There’s something just a little bit lovely about the Red Lion Folk Club in Birmingham.
It’s not the warm inviting venue that’s hosted the club for over thirty of its fourty two year lifespan, the great sound, the amazing lineups, or the charm of the club’s infamous dressing
room cupboard (see above photo).
As great as all those things are, what struck me most about the club when I visited earlier this week was the people….the members and in particular Chris, Della, Rose, Kevin, Ken and the rest of the wonderful volunteers who run the club. As they proudly showed me photographs of all the incredible acts who’ve played at the club during it’s lifetime, and Rose shared with me the last five years of entries in the ‘visitors book’ (all of which offer glowing praise), it was evident that the Red Lion volunteers really love their folk club.
In 2006 the club was declared ‘Folk Club of the Year’ in the prestigious Radio 2 Folk Awards. At the ceremony the award was presented to the club by the amazing Martin Simpson, himself having been nominated an incredible twenty six times in the history of the R2 awards, winning ‘Musician of the Year’ on two occasions.
So it was somewhat of a co-incidence that the reason I was at the club earlier this week was to meet, interview and photograph the great Martin Simpson himself for Folk Radio UK. The renowned songwriter, guitarist and banjo player was making a welcome return to the Red Lion for one of his last performances of the year, a year he’s spent riding high on the success of his highly acclaimed 2013 album ‘Vagrant Stanzas’ as well as the the wonderful ‘Full English’ collaboration.
As Martin and I squeezed into the aforementioned ‘dressing cupboard’ for our chat, I was conscious of being in close proximity to musical greatness…
“We can talk about anything” he said. Fair enough, I thought. Since we’d been chatting about Martin’s home city of Sheffield whilst I fumbled around setting up the audio recorder, I decided that was as good a place to start as any:
FRUK: You’ve travelled a fair amount during your life. What led to you settling in Sheffield and calling it home?
“Love. I met Kit Bailey. I’d moved back from the States and was living in Whitby. My previous existence went pear-shaped…and I met Kit. I’d worked with Kit a few times and just kept seeing her. The more I saw her the more I liked her…and eventually I fell in love. Mercifully she followed suit sometime later! And she lives in Sheffield. It just made perfect sense for me to move there…and having moved there it’s a fantastic place to live. We live on the Southwest side of town and the views from our house are astonishing. You can walk to the Peak District National Park in forty minutes without coming out of the woods…
FRUK: Tonight’s gig in Birmingham…is this you coming to the end of a tour?
It’s my last solo work of the year, yeah. Last year was my 60th Birthday and it was phenomenally busy… and I thought right, this year will probably be quieter because I don’t have a new record out. It’s just been absurd! It’s been equally as busy with lots of different projects…and it’s been fantastic.
FRUK: Are you mainly performing songs from ‘Vagrant Stanzas’ at these shows?
No, actually I’ve got a lot of new material and I’m doing a bunch of older stuff that I just think is really good and it would be a shame to let it go. One of the things that I did this year was I had a commission to play all of ‘Prodigal Son’ and all of ‘Kind Letters’ back to back as a gig. I said ‘Yeah great idea, fantastic!’…and then I looked at it and just about expired! I think there’s thirty one tracks between the two records and some of them are nine minute versions of ballads with huge improvisations and stuff like that. So it was just massively demanding…at the end of it I was absolutely stuffed. For a couple of days I could barely speak English! But it made me focus on back catalogue and just looking at…I mean just those two records ‘cos there’s a lot more records than that! And so I’m re-circulating a lot of stuff at the moment. The opening act this evening (Chris Cleverley) just asked me to play a song that I recorded in 1984…
FRUK: One of the most commented-on aspects of the Vagrant Stanzas album is its purity…just you and an instrument recorded mostly in one take. Is that the place where you feel most musically fulfilled?
Well it’s where I live, it really is where I live…but then I like to do a lot of other things as well. Since I did Vagrant Stanzas I’ve done two other projects…The Full English and The Elizabethan Session, both of which are massive collaborative affairs but both of which were recorded in the same way, which is you go in and you do it. There’s not massive amounts of overdubbing, if any. So you have two or three opportunities to get it right…and then you move on. And it’s great…I think it’s wonderful. The next recording that I’m going to do will be a trio with Andy Cutting and Nancy Kerr, which I utterly adore…I think it’s fabulous. And we’re just gonna go in and play. We did a tour in September and we had a big repertoire…and out of that big repertoire we’ve got more than enough material for our first album and we will bring more to it…when we go in the studio there will be more stuff to do.
