MU­SIC— ALAS­DAIR ROBERTS

BOMB Magazine - - CONTENTS - by Clin­ton Krute

The Glas­gow- based singer just re­leased a self-ti­tled al­bum of mu­sic rooted in and push­ing Scot­tish folk tra­di­tions. With Krute, he touches on in­di­vid­u­a­tion, syn­cretism, and the risks of na­tion­al­ism.

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, The 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 Stone has 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 one­off. 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 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

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.

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.

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