Published Feb 19, 2013For nearly two decades, the Glasgow-based Roberts has been making music drawn from his Gaelic heritage, ranging from strangely compelling to simply mystifying. He reached a creative peak in 2009 with Spoils, an album that matched Joanna Newsom's best work, in terms of transcendence. A Wonder Working Stone follows Roberts' last release, Too Long in this Condition, a more accessible collection of traditional material, and the new album also displays the artist's folk-rocking side, thanks to a tight backing group. At the same time, A Wonder Working Stone retains the elements that made Spoils so magical, mostly in Roberts' poetry, which expands greatly upon traditional themes of lost love, death and spirituality. Roberts continues to sound like a man unbound by time. (Drag City, www.dragcity.com)
How do you describe the path your career has taken to this point?
I started out mostly writing and recording my songs, pretty much alone at first, when I was a teenager. Then I moved to Glasgow at 18 and started playing with people under the band name Appendix Out. We made three albums for Drag City. Later, the name was abandoned; I went on to play with other musicians and since then much of my work, both alone and in collaboration, has featured two main strands. Firstly, I continue to write my own material. Secondly, I interpret traditional songs and ballads from Scotland and beyond. No Earthly Man was the second collection of traditional material I recorded, the first being a solo collection called The Crook of My Arm. I've always worked with a wide variety of collaborators, musical and otherwise, and I hope to continue to do so. Each record I've been involved in making has featured a varying cast of players; they've tended to alternate between collections of self-written material and collections of traditional songs. The most recent, A Wonder Working Stone, is all self-written material. But my writing relates very strongly to, and draws heavily upon, my explorations of the traditional song culture of Scotland.
The new album has some fantastic players on it. Have you worked with this band before and did you work closely with them arranging these songs?
I've known and recorded with many of the players before — Ben Reynolds, Stevie Jones and Shane Connolly, more recently on Too Long In This Condition from 2010, and Tom Crossley was featured on some Appendix Out records back in the day. And Alison McGillivray, from the group Concerto Caledonia, played on Spoils. Most of the other people I've only known and worked with for the past two years or so, such as Rafe Fitzpatrick, Olivia Chaney and so on. The core band for the session were Stevie on bass, Rafe on fiddle, Shane on drums, Ben on electric guitar and me on acoustic guitar and vocals. I wrote all the songs pretty much alone over the course of two or three years — some of the songs being played live throughout that period — and then in April last year brought them to that five-piece ensemble for rehearsals. We spent three or four days playing and arranging the material as a group, then about four days tracking the songs. Most of the other musicians' contributions were overdubs. The parts I play on guitar were often fairly fixed because of the nature of my approach, using strange tunings and so on, but the other parts of the band arrangements — the fiddle, bass, drums, electric guitar — were basically the work of the respective players. I scored the brass and string arrangements; I've been keen recently to expand my working knowledge of composition and arrangement, so it's a direct result of that. Olivia's vocals were overdubbed also. Most of the recording was done in Diving Bell, a studio in Glasgow, recorded by the great Marcus Mackay. I'd used this studio before a year and a bit previously to make a record, Urstan, in collaboration with a Gaelic singer from the Isle of Lewis called Mairi Morrison. But the session was mixed elsewhere, for reasons of time mostly, at Gorbals Sound, a new-ish studio in Glasgow.
Your lyrics always contain such vivid imagery. Do your songs begin as poetry or do you begin with melody?
I take notes for lyrics pretty much all the time and the notes eventually coalesce into words for songs. Similarly with melodies, I tend to have a handful of melodic ideas on the go at any given time. Often, but not always, these are derived from traditional song sources. At some point, lyrics will find the melody to which they best belong. For instance, since completing the album, I've not been writing so many lyrics — I think it's because I'm waiting for the next bunch of things, which have to be said to reveal themselves — but I have been knocking around seven or eight new melodic ideas and I am fairly certain that at some point soon these will be equipped with lyrics. In the meantime, I'm working on singing and unearthing more old songs — traditional ballads mostly of Scottish sources. I've been working on these with my friend David McGuinness on piano, and more recently a woman named Amble Skuse on electronics. My writing is heavily influenced by the language of traditional song and I also think it taps quite heavily into a certain Scottish literary tradition, with recent antecedents such as Sorley MacLean in the Gaelic, Ian Crichton Smith, Hugh McDiarmid, back to Burns and his generation, then further back to Henryson and the mediaeval "makars" and way, way back to the anonymous Gaelic poets of Dark Age Dalriada. The concern with "the natural world" seems to be a very Scottish, very Celtic thing; it's there in Burns's writing in Scots tongue and the old Gaelic poets, and that definitely comes through in my words. Although I've lived in the city for about 18 years now, my roots are in the country, and that comes through strongly in my writing. The "political," topical aspects of some of the songs on A Wonder Working Stone, such as "Song Composed in December," have precedents in the work of Burns — an inescapable figure in Scottish culture. Also, the very title of that song is a nod to Burns's "Song Composed in August." I identify with his sense of humanity and the idea I have of him as being more of an internationalist than a nationalist.
