Simon Hopper has just released his new album ‘Resolute Love’. Here he takes us through the new album, mandolin playing and more…
1. What are you currently up to?
It’s quiet right now, the day job (and writing) takes precedence at this time of the year. There’s a gig in a couple of weeks in Rochester – see http://www.myspace.com/thesimonhopperband – and then the annual fans’ gig in march in Bromley. I have a trip to Germany to arrange – we’ve a gig in Lauffen – booked through Paddy Bort who books me for gigs at the Wee Folk Club in Edinburgh, but now I have to build something around it to make sense of a round journey of several hundred miles. Anyone know of easy-to-get gigs near Stuttgart? The most interesting thing on the horizon, I guess, is the set of recordings I’ve agreed to do with my son, Joe. He’ll be the producer – he gets to choose the songs, arrange them and play on them with musicians of his choice – I just get to write and sing. It’ll be Americana-ish. He’s one of my fave musicians and I trust his musicality – so I’m looking forward to it. And I’m already booking a tour of the north and Scotland for 2012. I do have to get back to gig-booking, though – it’s always the last thing that gets done – everything else acts as displacement activity. And I’m writing now, as I do when the autumn day-job purdah descends – the gaps in the work are ideal for musing and working out of lyrics.
2. Could you take us through the songs on your excellent new album ‘Resolute Love’
Songwriting satisfies three different parts of my psyche.
1) The need to make something; I sometimes think this is ignored as a reason why people write. I might be cooking or building a cupboard and the appetite that is satisfied by writing is also being sated.
2) The desire to communicate – to write my ideas in a form that I can present to others and which will interest, delight and impress them. (That’s the show-off in me. Don’t believe any performer who denies this part of their persona.)
3) The desire (or need) to analyse, to mull over, to come to understand and then to record. John Martyn said that his songwriting was a form of diary-keeping. It is for me, too, but it’s also a way of coming to terms with things; of reaching acceptance. I then hope that the songs offer others something that is relevant to them.
Most of my songs start with an idea that becomes a verse. Usually, having captured the idea and arrived at a form, I set that to music. Then I write the subsequent verses to the tune I’ve produced.
Resolute Love; this was really a bit of fun at first – almost an academic exercise, a ‘study’, in writing on my then new instrument, the mandolin. It is a genuine sentiment, though. I identify songs sometimes as the ‘property’ of the person who first tells me that they’re worthwhile. This is Andee’s song. She told me I must play it. It’s become a standard part of our set.
What You Do; love affairs can be measured by the number of songs they generate. This was a six-songer. Intense stuff. I started with the concept, then the refrain, then set it in as simple a melodic and harmonic structure as I could using the mandola. I thought the message was strong enough to stand little arrangement.
Solid Ground; another of the six. Sometimes you get relationships right, sometimes not. Again, the refrain came first, then I set out to analyse why the emotions were so powerful. In some ways this is a companion song to Resolute Love and even makes reference to it in its lyric.
Oh Sally Ann; a little like Resolute love in that I wrote what seemed a lightweight piece that, however, had a powerful message in it. It’s almost all chorus, but, I think, works.
Everything; an extended metaphor. Sometimes the idea comes complete. This was such a song. I had two versions of it – unusually for me – and my son Joe told me that this was the one I had to use. So I guess this is ‘Joe’s song’. Nice to have a little change of rhythm – Andee’s playing on this defines the piece.
The Cherry Blossom Song; A E Housman’s poem is a favourite of mine and I stick a copy of it up on the cherry blossom trees in a courtyard in a college I work at every spring when they bloom. I wanted to write a song with a similar sentiment. I got as far as the refrain when I realised the verses had already been written.
Black Birds; listening to a program on the radio early one Saturday morning about a naturalist who follows rooks and rookeries, I had this idea for a song. Black birds are so symbolic. I am interested in the way humans project onto symbols many aspects of the human experience that we find difficult to embrace and accept.
Two In The Margins; I was out walking in Cornwall with Leigh Trowbridge (a member of my trio) celebrating his birthday partnered by a particularly compelling lady. I was struck by how the fringes, the ragged edges of things are so apparent there. These words were the result. This was one of the earliest songs I wrote on the mandolin and I was interested in writing around a riff or a groove rather than around linear sequences of chord changes (my usual approach). The instrumental sections involve a key change, otherwise it’s just one riff all the way through. There are two recorded versions of this – one on The Beautiful And Cruel recorded in Malmo with Leigh on bass and the one on Resolute Love. They’re so distinct I thought it was valid to record them both. Andee’s playing on the latter version is inspired.
3. As the album only features mandolin/mandola and occasional double bass does this make it harder in some respects when writing songs?
On the contrary. I’ve been of the view since my teens that the true test of a song is when it works well with just a voice and guitar (or mandolin or mandola). What I’m usually trying to produce is a song that needs the least arranging and musical support. That’s hard to do. That’s why Loudon Wainright III is such a hero to me. He can play for two hours with just his guitar and never lose his audience – that’s special. And anyway, I’m not that great as an arranger. I don’t usually hear other parts when I write – Andee and Leigh can do that better than me and that’s part of their job in the ensemble. I’m a solo artist playing with other musicians, really. The approach you outline makes it easier for me – it’s my cop-out, I guess. I just present the song to Leigh and Andee and they decide what to do with it. I’m not really a musician – I’m a songwriter; it’s different.
