There aren’t many who can say they’ve reinvented themselves as successfully as Charlie Simpson. From his musical beginnings 10 years ago, Charlie Simpson has undergone two reinventions that have garnered him critical acclaim and a huge back catalogue of eclectic styles. From a multi-million selling pop band to alternative rock (Fightstar) and now to his American songwriter-inspired solo project, Charlie has established himself in an array of genres but turning his back on the contrived commercial façade was the best thing he could have done, it’s being the retro troubadour that makes him feel most at home – just don’t call it folk music! That aside, he’s recently added another accolade to his CV – Charlie Simpson holds a world record. Along with Jagermeister, Charlie ventured to the depths of Siberia to play the world’s coldest gig in minus 30c temperatures.
We met Charlie in what we thought felt like the world’s coldest gig – heading into central London on a freezing December morning! Turns out, though, Charlie’s much enjoying these somewhat milder temperatures as he basks in some downtime following an extensive tour run. ‘I don’t think I’ll ever feel cold again in England,’ he laughs, his fingers wrapped around a piping-hot cup of coffee. ‘Being a world record holder feels great, man. When we came up with the idea of doing this expedition the world record wasn’t something that we’d thought about. It was only after everything had been planned when someone said that if I actually managed to do this, I’d be setting a world record. We contacted the Guinness Book of World Records and they said that nothing like this had ever been done before so the opportunity for the record came as an afterthought to just going to play a gig in this hostile environment,’ he starts. Charlie took on the brutal temperatures for Jagermeister’s Ice Cold Gig in the town of Oymyakon – the coldest inhabited area on earth where temperatures dip to as low as minus 65c. In order to set the world record, Charlie had to play a set for 15 minutes with no more than 30 seconds between each song. Temperatures are so extreme that very few live in the town with inhabitants only venturing out into the extreme elements in five minute bursts.
‘I’ve done a lot of work with Jagermeister in the past and we have a great relationship because of their excellent music department in the UK that works with a lot of bands and artists. We’ve been doing stuff for about six or seven years now. They did do something similar to the Ice Cold Gig last year with my brother’s band, Brigade, where they went to play the coldest place in the UK which was right up in the hills of Scotland. They said to me that they wanted to take it more extreme,’ he says laughing. ‘They asked me where I wanted to go to do it and I wanted to go someplace I’d never been before and Russia was on my to-do list. We found this place in Siberia called Oymyakon, which already had the world record for the coldest place in the world, and it just worked well with the whole Ice Cold Gig and Jagermeister thing. We didn’t know until we got there if what we were trying to do was feasible because no one had done it before and having my fingers bare in those temperatures turned out to be the hardest thing. I nearly ended up getting frostbite. I had heat packs strapped to my wrists to make sure the blood kept circulating to my fingers but because I couldn’t have more than 30 seconds between songs, I didn’t have time to warm my hands up. Every song I was doing, my hands were getting colder and colder and I didn’t have any time to keep them warm. It got to the point where after the first song, I very nearly gave up and stopped doing it because I was worried my hands were just going to freeze. The expedition leader came over and said “You’ve got 20 minutes until this gets serious, so just grit your teeth and get on with it,” and I thought if it’s just going to be a pain thing, I’ll just get on with it.’
When we prepare for gigs we run through some scales, stretch our fingers and go over the set list, what does Charlie do? Well, all the aforementioned, only inside an industrial freezer. Cool as a cucumber, ay? ‘We had a training day, yeah. The guy that took us out there was ex-military and he came up with a few different things that I should do. The only way that I could experience that kind of coldness whilst playing the guitar was to be shut in an industrial freezer for an hour,’ he laughs. ‘We went to this catering company who had these huge fridges and freezers and I got locked in there to get used to the temperatures. That wasn’t the only tough thing though – we had to travel 1,000 kilometers to get there and 1,000 kilometers back and the kinds of roads we used weren’t really comfortable to travel on. I had to prepare my mental state, too, just so I knew what to expect when I arrived.’
‘I think the locals of Oymyakon found it interesting that someone had come all the way to play a show in their town. There’s no radio there, but there is electricity and some had access to the television but it’s very, very limited. The nearest town was about 10 hours away. These people are very secluded from society. It was really interesting for me to see how they lived on a day-to-day basis – there’s no running water, it’s a very different way of living and it was interesting to visit a different culture and see how they live their lives.’
