I only came across Belfast based artist Glenn Simpson for the first time this week and after watching a video made by his nephews Johnny and Barry Simpson of him performing a lovely instrumental called Byzantium on a gazouki (a guitar shaped bouzouki) I was keen to delve a bit deeper into Glenn’s music. Watch the video and read the interview I had with him below:
Glenn began playing classical guitar after an old music teacher suggested he play this form, after listening to his current music you can see that there are elements within classical guitar playing that shine through his current music…
“What I really liked about it was the finger style technique which I still use, or my own version of it” he explains. “I play finger style on gazouki/bouzouki whereas all players I have seen use plectrums. I still like the old mellow classical andantes.”
As with any teenager growing up their are influences which can turn your path and Glenn was no exception.
“I was 15 when I joined a rock band. It was peer pressure but I also blame the Rolling Stones. I loved those greasy open tuned guitar riffs from Keith Richard. I was and am still impressed by Argus from Wishbone Ash. Thanks to them I could see how classical guitar could morph into Folkrock.”
What did surprise me, having not heard his earlier material, was the influence that Woody Guthrie then had upon him, one that would lead him to perform abroad before he got the travel bug.
“I liked Dylan but to me Woody Guthrie was the missing link. His guitar playing was a revelation to me. I spent a long time trying to recreate and develop the rolling base style. I do a special version of Pretty Boy Floyd on guitar but haven’t recorded it.
“I did a solo show in Brussels on Woody’s life and style of playing. Back in Belfast I formed a company of musicians and poets called the Belfast Balladeers. We did two shows about Woody. One was performed at the Queen’s Festival. The Balladeers had quite a big following. We did many shows. I played live on radio quite a bit. I think it ran the course. I started turning down gigs. I went off to Canada for a year. I played with a Scottish guy out there at informal events. Got itchy feet and travelled quite a bit. Went to South America without a guitar. Travel has changed me. More mellow and the tunes I get have been distilled by that.”
Glenn then went through a kind of musical hiatus and it wasn’t until the 2000s when he was back in Belfast teaching that he got back into music and then discovered the gazouki.
“I played a lot of guitar improvisations. Old Irish/British tunes. Fingerstyle arrangements. I found my way back to Planxty. I love their fusion of strings, pipes and whistles. I taught myself to play bouzouki. Andy Irvine is my favourite string player. It came as a surprise that he was influenced by Woody Guthrie. At a solo show he played gazouki. At first I thought it was a guitar hybrid. I loved the instrument. I had one made by a brilliant luthier in Dublin called Joe Foley. It has a very different sound from Andy Irvine’s. I also play fingerstyle. Andy picks with a plectrum. He has influenced me but I do my own thing. I do like the Balkan/Eastern twist that Andy Irvine and others have brought into Folk Music. I think the Irish Harper O’Carolan reaches into my music as does 1930s, 60s, 70s Folk music. I am 53 and as I get older I am drawn into old tunes e.g. old English tune The Snow That Melts The Soonest as recorded by Horslips on Drive the Cold Winter Away.
The sound from the gazouki is magical but Glenn still has a very fond love for the guitar. “I don’t know if I prefer gazouki to guitar. I am composing instrumental music at this point using both instruments. I do like the whiff of the East from the gazouki but an open tuned guitar is a goldmine for creating.”
Glenn was intrigued by what his music reminded me of…I assumed he was an American Primitive guitar playing fan. “An album I listen to a lot is Of Rivers and Religion by John Fahey. I love the moods he creates with his guitar.” But as he explains there are other influences…”I revere Leonard Cohen. I have written a song for him called I Always Believed In You. You will get to hear it” he promises.
We spoke briefly again about his return to music, something that always fascinates me..why an artist can leave music, something that played such a big part in their life…
“I came back to the scene because the fire came back. That compulsion to compose and play. I had quite a few gigs last year including the Sunflowerfest in N.Ireland. This year has been slow. My wife and I just bought a house in the countryside. Slowed me down. Planning to record an instrumental album in the autumn. I would love to play in England sometime. I am pretty much at the music full time. Coming back though can be a struggle but there is nothing to lose.”
Glenn’s latest album is “The Ghosts Around the Table” on which he is accompanied by Caroline Pugh. Go and check him out here: