IF Geordie acoustic guitarist and writer of rambling, bug-eyed modern folk songs Richard Dawson has yet to appear on your radar then I humbly suggest you remedy the situation, for his is a world which emanates positive vibes and off-the-scale feats of imaginative ambition.
Picture a voice somewhere between Peter Gabriel and Gruff Rhys, a feral yet virtuosic finger-picking guitar style and an approach to songwriting that calls to mind the whimsy of Kevin Ayers and the acoustic enquiries of such Scottish contemporaries as RM Hubbert and Sound of Yell.
Now transfer that to a suite of psychedelic songs set in north-eastern England in the early middle ages with one-word titles such as Masseuse, Scientist, Beggar and Prostitute, and tell me you’re not confused.
In simple terms, within Peasant you’ll find unspeakable acoustic beauty a la Jim O’Rourke (Soldier), a sprawling feast of choral call and response (Ogre) and a bottomless well of melodic feints, lyrical quirks and refreshingly unpolished performances from Dawson and co-pilots Rhodri Davies and Angharad Davies.
It’s a bonkers, messy, life-affirming stew. You’ll be up for seconds, guaranteed.
Watch the video for Ogre here:
Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.
Shortly before the conclusion of Electric Eden, a 607-page study of British folk music through the ages, Rob Young pauses to contemplate the current torchbearers of the genre. Among those the author singles out is Alasdair Roberts, whose music, he writes, “hitches the solemnity and bleakness of tragic traditional songs to a visionary poetic diction that recalls Blake, Ted Hughes or David Jones, occasionally rising to bitter jeremiads worthy of a ranting Old Testament prophet”.
Roberts hasn’t read his copy of the book, he tells me over coffee and Ferrero Rocher (“a gift from a neighbour”, he is swift to clarify). But mention of the author’s name sparks the singer and songwriter into storytelling mode, providing a fable for aspiring avant-gardists along the way. “Rob Young was responsible for putting me on the cover of The Wire,” he says, a half-smile spreading across his whiskered face. “I was like, ‘What the fuck am I doing on the cover of this experimental music magazine?’ And then it was almost like the work dried up for a few months.” A rueful laugh ensues.
“I remember writing to another musician, a friend of mine; I don’t know if I should mention his name.” Go on, I tell him. You can always ask me to omit it later. “Och I’ll say it – it was Will Oldham, and the theme of it was: the work has dried up since they put me on the cover of The Wire. And he wrote back: ‘It’s the kiss of death.'” Roberts laughs, something which, contrary to much of what you might have heard or read about him, he does frequently and enthusiastically.
Within his tale lies one of the difficulties facing such individualistic musicians as Roberts, who falls not between two stools but many. After seven solo records and a handful of earlier releases under the monicker Appendix Out, the 37-year-old could fill a swimming pool with the acclaim he’s drawn. Though steeped in traditional Scottish folk music, it’s unlikely you’ll see him headlining Celtic Connections any time soon, yet you sense he’d relish the opportunity.
We meet on a dark evening in early January. Outside Roberts’s tenement flat in Pollokshields the fires of new year have long been extinguished, replaced by an eldritch wind, nagging rain and the unflickering synthetic flames cast by rusted streetlamps. We’re sitting in his kitchen – spartan seems the most apposite adjective – talking about tradition, the “muckle sangs”, ritual and medieval lute music besides less earnest subjects. The guitarist from Wet Wet Wet, for example (Roberts and Graeme Duffin both studied under the late jazz guitarist Laurie Hamilton); the 1980s (“Some of my earliest pop music memories are Erasure, the Communards and Culture Club”); and being unable to sleep at a music festival due to the psychedelic exertions of the Flaming Lips (“I wish I’d seen them but I was ready for my bed”, he says gnomically). Roberts is a thoughtful subject, quietly spoken but readily focusing on the conversation despite having spent the day in a Glasgow recording studio producing a record for the American musician Matt Kivel.
Primarily, we are here to discuss Roberts’s eponymous new solo record, and whether the fact it eschews the full-on approach of its predecessor A Wonder Working Stone – officially credited to Alasdair Roberts and Friends, a loose alliance that includes Stevie Jones (Sound of Yell) and Ben Reynolds (Two Wings) – might bring him new followers. There’s precious little of the “dronal, rustic ‘dark Britannica'” Rob Young ascribes to Roberts’s music on show this time around. If anything, I tell him, this is a record the traditional folk crowd could easily embrace – lyrical, direct, accessible.