4. The mandolin/mandola playing on the new album is something else! How did you come to take this up as an instrument?
The mandolin is a major influence in my writing these days. The story is quite straightforward; I wanted to find a way of writing more up-tempo, brighter, even happier, songs. I’ve become a great fan of Steve Earle over the last few years and noted how he uses the mando in his chirpier material. So I went and bought one. And it worked. The latest cd is a celebration of the influence of the mandolin and mandola on my writing.
Both instruments are made by the wonderful Paul Hathway from East London (http://www.paulhathway.com/) and are all the closer to my heart because I bought them from the man himself after trying several in his ‘showroom’ (the smallest of the three bedrooms in his 1930’s semi). They’re lovely examples of hand-crafted instruments, just beautiful to own and handle.
I play the mandolin in standard tuning (GG, DD, AA, EE) and the mandola in a hybrid ‘open’ tuning in C (CG, CC, GG, CC). Black Birds and Resolute Love are good examples of the mandolin at work and What You Do and Solid Ground show what happens when I pick up the mandola. (Paul tells me the mandola should more descriptively be referred to in the way our transatlantic cousins do; octave mandolin.) Paul’s mandolins are slightly longer scale and use heavier strings than normal. This combination gives a high string-tension and provides the instrument with its punch and brightness.
5. Who are your main musical influences and what made you want to be a musician?
All the obvious people, I suppose, for someone of my generation and musical persuasions. Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Loudon Wainwright III, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Woody Guthrie, English folk music. The first musician I wanted to ‘be’ was Bert Jansch. His singing and playing had a visceral effect on me at the age of 16. I couldn’t understand how his music could affect me the way it did. I’m still a fan and have all Pentangle’s albums. It was all of the above that made me want to be a musician – or, more precisely, a singer/songwriter. I always knew I couldn’t play like Jansch, but it took me a long time to accept it. John Renbourn, too is a wonderful musician – and a lovely bloke.
6. What have been the live highlights for you and why?
Playing live is always a treat. Big crowds are memorable, of course. Festivals I’ve played at – Musicport World Music Festival, The Black Horse Festival, Southwell, Priddy, and on the main stage at the Festival on the Pier in Cromer stick in the mind. I have a soft spot for more intimate moments, though, those where I can see the whites of the audience’s eyes, so to speak. A house concert in Gothenburg, hosted by our friends Ditte and Peter, is a great memory; a lovely atmosphere and an intelligent, appreciative audience. The annual Fans’ Gig which is coming up to its fifth incarnation always has a great vibe. Recently, playing the summer tour with Andee and staying at my cousin’s place in Glasgow, he staged an impromptu concert in his garden on one of our free nights. There was something ‘organic’ about the evening; real music being played to an interested audience seeing something unusual, slightly out of their experience but being open-minded and ‘getting it’ even though it might not have been their obvious choice. It’s all good.
7. Is the folk/acoustic live scene still vibrant in the UK? Has an artists like Mumford & sons along with the recent success of Seth Lakeman and others helped created more interest in your music?
People always respond to something honest and meaningful, I think. What’s definitely true is that there’s a lot of artists out there chasing limited stage space. I’m not sure that the artists you’ve mentioned have created more interest… they’ve certainly proved that great artists who work hard at their craft and who get themselves out there will develop a following. A wise muso once told me that we all have an audience – it might be a big one, it might be a small one, but we all have one. The trick is to be able to find it and hold onto it. I’m not sure that other artists’ success has that much effect on it.
8. In this age of downloads and declining CD sales has the internet helped you get your music out there or has it in some ways hindered it by websites offering free downloads etc
I think the difference the internet makes is marginal. It makes information easier to disseminate – it’s easier to let people know about gigs, releases, etc. But I don’t think it makes a lot of difference to whether you develop a following or sell cds or not. It can be a distraction, though – it’s easy to think you’re spending time developing your following on myspace, twitter, etc, when all you’re really doing is spending time fiddling about with something that isn’t going to get you anywhere instead of picking up the phone to book a gig (or not) or visiting a club in order to develop a relationship with the promoter. I don’t think that the amount of effort it takes a person to click on an icon on a computer screen (to follow you on twitter, be a myspace fan or whatever) is evidence of any real commitment. Getting out of the house to see you play live is. Buying a cd is. I don’t think free downloads are an issue for artists like me. Fans who will buy will buy – those who won’t, won’t, I think.
9. What do you enjoy doing in your spare time away from music?
I play squash (moderately), cook (quite well, actually), watch films (Indie, European), walk in the countryside, look at contemporary art (I’m a devotee of Mark Rothko, Piet Mondrian and Rachel Whiteread amongst others) spend time in London, travel (particularly on my motorbike in Europe – I went to Poland this summer), follow Man Utd and sport in general (and grieve over the state of football in England), listen to Radio 4…
10. Anything else to add and a message for your fans…
Just thanks for being interested and supporting my music. It’s a constant surprise. I’m grateful.