As an art student, I learned very quickly that one person’s neutral vessel is another person’s politically freighted, irreducibly marked load.
New York Live Arts presents
Alasdair Roberts’s recent self-titled album stands out starkly from the rest of the Glasgow-based songwriter’s discography. Roberts began his recording career in 1997 with the indie rock album The Rye Bears a Poison, hiding behind the project name Appendix Out. Giving his latest collection his own name would seem to imply self-portraiture or autobiography. Though Alasdair Roberts is a musically stripped-down and highly personal experience, etched throughout with esoteric images and mythic characters drawn from the artist’s deep knowledge of Scottish folklore and folk song, its author remains elusive. Over time, the record reveals itself to be just as dense with allusions, as musically rich, and as layered—with histories individual, national, and universal—as his previous album, A Wonder Working Stone(2013), an epic double LP of collaged folk song and modernist poetry.
Roberts is a unique figure in the music world in that he has one foot in traditional folk music and one in indie rock. He came to prominence after passing a cassette of four-track experiments to Will Oldham, and has had a long relationship with Oldham’s taste-making label Drag City ever since. Unlike other contemporary folksingers, Roberts makes no attempt at recreation and never indulges in nostalgia; his work, like the visionary folk-rock of The Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention, is an organic extension of the folk tradition and is equally visionary in its humble way.
In a recent Skype conversation, Roberts and I touched on sacred and profane time, traditional music, and Jungian individuation.
— Clinton Krute
Clinton Krute What strikes me most about your new eponymous record, is that it’s so much simpler than A Wonder Working Stone. It’s more spare in terms of the lyrics and instrumentation. Tell me about that choice.
Alasdair Roberts Partly it was the way that the songs came out as they were written, and partly it was a definite choice, a conscious reaction against the way I worked on the previous record. Simplicity was a key word throughout the process: shorter, more concise songs, lyrically less busy songs, and differently structured arrangements. But part of it also happened naturally—it wasn’t forced. It just seemed to be the shape that things had to take.
CK The simplicity of the lyrics is striking, especially compared to the dense lyrics on A Wonder Working Stone, which is the first record that I accessed your work through. What was your composition process for this new record?
AR About half the songs were gradually written over a two-year period, some of them in the summer of 2013, during my US tour with bass player Stevie Jones and guitarist Ben Reynolds. I’d been playing so much with them and the band from A Wonder Working Stone, and then they all got busy with their own projects, and I was spending a lot more time on my own than before, playing music on my own. So the rest of the songs were written between August and December of 2013, mostly sitting alone in my kitchen. I also wrote some lyrics on an airplane to Spain, and some at my mother’s house in rural Perthshire.
CK In the past you’ve mentioned this idea of syncretism. Is that something you still thought about while writing these new songs?
AR To my mind, that concept of syncretism doesn’t apply to the songs on this new self-titled album. It felt specifically associated with the record Spoils (2009). A Wonder Working Stonehas a bit of that as well, but that album feels more holistic, like the coming together of elements was fairly easy and seamless. Whereas Spoils was more about trying to yoke together contradictory parts, things that I thought were in conflict—and trying to resolve them.
CK What are examples for such elements in conflict?
AR It’s hard to verbalize, it’s more of an intuitive thing, but even in terms of the people I was working with, I felt there might be some conflict between the musicians, perhaps aesthetically or in terms of their different musical backgrounds. Maybe also an internal, psychological conflict within me manifested itself on that record—perhaps some sort of cognitive dissonance—but then also a kind of spiritual conflict, a pagan, animistic outlook conflicting with a Christian worldview, in some ways.
CK That’s a theme I hear on this new record too, this idea of struggle. The word itself comes up in several songs.
AR The Spoils record was more universally spiritual, I think, but this one is a lot more personal. There are some songs that I think of as straightforward love songs, which are addressed to a real, specific individual. My writing has been openly autobiographical before, but it is more so this time, more candid. Nevertheless, I still tend to strive for something into which the listeners can enter with their own experiences and feelings.
CK “Hurricane Brown” is a song that fascinates me, with its use of archetypes—the Three Fatal Sisters, for example. Your writing illuminates the personal and contemporary with myth or fable.
