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Martin Simpson: Opening the Floodgates

by Michael Parrish


Martin Simpson

Martin Simpson (Click to visit artist's website.)

Martin Simpson is a guitarist’s guitarist. He came up through the folk club circuit in England and collaborated with luminaries such as June Tabor and Ashley Hutchings during the 1980s. From the 1990s to early in the new century, Simpson lived in the United States as he and his first wife, Jessica Radcliffe, worked with a set of very talented ensembles in Ithaca (New York), Santa Cruz (California), and New Orleans. During his stateside sojurn, Simpson also took the opportunity to collaborate with a broad spectrum of American and international artists, including David Lindley, David Hidalgo, Steve Miller, Tarika, and Wu Man.

After all those years abroad, Simpson has found himself happily settled back in the northern England industrial municipality of Sheffield, with a new marriage to Kit Bailey, daughter of folk icon Roy Bailey. “I’m 45 minutes from where I grew up, and I’m in another steel town, and a thriving city at that. Steel in this country, as in the States, is not doing terribly well, but it is here, so that is good to see. It’s funny to have an attachment to the idea of industry like that. I never thought that would happen, but I feel very strongly about it, actually. It’s interesting: I just finished reading a book — it’s by a DJ named Stuart Maconie. He’s a very good DJ and also a very good writer. The book is about the North of England, and it’s called Pies and Prejudice: In Search of the North. He’s very big on the idea of the North of England, as opposed to the South of England. And I think that idea of the power of industry — what happens to people who are united by the place that they live and the place that they work — is very strong.”

Since returning to his homeland, Simpson has received more acclaim and recognition than ever, largely on the strength of his two most recent solo albums. The remarkable 2007 effort Prodigal Son earned Simpson two BBC Folk awards, one for best album and one for best song, for his moving portrait of his father, “Never Any Good.” On the strength of the recently released True Stories, Simpson is up for a record six nominations for the 2010 awards, including nomination for artist of the year and two different nominations for song of the year. Both records feature some of Simpson’s most moving and personal songs to date, and have connected strongly with audiences, particularly in the United Kingdom. “I am actually kind of reeling with the response to this new record. Prodigal Son got such phenomenal critical response; it was nominated for five folk awards and got two. True Stories has been nominated for six, which is a record. Nobody has ever had six nominations, and whether it wins anything or not, it’s pretty amazing. And the audiences are just turning out in large numbers, so it’s going beautifully.”

Asked what brought about the change in his writing, Simpson was a bit circumspect. It is clear that his new domestic tranquility has helped to open the floodgates. “For various reasons, earlier I didn’t feel I had permission to do that kind of writing. There were areas where I could go and areas where I couldn’t, and I don’t feel that anymore. Now I can write whatever I want, basically. The songs on the last record are all true stories.”

Touching on several of those tunes, he began with “Will Atkinson,” which is a finely detailed World War I vignette narrated to him by a nonagenarian Northumberland harmonica player. “The whole ‘Will Atkinson’ song is basically quotes from Will and quotes from people about him. That was a delight to write.”

A more personal song is “Home Again,” a brief travelogue covering Simpson’s itinerant period. “It’s an overview. It could have been a much longer song, but I think I might have lost people’s attention after awhile,” he said. Another very personal song is “One Day,” which deals with the tragic death of jazz guitarist Martin Taylor’s young adult son. Taylor wrote the wistful melody and asked Simpson to compose the lyrics. “I’m still kind of reeling from that whole experience, of being asked to do that,” he reflected. “It was an extraordinary thing to ask me to do, really. He had faith in me, which was really delightful. It could have been very difficult and might have failed completely. Apart from anything else, finding out about the twin oak trees was really an extraordinary gift.” Simpson was referring to a vivid image in the song that wove together an image of twin oaks he uncovered in a nature center newsletter, and a tradition drawn from Taylor’s Gypsy heritage whereby a deceased child is buried with an acorn in each hand:

The twin oaks in the hedgerow, they grow strong from such sadness,
Grown from the grave of a lost Gypsy child,
The leaves and the long grass they whisper your name, my Romany Chavo
So dear and so wild.

Martin SimpsonContacted by phone in mid-December 2009, Simpson was on his way to do a duo gig with Taylor in Kent. “It’s really, really fun playing with Martin. It’s a strange one, because we are such different players. But it’s lovely.”

One of the notable themes of True Stories is the juxtaposition and exploration of the common roots of British Isles and Southeastern American musical and lyrical themes. “I have just always believed that that music is closely related, anyway. Topic Records had their 70th anniversary this year. One of the things they asked the various artists to do was to comment back on their various releases. For me, I went back to the Hedy West album called Ballads. It came out in 1967 on Topic in England, and it is 80 percent Southern American versions of British ballads. It just completely blew my head off. I loved Hedy West’s singing, I loved her playing, and her presence. But the idea [was] that here was this English music that was so beautifully traveled and changed and you can bring it back. So I had been working on that record, and I’m always listening to source material from the South, like the Banjo Bill Cornett record on the Field Recorders’ Collective.”

