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A Magazine for Sheffield

Martin Simpson: British Folk Extraordinaire

Simpson High Res copy

Martin Simpson has been a force on the British folk scene for over 40 years, mixing self-penned material with traditional songs from Britain, Ireland and the US.

Known for his clean, precise and technical approach to the acoustic guitar and banjo, Martin is still working his socks off, exploring new collaborations and playing gigs all over the world, including his adopted hometown of Sheffield on Tuesday 13 December.

Martin has been nominated for the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards a staggering 31 times. The follow-up to his last solo album, Vagrant Stanzas, is on the horizon for 2017.

How has the tour gone so far? You seem to be playing a lot of gigs at the moment.

I have a lot of gigs. It's great, actually. I'm particularly busy because, in addition to all the touring I've been doing, I've been writing a film score. So it's like having two jobs at the moment. When I lived in the States I used to do documentaries, but this is my first feature film score, so it's very exciting. It diversifies your creativity. You do stuff that you would not do for yourself and learn from it massively, so it's fantastic.

It's been a few years since Vagrant Stanzas, but you've done quite a lot of other work in the meantime. How do you approach gigs? Will you be playing mostly stuff from the last album?

It's definitely not mostly stuff from the last album. I start recording a new album in January and I'm writing a lot of new stuff for that. I'm learning songs all the time. It's one of the joys of being an interpreter of traditional music, and also other people's songs. There's always stuff to do. So at the moment I would say about 50% of the repertoire is new, and that's great.

Does playing new material at that many gigs help you refine it before you go into the studio?

Definitely. Although it always happens that you end up finishing some things in the studio, I'm always slightly nervous of that, because I actually do think it's better to have taken things out, tried them, had the opportunity to work on the dynamics, the tempo, and just get it right.

One of the successful collaborations you've been involved in recently is the Full English, which is a bit of a folk supergroup.

Well, you could call it that and it wouldn't seem far from the truth. It's a great bunch of people. I think the great thing about that was we all really enjoyed it and it was more successful than anybody could possibly have guessed. Like a number of those things I've done recently, [the album] was effectively done live. I did one day of recording and then drove to the airport and flew to the States. The other guys did one more day of recording, and then I think I did a couple of hours of overdubs. It's great to be in this position, when you are really being creative and you're really on the spot with it.

The other recent collaboration you've done is Murmurs, with Nancy Kerr and Andy Cutting, and I know you've got a gig with them in December. Is this likely to be an ongoing collaboration, do you think?

Oh yeah, it will be. We have a fantastic time working together, although we are all really busy doing the things we do - Andy with Leveret, Heidi Talbot and The Who, and Nancy with her solo stuff, which includes her band, and with the Melrose Quartet and James Fagan. I've also been working with Martin Taylor, the jazz guitar player, over the last little while.

Next year I'm concentrating on solo work, because I have done so many collaborations, and I need to remind people, and myself, about the core of what I do.

You've also held a few guitar workshops recently.

Yeah, I did one in Sheffield. Again, it's something that I absolutely love. I just feel so very lucky to have a bunch of people who will come and work for the weekend with me, listen to what I have to say and go away inspired. It's incredibly good for me to talk through what I do and be forced to explain it. The clarity that you get from having to explain what you do to other people is quite extraordinary.

What's your experience of living and working as a musician in Sheffield?

I've been in Sheffield for 14 years. It's been amazing. Folk music kind of moved to Sheffield while I've been here. Obviously [there are] people like Roy Bailey, who've had their roots here for years, and then you get this extraordinary wave of people who have moved in: Jon Boden, Fay Hield, Nancy [Kerr] and James [Fagan], Sam Carter just arrived. That's just a small group of who's here. It really is remarkable.

And then you've got Richard Hawley and people like that. I say, 'People like that'. There are no people like Richard, really. I'm very lucky - he's my next door neighbour. We talk guitars and music endlessly.

You've done a bit of work with him as well, haven't you?

Yes, absolutely. I played on his last two records and we've done quite a bit of live work. There's a nice bit of footage of us playing at the Royal Albert Hall at the Folk Awards a couple of years ago. And we will do more, without a doubt.

What's your feeling about political music in 2016? Is it doing its job?

I think there is a basic absence of good political music in what I would term 'popular music' in the broadest sense, but I don't think that's very different from any other time. I think there are some absolutely brilliant political writers on the folk scene, who are doing great work, and I think there's never been a time when it was more necessary. I mean, we live in the worst of times right now. I'm constantly horrified by what's happening in this country, as well as the US. We're governed by charlatans and liars, who think it's ok to be a charlatan and a liar. Narcissists and thieves.

It's interesting looking back at the 80s, because there are obviously a lot of parallels. When you look back on pop music in the 80s, there was so much political stuff that was almost smuggled into the mainstream.

It's a funny thing. I heard a guy on Radio 2 the other day. He was doing his Tracks of My Years thing, and one of the tracks of his years was 'Ghost Town'. And he said, 'Well, obviously this song's about the decay of ska' [laughs]. I was listening to it going, 'Have you no concept at all what that's actually about?' And the answer was no. He thought it was a song about music, because it mentions dancehalls.

Of course, there's absolutely great stuff. There's always something going on. However, in view of what's happening in this country and elsewhere, there needs to be a hell of a lot more of it going on, and it should be in the mainstream.

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Martin will play at Firth Hall on Tuesday 13 December 2016. Tickets are available at £14 from

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