AR That’s again a very personal song, about a specific individual who’s not mentioned or referenced in any other song on the record. I see it as an apology for not treating that person very well. I haven’t introduced the person to the song though, and I’m not sure how I can do that because we’re not in touch anymore.
CK Maybe she’ll hear it, or he.
AR It’s a she. If she hears the song, she‘ll know.
CK That song, even though it’s very personal, takes on an almost mythic tone because of your use of archetypal images and characters. It makes the character Hurricane Brown sound like a highwayman of sorts. Is that a result of being steeped in the traditional music of Scotland and the UK, and writing out of that source?
AR Well, he’s not really a highwayman, but he’s definitely a traveler. A traveler geographically and mentally. In terms of traditional music of Scotland and the UK (although nowadays I prefer not to use the term United Kingdom because, well, it isn’t particularly united)—yeah, sometimes a phrase in an old song will just appeal to me and that can become the basis of a new song.
I often listen to old field recordings of Scottish singers. There’s a great website, www.tobarandualchais.co.uk, which features recordings from the sound archive of the School of Scottish Studies, which is part of the University of Edinburgh. On that site, you can hear many older Scottish singers who are important to me—Jeannie Robertson, Stanley Robertson, Lizzie Higgins, Belle Stewart, Sheila Stewart, Elizabeth Stewart, Betsy Whyte, and many more. Melodically these songs might make their presence felt in my work, which I see as paradoxically located both within this tradition but also slightly outside of it. I like the idea that it can be both those things, inside and outside of tradition. The notion of paradox in general is interesting to me. This relates to the idea of syncretism, I suppose. So maybe this new album is more paradoxical than syncretic. (laughter)
CK You’re using traditional melodies to set these personal and ordinary stories from contemporary life to music. But that wasn’t quite the idea you had for Spoils, I imagine.
AR For Spoils I was particularly drawn to ideas of religious or spiritual syncretism. I was envisioning the record as similar to some kind of early Scottish Christian cross, in a sense. If you go into old Scottish churches, you might find an ancient stone cross from the Dark Ages, ostensibly a Christian symbol, but incorporating older, pre-Christian pagan aspects, like Norse or Celtic elements. The Dupplin Cross, for example, in Dunning, Perthshire, features a representation of the Norse world serpent and also a figure that could be Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir, as well as elements of Celtic patterning. So you have all these different motifs from contrasting traditions coexisting in one object, striving for some kind of unity or resolution. That was the concept of syncretism I was interested in.
CK You mention the idea of eternal return in a few of your songs. Does that have something to do with this as well?
AR At the time I recorded Spoils, I was preoccupied with the notion of eternal return. I was haunted by it, actually. It related to my personal life in that I felt like I was on some self-destructive spiral, like the serpent eating its own tail. Every day was kind of the same, and I wasn’t making any progress. I was wrestling with trying to figure out what eternal return actually means, you know? I was interested in what certain writers had to say about it—Nietzsche, Jung, and Mircea Eliade in particular.
CK Do you see Spoils as being a breakthrough for you in some way then, artistically, or even personally?
AR I see it as an odd record, as a one-off. It stands alone, a document of a period of turmoil. I don’t really listen to my own music, but when I think about that record I kind of see black. Some people seem to like Spoils more than my other albums, but from my perspective, it’s quite hard to imagine that because I associate the record with difficult things going on in my life at the time. Despite that, there are moments of levity on Spoils, and a fair amount of humor.
CK A Wonder Working Stone is a much brighter record.
AR Yeah. It’s very calm, coming from a more tranquil place mentally. It was the result of reaching out to other musicians, and sharing and taking on their ideas. Spoils is more single-minded, and even though there were other people involved, it was as though, in some fucked-up way, they were being used like tools toward the achievement of a certain musical vision. A Wonder Working Stone feels a lot less autocratic, and genuinely communal and open to creative sharing.
CK And as a result, it’s much more varied, sonically and thematically.
AR There are more personalities coming through on it. It was the result of some three years’ gestation—ideas that had been generated during this time are encapsulated on that record, and many musicians with whom I was playing over those years feature on it too.
CK Your new record is stripping down that polyphony.