There have been times, especially on Spoils, when I've almost felt as if you're speaking a different mystical language. How big of a role does Celtic history play in your creative process?
At certain times, it's played a big role, in that I've done a fair amount of reading around that and around Celtic mythology also. It's something to which I return, for sure. The connections between the history and the mythology are of interest too. For example, the fact that the nomenclature of the topography of Ireland and western Scotland is revealed in old Gaelic texts such as "The Cattle Raid of Cooley" — such and such a place is so named because a certain battle took place there, a certain hero performed an amazing feat there or a dog died — those kinds of things are fascinating to me. I also often think about an old Scots Gaelic song called "Am Bronn Bin," which translates as either "The Round Table" or "The Sweet/Melodious Sorrow." It's interesting that this is apparently a relic, a fragment of a long-lost cycle of Arthurian tales that once existed in Scottish Gaelic, alongside the classic Fenian lays, the adventures of Finn McCool and all that. That was obviously grist to James MacPherson's mill in the creation of the bard Ossian, who gets a mention in "The Merry Wake," as keen-eared listeners will notice. At the time of Spoils, I was giving a lot more free rein to those more esoteric interests, more the mythological, mythopoeic side, to the point of mysticism, as you say, which isn't such a preoccupation now. But then, a lot of the reading that I was doing about the Celtic mythology, including Welsh stuff like the Mabinogion, as well as Christian/Gnostic and alchemical and Rosicrucian texts, stuff about the Holy Grail and so on, as well as the work of English poets, whose work is heavily informed by similar things — the Mercian Geoffrey Hill and the Welshman David Jones, for example — a lot of that reading was feeding into the music and the words. I'm a lot more of a rational being at the moment, not so drawn to that side of things, and my current concerns, interests and preoccupations as an artist, musician and human being are different, and I believe that a listen to A Wonder Working Stone will make that clear.
I would suggest that traditional Scottish music is still a tough sell in North America, compared to traditional Irish music. Has that been your experience? Also, what would you say are the biggest differences between Scottish and Irish music? I know some contend that Scotland is the true source of all North American music, along with Africa.
It seems to me that Irish music, or some version of "Irish music," is popular pretty much everywhere, more so than Scottish music, so I believe you may well be right. Even in Scotland, in Glasgow where I live, you can go to a pub with a traditional tune session taking place and often the entire repertoire of the players will be Irish. Even in a Scottish session, you'd likely hear around 40-percent Irish music. I think maybe Irish music is a bit more accessible overall than Scottish, if I can make that generalization — slightly catchier tunes, maybe generally a bit more upbeat — and the very familiarity of it makes people respond to it more positively, perhaps. I think it's also true that a lot of North American music has its roots in Scottish and English music, particularly the ballad tradition of the Appalachian Mountains, for instance. But maybe the fact that those are often interminably long and tragic ballads somewhat limits their popularity or their prominence in the attention of a wider public. Those kinds of ballads are, perhaps, more of a niche interest, and one of my own, in fact, but particularly more and more the Scottish versions of them. And maybe, similarly with the African roots of much American "popular" music or "folk" music, the Anglo/Scottish roots are so common, so widespread as to be almost invisible, to go unnoticed, as these things, as you say, seem to constitute, in tandem, the genetic structure of the music on that side of the Atlantic. I don't know — I'm no expert, no ethnomusicologist — but these are just some conjectures drawn from my thinking on the matter. In any case, I think that the work in question here, A Wonder Working Stone, isn't really a straightforward example of "Scottish folk music." Certainly that's one of the roots of the music, but I think of the songs as more like "art songs," which draw on this country's folk song tradition, among other sources. Also, only six of the 13 musicians featured on the record could be called Scottish. There's an Englishwoman, four Englishmen, a Welshman and an Irishman on there too! The personnel, like some of the lyrical concerns, are international.