Once Charlie had prepared himself to venture to Russia for the Ice Cold Gig, the next thing on the agenda was to prepare his set-up, which guitar and strings to use in minus 30c temperatures? Well, a Takamine and Ernie Ball Everlast acoustic strings done the trick. ‘We talked to a couple of companies to get a guitar specially made for the trip but we decided to go with a standard Takamine. We could have gone with a steel guitar, like a dobro or something, but perhaps that would’ve made it a lot worse,’ he laughs. ‘We went with a wooden one,’ he confirms grinning. ‘We put really heavy gauge strings on it because I thought that with the tension on the strings changing so much due to the temperature, the thicker the string, the more resistant it’d be. I just got the guitar back and I pulled it out of its case to see if it had survived but the electronics have completely gone on it. It was really hard to keep it in tune, but it held out really well. I thought that once I’d started playing it in those temperatures the strings would snap, but they didn’t. I think we were on the edge of what the guitar was capable of, if the temperature dipped any lower, I don’t think the guitar, or me, would have been able to do it.’
‘It’s nice to have creative control over what I’m doing,’ Charlie says of his solo career. Since announcing his alternative rock group Fightstar were to go on hiatus in 2010, Charlie has had a considerable amount of success going it alone. His debut solo album Young Pilgrim – funded through Pledge Music – hit the UK’s top 10 album charts at number six, producing a number of radio hits in the process. It’s easy to tell that doing what he wants to do is far more important to him than any amount of commercial success, though. ‘I love the collaborative work that I do, but I think its nice to have something that’s my own and I’m very proud of Young Pilgrim. I like having a sense of ownership of my own records. I see Fightstar and my solo stuff as two completely separate sides of me, musically. I’ve arrived in a place where I’m very content and happy. I’m very lucky that I get to do what I do each day – there’re a lot of people I know who don’t get to do this, so it’s very humbling that I get to do this for a living.’
‘In the back of my head I’d always had a real love for singer-songwriters. From a very early age, I’d heard my dad playing stuff like Jackson Brown and Elliott Smith. I started playing the guitar when I was eight-years-old and the first songs I wrote were acoustic-based songs – they came way before I ever picked up an electric guitar. It’s always been in the back of my mind that I would do a solo album some day, it was just a case of when. The timing for me to do this was just right – Fightstar had just toured the world and made four records so we were all tired and ready for a break. Whether I done my solo album when I did wouldn’t have made a difference, Fightstar would have still gone on hiatus – I just thought it was the perfect time to start writing, if I wasn’t doing anything I’d have just been bored. There’s a lot of stuff I still want to do before I go back to Fightstar.’
The follow-up to Charlie’s debut Young Pilgrim is due in 2013, with a stateside tour confirmed in support. ‘I’ll be recording it in February. I’ve got about 10 songs at the moment that I’m happy with. I’d like to go into the studio with at least 15 and get them recorded.’ Charlie’s friend and acclaimed record producer Danton Supple (Coldplay, The Cure) produced, mixed and recorded Young Pilgrim ‘I’m looking at a couple of people to produce my next record, but I won’t know for sure who it’ll be until the end of January. It’s going to be a good 2013 for me; I’m really looking forward to getting back into the creative vibe. I love being in the studio and then straight after that I’ll be back out on the road,’ he says with obvious exhilaration. ‘I loved working with Danton so I definitely want to look at doing something with him again but I’m always open to speaking to different people – I don’t think there’s any point in tying yourself down.’
‘Lyrically, all the songs I write have elements of melancholy but also always have some sort of uplifting nature to them,’ Charlie says of breaking out of the stereotype of moody songwriters. Young Pilgrim’s retrospective outlook seems to be something that Charlie’s keen to revisit. ‘The second record is going to be similar to that. Some of my favourite things can be really depressing in their nature, like films, for example, but when you actually absorb them they have such a hopeful message to them and that’s what I want to instill in my music. Melancholic, uplifting and retrospective themes will carry through all the songs that I write but musically it will definitely be a progression from Young Pilgrim. I’m going to be bringing out as many great harmonies and melodies that I can.’
‘When I’m recording my solo material I want to go into the studio with the songs already written, but with the band it’s slight different,’ he says of his writing process. ‘As a band, we can set up in a room and jam it out together, but because I’m writing it all myself, I think it’s good to be prepared. I definitely think there’s scope for writing whilst I’m in the studio, but I definitely want to go in with a good chunk of songs that I can get focused on and then if anything else comes out of the sessions then that’s a bonus.’
