Edinburgh Festival magazine praised Simon Kempston thus:
“Brilliant and quite unique guitar skills, Dundee has undoubtedly produced one of Scotland’s most poetic and expressive musicians”
Simon’s December appearances at Bonn Folk Club have become a much-loved Christmas tradition for folk music fans in the City for some years now. How did the mercurial Scot come to be such a popular visitor? and how did a man who has played concerts in 35 different countries come to describe our City as having ‘The best folk club outside of Edinburgh’? All this and more was answered when the current enforced break from touring through Covid19 restrictions meant Simon was in one place for long enough to answer my questions.
I hear there will be a new CD available this year? You made a deal with John Harrison at Folk Club Bonn some years ago now to come back every year with a new CD to sell. Did you really think that deal would be continuing after so many years?
I think as the years go on it will become much harder – these are very challenging circumstances for an independent musician to be working in with the spectre of streaming and more specifically, Spotify looming large over us all. But what I can say is that on a personal level, I live to make music and write songs, and I will endeavour to do my very best to meet this substantial challenge.
You even kindly referred to Bonn as having “The best Folk Club outside of Scotland”. What for you makes Bonn such a special venue?
The organisation, the organisers, the venue, the audience, the atmosphere – I first arrived at the Bonn Folk Club in the autumn of 2011, very much a fledgeling professional musician and if truth be told, uncertain about my future within the industry. Upon reflection, that first magical night in Graurheindorf was one of the main reasons I remained true to my path of being a professional songwriter and musician, and the relationships and friendships formed on that incredible evening have helped to steer me on my course ever since. It has, and always shall be for me, a very special venue due to the part it played in laying the foundations for my life as a musician.
Bonn has a lot of competition when it comes to booking you for concert dates. Wikipedia says you have played ’35 Countries and counting’. Has that figure been added to?
That’s up to date, I think it’s still 35, I did manage to play a new country this year – Luxembourg in February. Plans were afoot to tour South Africa, but like everything else this year, they were shelved.
Why all the travelling around Countries? Particularly the ones more ‘Off the beaten track’? Uzbekistan? Tashkent?
I believe it’s only by encountering the extraordinary that the creative mind can be truly inspired. I can’t really describe in brief how places like Uzbekistan have inspired me, in some ways it is merely enough just to state that they have, more than I can tangibly relate back to others – but to give an example, when I first gazed upon the Registan in Samarkand I openly wept at the overwhelming beauty of it. Such moments stay with you and always find their way back into both the music and the songs.
The risk element also serves to inspire, it’s exciting and challenging to travel to places beyond where most singer-songwriters and musicians would travel – to learn of the economic, social and political issues that people from across the world are grappling with stimulates the creative mind and imagination.
Picking the guitar at sunset in the gorgeous environs of Russell Bay (North Island, New Zealand) takes the creative and musical mind somewhere entirely different than picking it up at home in Edinburgh.
If you had to name a particular favourite Country then where?
I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, every country I’ve travelled to has left a marked impression on me. To be able to travel and see the world is an amazing privilege, a wonderful part of the job.
Is there a Country you haven’t yet visited but want to?
There are many. Perhaps top of my current list is Argentina, and if anyone reading this has any connections (musical or otherwise) to this incredible country then please do not hesitate to contact me. I have long been fascinated by Argentinian culture and the people, as well as an obscure fascination with their sporting culture too, so this is a country I would love to tour, once safely permitted to do so.
But, being perfectly frank, I’d love to tour any part of South America, and hope I don’t have to wait too long before the opportunity arises.
Talk of travelling the World is, of course, surreal at present with the Corona Pandemic. Back on Wikipedia, they quote you as doing some 160+ concerts in 2018. How many have there been so far in 2020?
I had planned a slow start to 2020, so managed 13 concerts before the pandemic struck. I’ve only managed 10 since – it was frustrating that at the time Germany and mainland Europe opened up, I had nothing booked there, but had plenty booked for when it locked down again. But I’m thankful to have had those 10 concerts and to have felt, even briefly, the rush of live performance , as I know plenty of my peers and contemporaries haven’t. So a meagre 23 concerts in total, here’s hoping 2021 shall be more productive in that regard
Tell me your experiences as a musician at the current time.
It is a very frustrating and deeply unsettling time to be a musician. I think a lot of us feel abandoned by government and the political system, and I fear that a lot of talented individuals will be lost to the industry forever. Moreover, whenever touring can resume safely, musicians from this side of the channel who work extensively in Europe, as I do, will have the added issue of Brexit to contend with. There is no escaping the fact that Covid, Brexit and Spotify have created very challenging circumstances now for an independent musician.
That said, when lockdown struck Scotland, I decided to channel the unexpected gift of newfound spare time into long, concentrated periods of songwriting, something that was never an option before because of the incessant touring schedule. In any given situation, you have to make the best of it, and in this sense I did find that it was an immensely productive time, the songs and music were flowing. Being able to write songs, write music for 9 -10 hours a day for weeks at a time, was in itself a beautiful and rewarding process which did in part compensate for the huge loss of all my concerts.
Many musicians have filled the live concert void with online livestreams. Two of my favourites are Ian Siegal and Joanne MacGregor. Your own approach though has been low-key with a few pre-recorded numbers under the name ‘Fireplace Sessions’. Why no regular Simon Kempston Livestreams with a Paypal address for donations?
For a long time, I remained hopeful that live performance would materialize. To be perfectly honest, live performance for me is the cornerstone of being a professional musician, and I just didn’t feel live streaming represented any type of a substitute for that. As I mentioned before, I had a lot to be doing on the compositional and writing front too, so I was focussing my energies there.
