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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.

Finger-picking good: the English folk musician Martin Simpson in 2013
Finger-picking good: the English folk musician Martin Simpson in 2013. Photo: Elly Lucas.

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