The Arctic Monkeys, Pulp, Joe Cocker, Human League, Dave Berry – maybe it’s something in the water, but Sheffield has long been a creative crucible for more than its fair share of acclaimed musicians. In recent years it’s also become home to the enigmatic Martin Simpson. Recipient of an astonishing 26 BBC Folk Award nominations, anyone who’s followed his career will know that the roll call of musicians he’s worked alongside is simply mind boggling. Despite his inimitable guitar playing being firmly rooted in the English folk tradition – Martin spent ten formative years playing back up to June Tabor – he’s a man who’s resolutely refuses to conform to expectations, as at home trading licks with jazz virtuoso Martin Taylor, as pulling out bluesy slide runs behind Howling Wolf’s grizzled pianist Henry Gray.
Sheffield clearly suits him. Living just yards from ex-Pulp man Richard Hawley, producer of his latest album Vagrant Stanzas, the idea of the two guitarists sitting around the Simpson kitchen table exchanging songs, is perhaps the most unlikely pairing since Johnny Marr got together with Bert Jansch.
‘We call it the guitar ghetto down here,’ Martin chuckles. At the time of writing, Martin was wrapping up a tour with Bonnie Raitt. Speaking down the phone following a sold out Birmingham show, he was clearly enjoying both the Californian slide queen’s company and the advantages of the solo troubadour. ’It’s all so easy,’ he admits. ‘I just turn up with one guitar and a small black bag whilst Bonnie has two lorries and two tour buses parked outside. It’s fabulous because Bonnie has a huge following and they’re a really good audience; they don’t come to riot and I only have to play a few slide notes and they’re immediately with me. Some years back I lived in California for a time but somehow we never ran into each other,’ he recalls. ‘When I told Bonnie how much I’d always wanted to meet her, she said: “I’ve been wanting to meet you, too – I’m a massive fan.” Which just made me want to fall on the floor! I bought her first album when it first came out and thought it was beautiful stuff. She’s so generous and personable that I’m just sorry I can only play on half of the tour. But then I shouldn’t complain. The reason I can only do some of the shows is that I’m touring with Richard Thompson in the States afterwards!’
So, how about this kitchen table? Well, it proved to be the down home launching pad for Martins’ latest album. ‘Richard [Hawley] and I first met up when he came down to the BBC Folk Awards, to present me with an award for best traditional recording for ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ and prefaced his introduction by saying that it was ironic that we only lived 500 yards from each other but had never met! Since that time he’s moved much nearer and we’ve become really good friends. Richard’s a very enthusiastic guy and he’s always really encouraging about my work. After one evening sitting around playing with him and his guitarist Shez Sheridan, he suggested we should go in his studio and record some demos. We did that and then after we’d finished Richard said: “You know what? I don’t want anyone else to be on this record; what you should do is go in the studio and play to me just as if I was sitting across the kitchen table; that’s what you do best. We recorded some tracks at Yellow Arch studios in Sheffield, and I was very fortunate to be able to go into Paul Reed Smiths’ studio in Annapolis, and work with Peter Denenberg. He’s a remarkable engineer, and on the very first morning of the very first day he created a little nest of microphones for me to stand in. The first track sounded fantastic, so we ended up recording 12 tracks in one day – we were off!’
Vagrant Stanzas, a term apparently used by veteran Kentucky banjo player Buell Kazee to describe the floating verses in traditional songs, is just the kind of eclectic mix we’ve come to expect. It’s also unashamedly political. Martin’s never been scared to nail his colours to the mast, and songs from Leon Rosselson and June Tabor – the former ‘Palaces Of Gold’ an acerbic indictment of the Aberfan disaster – rub musical shoulders with stunning instrumentals played on Martin’s prototype PRS guitar, a soulful reading of Bob Dylan’s ‘North Country Blues’, and the banjo-driven ‘Diamond Joe’. With not a guest in sight, this is a return to basics with the sparse sound recalling much of Martin’s early solo work. And lest there should be any doubt, the gritty feel of the material is enhanced by an album cover depicting Martin standing against a bleak industrial landscape. The man’s in no mood to pull any punches.
‘That’s actually Scunthorpe, where I come from, a place wasted by capitalism. You might have been there and been shocked by what you saw, but a lot of people don’t go, they never see what’s happened. The North-South divide is really horrifying and, of course, this current government does everything to fertilise it; it‘s appalling and breaks my heart. So, because of that, I see ‘North Country Blues’ as being the central track on the album. I’ve always felt the collection of writing on The Times They Are A-Changing is astonishing. When you think of the period in Dylan’s development when he wrote that (he was just 21-years-old) to be able to write that kind of political song from the third person viewpoint – a song about industrial decline from the point of view of a woman – is an incredible achievement. Scunthorpe, like many industrial towns, is in catastrophic decline, and I really wanted to sing the song for that town. I also like the title Vagrant Stanzas; there’s the implicit idea of travel, something I’ve always enjoyed and really needed to do as a musician.’
Simpson spent 15 years living in America, a period of musical cross-fertilisation that influences all his work. But it’s a love affair with the South that seems to remain an enduring passion. For part of his time in the States he lived in the humid musical melting pot that is New Orleans, and his 2003 album Righteousness and Humidity, culled songs from below the Mason Dixon line. No surprise then to find that Vagrant Stanzas includes ‘Delta Dreams’, a song recalling a road trip he took with New Orleans musician Spencer Bohren.
