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Martin Simpson in concert at Whitchurch Folk Club, Hampshire. He is in the spotlight, holding his guitar and smiling. There is a prominent swallow tattoo on his right forearm.
Martin Simpson in concert. Photo credit: Jon Wilks

Simpson at 70: A new interview with the legendary folk guitarist

As Martin Simpson celebrates his 70th birthday (not to mention 58 years as a guitarist), we asked his admirers to pitch questions on a musical life very well lived.

This month, Martin Simpson turned 70. To celebrate, his wife, Kit Bailey (the daughter of storied folk singer, Roy Bailey) threw a party at a Sheffield venue, attended by fellow musicians and admirers from throughout his career (“you shoulda seen the scratch band I had that night”, he enthuses). A local radio show gave the great man his own version of Desert Island Discs. And Tradfolk, having interviewed him on a number of occasions before, opened up the questions to the great and the good of the folk world (and beyond). With Kit’s help, we reached out to a whole host of musicians, journalists and performers, asking them to pitch a question and name the best Martin Simpson songs from a ridiculously large back catalogue. We then spent the day in the great man’s music room, twiddling on guitars, supping on coffee, and working our way through all the contributions we had accumulated over the previous weeks.

Here, then, are the results. You’ll find questions from everyone from Richard Hawley to Miranda Richardson, from Andy Cutting to Katherine Priddy, all of them dutifully answered in as much depth as we could manage in a single day. It’s a vast interview, even by our standards, so we’ve broken it down into the following categories for you. Click on the links below and get stuck in.

In this interview, Martin Simpson discusses…

The art of onstage concentration

Ian A. Anderson: “Does necessary concentration on technique ever distract from complete immersion in the story of a song (i.e., seeing the story in your head)? And is this different when accompanying somebody else, like June Tabor? Also, Is there another singer that you’d really like the chance to accompany or record with, alive or dead?”

I’m always desirous of being completely unconscious when I’m on stage.

Martin Simpson

Martin Simpson: That’s a very good question. No, is the answer to that because technique is part of becoming sufficiently unconscious of what you’re doing so you can just channel. I’m always desirous of being completely unconscious when I’m on stage [laughs], in the sense that I’m really not thinking about what I’m doing. And basically, the moment I start thinking is when I make a mistake. If I rise out of that blissful unconscious for a minute – if I pop my head up – then… bollocks! Yeah, it’s really clear and it’s really funny because you’ll suddenly have a thought that intervenes and it breaks the spell, usually momentarily, occasionally cataclysmically.

And is it different working with accompanying somebody else? Could I easily drift off? You can’t if you’re working with somebody, of course, and you certainly don’t drift off when June’s singing.

You must have known Ian for a long time.

The Scrub Jay Orchestra, 1976. Maggie Holland, Ian A. Anderson, Martin Simpson. Photo courtesy of the fRoots archive.
The Scrub Jay Orchestra, 1978. Maggie Holland, Ian A. Anderson, Martin Simpson. Photo courtesy of the fRoots archive.

Oh, yeah. There are pictures of me with Ian and Maggie Holland in 78. I was in the Scrub Jay Orchestra briefly. We worked together as a trio. We hardly did any gigs, but it was great fun. But the thing about Ian and Maggie was that they had already dived into publishing on the folk scene. They had Southern Rag [the precursor to fRoots] and they were incredibly supportive of me. They reviewed Golden Vanity [Martin’s debut album] when it first came out, and they couldn’t have been more supportive. They were lovely.

What was the second part of his question?

“Is there another singer that you’d really like the chance to accompany or record with, alive or dead?”

Off the top of my head, no, there isn’t. I do obviously have ambitions to work with other people, but at the moment, especially having just done this new album, Nothing But Green Willow, with Thomm Jutz, on which we accompanied a whole bunch of singers, I’ve ticked my boxes. I’ve wanted to work with Emily Portman for ages, and I’ve been able to do that. Fay Hield, Seth Lakeman, Cara Dillon, Angeline Morrison… all of them are really something and all of them were really different. But I don’t have to dream about working with any of them anymore, because I got to do it, which is great.

Devotion to the acoustic guitar

Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne: “You’re known best as a master of fretted instruments. So my question is, if you could choose to master one other instrument, what would it be, and why would it be the concertina?”

12-string guitars? The work of the devil!

Martin Simpson

Oh, my Lord. Does he actually say that about the concertina? [Laughs] Sorry, I have worked with Alistair Anderson quite a lot, and also with Rob Harbron, so the concertina and I are familiar with each other.

There are two, maybe three instruments which I utterly love and have thought, “wouldn’t it be great if I could play them?” One is the pedal steel, which Martin Taylor refers to as the haunted knitting machine. I have owned pedal steel guitars on three occasions and on every occasion I’ve ended up going, “This is absolutely fucking ridiculous. No way am I built to be able to use three pedals and two knee levers and not move my left hand and make music happen.” The other instruments are uilleann pipes and cello, neither of which I’m ever going to be able to play.

I’ve dedicated so much time to playing the guitar and the banjo. That’s what I do and life is actually terrifyingly short. At times, people have said to me, “Why didn’t you go and do more on electric guitars?” Well, when would I have found the time to do that? That said, things have changed in the last little while with The Magpie Arc. I do get to do some very different kinds of playing with that band, and it’s very good for me. But as far as other instruments go, here’s the thing: I’m not going to be as good as I want to be at anything other than what I do. I used to draw a lot and now I just find it frustrating because anything that I do, I want to be able to do to the best of my ability.

No point in being a jack of all trades but a master of none.

Right! On various occasions I’ve said to myself, “I really, really could do something with a Sobel-style mandola,” or something along those lines, but I can’t. I actually very rapidly lose interest, part of the reason being that it’s a double-course instrument. I hate the feel of double-course instruments. I really don’t like it.

You don’t own a twelve-string guitar, then?

[Gasps dramatically] The work of the devil!

Developing his own guitar style

Louis Campbell: “I remember you telling a great story about Joni Mitchell trying to play a shuffle and instead accidentally coming up with something far more extraordinary. Have there been any specific players, styles or concepts that you’ve tried to copy that, in attempting to do so, led you to something brand new?”

When I was a kid, I wanted to be able to play exactly like Mississippi John Hurt, or exactly like Robert Johnson or Blind Willie Johnson or whoever, but I very rapidly realised that doing so was neither possible nor desirable. What I want to do is sound like me. Growing up in Scunthorpe, I wasn’t exactly surrounded by people who could play the music that I wanted to play. There was one guy who played good finger-style guitar who owned a local music shop and I learned a massive amount from him. He still plays, but he just lives in Scunthorpe and owns a music shop. And I didn’t want that. I wanted to be able to do all these different things that I heard other people do and I wanted to do it so that it sounded like me. But that was kind of a product of sitting there and trying to figure out what people were doing at a time when there was hardly any film available.

