in conversation with Jo Freya
Martin Simpson is a multi-instrumentalist, singer and composer. Known predominantly for his extraordinary guitar playing, he ranks as one of the best, in any genre, that this country has ever produced. He has been nominated 32 times at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, including nine times consecutively as Musician Of The Year, which he has won twice. He is known for accompanying other outstanding artists as well as working solo and in groupings of his choice. It seemed appropriate to talk to this prolific artist about life, music and current times. It turned out to be so much more than that. This was a roller coaster ride through emotional ups and downs, the personal reflections that lockdown has forced on many, and the diverse inspirations and musical sources that form the work of an artist like this. I thought I’d plough straight in with a question, musician to musician, about the here and now.
Most musicians I know, due to COVID, have had to change what they do in terms of reinventing themselves, living off their savings, relying on government money or the help of nearest and dearest, or a mixture of everything. How have you coped since March last year?
“Well, it’s an interesting one because in February of last year we had a massive meeting in London, at Kings Place, and it was with the agents, PR people and record company and Kit, of course, without whom…” And a voice shouts up from the back “…without whom none of this would be necessary… ha ha!” (Kit Bailey is Martin’s partner.) “…the idea being I should try harder to do what I have been trying to do for years which is, basically, to do fewer but better gigs. I’ve been doing what I do since I was 18 and in the last few years I have been doing between 100 and 120 gigs a year, and it felt like I needed to make a change. The expression ‘work smarter not harder’ was what we were looking at. We came up with lots of plans of what to do. Shortly after that, I went to Denmark and did 10 days there which I absolutely loved. I loved the country, the people, the landscape, its tangible history and its natural history. I came back and did three wonderful English gigs and then it just went boom! Everything stopped.”
What happened then Martin?
“I had wanted to be at home to work out what I wanted to do next, and there I was, at home. To start with I was absolutely fine with it. I had things to figure out. I was supposed to do a live gig in October and it became rapidly clear that you could not depend on being able to do anything in front of an audience for the foreseeable future and, indeed, beyond (as we now know) so we cancelled the idea of doing the live gig and decided to do what became Home Recordings. The new amount of time gave me a chance to really practise.”
Practise Martin? I’m sure that some people would be surprised that you feel you need to! Do you normally anyway?
“You know very well, Jo, when you’re on the road you actually don’t get that much time to play. You are not really pushing the envelope, so to be given the opportunity to stay at home allowed me to do whacky things like practising the banjo for hours, playing with finger picks instead of claw hammer or bare fingers, and I loved it. I could expand my repertoire on that instrument, learn a lot of songs and practise the guitar like a maniac, which was all great. It resulted in my latest CD, Home Recordings.”
“Then, of course, there was the question… ‘This is all very well but what are you going to do to make money in addition to making a record?’ Although I am self-employed, I am actually the director of my own company which means I don’t get any support, whatsoever, from the government. So much of what this government does is completely bewildering to me. They seem to despise artists, I mean they despise experts, the working classes… so hey, I’m glad to be included in that. I was able to be very positive to start with, but it is increasingly hard to be so because of the shambolic state of the country, government and the world!”
“I have been doing this for a very long time, so there are royalties and things like that, but basically it was a question of working out how to do online gigs for ourselves, and being invited to do others for things like the ‘Folk on Foot’ series and ‘Oxfolk Folk Weekend’s Live To Your Living Room’ - those are just invaluable things that people are doing for people like me.”
Going back to the album. Had you decided already to make an album, or did that come out of the current situation?
“I was going to do a live album, had the dates booked in, the venue. It was going to be at The Greystones just down the road. That went out the window. It was obvious that I needed to do something, so I called Topic and said, ‘Why don’t I do some home recordings?’ Glen Johnson, who’s my project manager, said, ‘Great, Home Recordings, that’s what we should call it as well.’ I told Kit this, and said I was going to teach myself to use Pro Tools to make a record and she just fell about laughing and said, ‘May I remind you that you can’t order socks online. You are not going to teach yourself Pro Tools. I was taught to use Pro Tools by John Leonard at Smooth Operations and it took months, so you’re not going to do that. Don’t be daft!’ (Kit had worked as part of the production unit of Smooth Operations for years.) She was, as usual, right.”
