Charlie Simpson talks flying solo, success and his homecoming Ipswich concert
It’s a homecoming gig which will mark the latest success of a remarkable career so far. Suffolk’s Charlie Simpson speaks to JONATHAN BARNES about how going solo is suiting him.
Simpson may only be 26, but he’s old enough for the early stages of his career to seem “like another life”.
That’s as much as he wants to say about his days tearing up the pop world in Busted a decade ago, since when he has transformed himself into a credible rock frontman and now a folk-tinged singer-songwriter.
But it’s not just Simpson’s career which has undergone such significant changes in the past ten years. The difference in the music business is even more dramatic; what with the rise of downloading, file-sharing, streaming and social networking.
It’s no wonder Simpson is starting to feel like a veteran, a survivor.
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He’s played the game on his own terms, even if that means virtually disowning the most commercially successful years of his career, and appears to be winning.
Not many pop pin-ups go on to be recognised as serious musicians but he looks to have pulled it off and brought an army of fans along with him.
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“I know I’m very lucky,” he says. “I’ve got a loyal fanbase and every day I’m doing what I love to do. There are so many musicians who would love to make music for a living and can’t, so I’m very grateful.”
Simpson finds himself in a position of some strength in 2012.
He’s heading out on the second leg of a tour to promote his solo debut, Young Pilgrim, which reached the top five of the album charts last summer despite 10,000 copies being destroyed just a week before its release date in a warehouse fire during the London riots.
On March 25 he releases a new four-track EP including a re-recorded version of Farmer and His Gun, the original home recorded demo, Barricades Of Heaven (a Jackson Browne cover) and Lost.
It’ll be available as a digital download, CD and two 7in vinyls and will be accompanied by a video from acclaimed animation director Alice Dupre who’s previous work includes Scott Pilgrim vs The World and Nanny McPhee.
That the tour starts at the Corn Exchange in Ipswich, the town of his birth, on March 21, is extra special for Simpson, whose parents live in Woodbridge.
“I’d been trying to arrange a gig in Ipswich for ages,” he says. “It’s a great venue – I remember seeing Feeder there in 1999 - and it’s lovely to be able play a gig in my home town. I’m looking forward to the after-party too, with all my friends and family.”
The new solo star has been delighted by the critical and commercial response to his debut album, which was inspired by the tunes and harmonies he’d held dear from childhood and his father’s passion for artists such as Jackson Browne and Crosby, Stills and Nash.
Simpson played all the instruments himself on the record and hired a band of musicians for touring.
“I was finding my feet at first, because I hadn’t played with the other guys much. By the end of the first tour it felt like a well-oiled machine, like we’d been together for ages,” he says. “This tour, it will be even better.”
He will be taking the band out to the prestigious South by South West festival in Texas shortly before the start of the tour and playing dates across Europe ahead of joining the UK summer festival circuit.
Once the promotional campaign for the album is over, it will be decision time for Simpson; whether to start work on a second solo album or reconvene Fightstar, the alternative rock group that he formed while still in Busted in 2003 and who have released three well-received albums to date.
“I’m already thinking about the next album but I don’t know if I’ll do it straightaway or after the next Fightstar record. The response to the album has been so good it would be nice to keep going and capitalise on that,” he says.
“I love Fightstar and it’s something I’ll always do, but the solo stuff is very important is to me and because it’s just me, it’s easier. That’s the way it works with plenty of artists, releasing solo albums and working with a band. It’s my ideal scenario.”
Simpson knows he is fortunate to have a choice.The rapid rate of change has seen plenty of his contemporaries thrown on the scrapheap, with record labels struggling to stay afloat and unwilling to take chances.
Fightstar have had their own troubles with record labels, splitting with Universal after bosses wanted a more commercial sound for their second record. They released their third on their own label, fortunately being in a position to pay for it themselves.
“It’s a completely different world to when I was first in the business,” he says. “Back then was the tail end of the old world and that’s the way the music business had been for 50 years.
“Back then you had to write songs and try to get them on the radio. Now, you can build a fanbase without ringing a record label and trying to get an A&R man to come and see you. Getting recognised is not the difficult bit, it’s sustaining a living when you’re there.
“The whole industry has shrunk, for artists and labels, and there’s nowhere near as much money about.”
One of the biggest problems, says Simpson, is illegal file-sharing. He was amazed to discover the second Fightstar record had been downloaded 35,000 times on a torrent site before it had been released to stores.
“Bands who are now selling 15,000 albums would have sold 70,000 15 years ago and that’s the difference between making a living and not making a living. I don’t want to sound like a whining musician but I do feel strongly about it. Music is an art and people should recognise that.”
It’s Simpson’s self-assurance, single-mindedness and confidence in his music that has got him this far, having had to shrug off the taunts of rock fans and critics who will never let him forget his Busted days, and he’s in no mood to stop now.
He’s adamant he will never be part of a Busted reunion – “it feels like a lifetime away, another part of my life, a world away from what I’m doing now” – but is enjoying hearing himself on Radio 1 again and being rediscovered by mainstream music fans.
He admits some people may have wondered where he has been all these years.
“With Fightstar, it’s a certain scene and style of music and we rose very quickly in that scene – we had a lot of fans and we got on the cover of Kerrang!
“But you can be big in that world and still virtually unknown to the wider public, unless you manage to break through to the mainstream.
“Since I’ve started my own thing and crossed back into more mainstream territory - or less of a niche market - it’s nice that people who hadn’t heard anything about me in a long time, or at all, are discovering the record. Over the past few months, there has been a lot of that, definitely.”
Pop sensation and fellow Suffolk solo star Ed Sheeran is a big fan of Simpson’s band Fightstar.
They both share a link through Framlingham, where they both went to school – Sheeran at Thomas Mills High School and Simpson at Framlingham College.
The two only met just recently.
“He’s a really nice guy,” he says. “He told me he loved Fightstar – he said we were the soundtrack to his summer one year. He’s doing amazingly well and it’s great for Suffolk.”
To push himself even further, Simpson is currently working on his first ever film score, for an independent British movie called Everyone’s Going To Die.
The film is directed by Max Barron and Michael Woodward, who shot Simpson’s first two music videos.
“I love films and it’s something I’ve wanted to get into for ages. It’s a totally different way of writing but I’m really enjoying it,” he says.
It’s the latest challenge in a career that’s rarely been dull over its first decade. While the route he’s taken is hardly one anyone else is going to be able to follow, his determination to succeed is at least a model for others.
“The advice I’d give to new bands to facilitate, use everything you can, to get your name out there. Make the most of Facebook and Twitter and all that to build a fanbase, and then take it to a record company and show them how popular you are. You have to be more imaginative, more productive, these days to get where you want to be.”
Spoken like a true veteran.