FRUK: You mentioned The Full English and I wanted to ask you about that…can you talk a little bit about the project and what it was like to be involved in it?
Well The Full English is a riot! It’s really huge fun. I was thinking about it…Faye (Hield) did such a good job of putting that together and everybody just rose to the occasion. I’d worked on stage with Seth Lakeman at a festival in Canada and I’ve always really liked Seth. I think he’s a really lovely human being and very good at what he does. And his bass player, Ben Nicholls, is a phenomenal musician and just mad as a sack of badgers, great fun to be around! And then Rob Harbron…staggering, Sam Sweeney…staggering, Nancy Kerr…staggering, Faye…they’re all brilliant.
So it was just a question of, in a very short time, making this band work. And it was a short time…I still can’t get my around it. We did our first gig at Cecil Sharp house to launch The Full English project. After the gig we drove down to ‘Real World’ (studios) which is near Bath, got up the next morning…we did a full day’s recording and I think I drove off to Heathrow that night and flew off to the States. The other guys did another day’s recording and I did about two hours overdubs afterwards. So the whole thing was done that quick, and we’d done one gig…and it doesn’t sound like it at all! So I’m very proud of it…and of course it’s done incredibly well. It’s caught people’s imagination so much…the gigs have been fantastic, the record sales have been fantastic and a time where records are not selling. Full English and Vagrant Stanzas have done really, really well…so I’m delighted.
FRUK: You mentioned living in the US earlier. I’ve read previous interviews where you’ve talked about your experiences there…looking back and reflecting on your time in the States, what do you think has been the most significant impact on your music from that period of your life?
It’s just such a big thing y’know. I went there rather disgruntled, in the early 80’s when the folk scene here…well I felt I’d got about as far as I could go. I had so many friends here and I felt like I knew everybody…but I didn’t know what to do. And for various reasons personally I wasn’t terribly happy. And so off I went, because I could. I got to the States thinking this is going to be such a huge, different situation to England…I won’t meet and get to know musicians in the same way. I was so wrong. In no time flat I was working with some of the absolute best old-time musicians, blues musicians…and then working with Jackson Browne and Steve Miller and all kinds of mad stuff…and it was just fantastic. And all the time what I realised was that I was very much influenced by American music..but that my take on American music was actually influencing American music…which was a fantastic feeling. I’d do blues festivals and black blues guitar players from Chicago would come up and say ‘Y’know that gospel record you did…that’s one of my favourite albums….how did you do that?’. I grew up listening to musicians like that, going ‘how did you do that?’!
FRUK: On the subject of growing up, another thing you’ve talked about before is the period that you grew up in…the environment, the music that you were exposed to and that’s influenced you…how would you compare those times to the present day, perhaps for a young folk artist trying to break through in today’s world?
I don’t know. That’s a really hard one because when I was a kid you could go to a folk club…where I was it was a weekly thing…it was your apprentice ground. You went there, you watched all the musicians from as close up as you possibly could. It must have been horrifying having me in the front row…like a musical vampire! And you did what you did…you got better, you listened to records, you played, and played, practice playing, practiced singing, practiced performing in the folk club. And the whole thing was a massive, rapid learning curve. It was fantastic.
Then basically what you had to do next was convince the folk scene that you were worthy of being paid, and going out to do gigs. Which I did…and then I came to the attention of somebody who said ‘this guy really needs recording’. Forty years ago I recorded my first record.
Now? People say it’s so much easier now…I don’t think it is. There are degree courses and Arts Council grants and things…things of that nature…but it’s still really, really hard to convince people that actually you are a worthwhile artist. I can think of a couple of people who I think are staggeringly good who are not doing anything like as well as they should. Whether it’s artistic decisions or the dreaded management decisions or whatever it is, I don’t know.
