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Chosen One: Alasdair Roberts

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Interview with Alasdair Roberts.

“It’s always really fascinating to me how different individuals can have such different ideas about the making of music and the making of art and it’s exciting when you bring those different ideas together in the same space and see what happens.”

— Alasdair Roberts

Words: Mark Carry


Earlier this year saw the eagerly awaited return of revered Scottish singer-songwriter Alasdair Roberts with the arrival of the splendid self-titled full-length on Drag City. The Glasgow-based songwriter’s latest collection of folk gems exude a warm, sparse feel with wonderfully minimal arrangements –mainly Roberts’ voice and guitar which is augmented with gorgeous woodwind and percussion in places – that reveals a song-writing master-class with each turn of phrase and aching note. Songs such as the touching ballad ‘Hurricane Brown’, the deeply personal ‘This Uneven Thing’ and gorgeous folk lament ‘The Final Diviner’ represent some of the finest solo works of Roberts’ treasured songbook.

Since 1997, firstly releasing three albums of self-written material under the name Appendix Out and then several albums under his own name. His work mainly consists of two parallel strands: self-written song material (which can be heard on albums such as Farewell SorrowThe Amber GatherersSpoils and A Wonder Working Stone) and interpretations of traditional songs and ballads from Scotland and beyond (which can be heard on albums such as The Crook of My Arm, No Earthly Man and Too Long In This Condition). Other collaborative projects include The Furrow Collective (consisting of UK folk luminaries Rachel Newton, Lucy Farrell, Emily Portman and Alasdair Roberts); the wonderful collaboration between Isle of Lewis native Mairi Morrison and Roberts whose collection of Gaelic songs was released on Drag City and Roberts’ larger musical ensemble of Alasdair Roberts & Friends.

‘Alasdair Roberts’ is out now on Drag City.

For Alasdair’s upcoming UK and European tour dates, please click HERE

Interview with Alasdair Roberts.

I’d love for you to discuss Alasdair the making of the latest self-titled album. I love how there is a more stripped back feel and a departure from some of your previous records from the more recent past.

Alasdair Roberts: Well I suppose what happened was I made this record, ‘A Wonder Working Stone’ a couple of years ago and that was made with a core band of five musicians: me, my friends Stevie, Riff, Shane and Ben so this is like a core group that I’ve been playing with live, so we made a record together. And there was a total of thirteen musicians on that record, it’s quite a big thing with big arrangements and long songs. And with this new one, that group hasn’t been playing much together for various reasons, they’ve been busy with their own projects and I had these two days booked in the studio and I had these songs so I thought I will get some demos of these. I recorded them and it turned out to be the record.

Wow, that’s very fast. So it only took a couple of days to record to tape?

AR: What actually happened was I had this studio booked for another project and then the person I was going to be working with couldn’t do it – they were ill – so I had these two days booked and I couldn’t cancel so I thought I’ll just record these new songs and see how they turn out so that’s what happened.

My favourite song is ‘Hurricane Brown’ and it feels like the centrepiece of the album. I wonder did the songs themselves slowly form over the last year or so or would it be a case that the songs come quite quickly in a concentrated period of time?

AR: Well funnily enough, ‘Hurricane Brown’ is actually the oldest of the songs; that’s like three years old at this point. I’d say about half of the record is maybe two to three years old and the other half is written in the few months just before recording. Some of these songs like ‘Hurricane Brown’ is a song we played live as a band a few times. I mean I’m continually writing and I’m trying to write a new record at the moment as well. The other songs are quite personal I think so this is a thing that’s different about this record. On the previous record, the songs were a bit more universal and sometimes topical, political and those kind of things but these new songs sound more personal. There’s a couple of love songs and I think the ethos for me was simplicity, you know I was trying to make a more simple record than some of the previous ones.

You are always involved in a diverse array of projects. I loved your collaboration with the Gaelic singer Mairi Morrison and the collection of Gaelic songs you released. I can imagine a lot of research and work goes into all these projects before you even begin any recording?

AR: Yeah that is a part of it. I mean the thing with Mairi is that she is a Gaelic singer and I’m not. She was born and raised on the Isle of Lewis and speaking Gaelic was her first language so she was immersed in that musical culture in a way that I am not. So I find it very interesting and very appealing but I’m not in that culture so I had to learn about it. There was a lot of research, a lot of reading, archives and libraries and that kind of thing.

The Furrow Collective too, it was lovely to hear your voice alongside three other wonderful voices, it was a beautiful album.