Surprisingly, the cover of True Stories shows Simpson — certainly best known as an acoustic guitarist — wielding a Stratocaster. “I’m playing all kinds of things at the moment. If you saw my music room, I think you would smile. I have a Telecaster and a Paul Reed Smith and a Rickenbacker Bakelite slide guitar, all kinds of things. Who knows what noises are going to appear on the next one? Also, banjos and ukuleles, and all kinds of acoustic guitars. I’ve just basically got a full paint box.”

Simpson toured the United States in 2009, but he’s not planning another U.S. tour in the immediate future. “I’ll be back probably in 2011. I’m going to be in Canada in 2010. I have a lot of reasons to stay at home, personal and professional. Things are going so well here that I actually don’t need to go anywhere else to do gigs. I like to go places, but I don’t need to.”

One strong incentive for Simpson to stay closer to home is the daughter he and wife Kit had in 2005. “She starts school in the fall, which seems completely ludicrous. It was her last day of preschool today. One of those funny little life changes,” he said. Fatherhood seems to suit Simpson just fine. “It’s been a huge adjustment, but a fantastic one.”

Although True Stories is still a relatively new release, Simpson is already well into work on a followup. “I’ve got about 12 pieces of music that could form the basis of the next record, which is not wanted yet. But basically I am going to start laying down some stuff in the new year. I’ve got this trio with Andy Cutting and Andy Stewart, and then I have BJ Cole on pedal steel. The core of the next record will be that, and we are going to start putting down some ideas to see what happens with it. Recording it over a longer period of time rather than doing it all at once — I think that might be the right move next time.”

One factor making such a leisurely recording agenda possible is the proximity of the musicians. “BJ’s in London, but the rest of us are all within 30 miles of each other, which by American standards means we’re practically living in the same house.”

The Cutting-Stewart-Cole combo is strongly in evidence on True Stories as well. Cole, who was instrumental in bringing the pedal steel to British rock music starting in the 1960s, brought extra texture to the record. “I’ve wanted to work with him forever. I’ve known him for 30 years, but this is the first time we’ve had a chance to work together, and he loved it — it’s a really interesting place for him to be. His playing on ‘Look Up, Look Down’ is just magical. He’s quite the mad professor.”

In addition to touring, recording, and parenting, Simpson continues to inspire new guitar students, through workshops in Sheffield and through a thriving tablature distribution enterprise at his website, http://www.martinsimpson.com. “To be honest, I have to keep apologizing to my students because I absolutely can’t keep up with transcribing my own stuff, because I am too busy doing it to transcribe it. I do enjoy teaching workshops, and they are very successful.”

With recognition by his peers, full houses at his shows, a happy home life, and a satisfying group of collaborators, Martin Simpson is fortunate to have found fulfillment on many levels. “I’m just loving what I do. I really, really love what I do.”


Martin Simpson

Martin Simpson, 1990

Selected Discography

Solo Recordings

True Stories [Compass (2009)]
Prodigal Son [Compass (2007)]
Kind Letters [Topic (2005)]
The Definitive Collection [High Point (2004)]
Righteousness & Humidity [Red House (2003)]
The Bramble Briar [Red House (2001)]
Bootleg USA [High Bohemian (1999)]
Cool & Unusual [Red House (1997)]
Live [Red House (1996)]
Smoke & Mirrors [Red House (1995)]
The Collection [Shanachie (1994)]
A Closer Walk With Thee [Gourd (1993)]
When I Was on Horseback [Shanachie (1992)]
Leaves of Life [Shanachie (1990)]
The Pink Suede Bootleg [Limited Edition Cassette (1987)]
Nobody’s Fault But Mine [Dambuster (1986)]
Sad or High Kicking [Green Linnet (1985)]
Grinning in Your Face [Green Linnet (1983)]
Special Agent [Waterfront (1981)]
Golden Vanity [Trailer (1976)]


with the Albion Band, Lark Rise to Candleford [Talking Elephant (1980)]
with the Band of Angels, Band of Angels [Red House (1996)]
with Roy Bailey and John Kirkpatrick, Sit Down and Sing [Fuse Records (2005)]
with David Hidalgo, Viji Krishnan, and Puvalur Srinivasan, Kambara Music in Native Tongues [Water Lily Acoustics (1998)]
with Jessica Simpson, True Dare Or Promise [Fledgling (1987)]
with Jessica Simpson, Red Roses [Rhiannon Music (1995)]
with Jessica Radcliffe and Lisa Ekström, Beautiful Darkness: Celebrating the Winter Solstice [High Bohemia (2001)]
with Wu Man, Music for the Motherless Child [Water Lily (1996)]
with June Tabor, A Cut Above [Topic (1980)]


Prodigal Son, The Concert [Topic (2009)]
Guitar Maestros Series 1 [Sound Techniques (2006)]
Guitar Nights: The Four Martins with Martin Carthy, Martin Taylor, and Juan Martin [P-3 Music (2005)]
Martin Simpson In Concert at the Freight and Salvage [Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop (2004)]
Ramble to Cashel: Celtic Fingerstyle Guitar, Vol. 1 with Pierre Bensusan, Duck Baker, and others [Rounder (2003)]
Martin Simpson Teaches Alternate Tunings [Alfred Publishing (2002)]
Acoustic Guitar Instrumentals [Homespun, 3-DVD set (1995)]


Michael Parrish has a music blog at cryptdev.blogspot.com.

© 2010 DriftwoodMagazine.com, All rights reserved.



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