“We waited until it was safe and legal and then Andy Bell and Tom Wright came and installed a control room in the living room. I sat in the music room next door and made a record. I absolutely loved it. It’s me, Max, Amy Newhouse Smith and Tom Wright. They sing and I play.”
“There’s a couple of things I did on my iPhone out the back of the house because in the first lockdown the weather was amazing. I spent a lot of time on the deck outside playing, and every so often the neighbours would applaud - which was very nice. There are these two tracks… on one I’m playing the ukulele at dusk. Kit was filming it and recording it and some geese flew over, very low, and started honking away. So they’re on the track. Another track was recorded in the evening in late March with the evening chorus, which people don’t refer to that often, but it’s a massive thing. Around here there are lots of alarm calls from the blackbirds and all the small songbirds and so there’s a track with the birds. It makes me happy.”
As someone who loves bird song, I can totally identify with that. You’ve even officially credited them here. They won’t get royalties though! So, apart from those two tracks, what else inspired the choice of material this time round? You said that lockdown had given you the chance to explore things you wouldn’t have had time for before, new songs… was there any kind of theme or was it random?
“I did a couple of bits of real classic Americana, one of which is John Prine’s Angel From Montgomery. John, of course, died in last April from COVID. I loved John Prine. I got his first record pretty much when it came out and I saw him at the Cambridge Folk Festival when I was probably 21. I still don’t think there are many first records as perfect as that one. The songs on it are all amazing. They’re also not like anybody else’s. Angel From Montgomery, when you think about it, was written by a guy of 20 or 21, putting himself in the head space of a late middle aged woman, living in the middle of nowhere, in a broken relationship. That’s an amazing thing to do. The day I heard that he’d died I sat down and played a version of it and put it on YouTube. People loved it and it would not let me alone, so I kept working on it.”
“Another song that’s on there, which I’ve known for years, is Lyle Lovett’s Family Reserve, which is an extraordinary song - almost funny at times and then completely heart breaking… in the same kind of way that John Prine could write. There’s also The Times They Are A-Changin’, which I learned the summer before last.”
“Then there’s the banjo stuff. I wanted to really examine the relationship between ‘claw hammer’ and ‘three finger’ picking. I re-recorded a version of House Carpenter which has always been one of my favourite ballads, and I also did Mike Waterson’s song, Three Day Millionaire, and at the end of it I played Don’t Put Your Banjo In The Shed Mr Waterson, a claw hammer tune which I wrote on a banjo that used to belong to Mike. That style of banjo playing fascinates me still and I’m doing it a lot. I’ve been working on a version of the Cuckoo Bird. Clarence Ashley and Hobart Smith both did these amazing banjo versions of it, and it’s a song that fascinated me anyway because it’s partly based on an original English folk song and it has more vagrant stanzas, floating verses, than you can shake a stick at. It was an Afro-American banjo piece generations back, so I have been doing a lot of thinking about all that.”
I happen to being having an email conversation with Linda Thompson and asked her what she would ask you if she was interviewing you. She said: “How does someone manage to be so good at American and English traditional music?”
“Well bless her heart. As far as I’m concerned, the first music I was exposed to was American music - Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte and then all the blues and jazz that my two elder brothers listened to, and the rock and roll, of course. I heard English and Irish music from my dad first - not always in a complimentary way, ha. He used to sing Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms. He was a brilliant singer, but we hated the sentimentality of that song, so he would sing it like a dying duck. I was also exposed to Gilbert and Sullivan through him.”
