With a smokey voice reminiscent of the ’60s and ’70s, Mara Simpson has been making a name for herself these last few years within the Wellington music scene and well beyond. In February she returned from Berlin to release a second Mara & the Bushkas album, ‘To The Sea Sessions’, and embark on a 30-day tour across NZ before the stripped down band relocate to Europe, planning to make the most of Berlin’s thriving music scene. Mara talked with Westley Holdsworth about being always on the move and the limitations of spontaneous recordings.
Such an impeccable voice and musicianship rarely just happens, so I’m surprised when Mara Simpson says it’s only very recently that she has had some vocal training – so as to not ruin her voice on her upcoming tour.
“I’ve been really, really lucky. My parents, when I was really little, got me a guitar and got me playing piano and stuff like that. I grew up on a lot of The Who and the Rolling Stones, definitely two bands that were flogged on the family hifi all the time. I grew up around a lot of music, so again I’m really lucky, as a lot musicians’ parents despair when their children want to be musicians but mine are like, ‘Awesome, do it.’
“I started off when I was really young, then as most people do, I kind of abandoned music, and then picked it up again when I was 18. I went to music school but it was kind of more academic music, a classical university in the UK. If I’d sung to them or played the guitar I’d have failed. So I ended up sitting through uni writing papers on Bollywood and opera politics.”
She can reasonably claim a bit of an identity crisis. Her family, who are third generation Kenyans, moved to the UK when she was young. The theme of travel runs through her newly released album ‘To The Sea Sessions’ and explains continued Mara’s globe-trotting nature.
“I sort of grew up between Kenya and the UK. Then I lived in suburban England, before moving to NZ four and half years ago. I just sort fell in love with Wellington and the music scene, but now I have the opportunity to be in Berlin – so we’re in the middle of an adventure between Berlin and NZ.”
It didn’t take long for Mara to establish herself among the quality musos lurking around the capital’s Cuba Street cafes. Her touring band (the Bushkas) comprises an all-star cast including Jean Pompey – drums/vox (Trinity Roots, Olmecha Supreme) Rio Hemopo – bass (Trinity Roots, Fat Freddy’s Drop) Ed Zuccollo – Rhodes, Hammond (Harbour City Electric, Eru Dangerspiel) Nikita Tu-Bryant – vox (Nikita & The Spooky, The Pyramid Scheme). Mara says this is the part of Wellington she loves most, the community.
“I think it’s just a testament to Wellington. It’s a really close-knit community amongst musicians. People aren’t pretentious at all, they don’t care about that stuff and that’s what makes it really special. There’s lots of cases of small bars like Havana, where a lot of people that are in the big NZ bands will play with their jazz trios when they’re in town. There’s a real kind of get up and jam invitation to a lot of musicians. So I just got introduced to a couple of awesome people who were into what I was doing. It just happened naturally I didn’t really have to think about it as it’s such a small and nurturing music scene.”
That partly explains why it was decided that their first release, 2011’s ‘Live At Bats’, would be a live recording.
“We’d only played live, we hadn’t had the opportunity to have any studio time, it wasn’t a project that we worked on in a studio it was developing as we played live shows. We wanted to make an album but didn’t have anybody to do it. I really loved the idea of doing three nights at the theatre and just having an awesome blank canvas to work on.”
They wanted to approach the set as if they were recording in a studio, with a full band additional strings, horns and extra percussion and she says they had intended working on the set and the songs six months before heading into the theatre to record. Unfortunately the only time they could do it was in seven weeks – after that the Bats Theatre was booked solid.
“When they said, ‘Well, we’ve got these three dates and then nothing for a year,’ I remember talking to our keys player. ‘Hey bro, do you think we could do this in like seven weeks?’ He was like, ‘That’s two songs a week, but yeah, we can do it.’ So it was definitely a product of limitations.”
Her band’s newly released album, ‘To The Sea Sessions’ was written mostly during the touring of ‘Live At Bats’. Writing on the road and then playing the songs live. They didn’t plan on recording the new tracks but with Mara planning to move to Berlin soon after the tour they decided to document what they’d done so far, but strip it back from the 12-piece touring band to the core three members that now make up Mara and the Bushkas – Mara, Jean Pompey and Ed Zuccollo. Warren Maxwell offered his place, Stone Feather Studios in Wairarapa, to record the songs at mates’ rates.
“So we set everything up, got it how we wanted it to sound and then the whole album, apart from two tracks, was recorded in one day. We just woke up and played until everyone was a bit mad and losing their mind. That was all the time and money we had so again it’s a product of limitations.
“We didn’t really know what we wanted to do with it we just wanted to record these songs, then Jean and Ed got excited about it. So Ed started mixing the tracks and I went to Berlin. I had the opportunity to record two solo songs in Berlin and the eight different tracks seemed to just hold together. So it’s just very organic, it wasn’t really very planned. The closing tracks are what we were doing in Wellington and what we’re starting to look at in Berlin, just coming together.”
Mara’s voice is on point from start to finish and the overall production sounds coherent. A good portion of the tracks clock in between five and eight minutes long, but the album flows so well they feel almost too short, leaving you wanting a re-spin. Subtle touches like talking between songs and even Mara dishing out cues for the band to stop playing make you feel as though you’re almost in the room with the band. Title track To The Sea is a real stand out and sums up the lyrical content of the album.
“It was one of the songs that really struck me and inspired me and that’s why I called the album ‘To The Sea Sessions’. It’s all about us moving to this land-locked capital in Germany. To The Sea has a special message to me about travel and coming to NZ and moving on. I have a bit of an obsession with the sea. Travelling is something I’ve always grown up with, I’ve never really stayed in one place for very long. That’s a good and a bad thing.”
For the moment Mara is based in Berlin and has already penned a deal with Berlin-based Crazy Planet Records, who look after Cornerstone Roots, Sola Rosa and Six60 over there. But she will be back – Wellington’s bohemian sub culture still holds a magnetic draw.
“I came here on a performance artist visa, my partner is a Kiwi so I’ve had various visas throughout our relationship. Anybody that has to go through that process knows that it’s a long and difficult one. Eventually I want to be a NZ resident, this is where I call home now, more so than England or Kenya.”