Alasdair Roberts

January 20, 2011
By Jordan Anderson

Photo by Alex Woodward

Alasdair Roberts was raised in Callander, Central Scotland and has based himself for most of his recording career in Glasgow.  He has released many albums on several labels, most of which, since 1997, have been for Drag City.  These releases appeared at first under the moniker Appendix Out, although from 2001 onward they have been made available for the most part under Roberts’ own name.

This interview was conducted via email, and in it the songwriter discusses his approach to the work of creating music, his recording methods, and his interest in musical collaboration as a means of expression.

At what age did you begin playing and writing music, and at what age did you first become interested in listening to music?  What is it about music that you feel drew you to it as a form at those times?  Did you always want to be a musician?

I’ve been playing and singing music since I was a young child, but I began concentrating on playing guitar, singing and writing, which is the main part of my current practice, more seriously at around the age of 15.  Again, I always enjoyed and paid a lot of attention to music in my very early years, from growing up in a musical family and having musicians in the house (my father Alan and his friends), to listening to the pop music of the day (I’m talking about the Eighties) and so on.  I think I always knew that music would feature very strongly in my life, but not necessarily as a music-maker myself.

You mentioned in an interview with Dusted that you “think of singing the old songs in maybe a psychoanalytic way, with a Bloomian kind of anxiety of influence.”  What is it that you feel draws you to music from the distant past?  Is it a particular way of looking at the world that is expressed in such music?

At certain points I have found it very important to study, not necessarily in an academic sense, traditional and folk song and music forms – there I don’t mean from the “distant” past (that’s another matter as I do indeed enjoy a lot of music which could be described as such…).  Particularly, in recent times, the music and song of Scotland.  This has meant listening to a great deal of material in recorded form, from the past 70 years or so, of the traditional singers and instrumentalists of Scotland.  It has been my belief that such a study, an immersion, would be necessary for me in order to inform and enrich my own musical practice.  It’s certainly nothing to do with particular worldviews encoded in the music or the songs, as these can frequently appear abhorrent to me in some ways – and one thing I am keen to do in my own writing, which does indeed tend to be derived from traditional sources – is to explore these kinds of problematic areas of tradition.  To subvert the reactionary kinds of aspects which can seem to be encoded in traditional material.  When I invoked Harold Bloom in the interview you quote, I suppose I had just recently done a literary theory class where he’d been mentioned and I was interested in the way that artists feel the burden of the past – the sense of holding the work of previous artists in high regard and gaining the impetus for their own creativity from the anxiety borne of knowing that they are labouring under the shadow of former greatnesses.  There is a lot of amazing music from, as you say, the distant past – and there is also a lot of amazing music being made nowadays, which, depending on one’s mood, can be heartening and inspiring or somewhat anxiety-inducing and defeating.  One source of anxiety could be the sheer range of musical possibilities available nowadays, the vast array of musical avenues to explore.  I’ve found that a way to deal with this is to enjoy, explore and learn with open ears and heart from as many different kinds of music as possible while also being aware that the focus of my own musical practice will always remain, at core, some form of interrogation of the traditional music and song of Scotland, Britain and beyond.

At the moment I have a growing interest in Gaelic music, language and culture.  Next year I’ll be recording with a singer from the Isle of Lewis named Mairi Morrison, on a project involving Gaelic and Scots/English songs (probably mostly traditional material).  This is part of an on-off preoccupation with the notion of ‘Celticity’, I suppose.

Could you describe your songwriting process?  Do you keep a certain number of writing hours per day, at a certain time, and is there a particular place that you find most conducive to writing music?

I tend to take lyrical and musical notes all the time.  Lyric ideas are scribbled down and then collected on a word processor for later reworking, and melodic and musical ideas are recorded on a hand-held recorder or held in my brain until they’re ready to come together with the verbal ideas.  It’s rare for me that words and music come together – more often it’s a case of assembling fragments and snatches of both into a complete song, and the gestation of new songs can take months or even years.  At a certain point the desire to write, play and create is so strong that I’ll spend hours a day working on it, but this is rare.  It’s more often a little every day – a couple of hours a day perhaps – but then I also feel I have to sing and play at least a little every day on top of that.  And a huge part of the creative process in terms of working on new material is bringing it to other players – the initial phase may be solitary – but the material will be teated and hopefully really take off and come into its own when other players bring their own approaches, spirits and personalities to it.  Collaboration is extremely important to me.  I reiterate – extremely.  That social aspect is one of the main things which music is about for me.

At the moment I have about 18 to 20 new song pieces in development – these have gone beyond that initial phase of lyrical/melodic creation and, as I have recently started engaging with composition and arrangement than ever before, I’m using both a longhand pen-and-paper approach and computer-based notation software to write arrangements for these new songs, which I’m hoping to record at some point in 2011.  As I’ve always been a fairly intuitive musician and never really formally studied music (beside some piano and guitar lessons as a teenager), it’s been a process of teaching myself about composition through an aural immersion in various ‘composed’ musics and also reading books on harmony, counterpoint and music theory.  This is the way I’d like the music to develop in the future – to be more compositionally and arrangementally complex.  But again, the initial origins of the songs will always be in some way related to the traditional musical material which has been the background of my music for more than a decade now.