“Then, when I was a little kid, the folk club started up round the corner. I would go down there and I would be exposed to the guys doing Gordon Lightfoot songs, Peter, Paul And Mary stuff, Bob Dylan, American Bluegrassy things… all of a sudden I was seeing people like Tim Hart & Maddy Prior, The Watersons etc, singing English music. Really early on it struck me that this is actually all the same stuff, like talking about the Cuckoo Bird. The songs travel, and I maintain that America without music would be even more hellish than it is. American society is more successful, in music terms, than in any other area.”
“It never occurred to me that I shouldn’t learn all this stuff, that I shouldn’t learn those tunes on the banjo or shouldn’t try and play the blues with a bottle neck. There was no reason why I shouldn’t take that same bottle neck and play Irish tunes with it. It’s all people’s songs and music and it all makes sense to me to a greater or lesser extent.”
“On Christmas day, Tony Rice, the great flat picker guitarist, died. Somebody posted a 1983 film of him playing Church Street Blues, which I think is a Norman Blake song, and it blew my head off. It’s so American, he’s playing in standard tuning, capo on the fourth fret, playing C shapes, playing in the key of E, and he never plays above the third fret. It’s mind bogglingly beautiful. As a guitar teacher I just look at it and think, ‘that is how you should play the guitar.’ His technique is ridiculous and it completely inspired me. I can’t flat pick, but I just thought I am going to figure out how to get that feel, using my fingers and in my tunings… and so, again, I’m away with that. It took watching that film the day he died to push me into that. I’ve been playing now for 52 years and I love that I am as completely excited about music and playing as I have ever been, if not more.”
Maybe that chance to hear and watch things has come about more often recently, whereas you don’t necessarily get the chance on the road under normal circumstances.
“Kit and I watched Jon Boden do ‘Live To Your Living Room’ the other night. He did one of his own songs, which I think was from Songs From The Floodplain, and in the verse he had used the tune of Alan Tyne Of Harrow. I’ve always loved that tune so hearing it made me want to go away play it, but I realised that, actually, I didn’t know the tune. It took me 48 hours or more, humming my way through the tune whilst doing the dishes or whatever, and listening to various versions of it to get it to the point where I could play it. It strikes me so forcibly that a tune like that is a masterpiece. People talk about the great melodies in classical music… well you know it doesn’t get any better than traditional tunes like that. If you look at the range of it, it has octave leaps in it. I find that incredibly exciting. I recognise things like that now, whereas I just used to wander round with my mouth open before.”
In addition to doing the CD, some live internet gigs and frantically practising old and new things, have you had to adapt any of your other musical activities? I’m thinking of your workshops, for instance.
“I had my annual guitar workshop in the book. I’ve been doing them for years and absolutely love them. We held them at a local hotel, and we’d get 20 people to come along from Friday to Sunday. That had to be cancelled so we decided we’d do an online one and it was a massive success. We limited the numbers to 40 people but we immediately had a waiting list, so we did another one two weeks later - we had people from California who maybe didn’t go to bed as it started for them at 2am. They were up all night. And in the second one there was a guy from Moscow and one from Arizona. It was more intense than a residential workshop. We did it in a friend’s zoom room with a great close-up camera on fingers, so when I was talking about some specific detail we could focus on the techniques involved. That is undoubtedly something we are going to do going forward.”
Yes, I was going to ask you what things might carry on from this period that you weren’t doing before.
“The advantages are that it’s way more accessible to people from all over the world and a lot less expensive, for them, than coming to Sheffield for the weekend. I love the online workshop concept. The online gigging is good, but I really would love to play to a live audience now; just to have that absolutely tangible, emotional response that you get when you’re in the same room as people.”
How are your many collaborative music projects doing? Mostly on hold, I guess.
