Every new Martin Simpson album is one to look forward to, but Trails and Tribulations feels like a biggie, even by the Sheffield string-master’s standards. We listened in as he explained the light and shade running through the set, the importance of nature and the timing of the songs.
Back in 2013, Martin Simpson surprised everyone by releasing Vagrant Stanzas, a set of very solo songs and tunes, mostly put down in one take. Trails and Tribulations is a different animal in that it employs many top end musicians like Andy Cutting, John Smith, Nancy Kerr and others to add subtle skilful touches, building a fuller layered sound, and yet maintaining the sense of space and minimalism that likens it to Stanzas. How beguiling… “Vagrant Stanzas was pretty much recorded live, with an idea to just get these performances down,” Martin explains. “I’ve done so many collaborations over the last few years and that album was a way of saying ‘remember guys, this is what I do’ when you see me on my own. But in a way, Trails and Tribulations is really what I do, in a broader sense.”
It’s certainly an album that takes the listener on a journey and not only in the very Martin Simpson way of whisking them from one side of the Atlantic to the other and back again. The range of moods and emotions on display here absolutely benefits the slightly fuller yet more nuanced arrangements, and it all encourages interpretations… “It’s interesting that you say the album feels optimistic,” Martin smiles, “because I felt it was incredibly dark in some parts. ‘Ridgeway’ is a very dark song, ‘Maps’ is also a dark song and then there’s the young man dying of Syphilis on one of the tracks too! But I do think there’s a proper range of emotions in many of the songs and ‘Blues Run the Game’ is central to the whole thing. There was a review somewhere that talked about it being written by a very young man and how could he possibly know what he was talking about, but that completely misses the point, because the song was written by a guy who was twenty-one but had already been through hell. Whereas a lot of young people do write songs romanticising suffering, I don’t think that’s what ‘Blues Run the Game’ is at all; I think it’s a song written by somebody who has realised that no matter how far you travel or run, you’re not going to get away from yourself.”
The other two songs mentioned above, ‘Maps’ and ‘Ridgeway’, along with ‘Blues’, feel integral to the set, holding the album together and reinforcing the themes present. ‘Ridgeway’ in particular deals with the inexorable movement of time and the influence of human behaviour on our landscapes. It is the tribulation to the trail narrated in ‘Maps’. “Yes, I think so,” Martin agrees. “The whole album is about that travel and movement and that ‘as I walked out…’ sense, you know? ‘St. James Hospital’ is a walking out song and so is ‘Reynardine’: ‘One evening as I rambled’… There is so much of that stuff in traditional song and so much influence from traditional music in what I write; even when I’m apparently a long way away from it, I’m not really. I think all of my songs have their roots in traditional music. But going back, yes, I do think that, as well as ‘Blues Run the Game’, ‘Ridgeway’ and ‘Maps’ are also central to the whole piece.”
Another key track is the Emily Portman penned ‘Bones and Feathers’, which is a strong example of where the light lies, to the shade of the above tracks. “There is a fantastic sense of travel in that song too”, Martin smiles. “It was sung and played live, the banjo and the rhythm section, and then I overdubbed behind dobro and added electric guitar and strings and what have you. Really, it was that live foundation that felt right to build on, but my favourite thing about ‘Bones and Feathers’ is my daughter Molly singing on it; that just feels like magic to me.” Along with life and family, it’s the magic that is also suggested through the healing properties of nature and the optimism they invoke that are as important to this set as the less positive topics broached, and it creates an overall cohesion and balance throughout. “Well yes, I think that’s true,” he considers and gives a small chuckle. “As we’re talking now I’m looking out of the window at the trees, the rain falling on the trees, the birds hopping around under cover and all that kind of thing, just like I always do, because it’s restorative to pay attention to the outside world. People are so readily stuck inside nowadays, and if we can just get outside ourselves, it’s so much better; the world is always out there doing entertaining things.”
It’s this breeze of gentle wisdom and nature that permeates through Trails and brings with it a sense of security and reassurance in the confidence of a performer. We wonder, finally, could Martin have written this album thirty years ago? “No,” he says, without hesitation. “Thirty years ago I wasn’t ready and I wasn’t writing like I do now and I wasn’t naturally given to writing songs. Not that I think I’m a prolific song writer now,” he adds, with a laugh. “I really struggle with it; I’m slow and slightly nervous, but I do love it. But I also didn’t have the background to write the songs on this album back then. I would never have been able to write ‘Thomas Drew’ before now, and the song about my mother too; I haven’t had the experience or the understanding before that allowed me to write a song attempting to understand who my mother was. So, emotionally as well as everything else, there’s a huge amount going on with this album.”
Trails & Tribulations is out now via Topic Records.
Order it here: http://smarturl.it/umdp3x
Martin Simpson Giveaway*
We have a fantastic giveaway for all Martin Simpson fans. Two people have the chance to win a vinyl and deluxe CD (includes a 6-track bonus disc and 20-page booklet) of Martin’s Trails & Tribulations along with a D’Addario album artwork guitar plectrum.
To enter simply email us here: firstname.lastname@example.org. In your email include “Trails” in the subject along with your name and address in the body of the message. Last entries by 10 am on 29 September 2017.
Order a Vinyl copy of Trails & Tribulations which includes Two 180g discs in a gatefold sleeve with full-colour inner bags via Vinyl180
Order a Limited Deluxe CD Edition which includes a 6-track bonus disc and a 20-page booklet including artwork not found in the standard version via ProperMusic.
*Terms & conditions apply:
- Only one entry per household.
- Winners will be chosen at random on 29 Sept. 2017.
- The winners will be informed soon thereafter.
- Your information will not be shared with any other parties other than the two winner’s address details which will be passed on to Vinyl180 for delivery of the album.
Folk Radio UK’s full terms can be found here.
Photo by Elly Lucas