Photo by Jean-Marc Luneau

What sort of guitar (or guitars) do you use, and what draws you to that model?

The guitar I play mostly at the moment was built by a friend of my father Alan’s named Les Brown.  He lived in Glasgow, Scotland in the Sixties and made a few guitars as well as being a guitarist and singer himself.  He moved to Germany in the Seventies.  The guitar is beautiful to look at and to play – I’m fortunate to have inherited it from my old man when he passed away on 2001 and never to have needed to buy an acoustic guitar of my own.  I also inherited a K Yairi Martin copy from him, which is pretty nice too.  Sometimes I play a Danelectro electric guitar, but rarely.  My main focus at the moment is the acoustic guitar, and the Les Brown guitar in particular.

What has the process of recording your albums been like?  How do you feel the process of creating an album has changed for you since your work as Appendix Out?

The process of making albums has been different every time.  Looking back, it seems like every record has involved a different cast of players, for a start.  That’s one of the most important things, certainly.  As I said, I love collaboration – playing with, socializing and sharing with and learning from other musicians is very exciting to me.  And the albums have mostly been recorded in different places, different studios or other spaces, with different engineers.  Sometimes there have been producers on board, and sometimes not, which is very different from working without one.  And they’ve been recorded at different times of year.  Personally speaking, they’ve all been recorded at, and mark, different phases of my life and work and each seems to reflect my preoccupations, interests, enthusiasms and discoveries of the time, not to mention, without wanting to sound dramatic, in some ways also my emotional and mental state at the time.  All these things have the cumulative effect of making the recording process somewhat different each time, which is extremely important to me.  I don’t want to remake the same record each time, nor have the same experience doing so every time.  In terms of my own involvement in the records I’ve made, there’s no essential difference between now and the time when I used the name ‘Appendix Out’ to my working methods, I think.  I am the same person and I have been mostly playing guitar and singing since the beginning, and I have always collaborated with different people.

Are there any books that you’ve read lately that you’ve felt particularly inspired by?

At the beginning of the year I was reading things such as “The Silver Bough” by F Marian McNeill and “The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles” and “Stations of the Sun – a Calendar of the Ritual Year in Britain” by Ronald Hutton…as well as a collection of the York Mystery Plays and “Patterns in Comparative Religion” by Mircea Eliade and John Gregorson Campbell’s ‘The Gaelic Otherworld.”  Also books on Scottish history – “The Highland Clearances” by John Prebble, to name one.  All of these books fed into the lyrical content of some of my recent songs.  Those kinds of things which occasionally preoccupy me – religion, mythology (Celtic and other), folklore, history.  Not so much fiction, although I studied English and Scottish literature.  At the moment I am reading “Buddenbrooks” by Thomas Mann – I read his “Doctor Faustus” a couple of years ago and very much enjoyed it, but “Buddenbrooks” seems a little less immediate a pleasure…and also dipping into a collection of essays called “Feminisms” of feminist literary and cultural theory which I got when I was a student about ten years ago and shamefully never really explored.  Trying to get in touch with my feminine side.  And dipping into the Barddas of Iolo Morgannwg, a kind of Welsh proto-druidic text.

In a related question, I was wondering what some of your favorite books, films, or works of art are, and what do you feel it is about those works that draws you to them?

There are so many to choose from and so many which I haven’t read or seen, it’s hard to say.  I read “Ulysses” by James Joyce last year, but I read it fairly quickly, didn’t feel I did it justice and it is a book I’d like to explore more in depth over the coming years.  This year in terms of cinema, I enjoyed “South,” a documentary about Shackleton’s voyage to the Antarctic with a new score by a composer on Touch Records whose name escapes me just now…and recently “Of Gods and Men.”  Boys’ films.  And a boys’ book.  In terms of visual art, this year I enjoyed a show of mediaeval Spanish art I saw in London, a show of Walid Raad at the Whitechapel Gallery and John Cage Anselm Kiefer (separately) at the Sage in Gateshead.

In the Home Lights Tour video it shows you stopping to look at, I think, an ancient ruin, and on “So Bored Was I (Dark Triad)” you sing, ‘I strode ‘mid tombs and sarcophogae’ — do you feel inspired to create music by particular locations?

I suppose it reflects my interests in mortality, ancient history and cosmology which sometimes come out in the lyrics.  It’s maybe not so much certain sites or locations as the ideas of them – for instance, the idea that the town of Bath in England was known by the Romans as Aquae Sulis, and the spring there was sacred to the Celtic goddess Sulis, whom the Romans identified with Minerva.  Those kinds of things…and the Celtic concept of “dinnseanchas.”

What are your favorite interests outside of music and literature?

Cooking, conversation, wine and whisky, carnal pleasure, “the natural world.”

Alasdair Roberts’s website is here:

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