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Martin Simpson: The Trails and Tribulations interview

Last updated on November 16, 2019

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And so, here we are – my second Martin Simpson interview in the space of half a year. Is Grizzly Folk turning into a Martin Simpson fansite, you might wonder? The answer’s no. While I’m amazed as any other guitarist by what the man does, I think both of us would feel a little uneasy if I started documenting his every move.

In short, I love chatting with musicians whose work clearly consumes them, and not in an ego-driven way – people who (you get the sense) feel as though they’re in the service of music, rather than it being the other way around. As I hope comes across on the interview pages of this blog, I’m a music geek who loves talking to other music geeks, and I don’t think Martin would feel in any way slighted if I say that a conversation with him is a conversation with the ultimate music geek.

In my time spent interviewing musicians (time I could’ve spent doing a lot of more useful things less enjoyably), I’ve found that the best interviews are always the ones where you chat, you lose track of time, the conversation spins this way and that, and you end up feeling that you’ve both come away from it understanding… well, something… just a little bit better. Martin Simpson is one of those interviewees, and in that sense – however bizarre this may sound – he’s part of a strange little cabal that also includes Yoko Ono, Sir Tom Jones and Francis Rossi. Now that would make for an amazing dinner party guest list indeed.

Last time we met, we had a rambling chat over a pre-gig lasagna. This time, however, we had a slightly more pressing topic in hand: the forthcoming release of his new album, Trails and Tribulations (which you can pre-order by clicking link above). Even with that in mind, we still managed to take in plenty of other subjects. I have a feeling we could’ve spent hours more on the weird and wonderful world of Bob Dylan, not to mention the “malevolent gaze” of certain sparrowhawks, or Andy Cutting and his dog-walked “accordion fodder”. But perhaps it’s best that I leave Martin to explain all of that…

The jetlag’s cured then, Martin? 

Yeah, yeah. My brain’s working… basically!

Have you got to get straight back on tour? 

No, no – I’m doing a couple of big festivals this summer. I’m doing Cambridge and Folkeast, and then I’m doing Sidmouth and Towersey with Roy Bailey.

Are there any festivals that you particularly enjoy? 

I really like going to Sidmouth. In fact, we’re going on holiday for a week in Sidmouth because it’s such a nice place, and the vibe of the festival is so amazing. You know, I might not go and see any music at all – I just like being there. I like the fact that it’s full of friends and music happening on the streets. I mean, there will be some fantastic music, of course…

Don’t you get recognised and dragged onstage? 

I get recognised, but [laughs] I’m a hard drag, me!

Fair enough, though. If you’re on holiday… So, let’s chat about the new album, Trails and Tribulations. I was wondering, when you’re making a new album, whether there’s a point at which you know that you’ve got something forming? 

Well, this one was interesting. I did some demos for this in May of 2016, and I felt really good about them. I felt that I had sufficient material at that point, but I knew that I had to finish some more songs of my own which were in progress. I’m a very slow writer, you know? And then, as I was literally booking studio time to do the album, some film soundtrack work came in. So it all got pushed back way beyond what I was comfortable with. But it gave me the chance to look at what I’d got, and I realised I was really comfortable with it – that I could just go and do it. Andy Bell and I had such a great time making the film soundtrack anyway…

Oh, so you were working with Andy already? 

Yeah. He got married in the meantime. I think I actually spent more time with him than his wife did during that particular period! [Laughs] Poor man.

So, do you actively go out and actively look for songs, or is it more of an organic process? 

I guess the real answer is no. I just listen and get moved, either to write or to learn. And also, I have such a head full of material going back such a long way that often what’ll happen is that there’ll be a musical trigger of some kind, and I’ll go, “Blimey! I should learn that… Oh, wait a minute, I know that!” So, I’ll just kind of look at what I know and then add to it, polish it up, rearrange it or whatever. So it is actually very organic, in the same way that stuff slips out of your repertoire, and it can slip back in again. Sometimes you’ll find you’ve got some really good stuff that you know but you’ve never recorded.

You talk a bit in the Trails and Tribulations sleeve about how the album has a kind of theme to it: your relationship with nature, but also to do with the idea of travel and witnessing nature as you pass by. Is that something that you start out with, or is it that you start to notice a theme as the songs coalesce? 