So I’m not sure. I think there’s far more material available to help you learn quickly nowadays…I mean there was basically none when I started, there were two or three books. But that just meant you had to figure it out…and I think in figuring it out you learn a lot. I’m not sure that just reading it or looking at it repeatedly on DVD and tablature is gonna teach you as much as actually having to sit down and listen to and it go ‘Well what was that? How was that?’. In a sense it’s a lot easier to learn things. Whether that makes it a lot easier to find a voice, I don’t know…
FRUK: I was looking at your discography and I noticed you’ve been remarkably consistent during recent times in releasing a new album every two years…is that just a co-incidence or is it by design?
It’s by design. The solo thing…since I came back from the states I’ve been working with Topic (Records) which is a fabulous relationship. We just talk about things and try to the best of our ability to make good records…and make them in a way that they can be aired as much as they can, so that they come to the attention of as many people for as long a time as possible. When I lived in the states, there were times when I looked around and I really needed money, so I went ‘Ok, I must find a project’. I made ‘A Closer Walk With Thee’ to send an adopted child to college. I think I arranged that whole record in about five and a half weeks. And I probably made too many records while I was over there in a sense, but that’s alright…I don’t care. Since I’ve been back I’ve been able to do this steady output of solo stuff but at the same time doing The Elizabethan Sessions and The Full English and things like that…working with other people. It seems to be functioning really nicely.
FRUK: So we can expect another album next year?
Yes, absolutely. It’s coming out in June, we’re recording in January…we’re gonna be filming some of it and provide people who want it with teaching material…film of us figuring things out..I mean real film of us figuring things out! Putting together arrangements and then describing what we’re doing. There will be a DVD that has guitar lessons and melodeon lessons and fiddle lessons and arrangement lessons…so I think that’ll be fun.
FRUK: You seem to be an incredibly busy person. Where do you go outside of music to get inspiration and energy?
I just have to look out of the car window really. When I’m at home I have my lovely girls..Kit and Molly..and the dog and the cat. We walk the dog and play with Molly. And we look out the window at the birds…I’m always looking out the window at the birds, whether I’m in the car or at home or wherever I am. If you looked at the contents of the photographs on my iPhone, there’s a lot of wild flowers and dead birds and all sorts of crazy stuff like that…
FRUK: What drives you to carry on doing this? Making music, playing at folk clubs and doing what you do?
I love it. As I said this year’s been really hard…I had a tour of Canada in November which was brutally hard…travel-wise, weather-wise…a lot of very stressful stuff went on. And at the end of it I said ‘Right I’m not gonna do that again’ because actually it didn’t make sense in personal terms or in financial terms…it was actually too stressful. But the actual playing…was fantastic. And that’s what it is. Danny Thompson always says ‘I don’t get paid to play…I get paid for the other shit!’. I get paid for being in hotels, in the car, on aeroplanes…’waiting’. I think that’s what I am by profession…a ‘wait’er!
FRUK: Looking back over everything you’ve achieved in your musical career, what are you most proud of?
pauses…Having a voice. Having developed something over the years that I really think has improved and become more recognisably ‘me’ over the years. I think…I’m proud of my guitar playing, and I’m now proud of my singing…I’ve worked very hard on my singing, I could always be better. But the thing that I’m most proud of I suppose is the emotional connection I appear to be able to make. That makes me really happy…to really move people. That’s fantastic.
FRUK: What’s next?
Holidays! I’ve got two more gigs to do after this and then I’m going home to hang out with my lovely girls…and I’m gonna play the guitar a lot, play the banjo a lot…try and get better at both…
FRUK: Well of course…you clearly need to get ‘better’!!!
Well I feel that I do! You do, you know? I was lucky enough to find a really cool old guitar recently which absolutely inspires me…very much out of the blue, I wasn’t expecting it at all. I have great guitars…they all inspire me…but I found an old one that just blew my head off! So I wanna go home and play that. Then there’s various things…collaborations next year, more Full English, a tour with Don Clemons from the Carolina Chocolate Drops…we did four gigs this year that were sensational, I mean they just went like a rocket. Martin Taylor, I’ll be working with Martin…just lots of great stuff.
FRUK: What’s on your Christmas list? More guitars?
I don’t need any more guitars! On my christmas list? Just time off…time off for good behaviour.”
This is part of an ongoing new series of photo / interview features on Folk Radio UK from Rob Bridge, a photographer, writer and film-maker specialising in folk, acoustic and Americana music. You can contact him on twitter@redwoodphotos