I remember hearing Mississippi Fred McDowell, who I’ve always loved, and he would play in open D-major tuning and he would vamp this chord. I’d listen to it. “What is he doing?” And it wasn’t until I saw a film of him – and this would have been when I was living in California – and he was vamping a major-six note. Gaaah! C’mon! So I had a sense of isolation when I was a kid and I never had any patience to actually learn from books and stuff like that. I mean, I still have my first copy of the Pete Seeger book, How to Play the 5-String Banjo, which I completely ignored. So I taught myself to do what I thought other people were doing, and time and time again it wasn’t right. I wasn’t doing “the right thing” [makes inverted comma signs in the air]. But in so doing I came up with like, you know… most of the percussive stuff that I do on the guitar I came up with because I was trying to do a mixture of Big Joe Williams and Clarence Ashley.

And were you frustrated with yourself at the time that you couldn’t get it right?

[Laughs] No!

So, there’s the difference. A lot of musicians desperately want to copy what they’re hearing on recordings or seeing on videos, and great store is set by being able to replicate it a hundred percent accurately, which means they spend ages perfecting a copy of someone else’s ideas. Meanwhile, you were busy finding out how to make your own sounds.

Well, I have never in my life learned to play a piece of music from tablature or by reading music. I can’t read music, for a start. I can write TAB for other people; I can transcribe what I’m doing and then give it to my friend, John Roberts, to render it into music, but I’ve never, ever learned anything any other way than by listening to it and internalising it and then trying to figure out how I want to do it. So, I guess the answer to Louis’s question is this: my entire career is kind of that.

I was in California a couple of months ago, staying with this friend of ours called Josh Michael. Josh is an amateur musician and one of the best, most utterly dedicated students. Everything he’s ever done in his life, he’s just hurled himself into. He was an Olympic-standard diver and he wanted to learn martial arts, so he went to Japan and studied with a martial arts master. He plays old-timey fretless banjo and he studies with Dan Gellert, who is a monster. The reason he knows me is because he went, “Oh, I’m going to take guitar lessons from him”. He finds music for me. He’s constantly sending me things. While we were there we were talking about slide guitar a lot, and he played me Ralph Stanley singing gospel. And one of the things that he was singing was ‘Twelve Gates to the City’. Everybody knows that from the Reverend Gary Davis version, which is an absolute tour de force, like everything that Gary Davis did.

Now, when I was a little kid, Reverend Gary Davis was still coming to England. I saw him at the Cambridge Folk Festival, probably a couple of times, but he had recorded in 1935 and then again in the 60s. As far as I was concerned, what he did was sing gospel songs with the guitar. I really didn’t give a monkeys about what you might call his show-off stuff. It was all very clever, but when he sang ‘A Little More Faith in Jesus’ or ‘Twelve Gates to the City’, it was mind-fuckingly good. You can feel it on every level. I’ve known people who could genuinely play like Reverend Gary Davis, who just devoted themselves to doing that. I never wanted to do that, but hearing Ralph Stanley sing ‘Twelve Gates to the City’, having just been listening to the Reverend Gary Davis, I immediately picked up the guitar and started playing around with the slide arrangement of that song, which at some point I’ll probably record. But it was just this idea of being able to amalgamate the incredible input that I received from people like that. That’s joy to me. That’s fantastic.

Having a favourite guitar

Andy Cutting: “Is there an ultimate guitar for you or are they continually being developed as tastes change?”

That’s just such an interesting concept. [Thinks for a while] No, there isn’t. I’m still searching and still adapting. Recently, I was listening in the car to recordings of my last tour, which was in March. We recorded the whole tour and then Tom Wright [Martin’s sound engineer] compiled a bunch of these performances. The sound my Taran guitar makes on stage is beyond anything that I’ve had in the past, and I’ve always been very proud of the sound that I make on stage. Sobels have always been great-sounding instruments as far as I’m concerned. But this Taran has four different pickups in it and it’s fantastic; it’s completely modern and cutting edge. It’s so brilliantly constructed, it’s pushing the envelope.

However, it has been this rebuilt Martin from 1936 that has actually pleased me the most in the studio. It’s horses for courses. What do you want the guitar to do and where do you want it to do it?

I’ve always been fascinated by what guitar makers do. I’ve always loved working with them. I commissioned my first guitar when I was 21 or 22 years old.

How could you afford that?

Well, it wasn’t that much. From the age of 14, I just horse-traded instruments all the time, trying to get better and better guitars. So I had capital, if you like, and by the time I was in my early twenties I was gigging as well. I wasn’t making much, but I was making money. And all of it, as far as I was concerned, was just about getting a better instrument. What happened was I bought myself a Martin 000-18 and I went to Algeria and played on a British industrial site. On the way back, all my gear got stolen – the only thing the left me was a banjo [laughs]. I never saw my Martin again.

So, what am I going to do now? I lived in the Lakes at the time, and fortunately, there was somebody who had a really nice Epiphone Texan, which a lot of people had. Wizz Jones still plays his Epiphone Texan that he got in the early 60s. So, I bought that because I needed a stopgap. Meanwhile, I’d seen this guy, Peter Abnett, who made guitars. That was his ambition. He made dreadnoughts and OMs, basically. And he built me my first guitar. So I was hooked at that point.

Do you still have it?

No, when I moved to the States I sold it because it was incredibly lightly built and I felt like it was going to blow up at some point. But it was a really beautiful guitar.

When people ask you about guitar makers in the UK nowadays, who do you recommend?

It depends. There is such a range. Roger Bucknell makes fantastic guitars, really amazing guitars. And Roger, like many of the best guitar makers, gets really excited if you ask for something different. He made the neck for my old Gibson Mastertone banjo right from scratch, just because he thought it might be fun. But it has all changed so much.

Going back to Andy’s question: when I was a kid, the general standard of guitars in this country was awful. European guitars were mostly bad copies of American guitars, and there were a few makers, most of whom weren’t terribly good. That has all changed now and you’ve got a massive choice of builders. I mean, I don’t even know who they are anymore. I see friends of mine playing guitars by people I’ve never heard of. It’s amazing. And then you’ve got people like Rosie Haydenrich, who is brilliant.

Do you still play your turnstone?

Oh, yeah. It’s a fantastic guitar. Beautiful. It’s downstairs on the wall. Pride of place. I keep my favourites where they’re easily accessible.

Most of today, you’ve been noodling on this 1936 Martin. You’re clearly getting on very well with it. Does it have an interesting history?

I found it at my friend Tony Werneke’s place, Replay Acoustics in Sevenoaks. I look at his website all the time and I’ve bought stuff from him in the past. It’s always incredible. But it said “1936, Martin C2, re-topped by TJ Thompson”, and I went, “Oh, no” [holds hands up in surrender]. Because TJ is a magician. TJ can take a bag of bits and put it back together. I’ve seen his work going back decades and just admired him so much.

I went to see it and, at the same time, he had a 1934, completely original, long-scale triple O. I played that first. It sounded great but I would not have lasted more than an hour playing it because it didn’t play in tune. Its intonation was a bit all over the shop because guitars need to be fettled. And then I picked up this 1936 Martin and it’s that thing of seeing how long you’re sitting there with it. All of a sudden an hour has gone by. Tony got in touch with the man who was selling it and said, “Look, I really want Martin Simpson to have this. You should hear him play it.” So they chopped the price down and I came home and sold a bunch of curiosities that I acquired over the years and bought it.

It’s fantastic. but the story behind it is fantastic because the guitar was an archtop, round-hole guitar originally. Martin Guitars decided that they better go into competition with Gibson, really, and make dance band guitars, so they did archtop guitars with round sound holes. That didn’t work, so they made f-hole guitars, but they didn’t do that right either. The thing about it was, they used fantastic materials. So this guitar is like 100-plus-years-old Brazilian rosewood. Everything about it is absolutely top-class. And it was brought to a dealer in the very early 70s in bits by a rag-and-bone man, which I just love. When you look at it, you can see all these cracks and screw holes where the headstock’s been obviously off and repaired.

Mike Jopp – a guitarist in a band called the Tridents, who replaced him with Jeff Beck – bought it in 1972 and had it as a C2 for 30 years, and then gave it to TJ Thompson. TJ put this new top on it, which would involve, you know, changing the neck angle, and he replaced the fingerboard. In fact, in the case there’s his description of what he did, and his bill. So, what this guitar is now is a classic Martin OM. Same body size as an 000, but a long scale, and it’s just wonderful. In the past, I have had the opportunity to own some vintage guitars and mostly haven’t taken them up because I felt like a lot of builders were actually pushing beyond what had been done. But every so often you just find something like that and go, OK…

Are you increasingly reducing your collection? Is it going to get to a point where all of your curiosities are sold off to afford the ultimate guitar?

Well, it’d be nice, wouldn’t it? In a sense, that’s what I am trying to do, actually. I’ve never collected for the sake of collecting. I’ve always felt that each one I buy might make me do something, push the envelope in some direction. So I’m not going to stop. The Taran, for instance… I worked with Rory Dowling for years and years and years to get to this.

You’ve got so many guitars here. Do they all get played?

If they don’t, then they get gone. There’s no point in having them. There are a couple of oddball things like a first prototype PRS acoustic, which I don’t play because it’s a curiosity rather than anything else, but it’s also arguable that it’s not worth very much.

Living in the States

Lukas Drinkwater: “I’m always fascinated by the arc of a career, all the twists and turns, chance encounters and diversions that lead someone to become the musician they eventually become. You are a great example of an exemplary player of so many different styles. If you had your whole career again, is there anything you wouldn’t do, or you would do differently, in pursuit of the musicality you so clearly value now?”

Good question. Big question. That’s a hard one because it actually involves personal as well as musical considerations. I mostly wouldn’t change anything, but sometimes you can be in a relationship in which, in order to maintain the relationship, you find yourself doing things that in hindsight don’t benefit the arc of your career. But then, when you look at it again, you go, well, I did that because it was, as far as I could see, the right thing to do. And until you get to the point where you realise that this is not the right thing to do, this is actually not benefiting anybody in the correct way… yeah, this is a hard one to answer.

I moved to the States in the mid-80s, which I wouldn’t have been able to do had things been different, and all of a sudden I was in such a different place. I went from being over here and gazing at the American guitar industry to being absolutely smack in the middle of it all. The Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans adopted me and I would go to all their symposia and people would go, “Play this! Play this!” because I made their guitars sound good. It was just a joy. It was fantastic.

I was actually working for Martin Guitars at the NAMM Show at that point, which was very funny because I didn’t play one. But Dick Boke, who was the artist relations guy, really believed in me, so he got me to the NAMM Show to play the first reissued OM, actually, which was a Perry Bechtel model. I was demonstrating this guitar and playing ‘Broke Down Engine’, a really funky kind of whackachuga thing, and I put the guitar down and this guy just rushed up to me, literally picked me up off the floor in a big cuddle, and then dropped me. And it was Steve Miller! So, things like that… I know how lucky I’ve been. That’s why I could call up Jackson Browne and ask him to get Greg Leisz to play on my new solo record [out in 2024], for instance. So, mostly, I wouldn’t really change anything.

When did you move to the States?

I went there at the end of 1984, but came back in 85 and then moved to live there in 88. And I was there full-time from 88 to 2000. It was like 14 years altogether.

What took you there originally?

The first time I went was with June Tabor, actually. We played McCabe’s and places like that.

You’re of that generation that believed the US was the promised land, aren’t you?

Well, it was in musical terms. To be able to go to the States and live in these different places, all of which had massively different things to offer, was wonderful.

Where were you based?

Ithaca, New York, was the first place that I lived and I had no idea that Ithaca was one of the absolute hotbeds of alt-string band music, if you like. They had the Tompkins County Horseflies and the Highwoods String Band. They were massively influential bands. And these were the guys that I hung out with. And Bill Frisell’s cello player, Hank Roberts, lived there because it was a nice place to live, so I ended up with a terrifyingly good scratch band [laughs]. And then I moved to Santa Cruz in California, one of the absolute hotbeds of guitar making, and geographically it’s in such a place that any touring band on the West Coast will play in Santa Cruz on their off night. You could see everybody and their dog and play with them. And then I lived in New Orleans, a real music town.

Approaching arrangements

Sam Grassie (Broadside Hacks): “Is your arranging and composition informed by theory? Do you think in dots or do you think in melodies?”

I don’t think in dots. I do think in melodies. The theoretical side of what I do, if you like, is very instinctive indeed. But, I mean, as early as being 16 and 17 and wanting to be a professional musician, I started to teach people, and I realised really early on that in order to teach people, you have to have an understanding of what you do to allow you to explain it to them. And so my theory comes from that, basically. I know what I’m doing in order to explain it to other people, but I don’t consciously utilise that when I’m arranging. When I’m arranging, I listen and feel and then I’ll go, “Whoa, that’s great. What the fuck was that?”

So you hear something and go after it?


You’re not waking up in the night with arrangements in your head or anything like that?

No, everything that I do is basically a product of improvisation, which very often leads to a point where I’m satisfied with it, and at that point, I’m done for now.

Do you go for days where you’ll be playing and nothing really comes, or do you find yourself inspired a lot of the time?

Well, one of the things that I’ve always said to people when I teach – when I do workshops and all that kind of thing – is to always try, when you pick up your guitar, to do something you haven’t done before. Everybody complains about being in a rut. So what do you do to get out of a rut? You don’t just grab the guitar and do the thing that you always do when you grab the guitar. You actually pick up the guitar and you think about it. What might I do differently here?

Put it into a different tuning or something?

Yeah, or change your approach, just for fun.

There’s a second part to Sam’s question, and it’s basically: how do you get your fingers so damn fluid, you wizard?

[Laughs] By constantly working on that very thing.

Martin picks up a guitar and plays an arrangement of ‘Cactus Tree’ by Joni Mitchell.

It’s like a waterfall of notes.

It is exactly that, you know. One of the most influential bits of guitar playing in my life is Pat Metheny’s solo at the end of ‘Amelia’ on Shadows and Light. It’s just pure fluidity. I listen to it and I just go, “Oh”.

When people think about fluidity on the guitar, they often think about the fretting hand. But actually, there’s fluidity, huge amounts of fluidity, in both hands. It’s easy to forget that the picking hand is just as important as the other one.

Yeah, it is. I often play ‘Martin Said to His Man’. My friend Nick Kemp filmed it, and I looked at it and it made me laugh because… it’s not a disconnect, but it’s the fact that the left hand and the right hand keep really swapping over. It’s just really fun to watch. It’s just a joy. I think I’ve always been really in love with the actual mechanics of playing a piece of music on the guitar and making it work. I love that. I get very excited about it.

And what a good thing to still be excited after so long doing it.

Yeah. A young man came to a gig recently and said, “How long have you been playing the guitar?” And I had to think about it. And then I said, “58 years”. [Laughs] How ridiculous is that?

Which leads us yes, nicely into the next question from your friend Richard Hawley.

The early years

Richard Hawley: “I’d like to hear about Martin’s early years in Scunthorpe. What were his first instruments and where did the inspiration come from and the urge to learn?”

My first instrument, the very first guitar that I got, was an Antoria. It was a classical guitar. It was made in Czechoslovakia, I think. My elder brother and my Uncle Eric bought it for me for Christmas from John’s Bargain Shop in Scunthorpe, which was a very interesting place. And it was £8, I think, which was a not inconsiderable amount of money in 1963.

A young Martin Simpson with early instruments. Photo from Martin’s own collection.

My parents didn’t want me really to do music. They wanted me to go to university and do things. So my brother and my uncle bought me this guitar. When I was 14, I traded that guitar in and I got a Harmony Sovereign. I actually have Roy Bailey’s Harmony Sovereign up there on the shelf, which he left to us, and I’ve had that fettled. So I have that guitar, which appears in the first photographs of me playing, really. When I was 13, I went to another branch of John’s Bargain Store and found a really good, old Windsor Monarch Supreme banjo. That was actually a great banjo.

In terms of inspiration, I was just driven. I was just absolutely and utterly driven. I don’t think I’ve ever told anybody this in an interview before, but I remember I woke myself up when I was about 13, punching the headboard of the bed and shouting, “I’m the fucking greatest!” which is just a bit alarming [laughs]. I wanted to be really, really good. I wasn’t afraid, but I wasn’t very good to start with at all. You know, I went to the folk club and they were like, [horrified look on his face] “Oh, my God”. My voice was in the middle of breaking and there were certain chords I would avoid because I couldn’t play them. But I wanted to do it.

What did being really, really good mean to you? There must have been something that you were aiming for. Or was it just being better than you were yesterday?

There was definitely just the thing of applying myself to the instrument and attempting to play the things that I couldn’t play – of pushing through.

But you didn’t want to play like other people.

I did to start with. There wasn’t any other choice. So I would sit and play Mississippi John Hurt tunes and whatever I could come up with. I would play and play and play. But I had these targets. There’s a Doc Watson record called Home Again, which has his versions of ‘Geordie’ and ‘Matty Groves’ and things like that. It’s absolutely staggering. A fantastic record. And so I had things like that. And I had the ambition to be able to do all that, but to do it on my own terms, really.

The music that you were trying to play at that point is very American, very blues-oriented. How does the English folk side of it come in?

That was when I started to go to the Scunthorpe Folk Club in the middle 60s. It was absolutely up there in terms of being one of the best clubs you could go to. So I got to see everybody that came and played the folk circuit at that time. I remember watching Finbar Fury wrestling the uilleann pipes. It was like watching Jimi Hendrix. And then The Watersons, who just lived over the river, would come and sing and you’d go, “Oh, my God, what is this? I don’t even know if I like it, but fuck me, it’s wonderful.” Tim Hart and Maddie Prior, Shirley Collins, Martin Carthy, The Halliard with Nic Jones, Dave Burland, Dick Gaughan and all this stuff. That was between 1965 and 1972. What a time to be alive!

We used to do school trips to see Pentangle!

Martin Simpson

There were two teachers at my school, a maths teacher and an English teacher, and they founded the John Leggett Folk Society, whose main purpose was to just kind of make kids aware of the fact that this music was there. We used to do school trips to see Pentangle! It was really wonderful. But I’d already been to see the Lippman-Rau Blues package in 1968 at Manchester Free Trade Hall. Big Joe Williams, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed and T Bone Walker, Big Walter Horton and Curtis Jones all on the same bill. Just mind-fucking stuff. It was all going on at the same time, I think.

Martin Carthy talks about the fact that the folk scene in the 60s was incredibly open. It was and it wasn’t. There were some people who, in hindsight, were just kind of bullies and thugs, saying, “You can’t do this, you can’t do that.” Why would you tell people how to play their music, how to express themselves? There was a degree of pomposity and pretension around that, which was awful. The Singers’ Club? Fuck off! And why would you say you can’t do American music? I joke about the fact that, in a sense, I grew up on an American aircraft carrier; I put it in on the sleeve notes to my record, Smoke And Mirrors, a blues record I made in the States. Americans were like, “Wow, how come you were on an aircraft carrier?” I meant England.

There was just massive input from everywhere you looked. I talk about the period when I was four, five, six years old, you know, and listening to my brother’s rock and roll stuff, and my dad doing Gilbert and Sullivan and my other brother getting massively into blues. It was all going in. Meanwhile, my mother was listening to Paul Robeson and Harry Belafonte, and they were both massive in my life. I certainly wasn’t going to avoid a particular line of music because somebody said it wasn’t appropriate for me.


Traditional folk singer, Rosie Hood, photographed by Elly Lucas

Rosie Hood: “We know that nature has inspired a lot of your writing, but what’s your favourite bird and why? (Mine’s a goldcrest, by the way.)”

Swifts are damn near supernatural.

