Making the Steel Strings Sing
When asked about the high-tech tricks he used to nail the sound on his new live concert CD, Martin Simpson justs laughs and suggests we talk instead about divine intervention.
"I went out on a 25-date tour intending to record every show under the best possible circumstances for a good live CD: DAT machine, tube mic preamps, the works. Then, after listening to what seemed like a thousand hours of tape, I just didnt like any of it. So on the next tour Im in Oxford and Tim Healey, the guy promoting the show said, Do you mind if I record it? And I said, No, of course not. So he put a metal cassette in a boombox, I sang into an SM-58 and plugged direct through a Highlander pickup. Later he sent it to me first as a cassette and then as a one-off CD and hounded me to listen to it, saying, This is really good. I want to put this out. And I thought, Oh God, but eventually I listened and thought it was a good gig, an amazingly good recording, good ambience, and why not?" He shrugs. "And what tickles me most is how itll slay the techies!"
Martin Simpson Live was released in Britain on the tiny Beautiful Jo label, then released in the U.S. in February by an enthusiastic Red House Records. Its a good thing Red House is enthusiastic about Martin, because his artistic output is prodigious. Last year he and his wife and collaborator Jessica Ruby Simpson put out a CD with their Band of Angels (with another planned soon) and Martin is already working to complete his next studio production featuring, among others, David Lindley and members of the Malagasy band Tarika Sammy. And in his spare time lately hes recorded and performed with Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man, David Hidalgo, Bob Brozman, and Indian guitar master Debashish Battacharya, and taped a series of Homespun teaching videos, just for starters.
Martin Simpson Live provides a terrific glimpse of how this transplanted Brit, now living in Santa Cruz, California, focuses into his music so intently while allowing melody and rhythm to explode in new and unexpected directions. On his vocal pieces, like his own haunting "Dreamtime," his passion is always barely contained. In his solo instrumentals he paints with a very broad emotional pallette.
Playing his Sobell Style One guitar, Martin chose a Gsus4 tuning (DCGDGD) to explore the nuances of the medley "Donal Og/My Generous Lover/The Coo-Coo Bird/Santa Cruz." The tuning allows him to play the first tune in dark minor, moving through mixolydian colorations, and finally snapping into his original composition "Santa Cruz" with a distinctly major feel.
"Like David Lindley and Ry Cooder, Im a banjo maniac. I think that makes a huge difference to my approach to the guitar. By the time I was 13 I was out of standard tuning. If you take the third out of the tuning and replace it with a fourth or a second, its major or minor when you want it to be. And Ive been getting really wacky, taking this idea further and further, cause the whole way of thinking is youve got roots and fifths and... something else. So Ive been playing in Klingon tuning: DADGAC, a suspended fourth with a flat 7 on the topinstant mixolydianphenomenal for playing minor stuff because you go to the 5 and its a 5 minor chord. Nothing like a minor 5 to ruin ones day... instant doom."
But on the four-tune medley on Live, whats most striking is the way Martin stretches time to emphasize the meaning of lyrics that arent even there.
"I think thats exactly what the best musician does." he insists. "My absolutely favorite musician that Ive heard in years is Djivan Gasparyan, the Armenian duduk (flute) player. He can have tears rolling down my face in fifteen seconds. And what the guys doing is giving voice to the depth of human feeling without words. So playing "Donal Og" to evoke Irish syntax, I remember the sound of wordless Armenian or Blind Willie Johnson playing in... Ebonics [laughs]. Theres no doubt that what these people are doing is non-verbal verbal communication. Thats it for me. Thats what I want."