AR I thought it was going to be a solo record—I recorded the guitar and voice parts over two days and was going to leave it there, but then I thought of inviting other people to make sounds on it, and so I did. There’s Alex South, who plays clarinet, and Donald Lindsay, who plays tin whistle, and there’s The Crying Lion, a four-part harmony singing group here in Glasgow, and they made the record. Another key collaborator, of course, was the great Sam Smith at the Green Door Studio in Glasgow where it was recorded. But in other ways, because of the manner in which it was conceived and the recordings begun, it feels a bit like a solo endeavor.
CK Hence the title Alasdair Roberts. The cover is a drawing by the writer Alasdair Gray. I am big fan of his novels, especially 1982, Janine and Lanark. How did Gray come to draw the cover?
AR There’s a lot you could say about Alasdair Gray, for sure. He’s a sort of real Glasgow character. I see him from time to time walking down the street among his fellow citizens. A few years ago a filmmaker friend, Luke Fowler, was doing a residency in Cove Park, a bit north of Glasgow up the coast, and Alasdair Gray was there on residency as well. One night, after much red wine had been consumed, he was doing line drawings of everyone who was there, including me. The idea of using that drawing came after I made the record. Gray is, to me, the quintessential Glasgow artist. I’ve been in the city for some twenty years now and feel a very strong connection and affinity with the place. Perhaps there’s a certain Glaswegian quality to the music, but I’m too attached to the city to be able to hear that clearly myself.
CK So do you think of this new album as a kind of self-portrait?
AR Maybe. I think of it more in terms of an argument between the ideas of Freud and the ideas of Jung. In the end I’d align myself more to a Jungian outlook. The phrase “wonder working stone” came from Jung—to me it represents the notion of completion or wholeness. And I envisaged that it could be achieved communally or socially. I had also become interested in the Jungian concept of individuation, and I was wondering whether it’s something that I’ve actually achieved personally at this stage—I’m not sure whether that’s true. I read that it is supposed to happen to a person at around the age I now find myself in! So in addition to the record’s more stripped-down musical feel, there’s a deeper psychological reason I wanted to self-title the record: at a certain point, you believe that the aim of the individuation process is to find some sort of wonder working stone, but then you realize that what you’re really looking for is yourself.
CK You plant the seed of individuation in your own psyche and it will grow.
AR You could be right. I thought, If I call this record after my own name, the name I was given at birth, it might be like a hint that individuation has been achieved or that it’s imminent.
CK Your solo guitar playing is confident and strong on this new record, and you’ve developed a really idiosyncratic style since your days as Appendix Out.
AR Obviously, I’ve been playing guitar now for a lot longer than I had at the time of Appendix Out, which was more than fifteen years ago. Back then, I was in my late teens, early twenties, and I like to think that one’s playing will improve and that one develops a distinct voice on the instrument, absorbing different influences—
CK What are some of your influences?
AR Well, in terms of acoustic, finger-style guitar, I like some English folk finger-style guitarists, such as Nic Jones and Martin Carthy. I also like Joseph Spence, a guitarist and singer from the Bahamas, and guys like Bert Jansch and Davey Graham—but maybe there’s less of a perceptible influence of the latter two than of the former. There’s something idiomatically British about the playing of Jones and Carthy, whereas Jansch and Graham seem more open to other influences—American and beyond. Blues and jazz come into their playing, which I love too, but they don’t impact much on my guitar style. Even if I did a deep study of jazz, absorbed every recording ever made by Miles Davis, Coltrane, Mingus, Coleman, Ayler, and so on, analyzed their various techniques on their various instruments, I think that I’d still end up playing my instrument in pretty much the same way.
CK It’s very rhythmic.
AR There’s a particularly British style of holding down a steady bass with the thumb and picking out the melody or a counter-melody with the fingers. I don’t often bend the strings or do that bluesy stuff so much. There’s some bagpipe music influence, some pibroch that comes into my guitar playing, as well as idioms from traditional Scottish music—
CK How did you become interested in Scottish traditional music?
AR It had nothing to do with nationalism for me. I’m extremely suspicious of any form of nationalism. The word put me off the Scottish National Party for years—although I voted “yes” on their key policy in last year’s Scottish independence referendum. So my interest in Scottish music definitely wasn’t a patriotic impulse. I suppose most artists use whatever materials they find around them and in my case it happened to be various bits of Scottish music.
