Interview by Graham Chalmers
Horses whinny at the canal side as Chris Simpson tells me about what’s different now about Fields of Eden.
It’s a year since I last sat face-to-face with this Harrogate-born musician in the lovely countryside outside Skipton as he gave me a sneak preview of his and Magna Carta’s first new album in 10 years, his 23rd to date.
There’s been a few changes to this wonderful series of rural-orientated, reflective songs since that memorable afternoon of tea and toast on his colourful narrow boat.
The mastering has given a bright new sheen to the tracks recorded mostly live in Will Jackson’s Leeds studio and there’s an extra throwaway track at the end to give a personal sign-off to an album high on ambition for a veteran performer whose health and wealth have both seen better days.
Not that he’s running out of steam, that’s for sure. He had the admirable chutzpah to release the first single off the new Magna Carta on Monday, June 15, the day of the national celebrations of the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta.
To be fair, Walk Away From Heaven is a wonderful song.
At 73, Simpson shows no absolutely signs of losing his great songwriting talent and remains sufficiently passionate about his craft to be ready to venture to Canada for some live gigs when I return to the lapping waters of the Leeds-Liverpool canal near Skipton in his beloved Dales which inspired this stunning new album.
Once described by the Melody Maker’s Colin Irwin as “the English Paul Simon”, Chris tells me he will “be lucky to break even” from the transatlantic jaunt but he’s a stubborn man who happily admits to being “not sure he’s any good at all.”
Despite enduring popularity in Canada and Holland where this champion of Nidderdale is remembered and revered, Magna Carta have been largely forgotten in their own land.
But the enthusiastic crowds who turn out for Chris and this ever-changing band’s occasional small gig in the UK, usually near where he lives, still remember how their albums such as Seasons and Lord of the Ages sold by the millions in their late 60s/early 70s heyday.
I spot his weather-beaten guitar case leaning against the wall of the boat covered in the stickers of his travels as Chris tells me how everyone who’s heard Fields of Eden so far has declared it “the best album I’ve ever done, perhaps the best album by anyone this year.”
For once this is no exaggeration from a man who has a suitcase of first-hand tales to tell about the likes of the Beach Boys and David Bowie back in the day.
Brilliantly performed and recorded, Fields of Eden is magnificent stuff, full of melody and spirit, the reflections of a great survivor.
His wife Cathy even played piano on the overture to epic, semi-poetic title track.
But without Chris’s stubborn streak it might never have been released.
After taking on Universal, and winning, to get permission last year to the release for the first time of a memorable live recording of Seasons at the Royal Albert Hall in the early 1970s, Fields of Eden was delayed by another of Chris’s battles with record companies.
But there’s no time to talk of that.
The album is finally out, thanks to a passionate two-man team in Bexleyheath in Kent who run a label called Talking Elephant which also releases vintage albums by the likes of Kaleidoscope and The Albion Band.
Chris sounds touched by their approach to running things which, it has to be said, is a bit old-fashioned - they let good music do the talking.
“Talking Elephant are a fine little company who I regard as friends. I am delighted with the initial wonderful reaction to The Fields of Eden, and to Walk away from Heaven.”