Across a string of solo albums released since the turn of the century (and a few years with indy favorites Appendix Out before that), German born, Scottish raised singer Alasdair Roberts is already something of a veteran on the British folk scene - consequence not only of those albums (a few of which stand proud in any poll of the century’s best you could name), but also of a voice that is a unique as it is magnificent, as distinctive, again, as any that came before it.
He is no stranger to these shores; Roberts first toured the US with Rian Murphy, Bill Lowman and Gareth Eggie a little over twelve years ago. He did a six week solo tour in 2005, and has also been over opening for The Decemberists (“playing to hundreds of student kids who thought I was Irish”), Texas’s Charalambides and Drag City labemate Joanna Newsom “in places I wouldn't otherwise get to visit, such as Atlanta, Georgia, Birmingham, Alabama and Nashville, Tennessee. The last time I was there was for three weeks in summer 2013 with bass player Stevie Jones and guitarist Ben Reynolds.”
Right now he’s in the market for a new US booking agent (his old one retired), but hopes to be back soon… and in the meantime, there’s the records.
It’s a helluva discography. Nine albums and an EP veer between his own compositions, and some truly atmospheric collections of folk traditionals; while a 2013 collaboration with Robin Robertson, Hirta Songs, delivered one of the most compulsive of them all. He is scattered across a dozen or so different compilations; records as a member of the impossible-to-overrate Furrow Collective (of whom, more shortly); and his latest self-titled release (on Drag City, his label since the Appendix Out days) is, quite frankly, astonishing - the sound, it seems, of a musician so far off the modern beaten track that his very solitude feels like all the company you could need.
It’s certainly a vivid contrast to his last album, A Wonder Working Stone, as he explains.
“In some ways it was a conscious decision for this new record to be realized in quite a different manner from A Wonder Working Stone – that record featured twelve other musicians and was recorded mainly live with full-band arrangements, whereas the new one began as a solo endeavour. Partly because… it was a reflection of the way I felt at the time socially. The people I am lucky enough to play with, amazing musicians and good friends here in Glasgow, were all so busy with their own projects that they just didn't happen to be available at that point in time, so that's why I recorded them alone.”
Other factors did come into play, however. “I had booked Green Door Studio in Glasgow to work on another completely separate project; then the musician with whom I was meant to be working had to cancel. This left me with two days of studio time to use, so I decided to record 'demos' of eleven new songs. They were all tracked to 2 inch analogue tape by the great engineer Sam Smith over the course of two days in December 2013.”
“I then sent rough mixes of the tracks to Drag City; the folks there enjoyed the recordings, and so I decided I would continue working on them and that they would form the basis of an album. After those two days of tracking, I invited some friends in to overdub parts on some of the songs – Alex South on clarinet, Donald Lindsay on whistles and The Crying Lion singing group on four-part vocal harmony. One of the songs was abandoned (or at least kept for a later project), making ten songs in total to constitute the album. Two days of tracking, two days of overdubs and two days of mixing, all at Green Door Studio.”
Of course, 2013 had already seen the release of Hirta Songs, titled for and effortlessly revisiting an island in west Scotland’s St Kilda archipelago, and released on Steven Collins (the Owl Service)’s Stone Tape Recordings label.
“I'd recorded one song with the London-based Scottish poet Robin Robertson, and we'd discussed the idea of making more work together. Robin and his partner Karin had visited the now-uninhabited archipelago of St Kilda a few years back; Karin had been inspired to write a novel (her first, Island of Wings, about the place) and Robin ended up writing a series of texts, some poems and some which he felt should be songs, about It.
“As Robin is not a musician, and as we've worked together before, and I suppose because of his awareness of my various musical and historical interests as a Scottish artist, he approached me to turn his texts into songs.
“St Kilda was formerly a Gaelic speaking territory, [so] I chose to set the texts in a Gaelic kind of melodic/musical world (although I'm not a Gaelic speaker) by adapting melodies from traditional Gaelic songs and so on. It was recorded along with a lot of good friends and regular musical collaborators of mine – Tom Crossley, Stevie Jones, Rafe Fitzpatrick and others.”
Another collaboration that should be sought out at the earliest opportunity is Galoshins, devised with Shane Connolly, head of the Sokobauno Puppet Theatre company, and also an accomplished drummer… he plays on Roberts’ Too Long in this Condition (2010), as well as A Wonder Working Stone.
“Galoshins was/is a traditional Scottish folk play, similar to the English mummers' plays, featuring a death-and-resurrection motif and a cast of stock characters (Galoshins, The Admiral, Doctor Brown)... I became interested in it after reading a book about it by a fellow named Brian Hayward. Perhaps because of a feeling (whether correct or not) that music is essentially a two-dimensional art, and due to sense of wanting to expand artistically into other dimensions as well as a feeling that the Galoshins play could be well realized through the medium of puppetry, I approached Shane with the idea of collaborating on a production of it.
“This all came about through my being commissioned by the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh in 2011 to produce some new work to commemorate the School's 60th anniversary... there's lots of material about Galoshins in the School of Scottish Studies archives. Our production of it incorporated a few traditional Scots songs, and also some elements of folk tale from Scottish sources. We toured it throughout Scotland in 2011 and have performed it occasionally since then – our next performance will be in January 2016 at the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow. We might film it some day, so it can be seen by audiences other than live audiences.”
You do seem to have drawn a very firm line between your “traditional” recordings and your own compositions. A two part question - why do you separate them out like that? And will there be another collection of traditional songs?”
“I'm not totally sure why I keep the traditional songs and the new writing so separate. Perhaps I feel that the one would detract from the impact of the other. I think it's just an instinctive feeling that they don't necessarily belong together. I've said before that it's possibly a manifestation of the 'Caledonian antisyzygy' – a split in the Scottish psyche – but as I'm not even all that Scottish, surely it can't be. But then, perhaps my lack of Scottishness is what's at the root of the separation – the lack of integration.”
The Furrow Collective is also one of the beneficiaries of his traditional instincts. “The Furrow Collective is a group with two English women (Lucy Farrell and Emily Portman) and one Scottish woman (Rachel Newton). I've been a member of it for about two years now. We've made one album, have done a lot of touring, and are working on a second album. If there are traditional songs which I'm interested in, my first thought tends to be nowadays that it might work well for this group. They're all such great musicians, it's exciting to hear how they approach the material which I bring to the group, and I also enjoy the songs that they bring to the group.
“But there will indeed be another solo collection of traditional songs at some point… in winter 2013, my friend David McGuinness, who's a wonderful pianist, and I recorded eight ballads in piano/voice arrangements which might yet see the light of day. And I'm sure that I'll continue to explore and find value and relevance in those kind of songs as I move into the autumn of my life.”
In the meantime, the future is already fully booked, by Galoshins; by plans to record a “bunch of new songs” in the new year, “in Ireland, I think, with Stevie Jones and Alex Neilson”; and by the release of “a record by a great singer named Kirsty Potts” - Roberts plays guitar and sings on a collection that itself features a number of traditional Scots songs, “among other things.”
There’s probably more, too, by the time you read this. So check out www.alasdairroberts.com, and prepare to be spellbound.