Even in a city with as diverse and successful a music scene as Sheffield, Martin Simpson stands out. A globe-trotting musician who has made Sheffield home base, after 45 years he is still producing music of astonishing passion and power. Widely acknowledged as one of the world’s finest guitarists, a true virtuoso of the instrument, but an equally capable multi-instrumentalist, he’s a writer of subtle and singular vision as well as being an acclaimed and eclectic interpreter of the material of others. Throw in that Martin is also an in-demand collaborator from the folk scene to Hollywood, tours relentlessly, has been nominated for 27 BBC Folk awards in 15 years (walking off with nine of them), and remains as personable and approachable as ever and… well, it’s pretty impressive.
Following his landmark Firth Hall homecoming gig, and with a new album on the cards, we sat down with Martin to catch up with what he’s been doing and where he’s going next.
How did the Global Soundtracks gig at the University of Sheffield come about?
They approached me asking if I’d like to do something. We were already looking for something to do in Sheffield, and it fell into place from there. So, it’s a very special gig. It’s the last gig of the year, I feel like I’m about to present a lot of new material to an audience that I haven’t really played for this year. I’m also going to use instruments that I’ve never used on stage before. Usually, if I’m doing a gig, I turn up with two acoustic guitars and a banjo. The things I’ve been working on have led me into different areas and towards more obscure instrumentation. That’s hard to pull together onstage just in practical terms of lugging kit around. But with it being the last gig of the year, in Sheffield, with Andy Bell doing the sound and new material in process, everything has come together as a real chance to showcase what I’ve been up to – a chance to get on stage and really have at it!
You cover an incredibly eclectic range of material, from broadside ballads to Bruce Springsteen. How do you feel what you do fits into the idea of a Global Soundtrack?
I think that it’s all music. I started playing when I was twelve. I almost immediately went down to the local folk club, but I already had a lot of American influence from my brother’s rock ‘n’ roll and jazz and blues records. I was into traditional Scots and Irish music too, and going to the club exposed me to English music – which has some of the most exquisite melodies you’ll ever find. But even if you went from people like big Joe Williams playing really extraordinary African-American Delta blues all the way through to an unaccompanied Scots or Irish singers it still felt like the same music to me. So, when people started saying ‘you need to make up your mind which you’re going to play’, I’d say ‘No. I don’t’ – because to me, it’s all part of the same continuum. What is it? It’s music. What does it have in common? People. And I still think that today.
You’re currently working on a soundtrack. How did that come about?
I was on holiday in August and my agent called and said ‘Sorry to bother you, but there’s a lady in Hollywood who’s trying to reach you. She’d like you to work on a film score.’ I said ‘Well, I think you can bother me with that!’ It turns out that the director of the film had one of the albums I’d done when I was in the States, really loved it, and wanted to use one of the tracks in the movie before realising that they could get me to do the whole thing. It’s been a great experience, the bouncing back and forth as part of a team with the director and the music supervisor. Funny too, at times. You know, you get a note that says ‘For this scene, I hear sad.’ So you write something sad, and hand it over, and then the note comes back ‘Too sad’! But it pushes you into areas that you might not otherwise go into – and that’s a positive thing.
Will it feed into the next album? And it seems to have been a while since Vagrant Stanzas (2013), so when can we expect it?
Well, to answer the first question first, it will, but it’s a question of to what degree you let it feed in. That in itself is an interesting question, because people like to have input into what I do. For example, my friend Richard Hawley has said that my next record should be all of my own songs. It’s an interesting perspective, but it’s not going to happen because that’s not really who I am. Yes, there will be songs on there that are mine, but interpreting and arranging other people’s work are equally important to me, not just traditional songs but contemporary ones too. That’s part of who I am too.
So, the writing and arranging takes time, because you want it to be good. I also really value my relationship with Topic Records. They’re the oldest independent record company in the world. They really care about what goes out on their label and they don’t put out shit records, so I’m going to make sure that I don’t give them one! And why would you? My goal, every time I make a record, is to make the best one I’ve ever made. It should be every musician’s goal. Looking around, I’m not sure it is. But it’s certainly mine.
I read a comment on social media that described you as the hardest working man in folk music. Your solo work, your collaborations, your soundtrack work, your workshops, and your teaching… will 2017 be more of the same?
Well, part of me would like to do two big tours a year and spend the rest of the time writing and recording and doing more film work. But that’s in the realms of wishfulness – and there’s nothing wrong with that. In the meantime, I tend not to turn down gigs. If someone wants me to go and play, I go and play!
Exposed In Session
An exclusive YouTube gig from some of the city’s finest musical exports, filmed live every month at The Greystones.
Filmed & directed by: Tristan Ayling – www.rentonproductions.co.uk
Recorded & Mixed by: Mu Studios – www.mustudios.co.uk/
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