Folk’s Prodigal Son – Martin Simpson


If Waterstone:Carthy are the royal family of the British folk scene, and Bellowhead are the young pretenders, then Martin Simpson must be the Prodigal Son.

Born in Scunthorpe in 1953, Simpson was a full-time musician and regular on the local folk club scene by the age of 18. After ten prolific years releasing albums predominantly comprised of traditional folk songs between 1976 and 1986, Simpson and his then wife Jessica moved to New York.

Simpson lived Stateside for 14 years, the last three-and-a-half of which were spent steeped in blues living out “one long party” in New Orleans. But something called him to cross the Atlantic again. He released The Bramble Briar, an album marking a distinct return to his folk roots, in 2001 soon after his homecoming.

Since then, Simpson has recorded the three most compelling and accomplished albums of his career: Righteousness and Humidity in 2003, Kind Letters in 2005 and Prodigal Son in 2007.

It is Prodigal Son for which Simpson reserves a particular pride.

“I really enjoy the process of making records and I have done for a long time, but with the last record I felt like I pushed beyond anywhere I’d been before,” he said.

“There was more of my own material on it, it was more personal – it felt unrestrained. There’s just a great mixture of stuff on there. I was really pleased with it.”

Simpson was speaking on Tuesday afternoon, ahead of a performance in St. David’s Hall in Cardiff later that evening. He is currently on a mini-tour of the UK in between sessions working on his new album, True Stories, due for release in the summer. Life on the road, it seems, has been a mixed blessing for the recording process.

“It’s been frustrating in some ways, and in other ways it’s been brilliant,” he said.

“It’s given me enforced distance. I haven’t had any choice but to look to it from far away and listen to the demos and consider what needs to be done. In that respect it’s been good.”

Over the course of his last few albums, Simpson has gradually introduced more of his own compositions. The two standout tracks on Prodigal Son are his own: Never Any Good, penned about his father, and She Slips Away, written the day before his mother’s death. Both are haunting in a unique sense, the former for its honesty and imagery, the latter for the tenderness and melancholy of its slide guitar.

Simpson is confident True Stories, which features cameos from Radiohead drummer Phil Selway, Bellowhead front-man Jon Boden and folk stalwart Danny Thompson, will continue in this vein.

“There’s actually even more of my own stuff on it. This is a very emotionally heavy record in a lot of ways, and it has some pretty different stuff on it musically,” he said.

“I keep trying to bring in new disciplines and I’ve achieved that on this record. I’ve definitely played stuff that I really wouldn’t have played when I made Prodigal Son even. It’s a good feeling to feel like you’re pushing yourself.”

The new songs Simpson played at St. David’s Hall confirmed this, and demonstrated the potency of his song-writing. A particular highlight was One Day, a song which he was asked to complete by jazz guitarist Martin Taylor, after being presented with a couplet and a melody Taylor wrote after his son committed suicide.

Simpson has absorbed so many musical traditions into his playing over the years, but something unique about him has always shone through. Now this has truly come to the surface and he has started to sing with his own voice, revealing more of himself through his musical maturity.

Simpson’s rounded approach to making folk music is reflected in his rounded philosophy on how the scene operates.

“The thing about folk music is that it always exists on a number of different levels,” he said.

“There’s the perceived face of folk music which might be very commercial, it might be very activist or it might be very traditional. Usually all those things are happening simultaneously.

“There isn’t what went on during the miners’ strike or what went on in the middle sixties in the folk scene because – as foolish as it may sound – there aren’t the obvious targets. I think really there are, but people don’t see it. We’ve stopped noticing that we’re being screwed frankly.”

Simpson and his partner Kit had a daughter, Molly, four years ago. It is perhaps the joys of fatherhood which have inspired him to new heights with his music.

“Being a dad is fabulous. It’s occasionally completely exhausting when you get back at 2.30am and you have to be up at 6.30am, but there’s so much to enjoy”, he said.

As long as the Prodigal Son is enjoying life, it is certain all of his fans will be too.


~ by seanbradbury on March 25, 2009.

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