Martin Simpson

That’s lovely. I don’t think I have a favourite bird because I think it’s kind of like asking what’s your favourite song. I absolutely adore red kites because they represent what we can do if we set our minds to it, in terms of restoration. I also completely love swifts, because swifts are all about the passage of time. Swifts are damn near supernatural. The fact that they only spend May to August here, really, and they fly here from Africa without stopping at all. The only time they stop is when they nest here. The house that we lived in before this was in Meersbrook, and we had swifts nesting in the wall. It was an old stone house and they would return in May. The house was built on the side of a valley and it had a metal deck – it was built by a steelworker and it was substantial. You’d be sitting there and you’d suddenly see, from the opposite side of the valley, these swifts just helling at the house. And they would just go whoosh and disappear in a space between two stones at what appeared to be full speed. So they’d breed and then they’d fly off to Africa.

They sleep at 10,000ft on the wing. They fly around in a circle with half their brain shut off. That’s how they sleep. They don’t land until they breed. So they might fly to Africa, having fledged in England, then fly back and not find a partner, then fly back to Africa. So they would be actually in the air for three years. Now, what can you say about that? That’s just mind-fucking. So maybe my favourite bird is the swift.

Martin as a vocalist

Nancy Kerr

Nancy Kerr: “I imagine plenty of people will ask about instrumental influences, but who were your earliest inspirations for vocals?”

Paul Robeson was one of the people that just completely made me want to sing. And I knew I could never sing like Paul Robeson. But, I mean, I was listening to everything when I was a kid. I got Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs by Marty Robbins. It is basically what the title suggests it’ll sound like, and I loved it. I loved his singing. So stuff like that, storytelling, was really important. And then, obviously, Bob Dylan and all kinds of people who were on the popular side of the folk revival.

One of the most important, and someone who remains one of the most important singers to me, is Hedy West. She could just do such great things with timing… I just loved her to bits. And gospel singers, actually. The Reverend Gary Davis. I mean, you wouldn’t know, but that’s not the point, is it? It’s about hearing somebody and being profoundly moved. Tom Rush massively moved me. Tom Rush and Hedy West. They were big.

Changes in the folk scene

Jim Moray discusses Tam Lin on the Old Songs Podcast

Jim Moray: “What was the folk scene like when you left England for the US, and what had changed when you came back in the early 2000s?”

OK, that’s one of those Mark Twain answers. [Laughs] “When I left home at 16, I thought the old man was really stupid, but I was amazed at how much he’d learned when I came back at 20.”

I was not happy with the folk scene when I left. It was full of “entertainers” [makes inverted commas signs in the air]. Obviously, there was some fantastic stuff going on, but I felt like a big fish in a small pond. I’d done all kinds of things and worked with all kinds of people. I didn’t know what I was going to do next. It was beginning to not work with June anymore, for various reasons, and I’d been in the Albion Band and, you know, and I’d done this and done that, and I’d made my third and fourth solo records for Topic, which I’m really proud of. But then I looked around and I went, “Do I want to just be here doing this?” And I didn’t at that point.

When you say “entertainers”, you’re talking about the point at which folk music and comedy started crossing over?

Yeah, there was a lot of it. I mean, obviously, people like Billy Connolly and Mike Harding were phenomenal, but I remember doing a gig somewhere in Lancashire and being on the same bill as a Lancashire comedian, basically. I really, really cared about what I was doing and I was on the bill with this guy and the audience fucking loved him and couldn’t give a fuck about what I was doing at all. It was the only time in my life I’ve ever thought, “I don’t want to do this.” And then the next night, I played in Middleton, I think, and Bill Leader came to the gig and said, “Barbara Dixon said I should come and see you.” And he watched the gig and he said, “Do you want to make a record?” That was 1975, you know… so coming back in 2000, it just felt different. But I wasn’t reflecting on what was happening on the folk scene, in a sense, because I just felt like I was in a great place.

And I suppose me coming back coincided with the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, and the Folk Awards really kicked the folk scene up the arse in terms of visibility, and I loved that about it. So I came back having made my most traditional record, The Bramble Briar, and that got nominated for awards. It won two awards, Album of the Year and Musician of the Year, I suppose, and it just felt great, and I just felt like I could actually do whatever I wanted again. I hadn’t felt like that for a while.

I suppose that leaves the obvious question: how do you feel about the folk scene at the moment?

Generally speaking, I think it’s actually very healthy. I don’t want to sound old, because I don’t feel old, but there is an accessibility to information… I can’t imagine what it must be like to have access to the teaching and information and all the stuff that people can so freely access now. I can’t get my head around it at all. I’m still completely blown away that I can pick up my phone and go, “I wonder if I can find this”, and there it is. I think people should be aware of how incredibly fortunate they are to have access to this absolute treasure house of information, of assistance. And of course people are still twats, but there are also a very large number of people who really care and really get it and really realise what an essential part of humanity folk music is.

The folk singer as storyteller

Angeline Morrison sits in a Victorian parlour supping tea.

Angeline Morrison: “You’re an amazing storyteller, like a troubadour or a bard. Have you always had this gift, and who or what inspired you as a storyteller?”

I completely love the background to the songs. I completely love where they come from. Completely. It’s about accessing sleeve notes and stuff like that. I would sit and read sleeve notes for days. [Points to two walls packed with books and records] Behind me, there’s all this stuff – I’ve got my very own library. And I get so excited about it all. I just want to share it all!

I’m so excited to be able to present this stuff, which is so full of history and humanity and reality. It’s just great.

Martin Simpson

I’ve been doing this set recently and I’ve suddenly realised that I’ve got all this stuff about trees. It’s so great to be able to link the songs together with a theme like that, and then to be able to talk about how the songs got written, if they’re your songs. I never think of myself as a bard [laughs]. Don’t you ever call me a bard again! [Fake Cockney accent] “You’re bard, mate!” It’s just a part of what I love. Like I said, I’m so excited by the mechanics of what I do, and I’m also so excited to be able to present this stuff, which is so full of history and humanity and reality. It’s just great.

Scottish songs

Folk singer Jackie Oates discusses The Sweet Nightingale song with Jon Wilks

Jackie Oates: “I’d like to know where Martin discovered his versions of ‘Mill o’ Tifty’s Annie’ and ‘Fair Annie’. And also, I’d like to tell him that both were very poignant to me when I first left home and went to university. My fellow folky friend, Esther, and I would spend hours listening to her CD collection. And The Bramble Briar is one of my all-time favourite folk albums.”

That’s lovely and I’m utterly delighted. ‘Mill o’ Tifty’s Annie’ came from Ray Fisher, I would imagine. I hadn’t heard it in years and years, and then I think, actually, I heard it sung by Joan Crump doing a turn as a floor singer in Loughborough, maybe. And I just went, “Oh, Jesus!” Whenever I’ve done Scottish songs I’m always conscious of Dick Gaughan, because Gaughan has always been super important to me as a singer, as a player, as a human being and as a friend. So that would be Ray Fisher, Joan Crump, Dick Gaughan, and that’s the folk thing right there, isn’t it?