It was very much a case of me sitting down and looking at the body of it and thinking, “Oh wow, look at that… here we are again!” That’s been happening for quite some time. I have a lifelong love of looking at things. On my dog walk today, it was just building up to rain here in Sheffield. I was almost home and I saw on one of those big, white, flat-headed flowers – cow parsley or hogweed – there was the most beautiful wasp-beetle of some kind. I’d never seen one before and I haven’t looked it up yet, but it was basically one of those beetles that pretends it’s a wasp so that everybody leaves it alone. It’s not one I’m used to seeing, so it’s a new species for me, and stuff like that is just a joy. It adds so much to the quality of life, and needless to say the things that you see in nature are not always positive. There’s a lot of absolutely mindless destruction that goes on due to people being… monstrous [laughs]. But, nevertheless, it’s there and I do feel more inclined to write about it the older I get.

So, how does it translate? How does that beetle on that flat, white-headed flower eventually end up in a song? 

Well, whether the beetle does, or the sense of wonder, or the flower, or the impending storm, you never know. You write and you take notes. You know, I’ve love my books – I’ve got loads of books of studio notes and observations – and sometimes you write these things down, and sometimes you just carry them in your head because it’s that striking. And then you’ll suddenly turn around and think, “right – now it’s time to make that into something.”

Does writing come naturally to you? When you’re out on that dog walk, are there melodies already percolating in your head? 

That’s an interesting question. Tunes, not so much; images, yes. Occasionally I’ll sing chunks of songs. Andy Cutting, for instance, does almost all of his writing on dog walks. I don’t think he writes much on the instrument, comparatively. He writes on walks, goes home and converts it into… y’know… accordion fodder! [Laughs] I think everyone works in their head as well as on the instrument or on paper.

Obviously you’re known as an English folk musician, but clearly a good number of the songs on this record – as always – are American… 

But, I don’t think I am known as an English folk musician. I think I’m known as a person who… [laughs]… who, since 13 years old, has been told repeatedly that I have to make up my mind what it is that I want to do. “You can’t do both!” To which I’ve always replied, “Actually, fuck off, I can!” It’s all the same thing anyway. It’s just different ends of this very broad palette, I think. I’ve just been in the States teaching guitar for a week. At one point I was playing 1920s blues to people – my arrangement of old Jimmy Rodgers tunes, and things like that. They’ve been in my head since before I played the guitar. I’m as influenced by that as I am influenced by English traditional music, and I think it all fits together really well. And I think this album, particularly, holds together and moves really nicely through what it is. Although, I could be fooling myself…

Oh, I don’t think you are, and we’ll come back to that point later on. We talked about this last time, but I didn’t know what was on the album then, so I’m going to ask you again. Some of the songs on the album are what you might call standards. You open with Jackson C Frank’s ‘Blues Run the Game’, which of course everybody knows and everybody’s had a crack at, and then you go into ‘Reynardine’. There are two or three very well-known folk songs on Trails and Tribulations. How do you approach them and make them your own? 

Erm, yeah… well, it’s a hard one to talk about without sounding a bit grandiose. When I set my sights on a song, if I’m going to do it then it’s imperative to me that I feel that I’ve contributed something to it in order to make it mine, you know? ‘Blues Run the Game’… I’ve known that song since it came out in 1965, when I was 12. I probably heard it the following year. It’s one of those songs that’s always been there. I learnt to play it when I was 14 or 15, and I played it for a bit and then it seemed like everyone else was doing it, too.

So when I came back to it, there were a couple of things about making that guitar arrangement. I just wanted it to have a momentum and a movement, which didn’t really feel the same as everyone else’s approach. If you listen to almost anyone else’s version of that, it’s kind of straight Travis picking, really. What I did with it was incorporate this sense of… I don’t know quite how to describe it, which is unlike me, really! [Laughs]

There’s a forward motion, and then all of these places where there are counter movements to the basic guitar part, and it’s very highly syncopated. The moment I came up with it I could hear these punctuations – the electric guitar overlays, and that kind of thing. I put it down with Ben Nicholls on bass and Toby Kearney on drums and then went back in and put my electric guitar parts on it, which are very sparse. And then I got John Smith to play some parts on it as well – he plays the solo and these really lovely volume swells. And I just felt from the beginning that it had to be, musically, a different statement.

But the other thing is that sometimes you’ll be doing a song and you’ll suddenly realise, really, what it’s saying. And that particular song… Do you know the story of Jackson C Frank?

