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Alasdair Roberts Chats About His Beautiful New Album Spoils

Posted by Miss Ess, June 4, 2009 04:32pm | Post a Comment
Drag City recording artist and Scotsman Alasdair Roberts' new album Spoils is one of the best I've heard all year. It's a lyrically dense, elegant and complex album with trad folk touches. One of its best qualities is its natural ease -- it manages to sound both organic and dense, positively medieval and modern at the same time. Roberts has been creating eloquent, idiosyncratic albums for quite some time, since 1994 to be exact, at first with the band Appendix Out and then simply under his name for the past 8 years. He was rather famously signed to Drag City after handing Will Oldham a tape of his music back in 1995, and his musical career has blossomed on since then. Spoils feels like the culmination of the sound he has cultivated since his first solo album. It is well worth tracking down and listening to repeatedly. My interview with Alasdair follows.

alasdair roberts

Miss Ess: When and how did you begin writing songs?

Alasdair Roberts: At 15 when I saw footage of the Hindenburg disaster on television and heard the pain in the presenter's voice saying, "Oh, the humanity." I then wrote my first proper song called "Autumn."

ME: What records from your youth have stayed with you most strongly?

AR: Early eighties pop singles. "Karma Chameleon" by Boy George; "Don't Leave Me This Way" by the boy georgeCommunards. "Pass the Dutchie" by Musical Youth.

ME: Whose music inspires you? Whose words inspire you?

AR: Many, many musicians. Some fantastic Romanian buskers in Glasgow city centre today. Fiddle and accordion. I am constantly amazed at how many great musicians there are everywhere who don't receive the credit they deserve. At the moment, Hector MacAndrew. After that I'll listen to Monteverdi. Everything I hear at one turn makes me want to quit and otherwise makes me want to improve my own art and keep going.

Words-wise, recent reading has been a lot of poetry from the so-called Metaphysicals to Wallace Stevens, Sorley MacLean in translation, Geoffrey Hill, David Jones, as well as the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, Colm Toibin's translation of the Cattle Raid of Cooley, the Poetic Edda, writings of Mircea Eliade, Kerenyi and Emma Jung's book on the Grail legend. That kind of stuff.

What Scottish rock and folk artists are your favorites?

There are so many -- singers like Lizzie Higgins and her mother Jeannie Robertson, Davie Stewart, Elizabeth Stewart, her aunt Lucy Stewart, Duncan Williamson... Dick Gaughan, the earlier records particularly.davie stewart

How did Appendix Out's first single on Palace Records come to be?

Will Oldham heard some four-track recordings and handed them on to the guys who ran Palace Records. They put out the first two songs on the tape -- I front-loaded it so that the hits were first.

What kind of connection do you feel you have with Will Oldham's music? It's like you both are able to mingle aspects of your countries' deep rooted, native sounds with something completely your own...

Maybe some kind of similar attraction to the song form and engagement with singing as a means of "expression." An awareness of what's gone before and an attempt to reconcile that in creating something new. An element of metaphysical and philosophical exploration. Similar straddling of intellect and idiocy.
spoils alasdair roberts
What comes first for you with your songs: music or lyrics? What was your writing process like for Spoils? The songs all seem connected in a beautiful way.

A mixture of both -- I take notes of lyrics all the time which eventually become songs. Guitar parts come separately -- I experiment a lot with different tunings. I'm aware by now that I'll never have the greatest guitar chops, so it's been a concern to try and forge a distinctive guitar style via the use of scordatura, which makes me sound like a better player than I actually am. Half the Spoils songs were written in a crazy summer blurt of activity; then I went on tour and the other half were written afterwards.

Where was your new album recorded? How did you decide on the instrumentation? Do you hear the songs in your head before you record or do you spontaneously bring them together in the studio?

A small analogue studio called Green Door in Glasgow. Great engineers Sam and Emily. Re: instrumentation, I had an idea that the record would be 'syncretic' -- yoking together apparently oppositional belief systems and/or musical approaches, so I brought together musicians from a lot of different backgrounds; all great musicians in their respective fields, all fairly well superior to me instrumentally...

alasdair roberts

Your songs are clearly influenced by ancient tales/imagery. What first exposed you to mythology? avocet bert janschWhat about it appeals to you?

I don't know; it seems like a fertile area for the generation of ideas; the mythospheres of the world. It's not about escapism or nostalgia, it's more about the way that matters ancient can still have relevance today, and perhaps eternal relevance, although that's probably fanciful.

You are touring with Bert Jansch this summer in the US! Which album of his is your favorite?

I have been listening a lot to his record Avocet recently... beautiful.

What records have you been listening to lately?

A lot of stuff on tour -- Avocet... Fonotone boxed set... Abner Jay... Dexy's Midnight Runners, Kitchen Cynics, Alban Berg as played by Anne-Sophie Mutter, Bach's Magnificat, Jock Duncan, William Parker's Double Sunrise Over Neptune, Chain and the Gang, Hector MacAndrew, Gaelic Bards and Minstrels by William Matheson, Wagner's Parsifal, Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate... etc.

What song describes your life right now?abner jay one man band

"It's the World's Gone Crazy (Cotillion)" by Waylon Jennings. My own new song "Scandal and Trance," which treats of the current global economic meltdown.

What is an album that you love that you think more people should hear?

Bris by Nils Okland. The Noah's Ark Trap by Nic Jones.

What has been your best record store find?

Double Shirley Bassey live LP in my local charity shop.

Thanks for taking the time to do this. Come to San Francisco sometime soon!

Would love to come back!


Relevant Tags

Alasdair Roberts (2), Will Oldham (13), Bonny Prince Billy (1), Spoils (1), Interview (272), Appendix Out (2), Drag City (12), Scotland (4)