascination with music it what has always shone through.

And his meandering solo musical journey became increasingly collaborative following his move to Cornwall with its strong folk music scene.

Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys who are performing at Norwich Arts Centre. Photo: Rob BridgeSam Kelly & The Lost Boys who are performing at Norwich Arts Centre. Photo: Rob Bridge

“A lot of the time in bands where everyone is equally involved you can start having arguments but everyone is so relaxed,” he says of The Lost Boys.

And as for the future? “We haven’t really thought much beyond getting the songs together and getting the album out there. We hope that people like it but at the end of the day our main mantra, like with all my stuff that I’ve done with Jamie and Evan since we were at university, has always been just to play the music that we like playing and not really worry about anything else. Not worry about trying to appeal to a certain demographic or audience. That is quite a freeing thing to come to that realisation as a musician that you are not trying anything beyond making music that you like.

“We hope that people like it and it does well, but if we just sell four copies to our parents we’ll be happy as well as long as we’re proud of what we’ve done.”

• Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys are at Norwich Arts Centre on November 28, 8pm, £12 (£10 cons), 01603 660352, norwichartscentre.co.uk

• Pretty Peggy is out now

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