When we spoke earlier this month, he’d been supporting the American blues star Bonnie Raitt and was embarking on a tour to promote his new, solo album, Vagrant Stanzas.
A few days earlier, he’d appeared on BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters with The Full English, a band assembled with English folk performers such as Fay Hield, Seth Lakeman and Sam Sweeney, to promote the English Folk Dance and Song Society’s newly launched digital archive of early 20th century English folk arts, including more than 58,000 manuscripts.
Himself an industrious trawler of traditional song from both sides of the Atlantic, Simpson is enthusiastic about the archive, which went online this month (www.vwml.org.uk). “All that material has been ... I won’t say languishing, but it was in the EFDSS archives. Now you can go online and see not only the text of a song, but get a real sense of what was going on, the letters and the relationships between the collectors and the people they collected from.”
He is less enthusiastic about another guest on the same Music Matters programme – Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove. Perhaps fortunately, singer and politician were in different studios, otherwise Gove may have found himself serenaded, with a vengeance, by Simpson singing Palaces of Gold, Leon Rosselson’s eloquent indictment of inequality, which features on Vagrant Stanzas (Topic Records).
It is, he agrees, an intimate recording, produced by neighbour in Sheffield, Richard Hawley. After their first day in the studio, the Britpop hero, with whom Simpson regularly shares kitchen singing sessions, told him that he wanted to hear what he heard over the kitchen table. “So I set out to make a record that had that sort of intimacy,” says Simpson.
The album swings between traditional British and old-time American songs and tunes, as well as contemporary material, including two of his own songs, and features Simpson’s masterly fingerstyle as well as his much-loved slide guitar and banjo (he spent 15 years living in New Orleans).
Simpson, a superb “teller” of a song, credits this partly to the “PhD in song accompaniment” he underwent during his years playing with the great June Tabor. “If you’re going to accompany her ... boy, you have to be listening.
“It hooks you when somebody is able to speak to you when they’re singing and that’s something I’ve worked on really hard.”
• Martin Simpson and Andy Cutting play the Eastgate Theatre, Peebles, on 19 July. www.martinsimpson.com