Mara Simpson: Keep Holding On

We applaud the inimitable sincerity and sound of the pioneering blues songstress

Text Hannah Vasdekys Photography Matt Monfredi

London born to a Kenyan family, Mara Simpson is creating a dent in this year’s soundscape with her sincere, raw songwriting talent.

Raised between the UK and New Zealand with a stint in Berlin, Mara has found herself surrounded by, and tried her hand at, a multitude of instruments (most notably the banjo and the piano), elements that have shaped her approach to making music.

Her debut album, ‘Our Good Sides’, encompasses an array of influences a less-seasoned songwriter would have a hard time meshing together. The first single off her debut album Keep Holding On (inspired by an iconic photograph taken in 1961 Berlin) reflects her soulful, thoughtful and somewhat introspective music and persona. Produced by Tim Bidwell and featuring Ben Ottewell from Gomez, Mara’s voice soars with captivating grace, in contrast to the fuzzy, blues riff that drifts through the track.

We caught up with the rising songstress on her last trip to London.

Keep Holding On is the first song you’re releasing from your debut album ‘Our Good Sides’. Could you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind it?

Keep Holding On was written in response to a photograph taken in 1961 of Freida Schulze, aged 77, trying to escape her East Berlin home to freedom in West Berlin. The West Berliners are poised, ready to catch her from her window while an East German guard is pulling at her ankle trying to yank her back into the house.

It’s a snapshot of insanity. This song is an argument against walls, against division. An argument for equality, for solidarity.

You’re Brighton-based at the moment but have spent periods in New Zealand and Berlin – how much of the album has been inspired by your different experiences in each of these places?

Berlin plays a big role in the album. Ghosts, The Lion and the Nomad, and Keep Holding On act as my personal responses to the city. A feeling of being displaced there but being ok with that. In the Water is about my soul-daughter in New Zealand and is inspired by her mother’s words. The rest of the album, and the way in which it was finally executed, serves as a homecoming back to the UK. The Piano at Midnight acts as the final leg of the journey at Brighton train station.

Who have you loved working with and what have you learnt from them?

Mihali Paleologou, who saw and guided me through the conception of the album. Who has always taught me, though sometimes tough, lessons in truth and what constitutes beauty. Courtney Simpson, from whom I learned more of the missing pieces in the story of who we Simpson women are. And, of course, Tim Bidwell who taught me that I can sing an album sitting on the floor with no double tracking and not to take anything too seriously.

Can you tell us a bit about your band? Who are they and how did you meet?

I didn’t know many people when I moved to Brighton but being helped by good souls, namely Jools Owen, led me to Chris Boot. Where there was Chris there was Ben Daniel.

Their talents stretch beyond just being killer instrumentalists, both are producers and composers in their own right. But I think the best thing about them is their friendship. It floors me.

20160310_ACS_Mara_226

What is your favourite song to perform and why? 

At the moment it’s In the Water. Everyone sings, we give it some welly. Olly Knights from Turin Brakes sang on the album version. I always dedicate the whole song to Sol Cecilia (my soul-daughter) and her mother Loveday which makes me feel closer to them. It’s almost like I’ve been hanging out with them inside our hearts every time I perform it. 

Who are your biggest influences in the industry at the moment, and how do you think the British music scene is doing?

Right now I’m a big fan of the new releases from Trixey Whitley, Frazey Ford, Alev Lenz, Ellie Ford, Lake Street Dive, Here We Go Magic and Field Music. As for the British music scene – I’m the eternal optimist. I have high hopes for big steps towards equality for women across the industry and fair pay to artists.

Are there any musical influences we might not expect from you?

Tina Turner.

What are you currently fascinated by and how is it feeding into your music?

Musically I would say Patrick Watson. The thumping pianos and wailing, then whispering. Non-musically I’m fascinated by The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The removal of bull shit.

Which album to date has had the most profound effect on you and why?

‘Exile on Main Street’ by the Rolling Stones. It pressed every button in my soul the first time I heard it and still does now.

20160310_ACS_Mara_078Listen to more from Mara Simpson on Soundcloud and check out her video for ‘Keep Holding On’, directed and animated by Timothy Armstrong, below. 


A Certain Syrup