Hunting for immediacy & emotion with St. Augustine singer, songwriter and revered guitarist Sam Pacetti
Story by NICK McGREGOR
When I moved to St. Augustine in 2001, the best way to find out about weekly gigs was the old-fashioned way: in print (Folio Weekly specifically) and by word of mouth. As a voracious FW reader, I noted all the regular names at the regular bars I loved. But one artist came to me wholly through giddy recommendations given in worshipful whispers: “You have to see Sam Pacetti at the Mill Top on Wednesdays.”
As many musicians in St. Augustine did then and still do today, Pacetti performed solo, with an acoustic guitar. But what he did with that guitar was rhapsodic: a fingerstyle technique hailed by critics and fans alike as revelatory upon the 1997 release of his album Solitary Travel. He inherited a masterful ability to spin a fanciful yarn after spending a year with Florida folk legend Gamble Rogers. Sam’s Cuban grandfather imparted flamenco influences; a year in Ireland enhanced his love of Celtic tradition. Stints in Chicago and Virginia strengthened Pacetti’s consummate grasp of the American primitive guitar style.
In short, Pacetti has built an aura celebrated both here in the Ancient City and anywhere folk enthusiasts trade their own Top Five lists. Equal parts spiritual, mystical and intense, it’s an ambience impossible to capture in a column or review—you truly have to see it to believe it. Even better, feel it—the resonant intimacy of Sam’s florid technique burrowing into your chest, his razor-sharp, sage-like wit sinking into your consciousness. I’ve spent years listening to his albums, reading his interviews and following his intermittent tour dates, all while acknowledging that, like the best artists, Sam Pacetti for me will always represent a time and a place—that moment when St. Augustine’s creative possibilities seemed limitless and I felt, drunk on strong Mill Top drinks and staring starry-eyed out over the Castillo de San Marcos to the Atlantic Ocean, upon which Pacetti’s Minorcan forebears came in the 1700s, like I had finally found a home. As Sam reminded me in this interview for Folio Weekly, mundane information has nothing on visceral emotion, even when it’s melted into the haze of nostalgia.
Folio Weekly: You’ve been through a lot lately, Sam—our condolences on the death of your mother.
Sam Pacetti: That was certainly meant to be—what a strange synchronicity, my mother’s name being Irma and her passing while the storm was right on top of us. I have really strong beliefs about what’s in store, so I think she’s on another journey.
Folio Weekly: What journey is Sam Pacetti on right now?
Sam Pacetti: That’s a difficult question and I don’t have a clear, concise, coherent answer to it. Right now, I’m in the Carolina Highlands on a bit of a quest. Many years ago, I had an incredibly intense experience of what Carl Jung might call the numinous, or the deep unconscious making itself manifest. I didn’t have the skill set at the time to understand what had happened, so I shut it off and compartmentalized it. About five or six years after that, I lost interest in music—I saw that I was going to have to make sacrifices that I wasn’t willing to make, and I didn’t possess the maturity to do it. So I walked away. I essentially lost my vision and my sense of vitality. I floundered for a period of time. But the magic came back.
Folio Weekly: A mid-life crisis, perhaps?
Sam Pacetti: In Western terms, yes. Or an existential crisis of meaning. As Goethe said, for a person who’s been imbued with certain gifts, their greatest joy will be found in using those gifts to the best of their ability. I’m most interested in healing. Our world has a lot of healing to do—certainly in Western culture, where so much has been suppressed in the psyche. There’s so much that’s seeking to come to the surface. We would call this, perhaps, shadow material: the loathsome, terrifying, dark, diabolical, malevolent, unbalanced, infantile, repressed parts of human consciousness. This is the mythological journey of going down into the underworld and attempting to come back up as a more integrated and more whole being.
Folio Weekly: Not an easy thing to accomplish. How does that translate to your music?
Sam Pacetti: What I’m attempting to do in shows these days is to create an environment where we might energetically explore these ideas in a relatively safe space, but without too much language. Let people feel their way into some of this stuff. That’s the big issue in the West—we’ve killed intuition, creativity and imagination. We’ve abdicated our personal power and vitality; we’re a culture desperately searching for meaning. I want more immediacy and feeling. As she was discovering her own creativity, Joni Mitchell said that she knew how she felt, and she knew she wanted to bring those emotions—those nebulous feelings—into her music. That’s where music does its work; that’s where it cuts into someone. That’s what art is supposed to do. Get us out of our heads and back into our hearts.