Swan song for the sea

Originally published March 20, 2013 in Capital Times. 
When Mara Simpson and her guitar landed back in New Zealand she made a goal to go swimming every day. Well, almost every day, she confesses to Amanda Witherell at a café on a morning before the sun’s high enough to hit the beach. When Mara and The Bushkas weren’t swimming, they were singing about it as they toured New Zealand with their new album To The Sea Sessions.

Wellingtonians have one last chance to hear them before Simpson returns to her new home in Berlin, where landlocked living is changing her tune.

Last time Simpson spoke to Capital Times, the Kenyan-born, UK-raised singer-songwriter lauded the Wellington music scene. “I just feel like I belong here,” she said, back in 2011. Living in a strange city outside her comfort zone gave her the courage to perform and she developed a healthy gig repertoire and following.

Now, two years later, she’s shacked up with Berlin. What happened to the love?

“My visa was up and it was either stay in New Zealand and spend an awful lot of money on residency or go have some adventures,” she says. So, it was a practical matter, but the results have uncovered new potential for her songs.

“When I first got there I started looking for the music scene like Wellington’s and it just doesn’t exist. Here you can just go down Cuba Street. In Berlin, it’s very underground. A lot of venues don’t have signs. There are no gig listings. You just have to tap into it somehow.”

Simpson started tapping Kiwi connections in the German capital and eventually found herself in the sights of Crazy Planet Records, a touring and promotions outfit with a fondness for New Zealand music (Sola Rosa, Six60, and Bella Kalolo are also in their stable.) She spent last year using Berlin as a base for a solo tour of Europe, fortuitously landing a couple larger gigs at Sazava Fest in Prague and Berlin’s Fashion Week.

She also had the opportunity to contribute session vocals for Ray Wilson (best known as the singer who replaced Phil Collins in Genesis). “Just being in the studio it was amazing to watch how really produced albums are approached. I’d sing a line and they’d take that line apart,” she says. “I haven’t really spent a lot of time on perfecting. Always, time and money restraints meant being in the moment.”

For example, To The Sea wasn’t a planned album – when Simpson was departing New Zealand she got together with Bushkas Jean Pompey and Ed Zuccollo “to document these songs before I left.” They were recorded live during one quick day at Warren Maxwell’s Stone Feather Studio, but afterwards they seemed too good to just gather dust. An album was conceived and, later in Berlin, two songs – Follow Me and Whiskey – were added. Simpson says after cutting live albums, (their first was a live session at Bats Theatre) she’s ready to experiment with a more produced sound.

“That’s the next step, for sure. I’ve been on a massive learning curve, doing everything live and touring,” she says. “Jean and Ed had a lot of input on the sound of this album. They added a lot of creativity to the songs and put a real ‘Wellington sound’ to them. I’m keen to craft songs in a new way, to add a few more elements and space.”

The new direction includes a new band for Berlin, which also has Kiwi roots. Through well-connected guitarist Gerry Paul (“Who doesn’t know Gerry?” we both ask with a laugh), Simpson found a Berlin-based drummer, Rene Corbett. But, she says, “We couldn’t find a bass player for love or money. In Wellington you have all these musicians at your fingertips because of the Jazz School.” (Also, part of the source of that ‘Wellington sound’). Eventually, double-bassist Alex Bayer completed the trio and plans are for a studio recording, as well as gigging Europe.

“I’ll keep the Bushkas as a Kiwi project if and when I come back here,” says Simpson. It sounds fatal, but her partner Ali Tocher, is a New Zealander so there will always be a reason to come home.

As for the significance of the sea, she says, “I don’t want to get too airy fairy, but I grew up on the coast of Kenya and we would go to landlocked UK. It’s like I was always having the sea taken away from me.”

She’ll lose it again when she returns to Berlin in April, but if the depth and emotion in her sea songs are as honest as they are beautiful, chances are she won’t be gone for long.

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