‘Fair Annie’, I heard from Peter Bellamy and I recorded it using a set of lyrics that he used. I remember playing that actually, too, at the Beverley Folk Festival. Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson were in the audience. And I remember making Norma cry quite a lot, which made me very happy because that’s what I do for a living, really. Martin came up afterwards and said, “I think you’ll find that there are these rather excellent extra verses to this song,” like he always fucking does after you’ve recorded it [laughs]. So I did actually re-record it with Martin’s extra verses, which were great.

That song is funny because it has just come up again. We recorded a version of ‘Fair Annie’ with Emily Portman singing it for the new Nothing But Green Willow album. What I didn’t realise was that she had already recorded a version of it with Rob Harbron. So there are many coincidences. Hedy West did a version of it called ‘Rosanna’, which is on a record called Matching Ballads, which Topic started to record and never released. It has some absolutely fantastic unknown Hedy West recordings on it.

A love of nature

Katherine Priddy stands in front of a green door with verdant leaves around her. She is staring straight into the camera, wearing a white blouse with her hair hanging around her shoulders.

Katherine Priddy: “I’d love to know what started off your love for birds.”

My dad. He gave me my love of nature, really.

It’s there in ‘Never Any Good’, isn’t it?

It certainly is, yeah. My dad and also my elder brother were always into nature things, so I just grew up in a household which would launch itself out into the countryside at every given opportunity, whether it was because we were going to pick blackberries in the autumn or we were going to go to Yaddlethorpe Brick Ponds just to look at what was there. It’s one of my favourite places; apart from anything else, just for the sound of it. Yaddlethorpe Brick Ponds, near Bottesford [smiles]. So, yeah, we’d go and look at things and my father just had a lifetime of being interested in natural history. Then my brother became a wildlife photographer and painter of wildlife. So it was all there. That’s what it was.

You talk a lot about your dad being nature-obsessed. Was your mum into it as well?

[Laughs loudly] Didn’t give a fuck! There was quite a lot of long-suffering done on my mother’s behalf. For our summer holidays, we used to go and stay with Uncle Eric and Auntie Mavis. Mavis was one of the most fearsome snobs I’ve ever encountered in my life, although not as fearsome as her sister Brita, one of the first violinists in the BBC Symphony Orchestra. She lived in a flat in Regents Park. After Eric and Mavis had died, Brita said to my brother, Jeff, “You used to go and spend your holidays with Mavis every summer, and Mavis hated it!” [Laughs] Great! Thanks so much! We would go down there and I would fill their extremely beautifully presented backyard with tanks full of snakes and lizards and whatever. And she was also the person who, when I was first playing the guitar, said, “So what sort of music are you interested in, Martin?” I said folk music, and she said [with disgust], “Bolshevik nonsense!”

Which, of course, drives the determination further.

Yeah, I’ll have that.

On touring

Mark Radcliffe: “One song I really like is ‘Home Again’ off True Stories. I’ve obviously toured a lot over many decades myself and I’m really a bit averse to it now. I love to play, but not to travel long hours to do so anymore. I think touring is the dream when you’re young, and such an adventure, but whenever I’m away, I’m really looking forward to being home again. Does Martin feel this increasingly?”

Yes and no. I think traveling now is harder than it’s ever been. Flying used to be an adventure and it used to feel sort of special. Now it just feels like you might as well be herded into a truck. It’s so sloppy and unpleasant. And, obviously, crossing borders used to be considerably easier. So, there are practical aspects to traveling that are really hard. But if I go and do a tour in Canada, for instance, I’ll just drive myself. Driving over the Rockies doesn’t get old. It’s amazing. I utterly love the fact that doing that kind of travel brings me in contact with aspects of nature that I wouldn’t otherwise experience. I was driving over one of the Rockies passes in Canada, a really spectacular, ridiculous road, and I realised I was tired. I thought, I just need five minutes to get off this road. And I pulled off the road and there was a raven dismembering a grouse. Oh, my God! On my desk is a little clear plastic string pack with feathers from the grouse’s tail.

There’s a part of me that actually still really cherishes that aspect of being on the road, going to really interesting places. I did a little tour in Holland a few years before lockdown, and this guy in Tiel in Holland booked me to play in his back garden, except it was a bit more than a back garden. It was a really fantastic property, and he’d basically built a venue – his own private venue – at the back. I spent the previous couple of days walking in the countryside around this fantastic lake and looking at storks on their nests and all kinds of amazing things like that. When I got to this guy’s house, I drove my car down and parked it at the back. I walked down the side of his house and the walls were absolutely hammered. The bricks were full of chips and holes and stuff. I said, “Wait a minute. Second World War?” He said, “Yeah, there was a German field gun planted here and the British were attacking on land and by air. A Spitfire strafed the field gun, and so all that is cannon bullets and machine gun bullets from this Spitfire.”

Touring brings you into contact with people and things that you wouldn’t normally see.

Exactly that. So that’s it. Of course I love being at home, but there’s also a part of me that is hardwired to go and play music, to go out and gig, and I get very pre-minstrel (as we call it in our house) before I go. I’m not kind of fit for purpose for a couple of days. I’m just kind of ramping up and then I go away and do what I do and then I come back and after three days – there’s a three-day rule – I get post-minstrel so I have a couple of days of basically adrenaline come down and stuff. But it’s essential for me, really. I have to do it.

Actually, there’s a second part to Mark’s question. He says, “You’re such a gifted player, I’m always surprised by the twists and turns your playing takes. I’m not a gifted player – I get by – but even so, I can surprise myself by playing something randomly, which takes me somewhere new. When Martin picks up a guitar, do his hands still surprise him, almost as if they’re being controlled by someone else?”

Oh, yes, they do. But that’s the thing. They have the ability to surprise me because I give them the opportunity to do that. It’s back to that question of what you do when you first pick up the guitar? Do you play the thing you always play? Mistake. Bad mistake. I am always looking to push the envelope in terms of what I can actually do. And there are things in the last couple of years that I’ve arranged and I’ve thought, “Fuck, will I actually be able to do this on stage?” But then I can. And that’s a great feeling. I mean, that arrangement of ‘Cactus Tree’ I mentioned earlier is actually really demanding because, not only do you have to play it, but you’ve got to sing it as well, and it’s existing on a lot of different levels timings-wise. You just keep on pushing.

Folk troubadour

Miranda Richardson: “The live experience of hearing your music is so important, particularly to be able to communicate current issues and heal through connection. Is there somewhere you haven’t been in the world where you would love to go and be a troubadour?”

Wow. Blimey. That’s completely blown my head off. [Sits silently looking confused for some time] I don’t know how to answer that.

I remember going and playing in Japan and being really aware of the fact that it felt like what I was doing had too much ‘English’ attached to it; too much language, which was hard. I just felt that being me doesn’t necessarily translate into playing in Japan very well.