‘We were good friends when I lived in New Orleans, and one time he asked me if I’d ever “Done the Delta?” At that point I hadn’t because I didn’t want to seem like a tourist, but the idea of being taken by someone who really knew how to do it, was too good a chance to miss. So, we got in Spencer’s ‘55 Chevy and off we went in such a remarkable vehicle, a real icon of Americana. We had a fantastic time listening to music on his cassette player and drove through all these little Mississippi towns, many of which were very run down and very depressing to see. Every time we stopped, some old black guy would appear and talk to us about the car. I realised that it was a passport to communication in the Mississippi Delta, because the car was one of the most successful symbols of the American dream, the whole idea of being able to “make it”. There were lots of high points. Spencer took me to the grave of Sonny Boy Williamson beside an old burnt-out chapel, and I found two nails in the ashes that had annealed together in the shape of a cross. I thought: “That’s enough Mojo for me – I’ll be taking that home!” But when I’d been playing with Henry Gray who was Howling Wolf’s piano player, he told me stories about what it was like working in the late ‘50s in Chicago with all those great bands. Sometimes after a gig the band would be all fired up, get in one of their big old Cadillacs and just drive all the way back to New Orleans, or Louisiana. They’d drive back overnight with a couple of bottles of whiskey; there were no speed limits, no freeways and no drunk driving laws. How come there are any living blues singers I don’t know,’ he chuckles.
The deluxe two CD set of Vagrant Stanzas includes several songs that will certainly keep Martin’s die hard folk following happy; amongst them some reworkings of traditional ballads ‘The Green Linnet’, ‘The Death Of Queen Jane’ and Dylan’s ‘Blind Willie McTell’. But any suggestion that he should be concerned at the possibility of alienating his folk audience with such a catholic choice of material is met – as always – with characteristic Martin Simpson disdain. ‘I really don’t pay any attention to what people think I should, or should not, be playing. I used to worry about it and as a kid people used to tell me all the time: “You can’t do that, you’ve got to make up your mind what you do.” Well, bullshit! When I was in my early teens there was a programme on the television about the guitar – one of those rare programmes at the time shown by the BBC. There were various people featured and the one I remember is Barney Kessel, who they asked to define his style. The answer blew my head off! He said: “Style is limitation.” Now, he didn’t necessarily mean it to be negative and I deliberately take from different styles in the way I play, but no one has ever told traditional singers that they can’t sing old-time music hall songs, or tragic ballads, modern songs. Why the hell would anyone try to?’ he snorts.
‘Mostly when people say that, what they really mean is: “I can’t do that, so you shouldn’t either!” Then there’s also this hangover from the likes of Ewan MacColl, who was an idiot in terms of saying: “You should sing the material that comes from where you come from…” Which is all very well for a man who changed his name and pretended to be a Scotsman! It doesn’t make any sense. I feel very strongly that there’s this massive body of work to take from, and if you look at the States, on one hand you have all the music that stems from Afro-American folk music, and on the other it’s English hymns and Scottish ballads, fiddle tunes, and Irish music. So, basically, maybe I invented American folk music,’ Martin jokes, ‘but I think there’s a big difference between the folk scene and other types of music. The folk clubs do everything they can to encourage new voices, which is a lot different from other forms of music where young up and coming artists are regarded with suspicion, distrust and resentment.’
Moving on to talk about his guitar collection, Martin’s obviously very happy to be working with PRS. How’s the Martin Simpson prototype coming along?
‘PRS are making such great instruments and it’s a very interesting thing to be involved with. It’s a great guitar for an acoustic guitar player, and it has all of Paul’s latest developments in his electrics, giving an incredible range of tones. Obviously you can make it scream, shake, and jump up and down with it if you want to, but it has a lovely broad sound. When we recorded I put it through a big PRS amplifier, a speaker cabinet and a Leslie cabinet, which is how I managed to get such a huge sound. Paul Reed Smith is one of the most driven individuals you can imagine; he’s in a position now, after Gibson and Fender, as the most successful guitar builder in the States which is an incredible feat,’ Martin enthuses. ‘Paul’s convinced he’s making some of the best acoustic guitars that have ever been made, yet people still say: “Why are you doing that? You can’t make acoustic guitars.” But his response is always: “Well actually I can – just watch! Doing this gig with Bonnie and her crew, walking out onstage with just my PRS and a little preamp and plugging it in, was a bit like driving around in Spencer’s ‘55 Chevvy; everyone wants to come up and talk to you.’
For most of Vagrant Stanzas Martin’s guitar is tuned to CGCFCE, CGCGCD, CGDGCD, dropped D or standard tuning. ‘I’m in a state of flux. It’s all there to be had,’ he says. ‘It was my 60th birthday in May and I ended up buying myself a new banjo made by Jason Romero in Horsefly, British Columbia. It’s an exquisite instrument but I’ve got to start flogging a few off! I’m doing a tour with Martin Taylor in the autumn and another called the Full English which includes Fay Hield, Seth Lakeman and a gang of young English musicians, something I’m really looking forward to. When that’s over. I’m hoping to take a coupled of months off and play nothing but electric guitar and banjo. It’s just a good job that Richard lives next door!’
Martin Simpsons’ Vagrant Stanzas is out now. Martin plays the London Acoustic Guitar Show’s main stage on Sunday September 8.