Finger-picking good: the English folk musician Martin Simpson in 2013. Photo: Elly Lucas.
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Martin Simpson: “Folk music is like an Olympic sport”

The singer and guitarist Martin Simpson on the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, Pete Seeger's politics and why Mumford & Sons "bemuse" him.

Let’s get Mumford & Sons out of the way, shall we? I’m chatting with Martin Simpson in advance of the 15th annual BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, which will be held for the first time at the Royal Albert Hall in London – the event’s largest-ever venue – on 19 February. Simpson, who turned 60 last year, is one of the stars of British music. He has been nominated almost 30 times since the awards were launched in 2000, more than any other performer, and for nine consecutive years he was a nominee for Musician of the Year (a prize he has won twice already and is now up for again).

Simpson has earned his stripes. Born and raised in Scunthorpe, he got his first guitar when he was 12 and had turned professional by the age of 17. His repertoire spans traditional ballads (such as “Sir Patrick Spens”), political broadsides and original compositions (including “Never Any Good”, a moving portrait of his wayward father), all accompanied by his fluid guitar finger-picking. He is now a lynchpin of what is being called the biggest folk revival since the 1960s: with the Folk Awards not only taking over the Royal Albert Hall but selling out, too, and with the Coen brothers’ folk scene homage Inside Llewyn Davis a critical hit, the genre is, Simpson says, “doing better than it ever has. It’s not just about music charting – there’s a lot of attention being paid. People are taking it very seriously and there’s a lot more reference to it in the media, without it getting silly.”

Yet it is an irony that some of the music that has brought the genre back into the limelight doesn’t make the cut for Simpson. Discussing the thriving scene, I say, “Think of Mumford & Sons …” and he laughs, a little ruefully, interjecting: “I try not to!”

“I don’t think that writing bad, semi-hysterical love songs and having a banjo qualifies you to be included in folk music,” he tells me. “It’s not ‘folk music’ whatsoever. In a sense, one of the strangest phenomenons in the success of folk music in the wider sense is the incredible success and acceptance of the Mumfords. Seeing Marcus Mumford playing with Paul Simon and Bob Dylan … You know? It just bemuses me. But I think that they are the commercial spike of it. Peter, Paul and Mary were the commercial spike in the Sixties. That’s what happens when a genre does this thing, rises to the surface. People jump on it and try to exploit it. That’s not necessarily the best thing that can happen to any kind of music.”

If there was a polar opposite to that “commercial spike”, it was Pete Seeger, who died on 27 January at the age of 94. It was a great loss. Simpson says that he was “massively affected” by Seeger’s work. It isn’t just his musicianship that he admires: “Pete Seeger fought against all the things that needed to be fought against. He fought for conservation, for clean water, long before those things were fashionable. He fought against big business. He retired from [his group] the Weavers after they did a cigarette ad. He fought against racism, against greed. And music should be political … That’s not at all in vogue on the folk scene right now and I think that’s very disappointing. Folk music isn’t cosy and friendly – it’s very powerful. And that power is there on the scene” – here he mentions artists such as Dick Gaughan, Billy Bragg, Grace Petrie and his father-in-law, Roy Bailey – “but it isn’t sufficiently recognised and celebrated.”

Mumford & Sons, with their polished, stadium-filling, apolitical music, seems to have become a trope for what folk shouldn’t be. Mark Radcliffe took over the BBC Radio 2 Folk Show from Mike Harding, its presenter of 15 years, just before last year’s awards. It was a controversial move. Radcliffe says that he was aware when he started that: “People were worried, because I was very much associated with pop music, it would become all Mumford & Sons – but we are all very genuinely committed to the music of these islands.”

That an artist such as the US singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega – whose latest album, Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles, is her first studio recording in seven years – will be performing at the Folk Awards shows that the scene is a broad church.

Simpson is wary of having a stern definition of folk. He spent 15 years in the US and it has affected his music. “I’ve been asked many times, why do I try to play American music? How do I think I can get away with American music? So I say to people that when I was growing up, American music was all there was. That’s what I heard, after I heard Gilbert and Sullivan – I listened to blues, to rock’n’roll, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis – how could I not be influenced by that? Yes, I was also listening to Scottish music, Irish music, English music and jazz … [Folk music] is not about purity, it’s not about being ‘English’ – I detest nationalism. It’s just being part of this living, growing scene.”

One of the things that distinguishes folk music as a genre is the quality of the vocals, Radcliffe says, and he notes that quality is very much on show in the awards’ Folk Singer of the Year category. This year, four women are up for the prize: Bella Hardy, Fay Hield, Lisa Knapp and Lucy Ward. And it’s a category, Radcliffe argues, that refutes the charge that, by honouring artists such as Simpson again and again, the awards don’t reward new talent (fans and musicians have complained in the past that they are a “closed shop” run by a “folk mafia”).

Simpson has done so well this year that he’s up against himself: his latest release, Vagrant Stanzas, is nominated for Best Album – and so is The Full English, the result of an initiative that began, thanks to a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, as an attempt to create the largest searchable digital archive of 20th-century folk manuscripts. The project spawned a tour and then an album that gathered many of the stars of the genre – Simpson, Seth Lakeman, Fay Hield and Nancy Kerr among them.

“I think it’s hilarious,” he says of having to compete with himself, adding that he hasn’t got “a cat in hell’s chance” of winning, given the competition. Simpson is full of admiration not only for the archive project but for a musical landscape that’s stronger, in his view, than at any time in living memory. “It’s like the snowball rolling down a hill. For years, the interest in this music has been growing. The access to the material gets ever easier and it’s a bit like Olympic sports – records get broken; you think it can’t get better but the more it gets done, the faster, the better people get.”

The BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2014 will be broadcast live at 8pm on 19 February

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser