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 didn’t like any of it. So on the next tour I’m 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 it’ll 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. It’s 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 he’s 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, I’m 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, it’s major or minor when you want it to be. And I’ve been getting really wacky, taking this idea further and further, cause the whole way of thinking is you’ve got roots and fifths and… something else. So I’ve been playing in ‘Klingon’ tuning: DADGAC, a suspended fourth with a flat 7 on the top—instant mixolydian—phenomenal for playing minor stuff because you go to the 5 and it’s a 5 minor chord. Nothing like a minor 5 to ruin one’s day… instant doom.”
But on the four-tune medley on Live, what’s most striking is the way Martin stretches time to emphasize the meaning of lyrics that aren’t even there.
“I think that’s exactly what the best musician does.” he insists. “My absolutely favorite musician that I’ve 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 guy’s 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]. There’s no doubt that what these people are doing is non-verbal verbal communication. That’s it for me. That’s what I want.”
When asked about the spare linearity of many of his melodic passages, talk turns to Count Basie, who played fewer and fewer notes as he got older, finally being almost Zen in his restraint.
“I am so utterly not into lots of notes. You have to play some of that, of course, but even “Driving Wheel” is, in a sense, linear melodic—just lots of linear melodic. Of course, if you can find one note that does it, man, play it! Revel in it. Get the old hair standing on end.”
And Martin never tires of searching for new ways to stand one’s hair up with the guitar. “I’ve started to play a lot behind the slide. When you put the slide at the 7th fret harmonic node and play down toward the bridge, you have this enormous long string length but if you play up toward the nut, what you get is very high, perfect harmonics. Then, say, if you move the slide from the 7th to the 10th fret, you get descending high harmonics. The Highlander picks up these harmonics so well! And people jump when they hear it and say, ‘What?… Keyboards?… Where?’ But it’s just harmonics. It kills you when you get it right.”
When asked about the first Band of Angels Red House CD, Martin launches into an eloquent and loving paean to Jessica, who writes most of the songs and who isn’t shy about going to the mat for a good idea. “She has enormous input into what I do as a guitar player and arranger with the band. I think the songwriting is really good. And it’s hugely inspiring.”
The current Band of Angels is a new lineup. Lisa Eckstrom, Jessica, and Martin are the holdovers, adding Rick Walker on percussion and Doug Robinson on bass guitar, with Irish singer/keyboardist Mary McLaughlin coming over from England to join the Band for their summer tour.
“I’ve developed a soloist’s sense of time over the years in addition to having worked with a lot of singers like June Tabor and Jessica whose sense of time, like mine, is extremely flexible,” he says, crediting Doug with a psychic ability to follow his leads.
“I’m starting lines halfway through and finishing three-quarters through the next one. I mean, really tearing it apart. Doug can lock with the guitar and not get thrown by my vocal phrasing. Plus if you listen to the way I play “Forgotten the Blues,” the downbeats are never where you think. But he’s always there.”
So what’s next? “On the album I’m working on now for Red House, I’m exploring the idea of African music colliding with European music. I’ve been playing a lot of fretless instruments: banjos and a 6-string Turkish cumbus with a custom 28-inch scale neck. It’s like a minstrel banjo, an extraordinarily expressive instrument with plenty of sustain for playing blues.
I recorded “Catfish Blues” on the cumbus with David Lindley playing slide, but I played it as a slow air, actually ‘singing’ it with the cumbus and getting Lindley to respond. I also recorded tracks with members of Tarika Sammy playing Malagasy box zither, valiha, bass, and percussion. What they’re doing is so inspiring, it just stands you on your head.”
As certain as he is about his abilities, Simpson has a way of continually acknowledging those who tweak his creativity. He’s ecstatic about working with the likes of David Lindley. “What an absolute treat!” he hoots. “And each experience kicks me a little further. Like Jessica’s writing kicks me. I’ve never been more excited about what I’m doing. Because I want to be able to touch people—to tear them up and put them back together.”
GEAR BOX SIDEBAR
Martin Simpson swears by his Sobell Style One guitar, though he’s made room in his life for others. “I used to be guitaristically monogamous,” he smiles. “I tried to make the one Sobell work for everything. But now I play a lot of different guitars. Still, if it comes down to only one, it’s the Sobell.” On tour he carries two or three, often alternating between the Sobell Style One, built by English maker Stefan Sobell, and what he calls a Sobell “Martin Simpson Bourgeois Model” prototype, a 12-fret large body cutaway, with a feel and bass response not unlike that of a Gibson J-45 and with huge, wide string spacing under the right hand.
Martin favors D’Addario medium strings but switches out the top E for a .015. “I have the E string tuned down to D all the time, and I take it down to C quite a lot. I want to be able to hit it hard and know it’s not going to crap out. A .013 will sound terrible, and who can blame the poor thing? A .015 tuned down to C behaves like a .013 tuned to E. It has a huge amount of tone. And when I’m in D, even without high action, it supports the slide right across the strings.”
For amplification, Martin uses Highlander under-the-saddle coaxial transducers in all his guitars, running them through a Fishman blender. He’s also experimenting with adding a strip contact mic on or around the bridge plate. Then when playing solo he just points an SM-57 at the junction of the neck and body or just below the sound hole and mixes it in with the Highlander. With or without the help of the SM-57, the Highlander picks up Martin’s signature aggressive picking and back snaps beautifully.