Adventures in old songs: The irreverent freshness of Alasdair Roberts

‘I don’t really consider myself a folk singer,’ says Alasdair Roberts, whose music is steeped in traditional influences.

Alasdair shuns the label not out of some desire to avoid being pinned down, but because he feels certain words are ‘fraught with problems.’

‘Some people think of me as a folk artist, not sure if I do myself,’ he says. ‘Sometimes I do. In some ways it’s an adequate description, but in other ways it isn’t really.’

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Alasdair also doesn’t like the cliches and associations with being an ‘acoustic artist’.

Though he has done his fair share of the stripped back, raw, one-man-and-guitar approach, Alasdair doesn’t seem to have an attachment to any particular style.

Having started out as an experimental and electronic artist, this makes sense. His primary interest is in the sound, not in the dogma or the genre.

Alasdair’s latest self-titled album has a warm mix of instrumentation and individuality.

He gives the impression that he would like to do more work with other musicians, and not be tied down to preconceived notions of the lone folk balladeer.

‘I think a lot of people, they think that they are getting something, because of the intimacy, “authentic”. But these words are fraught with problems. “Authenticity” and “honesty”.

‘People feel that they are getting that with this kind of approach. A stripped back approach makes people use words like that, and when I read reviews of my records with words like that I don’t really like it. It makes me uncomfortable.’

Alasdair’s music is infused with traditional music and stories.

He often peppers his live performance with new interpretations of classic ballads and can bring large audiences to utter stillness with his unaccompanied renditions of these songs.

Alasdair’s advantage as a ballad singer is that he doesn’t rely on established approaches, and he’s not referencing any nostalgic oeuvre.

Scottish music in particular suffers from this nostalgia, and can often be dismissed and avoided by modern audiences for its perceived corniness.

In short, British folk music can sometimes suffer from an image problem.

Alasdair, being a sound artist first, brings your focus onto the song, and the song only.

But if he doesn’t consider himself a folk singer necessarily, why turn to folk songs?

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‘I’m attracted to the song form in particular,’ he explains.

‘I think when comes to traditional song, in Scotland or elsewhere, it’s the ballad or narrative songs that appeal to me, and have done for a long time. So I suppose in that sense I suppose I could be regarded as a folksinger.

‘But I feel like I am trying to act creatively with traditional material. My own writing draws on quite traditional sources a lot of the time.’

There is a marked difference between his approach to traditional forms and his own writing, however.

When interpreting old songs, he still pays respect to their simplicity, and to the heritage of melodies that they provide.

Alasdair’s own self-composed work, however, is broad reaching, drawing on multiple influences and he seems to go out of his way not to let a song be dictated to by style.

Each piece has its own identity, and invents its own rules.

Alasdair recalls his first adventures in sound recording, which were anything but traditional.

‘I started out recording in my bedroom when I was like sixteen or seventeen. Well, I started recording stuff then,’ he says.

‘I bought a four track when I was seventeen, and I spent a lot of time as a teenager alone in my bedroom recording music. At that time it was more just sonic experiments, it wasn’t necessarily about songs.’

The concernen with texture and sonic impact is something that has lasted in Alasdair’s approach, particularly in his live performances.

But his background and family heritage were steeped in the Scots folk tradition. With a father who was a folk musician, Alasdair says he remembers old records from the likes of Alex Campbell in his father’s collection.

Was there a sense of reacting against all that in his early musical identity?

‘I think so,’ he admits. ‘And I think that tension sort of remains. Sometimes it’s felt more keenly in the work than at other times. But I think that’s quite typical of a lot of Scottish artists of my generation.’

Where does the resistance come from? Is it wanting to avoid cliches, or the familiar?

‘An association with conservatism, small-mindedness, and backward looking, retrogressive impulses.’

That ‘remaining tension’ could be the source of Alasdair Roberts’s piercing and arresting performance style.

When playing live, there is a constant need to explore, to avoid the predicted result and find a new way of saying what’s been said already.

Alasdair continues: ‘After a while the question of conservatism didn’t really bother me.

‘I didn’t feel that exploring or having an interest in an art form that one perceived as something conservative necessarily entailed that you as the explorer of that art form were conservative.’

This balance of exploration and conservatism is prevasive in Alasdair’s work, and he now embraces it fully.

He says that the influence of a presbyterian culture may be the source of puritanism in the Scots folk tradition, and as a result its tendency to get trapped in repetitive tropes and associations.

However, Alasdair is wary of getting into any political or cultural speculation, and though he recognises the Scottish heritage, he doesn’t consider it – or anything else – the dominant influence on his creativity.

‘I suppose on some level there was an exploration of Scottish identity,’ Alasdair explains, ‘but then my repertoire has never been exclusively Scottish. I sing English and Irish and American songs too.’

Like any good sound artist, the environment and immediate sensory resources are where Alasdair seems to get his impulses to write.

‘There’s a historical influence and the traditional influence comes from these older recordings and things, but then there is the very immediate contemporary influence of the people I am working with in the moment.

‘I live in Glasgow, and I’ve lived there for about twenty years, and its very vibrant musical community so we just absorb the atmosphere of what’s going on.

‘Different projects of the people you work with, that’s more of an influence than saying I’m influenced by Bob Dylan or something.’

Even when it comes to traditional material, the sense of exploration and freedom still fuels the process.

Alasdair explains that one song can change identity each time you sing it, and that this is part of the power of old songs.

He says: ‘The Cruel Mother, I’ve probably been singing that for fifteen years now. And the way I approach it now is completely different than the way I did ten of fifteen years ago.

‘And I am sure as I grow and mature, and as I experience things in my life, it will enrich my approach to that song.

‘And hopefully the way I sing that song in fifteen or twenty years time will be totally different to the way I sing it now. You can always find different things in the song to explore.

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‘Different ways to think about it. Different ways to think about the characters and different ways to bring those characters across.’

This fluidity and adaptability are essential to Alasdair Roberts as an artist. But it’s the fact that this sometimes irreverent freshness meets with traditional forms that makes his work so important and unique.

As long as Alasdair Roberts continues to perform, Scottish folk song can properly be called a ‘living tradition’.

Alasdair Roberts will be performing a two-day residency at London’s Cafe Oto on February 10-11. 

Tickets can be purchased here

For more information visit alasdairroberts.com 

 

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