Charlie’s no stranger to unplugged sessions, and it seems that playing his songs in this way has inspired the writing for his 2013 follow-up record. ‘I really like playing my songs in that unplugged way and I actually think I prefer the unplugged version of ‘Parachutes’ to the one on the album. One thing about this new record is that some of the songs I’ve written that might have ended up sounding a certain way, like on Young Pilgrim, I’m changing after I’ve written them to fit that more rootsy sound. The songs that I did in the unplugged session were changed after the song had been written and there’re elements of those songs that I prefer to the way they were done on the album. I think that’s definitely something I’ve been taking note of when writing my new songs.’
After spending the best part of a decade playing in band situations, was it a scary transition for Charlie to swap that out to become a frontman and subsequently a solo artist? No, all part and package of it. ‘Even when I’m playing my solo stuff I generally have a five-piece band with me on stage and that presence is actually more than Fightstar, so it hasn’t been too much of a change for me. It would be weird if I was going on stage completely solo because I’m so used to the dynamic of having others on stage with me and feeding off of them.’
Young Pilgrim was funded via Pledge Music, a fundraising campaign to raise money for an artist’s release that keeps the fans in the loop the whole way. It’s a route a lot of artists are taking, keeping them close to their fans. Charlie’s Young Pilgrim went on to hit number six in the UK’s album chart, gathering critical acclaim on a wholly separate note to anything that he’s ever done before. ‘Now Pledge has become this huge thing for musicians, but when I used it I was of the first major artists to be doing so and it was kind of cool to be at the embryonic stages of that company. I wanted to do an album where I owned the masters to it, and the only way you can do that is to fund the album yourself without having a label pay for it so my management came to me with this Pledge Music idea and I thought it was so cool because it gave me the opportunity to have complete control over making the album and it gave the fans an insight into the record-making process that they’d never get anywhere else. When I was growing up, if I was able to get weekly blogs from the bands that I was into then I would have loved it so much. It breaks down the barrier and draws the curtain back for the fans and shows them how you make a record. It was a hugely rewarding experience. I had a few sleepless nights about the whole thing. This was the first album that I’d done on my own and there was a real pressure on my shoulders for people to like it. I remember freaking out about it and releasing a track online called ‘Thorns’ which was the first thing I gave to the pledgers from what I’d been working on. The response I got was so good so it meant I could give off a huge sigh of relief thinking, “Thank God for that!” but it was a nerve-wracking time for me.’
‘When anyone does a cover of your song, it’s always a huge compliment so I thought it was lovely that he chose one of mine to cover,’ Charlie says of recent X Factor winner, James Arthur, recording a version of his single ‘Parachutes’. ‘I think, on the whole, talent shows like that are complete rubbish, but I think that he is actually very good. Once in a while those shows do find artists with incredible voices and no one can deny that and I think James Arthur has got a really soulful voice. People have sent me the video of him covering ‘Parachutes’ and he believes what he sings so you can’t really knock him for that. I just wish him well, to be honest.’
‘My go-to acoustic guitar is the best acoustic guitar I’ve ever played in my life and I think, from what Gibson tell me, it’s the only one in the country.’ Charlie’s talking about his black Gibson Elvis Presley Dove. ‘I just can’t even explain to you how good this guitar is. It’s actually mind-blowing. I have an endorsement with Paul Reed Smith for my electrics and when I was in the studio recording Young Pilgrim, they hadn’t released their acoustic models so I decided to use Gibson acoustics because I absolutely love them. Gibson sent me a load of acoustics to go into the studio with and in that batch was this Elvis Dove and I couldn’t comprehend how good it was and I pretty much played it across the whole record. I’ve had it ever since! The strings I usually use are from Ernie Ball, I’ve got an endorsement with those guys, too.’
‘2013 is all about getting the new album out and heading back out on the road again. The hand-in date for the new record is May 1 2013, so it’ll be completed by then and that’ll be when we start looking to go back out on tour which will include the USA. For young artists and bands the biggest piece of advice I’d give is to embrace the change and shift in thinking. 10 years ago, when I was at school, there was no way you could set up all this new media stuff. You can build your own fan base these days. It used to be about being in the right place at the right time, but what’s great now is that you can make your own luck and the more do-it-yourself ethos means that bands don’t need to rely on the big record executives anymore, which is a great thing to embrace.’
Charlie’s follow up second album will be released later this year with tours in the USA and the UK.