Name: Mara Simpson
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Current release: Mara Simpson's new album In This Place is out September 24th via Downfield.
If you enjoyed this interview with Mara Simpson and would like to find out more about her work, visit her on Facebook, Instagram, Soundcloud, and twitter.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
I write music as a way of making sense of the world around me, in the hope that it may assist others in also doing so. When I listen to a great piece of music, situations and emotions that perhaps I couldn’t fully understand, can suddenly make sense. Whether that realisation brings joy or sadness, makes me dance or be still, it always seems to bring some form of comfort. So I guess that’s where my impulse to create comes from - in wanting to understand things, and in wanting to give to others what music gives to me.
I don’t know if you’ve ever gone through one of those times when everyone either seems to be dying or being born?! Well "Traquair" was written after one of those periods of big shifts, of saying goodbyes and hellos and trying to take comfort in the ongoing ancestral stories we each have a chapter in.
Traquair itself is a tiny place in the Scottish borders where I’d gone camping, a lot of our family come from Scotland and it felt as if the hills were uttering the words in this song.
Other songs on the album deal with more ecological and political issues such as "Fault Lines".
This song calls out our tendency as humans in wanting to claim ownership on a planet that is not ours to own. The underlying message, and theme across the whole album whether I’m singing about parenthood or earthquakes, is to promote guardianship as opposed to ownership.
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
When I’m writing a song I tend to write the music and the lyrics at the same time, almost meshing them with one another. When the music runs ahead of the lyrics I find it hard to bring them back together which can be frustrating. It’s definitely an entwined process for me.
Often lyrics don’t enter the picture at all and I love writing instrumental music or letting field recordings I’ve captured do the ‘talking’.
"The Glen" is all field recordings, beginning with the sound of being by a brook with some chimes that were blowing in the wind nearby, then I pull that dream-like environment into the sound of a crowd waiting on the pavement outside a gig and the plugging in of an electric guitar ...
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
Sometimes it’s only when a song is finished that I understand what it was trying to tell me. So no, I have no strict control, there is definitely a sense of following where the music leads!
There was one instance when I’d just served on a jury. Those 2 weeks being part of a jury had brought back a previous experience, when I’d actually been supporting someone who was on trial. I sat down at the piano, compelled to write about it but instead "Reason" came out.
It was as if I was being gently blocked from that experience, for the time being, that right now it would do no good and instead I needed to take control and move on.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
I co-produced this album with Ellie Mason and took an active role in arrangements and engineering - elements that for me are intrinsic to the songs themselves.
When it comes to mixing, although I love doing mixes, I wanted someone other than myself or Ellie to take on this role and hear the album with a fresh perspective so we took it to Tobin Jones at The Park Studios in Wembley. I’ve worked with Tobin on several projects and love the way he mixes. His approach is narrative based as opposed to referencing other people’s tracks - he wants to understand the core meaning and intention of the song, he reads the lyrics carefully and welcomes participation in the studio. I always sit in on every session and play an active role in designing the mix - experimenting with tape delays, re-amping bits and pieces … it’s always a lot of fun!
For this album, I had labelled each song as either being ‘in the living room’ or ‘in the universe’ and wanted the album to navigate between those spaces- the intimate acoustic moments and more experimental ‘out of body’ soundscapes.
Each track also had a ‘sister track’ when we were mixing, which shared similar narrative themes or mic placements. This song was an ‘in the universe’ track which we had a lot of fun on ...