Very well, yes. Absolutely tragic. 

Utterly tragic. He wrote that song when he was 21. He was in receipt of this massive amount of money as compensation for his injuries, but it’s plain to see that it didn’t do him much good. He never recovered from those injuries. What that song says to me is that Jackson C Frank, by the age of 21, had already figured out that you can travel as far you want – you can run as far as you want – but you will never leave yourself behind. That’s entirely how I approached that song… to try and convey that.

And ‘Reynardine’? 

‘Reynardine’ is one of those songs that I’ve had in my head since I first heard Anne Briggs do it. The kind of contrary part of me said, OK, well Bert Jansch did a beautiful version of that and Fairport did a great version, but what everybody else has done is impose time on it – they’ve imposed a strict rhythm. I don’t always enjoy that, and I don’t always think it brings out the best in a song, so what I did was sing it as loose as a goose and then play a guitar part which doesn’t keep time but punctuates the song lines, I think. It’s a joy to play, it really is. It’s like having two brains!

I remember seeing you play it in Andover and thinking, “look at that – he’s somewhere else!” 

Yeah, well [laughs bashfully], it’s kind of like an out-of-body experience, playing like that, because you cannot possibly, at any point, think about either the guitar part or the words, otherwise you’re gone. “Whoops! It’s all over, folks!”

When I play live I do an approximation of John Martyn’s version of ‘The Easy Blues’, and I always feel that it’s like a kind of “I’ll see you on the other side” thing. It’s like, “My fingers are about to do something that I don’t feel I have much control over.” I have to disconnect from them completely. 

Yeah, absolutely. Well, I think that’s a great thing. It’s a delightful place to be.

Yeah, it’s the definition of being in the moment. 

Yeah, it is.

We’ve talked a bit about the traditionals, but I think the self-penned songs on Trails and Tribulations are as good as anything I’ve heard from you. 

Thank you.

Which do you think would creep onto a Martin Simpson ‘Best Of’? 

Oh! That’s a really hard one, because they’re really four very different songs. I’m really proud of them all, and they all have very different inspirations.

‘Jasper’s’ was for an old friend of mine, Jasper King, who was a wonderful street entertainer. He was a member of the Chipolatas, and he was very, very, very loved. We lost him a few years ago. So I started with that little tune, and it just suddenly segued into this other tune [‘Dancing Shoes’] which started with a chorus about my mother. That was inspired by finding a pair of shoes at my mother’s house after she died. I’m very proud of that song because it helps me understand… you know? My relationship, and my brother’s relationship, with our mother was very difficult. Writing a song like that, for me, was some form of closure. So that was very important.

And with ‘Thomas Drew’, once I’d found his story I really needed to write that one. I don’t write songs lightly. I generally write songs because I have to. With those two songs that’s certainly the case, and with ‘Maps’ and ‘Ridgeway’, too. With ‘Ridgeway’ I have to thank both Kit [Bailey, his wife] and Karine Polwart. There was this idea that was being lobbed around. Karine, I think, is an astonishing human being – very, very bright, you know? And Karine and Kit had this exchange going on about writing a song from the point of view of the landscape. So I found myself…

…stealing the idea, Martin? 

[Laughs] Well, completely saying, y’know, that is so great! The thing was that it completely coincided with me having this experience of driving across the Ridgeway and up to Avebury Ring. The whole thing just came together quite readily, as a lyric. And ‘Maps’, too. Robert Macfarlane has an awful lot to do with that, bless him. So, in answer to your question, I like them all. They’re all musically disparate, too, which I quite like.

Do you have a song in your set that you think people expect you to play but actually bores you to tears? 

No. If something bores me to tears, I won’t do it, because you end up hating it. I mean, there are songs that I’ve done in my set a lot of times, and on the deluxe version of the record there’s a song that I first learnt when I was… oh, blimey, about 13 or 14 years of age, I think. It’s called ‘Joshua Gone Barbados’, and it’s an Eric Von Schmidt song. I first heard Tom Rush sing it. I did it for years, and then I stopped. I thought, “Nah, I’m not loving it.” If you don’t love it, you shouldn’t be doing it.

Are you never tempted to “do a Dylan” and just play exactly what you feel at any given moment? 

[Laughs] Well actually, I think I kind of do, in a way. It’s just that I’m not as mad as him! [Laughs] It’s funny, because I’ve just been spending some time with Happy Traum, who knew Dylan very early on. The band that he was in, The New World Singers, were the first people to record ‘Blowin in the Wind’ and ‘Don’t Think Twice’ as singles, before Bob had even recorded them. Before Peter Paul and Mary, you know? He told me he’d just been to see Bob a couple of weeks ago and [goes into Happy Traum impersonation], “there was this one song in particular, and I was thinking, what IS this song? And in the third verse I heard him sing, ‘how many’, and I thought ‘Jesus! It’s ‘Blowin in the Wind”” [Laughs] I mean, I’m not sure that’s good…

Haha! When I first started going out with my wife, we were living in Japan. Dylan was doing a very rare Japan tour and I managed to get tickets. So we went along and I was in seventh heaven, because he can do whatever he likes as far as I’m concerned.

Absolutely he can!

Afterwards, I asked her how she’d found it, and she said, “It would’ve been nice if he’d played his hits.” The whole show was hits, but very few people recognised any of them! 

Haha! Yeah, well that’s just what he does. And, bless him, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Have you ever met him? 

No, but I have been in his presence! [Laughs] But that’s not the same thing. Larry Campbell, when he was in Bob’s band, bought a Sobell Martin Simpson guitar, and we went and hung out backstage. When Bob walks in, everyone looks the other way. You know… it is what it is.

I wanted to talk a little more about your producer, Andy Bell. A couple of the reviews I’ve read have mentioned, quite rightly I think, the quality of sound that he’s brought to Trails and Tribulations. He’s an in-demand producer at the moment. What do you think he has that other producers maybe don’t? 

Oh, blimey! I want to be very careful and respectful in answering that. I think, technically, Andy is great with the gear. He has a great ear for microphones and what suits what, so he’s very good at getting sounds. But beyond that… I’ve worked with a lot of sound engineers who are also musical, but Andy is musical in a different way. He’s the kind of guy that, if you want a high harmony at a gig, he’ll sing it for you from the sound desk! He’s really quite extraordinary. He’s got ears like a bat, and he’s very good with pitch. I think the bottom line is that he genuinely loves what he does, so he puts himself into it 100%. He’s the hardest working man in show business, without a doubt. I always feel like he’s the James Brown of engineering, you know? “He’s down! Put the cape on him! He’s up again! He’s off to the next project!”

Haha! How do you record? Are you keen on live takes, or are you happy to do whatever it takes to get the sound right? 

I’m very keen on live takes, but [laughs] it’s not always practical. In ‘Blues Run the Game’, for example, the rhythm track – the guitar, bass and drums – they’re all live, but I put the vocal on afterwards. I wanted to have the most freedom to do the rest of the overdubs, because I actually can’t play three electric guitar parts and the acoustic guitar part and sing it live…

Pathetic, Martin. Must try harder. 

I know, it’s a bit feeble isn’t it? But it’s a question of getting the feel right. I wanted to have a really relaxed feel, and so the best way to do that was to do the rhythm track live and then build everything on top of that. So that’s what we did. In other cases, it’s live. ‘Reynardine’, for example – that’s me singing and playing live. ‘Bones and Feathers’, that’s me live, too. Things where the timing is so loose that you couldn’t rebuild it, or so crucial – like in ‘Bones and Feathers’ – you can’t make mistakes in that and you can’t replace stuff. You’ve just got to do it right, and then you can build what you want on it, once you’ve got the performance.

‘Bones and Feathers’ is an extraordinary song. How did you come about that song? 

[Laughs] I heard Emily Portman years ago. I think I read a reference to her in an interview with June Tabor to start with, so then I got The Glamoury, which is her first record, of which the first track is ‘Bones and Feathers’. Molly, my daughter, completely fell in love with that record, as did Kit and myself, and we’d go on holiday to Cornwall and we’d play The Glamoury four or five times on the trot. So we continued to do that over a period of years until I was at the point that I realised I had to sing at least one of those songs, and the one that seemed the most appropriate to me to do was ‘Bones and Feathers’.

It took me ages to figure out how to approach it. I’d listen to it in the car, and I’d get nowhere. Eventually it struck me that the kind of Kentucky-oid, double-time banjo idea was just the thing. I had a great time learning that banjo part, because it’s one of those things we just discussed, where you can’t think at all – it’s got to be utterly second nature – and I was practising it one day, and I was staring out the kitchen window and a sparrowhawk took a dive at a woodpigeon. And the woodpigeon, in its defence, fell straight to the ground, and the sparrowhawk was really miffed so it just sat on the apple tree. And I guess it must’ve heard some sound, because it gazed up – although they don’t gaze, they glare in a very malevolent fashion. So there was me playing ‘Bones and Feathers’ on the banjo, staring into the eyes of this glaring sparrowhawk for a good three minutes. And it just felt like, “Hmm, OK… this is working!”

Meanwhile, Molly had learned the entire record off by heart, and when I was recording it and I was listening to the basic tracks in the car, she was on the back seat and she just started singing along. Kit and I looked at each other and said, “Yeah, that’s it!”

By the way, I loved it when you asked Emily on Twitter if that was her singing. That was so cool!

Well, I honestly didn’t know. How old is Molly? 

She was 11 when she did that.

Wow! That’s quite a mature vocal for an 11-year-old. That must be why I mistook her for Emily. 

She’s a very good singer, and she’s listened endlessly to Emily Portman. Emily’s a great writer and a lovely singer, and ‘Bones and Feathers’ is an astonishing piece of work.

Last time we spoke you told me that you are of the opinion that people should get better and better on guitar…

…well, at whatever they do – not just the guitar.

Right – so just before we got on the phone I saw that FRoots had given you five stars and said that Trails and Tribulations shows you at the height of your powers. 

That’s nice of them!

Isn’t it just!? If only we could each of us have that everyday! Do you feel that you’re still getting better yourself? Do you feel like you’re at the height of your powers? 

Er… I don’t know how high they can get! [Laughs] I don’t know. Look, I feel very good about my playing generally at the moment, but there are always some pieces that you kind of wrestle with. But, when I think about it, I’ve always wrestled. That’s probably why I’m as good as I am. I’m not lazy. If something’s a real challenge I’ll sit down and attempt to figure out how to do it. It’s funny because sometimes in writing and arranging, you’ll write and arrange stuff that’s just outside your technical reach, and so you have to practise like buggery in order to get to being able to do it, which lifts you completely. But it doesn’t feel like practise – it just feels like expression. People ask me how often I practise, and the answer is that I don’t feel like that’s what I do. I just get on and play, really, and in playing – hopefully – everything just gets kicked up a notch.

I may have mentioned this to you before, but I remember reading an interview about a year ago with Eric Clapton in which he was asked at which point in his career he felt he was playing at his best. It was a slightly sad thing, because – being in his mid 70s – he saw it only with a kind of hindsight. He clearly felt his best days were in the past. Do you ever look back on a recording from the past and think, “Gosh, I wish I could still do that?” 

The only thing that I don’t feel as on top of as I could be is my clawhammer banjo playing. I think that’s partly because I went through a long period where I didn’t do it. I was in the States, I was surrounded by banjo players, I didn’t have much money and I ended up not owning a banjo for quite a long time. So I didn’t keep it up, and now that’s something that I have to really, really practise to get. So I regret that. But the guitar playing, generally, seems to be going OK!

Martin Simpson’s Trails and Tribulations is out on September 1st. You can pre-order it via this link. Images of Martin Simpson by Elly Lucas. Keep an eye on this blog for an upcoming review of the album, but if you can’t wait that long, here’s a preview: it’s fucking ace! 

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  1. John Aylott John Aylott

    Jon, that’s a really great interview, with one of my favorite people. I’ve often thought, when at one of Martin’s gigs, that I could happily sit there and listen to him talking for a couple of hours. Such an interesting man, and one who seems to take an interest in pretty much everything. Can’t wait for the new album, which I’ve had on preorder since the day it was announced. Looking forward to the gig in Cardiff in September.

    • Jon Wilks Jon Wilks

      Hi John. Really glad you got something out of it. Yep, Martin is a mindful of information. Next on my list of Martins is Mr Carthy, who I think would prove an equally interesting interviewee.

      • John Aylott John Aylott

        Cor, nice job you’ve got there Jon. MC is very good value, especially on the early days of the ” folk revival”, and trying to keep up with Swarb. Look forward to that.


        • Jon Wilks Jon Wilks

          If only it were a job!

          • John Aylott John Aylott


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