AR: Thanks. We just got back from a tour in Germany with Emily, Lucy and Rachel and we just did four gigs in Germany so that was good and we’re going to be recording our new album later this year. We started working on some new songs – well new old songs – and so hopefully we’ll record the new album very soon.


And with your solo tour then, I suppose it must be nice to go back to your roots in one way and playing solo must also bring something different again?

AR: I do a lot of solo gigs but I tend to enjoy playing with other musicians more because a lot of my reason for being involved in music is social and to do with community and that sort of thing. It sometimes it feels a bit weird to be touring, playing solo but other people do tend to respond well to the performances. But I think I would tour more with a band if it was more financially viable and also if musicians that I know in Glasgow that I play with regularly were less busy with their own things, our opportunity to get together is rare.

You have done plenty interpretations of traditional songs as well as your own. Would you have personal favourite traditional music, from Scotland particularly that you think were very important for you?

AR: I suppose when I’m working with traditional material, I regard myself primarily as a ballad singer so when it comes to traditional song it’s my main interest; the sonatas, the ballads and so on and there is a lot of great traveller singers – historically a lot of great Scottish traveller singers – I suppose it’s the same in Ireland. A lot of the Scottish traveller singers are some of my favourites, people like Jeannie Robertson, Duncan Williamson, Stanley Robertson and the late Sheila Stewart. Most of these singers are either dead or dying out – these kinds of singers – but these are voices that resonate really strongly with me when it comes to traditional music from Scotland.

On the new album, the added instrumentation of woodwind; I love how those elements add a lot to your guitar-based songs. Did you know from the outset that it would be so pared back?

AR: It was a case of not trying to filling it in so much. I mean I could have spent a lot of time doing quite a bit of overdubs and things but I didn’t. It was in my mind that it would be quite minimal, for example there is some percussion on there and some snare drum rim shots on a couple of songs. My thought was that when those elements happen, they should be very noticeable moments, it should be a major incident even though it’s just the side of a snare drum being hit it should feel like a major incident in the context of this quite sparse record. And with Alex South, the clarinet player – I’ve known Alex for a while – he’s been playing clarinet for most of his life and it’s not an instrument I’m particularly knowledgeable about but it’s the range of sounds and tones the clarinet is capable of might add an interesting dimension to these songs, so that’s why I approached him.

Also, the tin whistle is another beautiful addition that works so well with your voice and guitar.

AR: The tin whistle is by an old friend of mine, Donald who I’ve known since I was sixteen, an old friend.

‘The Final Diviner’ is another gorgeous song on the album.

AR: Yeah it’s a funny one. I think it’s like a pop song; it’s the pop song on the record it feels like to me.

I’m already thinking of what the next record might be and I want to try something different again as I don’t want to make the same record over and over again. The next thing is going to be quite different, I think I want to go back to a bit more full arrangements. I started doing this with earlier records like scoring parts for brass or for strings. Normally just like two players, so I would have a cello and a violin or a couple of violins in mind or a trumpet and a trombone playing together. But I’m interested in the idea of writing for bigger and bigger ensembles, you know maybe bigger string sections or combinations of strings and woodwind and brass and things, trying to get some more compositionally complex with what I’m doing.

What have you been listening to a lot lately, Alasdair?

AR: A couple of Irish things actually. I’ve been listening to this band Lynched from Dublin, a folk band and their album is really great I think. I think this afternoon I’ll go into the record store here in Glasgow and maybe pick some things up. I’ve been listening quite a bit to Jimmy Crowley’s ‘The Boys of Fairhill’ from the early seventies, it was actually in my father’s collection and I’ve been digging it out on the turntable. There’s some great songs on there, most of them seem to be about Cork actually.

One last thing, this idea of community and collaboration that comes across so many of your albums where there is this feeling of sharing and sharing ideas with all these interesting people.

AR: Yeah I mean sharing ideas is a really important thing for me. The only way to really learn is by working with others and taking their ideas on board and learning from them. It’s always really fascinating to me how different individuals can have such different ideas about the making of music and the making of art and it’s exciting when you bring those different ideas together in the same space and see what happens. Often for me making a record is like creating a temporary community: you bring together this group of people for a period and it’s like creating this community for a while.





‘Alasdair Roberts’ is available now on Drag City.

For Alasdair’s upcoming UK and European tour dates, please click HERE


Written by markcarry

August 11, 2015 at 2:21 pm

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