CK Many folk songs have specific social functions, though they have different meanings at different periods of time. Politics did come to my mind when I listened to this new record, though. I thought about how frequently folk traditions are isolated and labeled as political in order to create a national identity.
AR Yeah, I know what you mean. The School of Scottish Studies, for instance, was set up in the early ’50s to preserve and document Scottish traditions that were perceived as dying out—aspects of Scottish life, traditional music, song, and story. The motivations of the people who set up the school were highly politicized as generally left-leaning, with a lot of sympathy for the struggle against Franco in Spain, for John MacLean and Red Clydeside, and so on. I feel pretty much left-of-center, in some cases quite far left, although not always. I consider myself a socialist even though I’m probably not as far left as many of my friends. Virtually nobody in Scotland (apart from perhaps a few wealthy landowners in the Highlands and a few Edinburgh business tycoons) voted for the Conservative party in this month’s general election—the SNP won most of the seats in Scotland, yet the people of Scotland are still saddled with a Tory prime minister! It’s horrific.
CK Cecil Sharp, the founder of the folk music revival in England was a known fascist.
AR Yeah, he was English, you know? (laughter) I don’t believe that the English cultural resurgence of the twentieth century, which led to a renewed interest in folk song, was quite so radically leftist as it was in Scotland, although I’m sure that someone like Billy Bragg might like to argue with me on that point.
Cecil Sharp, that’s a slightly earlier period than the post–Second World War revival in Scotland from the ’50s onward, with Hamish Henderson and guys like that. I suppose by that point in history the general attitude was that there had to be a big ideological shift. Fascism couldn’t stay alive. Nowadays, if you look at what’s happening with Pegida in, say, Dresden in former East Germany, and in various other places in Europe, it’s really horrendous. In Britain, you have this crypto-fascist, anti-immigration, anti-women, anti-gay, anti-everything trend, and these parties, like UKIP, seem to be getting more prominence across Europe. It is very worrying.
CK They’re reactionary, and it is a worrying trend. I’m thinking about this political aspect of the folk revival as a way to get into talking about your idiosyncratic approach to folk music. You’re involved in multiple musical projects, bands, or folk groups, in addition to your solo work, and some of them are more purist than others in their approach to the tradition. On your solo records you have a more playful, even avant-garde approach to that tradition. Can you talk about your education in folk music and how you came to be engaged in that world so deeply?
AR Some of the earliest music I would have heard in the early ’70s, when I was a small child, was from the Scottish folk scene. But that was actually in Germany. My parents, Alan and Peggy, were working as booking agents. They were booking concerts for Scottish and Irish bands mostly, and some English bands as well. So that was the music I heard first of all. Silly Wizard, The Tannahill Weavers, The Battlefield Band, The Bothy Band, The John Renbourn Group, and so on.
CK Where in Germany was that?
AR In Baden-Württemberg, in the Southwest of Germany. We lived in a more rural area, in a small town. My dad used to tour a lot. He did solo gigs and played in a duo with this guy named Dougie MacLean, who has since gone onto greater fame. In the ’60s, my dad was part of the folk scene in Glasgow, where I now live. He had banjo lessons with Billy Connolly. Every so often I’ll meet someone here who knew him back then, and they’ll go, “Oh, I remember your dad playing banjo in this or that bar.” He worked in a Glasgow pub in the ‘60s and had to keep a cricket bat behind the bar. When I was growing up in the ’80s, my family wasn’t involved in promoting folk music anymore. I was growing up listening to pop radio, watching Top of the Pops, and being exposed to more indie rock and other, wider influences by radio DJs such as John Peel. In my twenties, I started researching traditional songs more, and that’s been a major aspect of my work since then. Sometimes I engage more in it than at other times. It’s a love/hate relationship in a way, an internal struggle manifested in my relation to this kind of material. Perhaps I want to be an avant-garde sort of fella, yet I have this strong attraction to an ostensibly conservative form of music—that tension can be felt in the work.
CK Does that struggle have to do with politics or does it have to do with your family history? You don’t have to answer that if you don’t want to.
