Based out of Glasgow, singer-songwriter Alasdair Roberts’ latest release is ‘Pangs’, featuring the enthusiastic folk song with rockabilly undertones, ‘The Angry Laughing God’, and the magnetic three-minute track ‘The Downward Road’. Alasdair Roberts Trio can be found in Preston at the new Vernal Equinox Festival on March 5th.
Alasdair, you’ve been a solo musician for over 20 years and have collaborated with many artists, how did your collaboration with Steve Jones (bass, keys) and Alex Neilson (drums, percussion), the Trio, come about?
I’ve worked with both Alex and Stevie for a number of years. The first time I recorded with Alex was over ten years ago on the album ‘No Earthly Man’, a collection of traditional songs and ballads which we recorded up in Aberdeenshire. Although Stevie and I have both lived in Glasgow for longer and have both been quite heavily involved in the city’s musical scene(s) over our times here, I only really got to know him a bit more recently, about 2009 or so. The first album we worked on together was ‘Too Long In This Condition’, another collection of traditional songs. Alex, Stevie and I all subsequently worked together on the album ‘Urstan’ with the great Gaelic singer Mairi Morrison, but we hadn’t yet made a record of my self-written songs together. So when I was writing the songs for ‘Pangs’, with many of them I had Alex and Stevie in mind as potential collaborators. So I asked them whether they would like to play on the session, and happily they were both keen.
Your latest release is ‘Pangs’. What was the journey like in making this album?
The first few journeys were to a rehearsal space in Glasgow over the winter of 2015/2016, where Alex, Stevie and I worked on all the songs which finally made it onto the ‘Pangs’ album (and a few more which didn’t). In early January 2016 the trio did a warm-up gig at a venue called The Poetry Club in Glasgow – an opportunity to present the work in front of an audience with a view to strengthening it in advance of recording. Arguably the most important journey we took was the one over the water from Scotland to Ireland, to the great Analogue Catalogue Studio in County Down. I’d worked at that studio a year previously with Brad Gallagher and Bill Lowman, and was keen to return and work with Julie McLarnon again. I was into the idea of tracking the album in the analogue domain, at which Julie excels, and also the remote location of the studio I found both conducive to working and also beautiful in and of itself. After the tracking in Ireland the session was digitised and brought back to Glasgow, where it was completed at Green Door Studios with Sam Smith – another studio I’ve worked in before. Stevie Jones did a little recording at Kinning Park Complex in Glasgow too… I’d scored some string parts which were played by Rafe Fitzpatrick and Jessica Kerr; then Tom Crossley played some flute and Debbie Armour sang on a few songs too.
You’ll be performing Sunday, March 5th, at the Vernal Equinox Festival. The festival is pulling together strands of folk, psych, and wyrd. What sort of effect do these diverging genres have on each other? And more specifically, in influencing your own music?
Speaking personally, of those three, I suppose it’s the first in which I’m most knowledgeable – whatever ‘‘folk’’ actually means, of course. But my knowledge of psych and the wyrder end of things isn’t particularly deep. I always found more appealing weirdness in genuine traditional music than in anything which was self consciously attempting to be ‘‘wyrd’’. Robin Williamson and The Incredible String Band are probably the freakiest I get when it comes to that generation of music, although I’ve listened a bit to bands such as Comus and Third Ear Band and Trees… but mostly of the sixties and seventies it’d be more the trad end of things I’d dig, like Dick Gaughan, Shirley Collins, Anne Briggs, Nic Jones, Martin Carthy and some of the bands of the period like Battlefield Band, Silly Wizard, Planxty and so on. In some way taking a cue from artists such as those onwards, I’ve made fairly deep studies of certain areas of traditional song in particular, digging into the old field recordings and books, and that’s in a way sort of like the bedrock of things for me, a constant well from which to draw for both writing new songs and interpreting old ones. In fact, I recently compiled a CD exclusively for Monorail Music in Glasgow, to be made available with initial copies of the new album ‘Pangs’, which features many old recordings of the singers and traditional songs which have inspired me and my work over the years.
Your poetic lyrics bring to mind visions of a forgotten time. Where do you gain lyrical inspiration?
As well as from the depths of traditional song, from things I’m reading. There are certain texts, or types of text, to which I habitually return for nourishment – things such as Tain Bo Cuilagne and Acallamh na Senorach, The Mabinogion, the very earliest Celtic and Anglo-Saxon poetry along to the so-called Metaphysical poets and that lineage and those they influenced down to modern times, early Mesopotamian myths, The Kalevala… the ancient mythic material. At the time of writing some of ‘Pangs’ I was exploring Boccaccio‘s “Decameron” and Chaucer‘s “The Canterbury Tales“, not that that necessarily had a major direct influence on the record. There’s an interest in faith and religion and the mysteries thereof, although I’m not a Christian and don’t follow any particular faith otherwise, but I do dip into the Bible from time to time as well as apocryphal texts like the infancy gospels (which have inspired my song ‘The Downward Road’). I do read contemporary and not-so contemporary fiction too from time to time.
How have you progressed musically over the years?
That’s a difficult question to answer! It seems to be a case of very gradual, incremental development, so that it’s sort of indiscernible as it’s happening. I feel it’s maybe better for others than me to provide the answer to this, people who are in an objective position to listen to the first album I made as Appendix Out in 1997 and the newest album some twenty years later and assess the nature of any progression that’s been made.
If you were only able to listen to one album of a different genre than your own for the rest of time, what would it be?
I don’t really believe in genre, but of course I know what you mean! I feel like I inevitably make a certain type of music, or make music a certain way, while also wanting to shake things up and bring in many other musical influences, so while it welcomes in other influences and various styles and is enriched by them, it is essentially still what it is. An album I listened to a lot when I was a teenager was ‘Mark’s Keyboard Repair’ by Money Mark. At the time I was doing a lot of home four-track recording (this was before home digital recording was an affordable option, and I still have my old four-track and loads of tapes although it’s a bit faulty now), and this Money Mark album seemed to have been recorded with a similar approach, albeit with a bit more technical mastery of the equipment. Each track seems like a separate wee nugget of experiment and idea brought to life, and I was also just into the way it sounded, sort of foggy and grainy. I’m not sure I would listen to ‘Mark’s Keyboard Repair’ for the rest of my life if I had to – maybe it’d be something like Guillaume de Machaut‘s ‘Notre Dame Mass’ as performed by Ensemble Organum.
Is there an artist you’re looking forward to possibly collaborating with in the future?
Yes. I’m discussing a potential collaboration with the great Glasgow-based musician Richard Youngs at the moment, but won’t say too much about the nature of it.
What are your upcoming plans? You’re currently on tour – tell our readers a little about that.
Yes, I’m on tour with Alex Neilson and Stevie Jones. We played an enjoyable first show at the wonderful Cafe Oto in London last night, along with Stevie’s project Sound Of Yell, and now we’re heading for Reading to play this evening. Storm Doris hit this island yesterday with very disruptive consequences, but mercifully it didn’t impact too much on our journey from Glasgow to London. I’m looking forward to the chance to allow the music to develop in front of audiences in England, Scotland and Wales over the coming month, and very grateful to the many cool people involved in allowing that to happen!
Photo credits: Eva Gnatiuk