“I was working on Magpie Arc stuff - which is the band with Nancy Kerr, Adam Holmes, Tom Wright and Alex Hunter - that stuff has been coming out. We had a lot of gigs in the diary but have never actually done one. We have recorded an album and we put out a series of EPs to represent what the album will be when it’s finally finished. Magpie Arc is a strange but enjoyable situation for me as I was asked to join it to play electric guitar, not anything else. I’ve always wanted a vehicle for my electric guitar playing. We’re just figuring out ways to keep that creativity going, but until we can meet up, we can’t do much.”
“The thing I’m really feeling my way around at the moment is that I have to start writing, or rather, I have been writing but I just haven’t been finishing anything. I have all these bits of songs. I could go in a number of directions with the next record I make. Part of me is so pleased with the process of Home Recordings that I could do something like that again, but that might not be the right thing. Part of me could make an instrumental album, but actually what I need to do is finish these songs.”
What’s stopping you?
“Fear,” (he laughs). “Procrastination. Writing is not the thing I do the most naturally. Occasionally things come easily, but a lot of the time you start with three or four lines and you’ve got to sit and look at it and wonder where it’s going and then you have to make it go there. That’s a challenge.”
Some things just need to percolate for a while don’t they, and they just go on the back burner.
“Sometimes the back burner can be burning for a very long time. I don’t object to that. There are still songs I started when I was in New Orleans which could do with being finished. It’s a question of going back through the books. I’m currently working on a song that’s about the hideous realisation that I’m actually not superman!”
What have you enjoyed most and least about this difficult situation? Has it thrown up any revelations about you and life - particularly about what’s important to you for your happiness?
“That’s an ongoing situation. Because of the timing of the first lockdown and this idea of a career change, I allowed and encouraged myself to do lots of things with nature. Walks. Kit and Max bought me a moth trap for my birthday last May. That was fantastic as it meant every morning I’d go down and see what the night had brought me. I’d get my moth book and logbook out and note it all down. When I was a kid, that’s what I wanted to do - be a bug hunter. I built a pond in the summer. I allowed myself time to nurture that side of things. As it went on and the weather changed, that became harder to sustain. We still have the dog to walk. We have kingfishers in the local parks and wonderful stuff around here. Losing our wonderful cat, who was such an important part of our family unit, was very hard during this period. Now when I open the bedroom door in the morning, I’m met with silence. That never used to be the case. I used to be harangued for food and affection. There’s a song in there. That’s on the way.”
When things begin to return to ‘normal’, the key, for me, will be to find ways that cut out some of those things that used to cause a lot of stress… like making journeys more pleasant by stopping off. Are you thinking about things like that?
“I’ve always added things in, like going to an RSPB reserve if there’s one near a gig, but I’ll do that more I think, as I do need and want to pay more attention to all that. Spurred on by the fear of being stalked by a pandemic... I had a gig at Kings Place just before lockdown. I love Kings Place and I had another gig in the book for the end of November which was pulled and moved to March. That was moved too. I was going to have to do that drive, go to a hotel and all that. I knew Kings Place would do things right, but it’s the rest of the world, and it’s truly scary. People are not paying attention if they’re not scared shitless by the pandemic, and being out there amongst them is a daunting prospect.”
If you were to write questions for your own interview, is there anything you would ask?
“I’m very aware because you’re a musician and I know you that it’s totally comfortable for me to talk about my relationship with the instruments and how much it means to me. I’ve been working on a few songs over the last couple of days and… Jesus this is making me cry, I wasn’t expecting that… but the absolute pleasure of being able to sit down with the instrument and find how a tune works, put it on the instrument and play around with singing it, is just the most profound joy. It’s amazing to me to be able to do that. I can’t emphasise enough how incredible that is in my life.”