AR Maybe it’s partly political. A lot of people regard folk culture as essentially reactionary and, as I say, musically conservative. But I don’t accept that accusation of conservatism that’s leveled at traditional music—it’s an oversimplification of the situation brought about in large part by a lack of understanding about the function, role, and place of those kinds of music in whatever society or community. But I’m not attracted to the traditional forms for those reasons at all. I’m interested in radicalizing them—whether that’s done in a gentle or in a forceful kind of way.
CK In the sense of updating the traditional form?
AR I wouldn’t call it updating. It’s the ineffable quality I’m trying to describe in this kind of music—the timelessness. Maybe it’s the difference between profane time and sacred time, thinking about the world occupying this cyclical sacred time that’s going on concurrently with the normal linear time. This music comes out of the overlap between sacred time and profane time.
CK Do you think that all music comes from that or is it specific to communal and community music that’s passed orally from generation to generation? Does what might be defined as “folk music” have some special claim to that?
AR No, I wouldn’t say that what we call “folk music” has a special claim to that, maybe it’s more related to ritual. Brazilian carnival music or techno can have the same thing. They exist in this very specific eruption of sacred time into the profane. Earlier I mentioned Eliade in relation to the idea of eternal return—I’ve been influenced by him also in terms of the distinction between sacred time and profane time. It doesn’t have to be spontaneous outpourings of collective folk song. People can have this feeling from dancing all night to techno or whatever.
CK Shared experiences of culture can qualify as folk culture.
AR Maybe this is why we prefer to differentiate the idea of folk music or folk culture and traditional music. In this sense, you can talk about these all-night dance parties with electronic music as being a folk movement, but it’s arguably not “traditional music.”
CK I was listening to a performance of “Farewell Sorrow” and you gave a brief introduction to that song and mentioned that its origin was a book of social history. Where does that song came from and how does reading widely, and reading nonfiction specifically, inform the way you write?
AR Reading does inform my writing, but only in combination with lived experience—they guide each other. The book I was reading before writing “Farewell Sorrow” was in the general field of cultural anthropology—The Buried Soul by Timothy Taylor. It was a study about burial rites and those kinds of things, particularly historical attitudes toward death. One specific reference was to a Norse tribe in the ninth century AD. I was drawn to the book in part because of my preoccupation with death and mortality at that time, which was probably related to my experiences with people I knew who were dying. The experience, or the reading around that experience, go hand in hand with creating the work. When I was making the Spoils record, I immersed myself in certain things that felt important to me—early Scottish Gaelic poetry, the old Fenian lore and The Cattle Raid of Cooley, early Welsh mythology too (the Mabinogion) and the Norse stuff, the Poetic Edda, and esoteric Christian, Gnostic, and alchemical stuff. Then Jung and Eliade and James Frazer, and for a long time I was obsessed with The White Goddess by Robert Graves, which is a book I still return to.
I was drawn to these writings and to the history of religious thought because they chimed with a conception of existence that I was forming at the time I was making that record, including the idea of sacred time versus profane time.
CK What did you read around this new album?
AR I read mostly twentieth-century Scottish poetry. Iain Crichton Smith, for example. He’s a poet from the Isle of Lewis, he writes in English but it’s mainly a Gaelic-speaking area. I was interested in Scotland’s Celtic culture and history and how it manifests itself today. Sorley MacLean is another Gaelic writer whose work I have enjoyed a lot, but really only in English translation. These two are towering figures of twentieth-century Gaelic poetry. Hamish Henderson also is an important figure for me.
CK Did this reading overlap with your work on Urstan, the collaboration with Mairi Morrison? You sing in Gaelic on that record, if I’m not mistaken.
AR Yeah, at that time I was immersing myself more in Gaelic music rather than in literature. I listened to a lot of recordings of older Gaelic singers, people like William Matheson, Flora MacNeil, Calum and Annie Johnston.
CK Did you pick up any of the language from listening to them?
AR I picked up a word here and there. And I had some lessons a couple of years ago, but I didn’t get very far. It’s more like osmosis, listening and speaking to people about the songs, reading something in Gaelic in conjunction with its translation.
Clinton Krute is a writer and musician. He is a contributing editor at BOMB for film and music and is currently the performing arts editor for BOMB Daily.
As an art student, I learned very quickly that one person’s neutral vessel is another person’s politically freighted, irreducibly marked load.