I don’t believe that what I do is of universal importance. It’s very personal and it’s very intimate, and I know that I make a difference to people in this country by doing what I do, because they tell me. But there are so many places in the world that are just hideously suffering that shouldn’t be, but I don’t know what difference I could make apart from to 270 people in a room for a couple of hours. I just don’t know the answer to that.

Vocal inspirations

George Sansome: ‘Excellent guitar playing aside, I’ve always been drawn to the way you deliver vocals and get songs across. How do you approach your singing?”

“Consciously” is the answer to that. I’m always trying to get better. I’m always trying to just kind of up the level of my technique. I took one Zoom lesson with my friend, Aimee Leonard, who is a fantastic teacher. It was an hour, and then I met with her and I asked her about a couple of things and I listened to what she said and my singing went like that [points upwards]. It was absolutely spectacular. I couldn’t believe it, and so I really think that being conscious of what you’re doing technically… it’s something that you internalise and then you’re not conscious of it, otherwise you probably fuck it up. But it’s there, you’ve done it, you’ve got it in there. I do think my singing improved massively because of doing that.

I wanted to make people cry for a living.

Martin Simpson

Obviously, the guitar and the banjo were right there from pretty much day one. Did you want to be a singer, too?

I started because I wanted to be a singer. I always joke that I want to I wanted to make people cry for a living. I got my guitar and my banjo when I was twelve and 13 and my voice just went to shit… it broke. I was trying to do things, but at that point I wouldn’t let anybody tell me anything about anything. I wasn’t about to have vocal lessons. Now, I do wish that there had been somebody like Amy around when I was 15 or 16 or something.

Obviously, you were known early on in your career for being an accompanist of incredible singers, June Tabor in particular. Was that an inspiration or an intimidation?

Oh, it was absolutely an inspiration. It was huge. I was signed in 1976 by Tony Secunda, who was going to make me into a rock and roll star. So I went on the road with Steeleye Span at the end of that year and did all the big halls – two nights at the Hammersmith Odeon and all that. The next year, June Tabor was going to do a tour. Previously, Nic Jones had played guitar on her records, or Martin Carthy, mostly Jonesy, and he didn’t want to do the tour, and Carthy couldn’t do the tour. So they asked me if I wanted to tour with June Tabor. So I went to Tony Secunda and said, “I’m going to go and do this tour with June Tabor.” And his response was, “You’re not fucking playing guitar for some chick singer.” I just went, “You know what? This is bollocks, I’m not having this.” So I went and did the tour and me and Tony fell out big time. But it was one of the best things I ever did because the discipline involved in accompanying somebody as unschooled as June, as inspired by traditional music… You just have to listen to ‘Flash Company’, for instance, and look at the way that she moves time around, because you have to make the words fit and you have to be there. So it was just a fantastic learning curve and I am so grateful for that. And of course, now I will sing songs happily that June used to sing. I’m not saying I’m as good a singer as June is, because I’m not. I’m a different singer anyway and always will be, but I’m not really frightened of taking on anything now in terms of singing.

If you listen to Roy Bailey sing, you’re listening to somebody with the most effortless, brilliant technique. And he never had to practise or anything – he just opened his mouth. I got to do that Thank Goodness It’s Folk radio programme recently. It was such fun to do and one of the tracks that I picked was Roy singing ‘Stand Up For Judas’. And it’s just fucking mental how good it is. When I used to hear things like that, I’d go, “No way am I going near that.” I don’t feel like that at all anymore. I just feel like I can actually make a fist, as they say, of singing anything, really.

Planning a setlist

Owen Shiers sings Lliw'r Ceiroes with his band.

Owen Shires [Cynefin]: “Do you have any tips for holding an audience for an hour and a half with just a guitar and your voice? How do you plan that journey?”

Enthusiasm is one of the major tools that you can possibly have, and I think it’s really important to enthuse your audience. One of the things that I always try and do is that kind of instant engagement. I just try and go out there and go, “Hey, listen to this!” That thing of really intimately attracting them, and you get them within a few notes, really. And then you just keep it up with that whole combination of storytelling and musicality and comfort. I really think that being comfortable on stage, showing the audience that you’re comfortable, helps them to relax.

I think one of the things that I’ve learned from watching you has to do with how you open your shows. You come on, you don’t really say anything, and then you tend to play something haunting on the slide guitar. A lot of people go out and hit the crowd with something up-tempo, but what you’re doing… it’s really inviting them in, isn’t it?

Yeah. Well, I am very aware that I could do more kind of crowd-pleasing material if I chose to do that. I mean, when I play ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and ‘Buckets Of Rain’, people go mental, and I’m happy to do that a couple of times, but I’m not going to do it that much because it’s not what really pleases me the most.

You always refer to ‘Never Any Good’ as your “hit”.


Do you get bored of it?

No, not at all.

But it doesn’t go into every set, does it? I’ve seen shows in the last couple of years where you haven’t played it.

No, sometimes it doesn’t make the list. Recently, I’ve been doing it in the second set of every show, though, because it feels important, actually.

Do you write setlists?

No, I try to keep them in my head. I just radically changed my setlist, actually, because I had these three gigs last weekend and I just went, “You know what? I’ve been doing pretty much the same set for about a year, and I want to change it now.” So, yeah, I’ve been lobbing it about a bit.

And how do you select songs from such a vast repertoire? Do you go back to your recordings?

I try not to. When Norma Waterson died, there was a lot of paying tribute to her. At Sidmouth Folk Festival there was a Norma gig, and I played ‘Leaves of Life’ with the slide. And I did it because I’ve always loved that song. I’ve always loved its tune. I loved the lyrics. I love everything about it. And it came from hearing Norma sing it on Frost and Fire. I did it at Sidmouth and it was all right, but then I just wanted to keep doing it. I made a record called Leaves of Life, an instrumental record when I lived in the States, and then I recorded it on The Bramble Briar. And it’s going to go on this next record, a live version of it played with the slide and sung along with the slide, because it’s good and it means a lot to me.

Guitar inspirations

Ben Walker discusses On Humber Bank with Jon Wilks

Ben Walker: “Over the years, many young guitarists, including myself back in the day, found your music and it made them aspire to great things. What was it and who was it that made you sit up and think, ‘I want to do that’?”

I’ve already mentioned that Doc Watson record, but then it was an absolute smorgasbord. Over there is Bert Jansch and John Renbourn and Davy Graham. I mean, when I was a kid, those records were coming out as I was starting to play the guitar, so I was aware of all that.

And you were listening to those musicians?

Yeah. When it comes to Bert Jansch, the only record of his that actually seriously nailed me was Jack Orion, because I loved the fact that he was working with traditional tunes. I thought it was fucking amazing. I loved it. And I still think that’s a great record – maybe his best record, which I think would be very contentious.