That said, I launched my new album ‘Hand On My Heart’ with an online live stream, and I really enjoyed it, actually surprising myself in the process. I will endeavour to do another before I tour again.
Can we dig a little into your musical past? Tell me about your musical development as you grew up in Scotland. Are you from a musical family? Why did you become a musician?
I studied piano and classical guitar from seven years of age, and even dabbled with the chanter, a precursor to the bagpipes, for a while, until informed by my parents to stick to the other, quieter instruments! It was with the classical guitar that I both fell in love and excelled. At the same time as I started studying classical guitar, I was listening to a cassette tape of the Dire Straits album ‘Brothers in Arms’ in my father’s car and was instantly hooked – I loved it so much, I borrowed it from him that very day. On each subsequent day he would ask me if he could have his tape back, until one day after a few weeks, he told me to keep it as seeing how obsessed I was with it, he’d bought another copy for himself. So the two journeys began in parallel really, collecting music and learning how to play music, and I never looked back on either front since.
Who were/are your influences? One I know Is Bert Jansch.
There are far too many influences to directly reference here, far far too many. As a musician, you are always listening to new music (and by that term I mean music that I’ve never heard before rather than music released this month). I’m an avid collector of albums when finances allow, and you subconsciously absorb everything you hear and admire and then weave your own distinctive slant on it when you write. A lot of early influences definitely came from my father’s album collection in his car – Springsteen, Knopfler, Roxy Music, Chris Rea, but meeting a fellow music obsessive at school who introduced me to David Bowie was a real gamechanger – I heard his music and I was instantly transfixed and transported into a completely different world.
The titans of acoustic music came later – John Martyn, Richard Thompson and of course, Bert Jansch. Jazz, but even more so blues became a huge influence during my time in London, especially the three Kings (BB, Albert and Freddie), Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker. As a fledgling songwriter I admired and drew from Dylan, Cohen, Guy Clark, Townes van Zandt and Springsteen. Classical music was where it started and always remains for me, especially with the right hand technique – Segovia and Julian Bream are supreme technicians to listen to. But every piece of music which has moved me emotionally in some way has served to inspire be it Arvo Part, OMD, Keith Jarrett, The Waterboys, Genesis, Kate Bush, J J Cale – I’ll stop there, my musical pallet is wide, varied and disparate and we could be here a long time!
How did you become involved in the Bert Jansch Foundation and playing a song on the travelling Jansch guitar that has gone around the world?
It is a real pleasure and privilege to be involved with the Bert Jansch foundation and the excellent work they do. I’ve performed two online streams for them which have been great fun, and of course filmed the video for ‘Time Now To Go’ as part of the ‘Around the World in 80 Plays’ project. Bert’s music has been hugely important to me, both as a creative source of inspiration, but also as a listener. Rarely do I travel without his music. The Foundation is a wonderful way of bringing together musicians from across the globe through his inspirational music, and I really hope I can continue to contribute in some way.
I know you are a keen advocate of Scottish self-rule. Your lyrics are quite often political too. I’m thinking of songs like ‘The Last Car’ or ‘A City beautiful’. Where does politics come in your songwriting ideas? Do you have a political stance that you want to put out and then write a song around it or is the politics incidental?
I’ve always been fascinated by politics, its’ ability to transcend nations on a global level and yet shape our daily lives on a personal level. I would hope it never comes across that I’m preaching my own political stance to an audience though, and it is never my known intention to do so. I have always preferred a subtler approach where my writing about an issue or a person’s plight highlights or illustrates the cause which I believe in.
If you take ‘The Last Car’ for example, the song has various elements woven into it, but of course part of my intention is to highlight what happened in Linwood to critique Thatcherism and the aggressive approach to moving to a post-industrialist economy in Scotland.. The decimation of whole communities such as Linwood, signalled the start of a series of savage and merciless attacks upon the Scottish industrial heartlands, the consequences of which can still be felt some four decades later.
However, for those who may not agree with the politics of the song, woven into it is the personal story of someone who worked at the factory and lost his job and family as a consequence, and on a human level they could hopefully empathise with the character and his plight. And of course, there is the symbolism of the last car itself which transcends all sides of the political spectrum, for at that moment everyone in Scotland felt the loss of an industry which was a source of pride to the nation, and again, I hope this theme resonates universally.
So, for my part, I always try to be creative and subtle in my approach to the politics, and not to be too indoctrinating or write straightforward polemics.
Tell me about the new CD?
In my most ambitious move for a long time I decided in my first ever live stream to present all 13 brand new songs from the album. Entitled ‘Hand On My Heart’, it is my 8th album as a singer-songwriter under my own name, although my 14th overall (4 instrumental guitar albums and 2 albums as Man Gone Missing) and features 13 songs written during the hard lockdown here in Scotland, finely selected from the near 75 or so I had written after the months of solid writing I alluded to earlier. The concentrated time allowed me to present what I strongly believe is one of my best collections of songs yet. It was recorded in one glorious afternoon (after months of practise, I hasten to add!) live in the studio, with no overdubs or drop-ins, so the live stream performance was very true to the record, in this sense. It is the first time I’ll be able to replicate a record in its’ entirety when I perform live, and once touring can safely resume, this is perhaps the most exciting aspect of it all!
If the interview has made you curious to hear Simon and you’re not familiar with his music, take a look and a listen below:
Times are hard for musicians at present so please don’t forget to put some money in Simon’s virtual Paypal ‘hat’ after the show:
and/or head to his website…
https://simonkempston.co.uk/product/hand-on-my-heart/ to purchase the new album.