“Recently, someone posted a film of me and June Tabor from a Scottish TV show in 1981/2 and we’re playing Flash Company. Sometime in the late 70s I played at Ipswich Folk Club. One of the floor singers was Percy Webb; he was one of the famous Suffolk pub singers. His best-known songs were Flash Company and Wheel Your Perambulator. When I heard him do Flash Company it blew me away. I figured out how to play it and did it in such a way that, 40 years ago, I couldn’t sing and play it at the same time. When I did that first record with June I said, ‘I’ve got this guitar arrangement for Flash Company - do you know it?’ And she did as she’d learnt it from Eli Sterry, a Suffolk gypsy singer. One of the great things about working with June was that she was so used to singing unaccompanied that if she wanted to extend a line somehow or change the phrasing to fit some words in, she would. If you’re the accompanist, you have to do that too. When I saw this film, it made me want to figure the song out again but in a key that I can sing in. I can now sing it, and I sing it loosely and freely, but it’s interesting that I can’t not do June’s way of extending those lines. 43 years on I’m still working on that song. It’s a lot more musical now than it was. I told Alan Bearman about it - he lives in that area - and he said that Flash Company is still a big session song round there. They finish a lot of the club meets with it. I am really happy that music excites me and that helps.”
It’s what some people don’t understand about traditional music isn’t it, that there’s always more to find?
“There’s an instrumental version of Plains Of Waterloo on Home Recordings, played with a slide. I learnt it from June in the mid-70s and I didn’t dare sing it for about 35 years. But I loved the tune so much I kept figuring out ways to play it. If you go online, I did a version at the Museum of Making Music in San Diego and that version of the song, played with slide, has had more hits than anything else I have online. On a recent trip to Canada, I played in Ottawa for a man called Ian Robb. Everyone cites O J Abbott, who was an English immigrant to Canada, as being the source of The Plains Of Waterloo. I think June credited OJ and so I would always mention him too. After the gig, Ian said, ‘Have you heard O J Abbott sing that.’ I said, ‘Yeh, about 40 years ago.’ He then played that version to me.”
“One of the things I love about the tune is it starts in the major, then it has a Mixolydian line in it, and then the third line is minor. What I’d done was affected by my ability to sing it at the point I’d learnt it, so I’d actually compressed the tune. I’d put it in D Major, D Mixolydian and D minor, but then about a month after I got back from Canada, when I was walking the dog one day, I suddenly realised it actually modulates to A minor on the minor line, so a fifth above in the minor. But O J Abbott modulated to A Major! I sat down to figure it out and it just became this really lovely exploration. I’m not done with it yet. I want to figure out how to sing it so that you get most of the story by using those two modulations rather than the one.”
“Your relationship with any piece of music can change and expand. Even when you’ve lost interest in a tune or song, you can hear it again and fall in thrall all over. You’ve got to feel it.”
You seem like me in that music taps into something deeply emotional, not always the happy side. It unlocks things in a beautifully unexpected way.
“When people ask me what I do for a living, the proper answer, I hope, is ‘I open hearts’. That’s why I was attracted to music. Like at three or four years old hearing Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child. I couldn’t believe that anyone could do that to me by singing a song. That’s my job.”
Did you learn anything unusual in this time, maybe about yourself?
“It was interesting to be able to look at who you are when you are not constantly ruled by adrenalin. When you’re on the road it’s a series of ups and downs. You come home from being on the road and, it took me until getting together with Kit to actually recognise the three-day rule. You will be depressed for three days after you come home. It’s because your system is in chaos. You’ve spent two weeks going ‘yeh, yeh, yeh’ every night and then you come home and go…. ‘Oh god, what’s wrong with me?’ Reflecting on all that stuff was really interesting. I’m a lot more even at the moment.”
“So, since lockdown I have been more level. I’m now at the point where, when I think about going out on tour again, and I think about what I do on stage, it makes me really happy, although I think about the rest of it and I’m actually rather frightened. I’m not looking forward to being stuck in traffic on the motorway or being in a less than decent hotel on my own. I really do want to be doing gigs, but I really don’t want to return to ‘that’ normal. I think anybody in my position would feel the same.”
Photo: Phil Crow
Published in Issue 139 of The Living Tradition – June 2021.