So there was all that. But I was trying not to be influenced by anybody, as I’ve already said. So it was more like the whole of the scene; that thing of using the guitar as a vehicle for accompanying songs. That was what did it for me. I didn’t set out to be, you know, a solo guitar player that just sat there and played. It was a vehicle for accompanying songs, but a vehicle that became completely immersive. So I was picking up stuff. I mean, you can still hear it in my gigs now: Doc Watson and Blind Willie Johnson and Dick Gaughan and all kinds of stuff, but it was the wider thing rather than one individual. And Martin Carthy has been massively important to me, but I don’t sound like Carthy. Not in the slightest, and I never will. I would run in the opposite direction. I utterly refused to play ‘Angie’ when I was a kid. Fuck that! [Laughs]

Have you ever played it?

I have now, yeah. Actually, I played it with Graham Coxon at one of those Bert Jansch things. But way back then, I was actually very bolshy, you know, when it came to what I did and how I did it.

But it has worked for you.

Seems to have, so far.

Latest projects

I’ve seen you playing a growing set of unrecorded songs over the last year or two that, I reckon, are some of the best arrangements I’ve heard from you in ages. ‘Cherry Tree Carol’ and ‘Alan Tyne of Harrow’ have particularly struck me. So my question is, after all these years, how do you avoid repeating yourself? Or do you not care if you do or you don’t, because blues-based music is naturally going to repeat itself?

Yeah, it is, but then you have a choice. Like I said about working out the arrangement to ‘Boots Of Spanish Leather’, that was a complete rejection of cliche. I was absolutely radical about that. And that’s part of the thing of being conscious of cliche and, you know, stylistic repetition. I just think it’s commonsensical.

Playing with The Magpie Arc, there’s a song called ‘Don’t Leave The Door Open’, which is a really rocking song, and on the recording of it, I played a very banjoid kind of electric guitar part. It’s in Gsus4, and then we played it live and I was playing around with the guitar part and I suddenly realised that that banjo fill from ‘The Cuckoo Bird’, Hobart Smith’s banjo fill, fitted absolutely perfectly in the spaces. I thought, “Well, fuck it. I’m having it. Nobody knows but me.” I think there are motifs and things which are perfectly fine to reuse if they’re good ones.

With ‘Alan Tyne of Harrow’, there’s a lot of invention that has gone into my way of playing it, even though I’m basically just playing the tune. Andy Cutting sat and went [jaw drops open], and Andy doesn’t faze easily at all. I’m really proud of that arrangement. It has a linear flow which is really gratifying and it’s very Simpsonian, I think you could say [laughs].

These last few years must feel like the busiest you’ve ever been. You seem to be doing so much at the moment.

Well, I am touring two records, yeah, and there’s the Magpie Arc, of course, which kind of has a life of its own now, which is really exciting. It has afforded me the opportunity to actually come to terms with plug-in beasts, and I’m really enjoying it a lot. So that will continue and we’ll see what happens next. I think we might actually make a record of more traditional material. That’d be an interesting thing to do at this point.

How often are you playing with The Magpie Arc?

Well, it had to be a rehearsing band for a long time because we couldn’t do anything else. This summer, we’ve got some warm-up gigs and then we’ve got some big festivals. We will enjoy it and that’s the main thing about it.

And you’ve got a solo album and a kind of multi-musician album coming out, too?

Yeah, I was going to make a solo album called Sky Dancers, and then the idea of making a record with Thom Jutz came up, the idea being that we would each pick five singers in addition to ourselves singing, and assign them songs from this little book here [pulls out a vast old tome], English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians by Cecil Sharp. This makes me laugh immensely. My mother-in-law gave me this. It came from the Sheffield City Polytechnic Library, withdrawn in 1974. Then it was Given to Help the Aged, where Val bought it for £5. When I talked to Fay Hield, she looked this up online and found a copy and it was £300! So it really didn’t help the aged all that much.

Anyway, Tom and I talked about how we would do it. We agreed that what we would do is just use two guitars as the main tools of accompaniment. It was highly risky. We could have sat down at the first session and found that we didn’t compliment each other. There were no rehearsals.

So you went off to the States to do the first set of sessions

I did Richard Thompson’s Guitar Camp in Big Indian, New York, which was great fun. Then I flew down to Nashville and Tom picked me up at the airport, took me to the hotel, dropped me off for 20 minutes, and then I got in his car and we went to his house. We sat down with two guitars and he played me ‘The Gipsy Laddie’, and it was immediately apparent that, because we play so very differently, we just had to listen to each other and it was like weaving. It was such a joy to do.

So we got the singers in and it was fantastic to sit down with, you know, Odessa Settles. “What key do you think you want?” “I dunno.” “Try this.” “Yeah, that’s the one.” “OK, away you go, dear.” And we sat and listened, listened, listened, listened and listened to her and to each other, and then we nailed that. The first take is on the record.

I think you told me that none of the songs on this record took longer than two hours to complete. Is that from first sitting down with the singer right through to the finished thing?


That’s incredible

Yeah, pretty good [laughs]. And so we did our work over there and then came back to England, went down to Frome and recorded Cara Dillon and Seth Lakeman, then to Sheffield where we did Emily Portman, Fay Hield and Angeline Morrison, and I mean… just look at those three! They’re so different and they’re all so good. It’s a great collection of material and I’m so pleased with the way the joint playing came out.

When’s that reaching an audience?

The music business got in the way for various reasons, and so it kept getting put back and put back. It’s been put back again now to the end of September. It’ll be great when it comes out and it’s going to be a fantastic production, I think, because it has the most sleeve notes that I’ve ever been involved with, which is saying something, because I like a sleeve note. This guy, Professor Ted Olson, has written an incredibly erudite set of notes.

And then there’s the solo album that you’ve been working on in the background.

I’ve just had five days, two weeks ago, in the studio with Andy Cutting and Liz Hanks, Louis Campbell and Ben Nichols. Those musicians are so great and they played so well. Before I made Rooted, I wrote down who I wanted to be involved with that, and one of the people that I wrote down was Greg Leisz. He’s on this new album, and I just got his pedal steel tracks and I’m so excited. My plan was to actually put out a two-CD set of live and studio sessions, so that’s going ahead. But what I’ve realised is I could use some of my live recordings instead of going in and re-singing stuff that I’ve done live, because they’re really good performances and it’s just all about performance.

So reaching the age of 70 doesn’t seem to be slowing you down. Does that number mean anything at all?

Yeah, it’s nice. It means I get to do nice things like this, and the radio show, and have a nice party, all of which is huge fun.

Do you still feel like you’re making stuff that is up there with your best?

Definitely, I do. I just love it, basically. As long as I love it, I don’t see any reason why I should not cease to climb [points upwards]. It’s not going to be like that [points downwards].

Nothing But Green Willow, the new album by Martin Simpson and Thomm Jutz, is out in September and will be available from Topic Records. For more info on Martin’s new solo album, keep an eye on martinsimpson.com. Huge thanks to Kit Bailey for her help in bringing this article together.