Photo by Emelie Flood
Mara Simpson is one of the most important people in my life and one of the most beautiful, truthful voices I know. This skype interview took so long to put up because we were yarning nonsensically and a lot of it was muffled as we honked with laughter or ran off to make tea far away while still talking to our computers. Mara is currently living in Berlin and touring solo and with her band. Here we chat about how it began, the shapes and colours of music and the kindness of strangers.
How did it all start, Mara? How did you find your voice?
I grew up surrounded by music, piano, guitars and Dire Straits on the hi-fi at all times. I was really lucky because I was encouraged to take piano and guitar lessons from an early age. And I sang in choirs – I think I was always singing and faffing around – but I didn’t sing properly until I was about 16 or 17.
My first experience of real singing was with my Dad’s band, which was called Hooligan Soup at the time…We played in the Anglers Retreat pub and Dad was like, you can’t sing like a little girl, you’ve got to… (Mara makes loud guttural noise)
What was the song?
I actually think the song was Natural Born Woman, which wasn’t suitable for the all male line up of Hooligan Soup to sing! I always think that if you can sing and dance every day it’s very very good for you.
Yes, it’s good for the soul! Do you find that for you there’s a need to perform it? Do you think you’d be completely happy if you were singing and dancing every day but no one was watching you or sharing in it?
No, it absolutely needs performance because it’s a communication and one of the most magical otherworldly things about music is there’s this connection between the performer and the audience. I can’t really explain what it is but it’s the same with any performance. If I do a show and someone comes up to me at the end and has been really touched by the gig and has just got it, it means everything. Then it feels like what I was meant to do I’ve done. Like when I go to shows and I’m in the audience and I feel like I’ve got it.
Have you had any experiences like that on this recent tour?
Yes! We were booked in for a gig on 13th June at Sankt Peter-Ording and we arrived in a hospital car park. I hadn’t actually checked where it was we were supposed to be playing so I called and said I think we might be in the wrong place. But they said, no, no, this is where you’re meant to be.
We went in and played on stage at the hospital’s cancer rehabilitation. There were about 70 people there and it was one of the best shows I’ve played in Germany. The audience were magic – so receptive and talking with me between songs. And it was so wonderful to meet people after the show and hear their stories. I’ve never had so many emails in the days following a gig as that one. It was incredible.
That’s wonderful, Mara! What a gift for you as well. The two way experience of performing and sharing your voice. There was another similar experience lately wasn’t there?
Yes, I heard recently that a couple who I knew briefly in Wellington through another friend, had one of my songs as their first dance at their wedding. That was ‘Little Bird.’ Both events made me feel humbled beyond words.
Photo by Jens Pfeifer
Do you need stillness to write songs or do you tend to do it while on tour, when you are within the experience?
I write quite a lot but I’m not writing songs at all. I’m documenting or writing big streams of observations. In Bamburg, everybody was in a coffee shop, we were meeting friends of friends and I realized I just needed to be on my own. Also it was 6pm so I don’t know why they were drinking coffee! So I just took myself off and found an old man pub, and I got myself a dark beer and I just sat and wrote and wrote and wrote. There are no rules but what I’ve noticed about my song writing is I do this kind of stream of consciousness and take quite a long time to consciously digest and realize those idea and responses and then a song comes.
So do the words come for you before the music?
No, I usually have a central idea or a feeling and then the music comes first. But then very quickly it’ll just happen in unison. It will normally start that I’ll find something on the guitar that I really love, a chord progression or a little riff or any kind of idea and I’ll naturally start singing the melody over that which will generally be in gobbledegook. Because it’s just a shape so I’m kind of looking at it in shapes and colours. And then that shape will naturally lend itself to certain words that will suggest themselves. Generally I find it very hard to sit down and write lyrics unless I’m putting them to music. Like when I tried to do that to your poetry, I found it so difficult. I think it’s really good to do both, but when they separate it’s difficult for me.
And when you’re touring, what helps you meet a new place?
Walking is a big thing for me, after travelling. It’s so obvious but when I arrive somewhere, I really need to walk to literally ground myself in a new place and get everything flowing again. So I’ll arrive and say, ‘Right, who wants to go for a walk?’ and I’ll be really pleased when no one wants to because I’ll actually want to be on my own!
The best thing is to be open, though. Music has truly been a key to the kindness of strangers. We’ve been welcomed into people’s homes, families and lives and the only reason is because we’re going to be playing an hour of music. It’s an amazing thing. I’m blown away by how awesome people are.
Mara is currently running an Indigogo campaign to support the release of her first full studio album. It’s not so much a donation, but a pre-buy of the album, so go watch her video and be part of this beautiful music flying out into the world (and, if you’re super generous, you get some ridiculously awesome presents).
Follow Mara as she roams.