“I never liked the term ‘singer-songwriter’ but it is a kind of singer-songwriter record,” says Roberts. “In some ways the fact they’re self-written songs might put off the traditional folk community but if they engaged with it they’d realise I see those songs as a contribution to the trove of traditionally informed music. I have quite a complex relationship with the idea of traditional music.”
To learn why, we must look back. Roberts was born in 1977 in Germany to Alan Roberts, a Scottish folk musician and promoter who partnered Dougie MacLean for a spell, and his German wife Annegret (now a practising minister in Perthshire). “He was friends with guys like Alex Campbell so that was there when I was growing up, but it was the 1980s so I was listening to John Peel and pop music on Radio Clyde under the covers,” he recalls. Did he rebel against his father’s musical background? “For a while, until I was in my late teens and started digging around in his record collection and discovering guys like Nic Jones and Steeleye Span.”
The tension between his folk and noise impulses raged for a while. “When I started making music in my bedroom when I was 16 or 17 it was a lot more sonic experiments using anything that came to hand on a four-track [recorder], just making a racket,” he says. “As I’ve got older my focus has become more and more on guitar playing and singing, but that’s not to say there aren’t times when I like to make a racket.”
Is it an urge fuelled by testosterone a la the psych workouts of bands like Comets On Fire? “Not so much testosterone. For me an element of catharsis or ritual is often important.” He points to the wall, upon which hangs a modest hand drawing of an owl. “This is from my record No Earthly Man, which is all traditional songs, and the making of that record felt like a ritual. There’s a song, The Two Brothers, which to me feels like a piece of ritual magic, and the way we arranged it tried to convey that.”
Rewind a little, and the vinyl discoveries of his youth developed into a still-burning odyssey into the depths of traditional music from both south and north of the Border. Who does Roberts count as an influence on his singing voice – fragile yet bold – if not his guitar playing? “Dick Gaughan,” he says after a long pause, “and Martin Carthy is an important figure for me. Nic Jones. I could name a lot of older traditional singers to listen to and study – Jeannie Robertson, Lucy Stewart, Lizzie Higgins, Stanley Robertson, Duncan Williamson. A lot of traveller singers are my favourites – Sheila and Belle Stewart. There are so many great singers.”
Such interests have underpinned Roberts’s solo career since he jettisoned the Appendix Out name, resulting in parallel avenues comprising collections of Scots ballads and his own compositions. It’s a duality off which the Callander-raised singer continues to feed. “When it comes to traditional song my main area of interest is the narrative ballads, the muckle sangs,” he explains, “so I research those and sing them, then after a period of immersion I’ll do some writing and the influence of traditional songs is obviously felt in my own writing.
“I’ll adapt a tune or a turn of phrase or a conceit from a traditional source then take it from there. I’m interested in making new music but I’m also interested in the old music that informs it. I like the idea of the new work being located in this continuum of tradition but also being outside it. It’s almost like an alternative reality.”
Alasdair Roberts is out on Drag City.
Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group. A longer version of this interview was published on The Quietus and can be found here.
A record more shorn of cynicism and plump with wonder than Icelandic singer Ólöf Arnalds’ fourth long-player will be a struggle to identify this or any other year. As fresh and cleansing as meltwater, Palme’s singular songs are distilled to the point of 100 per cent purity, a canvas of lilting acoustic and electronic instrumentation crowned by a voice so honeyed it ought to come with a health warning.
With Palme, Arnalds not only sings in English throughout for the first time, but also changes tack to step fearlessly into the digital realm abetted by her compatriot Gunnar Örn Tynes of the collective Múm, whose electronic impulses interweave with the jazz leanings of Arnalds’ regular collaborator (and partner) Skúli Sverisson to conjure a playful and plangent palette that spans bossa nova, electronica and tiki-pop.
It’s a recipe that reflects the laudable war on the flabbiness of western rock classicism that’s been waged by Icelandic artists since The Sugarcubes first put the country on the map. The result is a succinct octet of free-spirited reveries that defies easy comparison, whether the single Patience‘s mesmeric sway, the salut d’amor of Han Grete or Hypnose, a ravishing brew of syncopated beats, digital glitch and childlike melodicism.
Listen to the single Hypnose below.
Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.
Cass McCombs is trying to describe where he lives these days. “New York … California … on the road,” he says, his speaking voice as candied and languorous as it is on record. “I try to live light.” It’s not by choice, he emphasises, but rather necessity.
Forward motion and restlessness are themes that pepper the 37-year-old’s canon, which swelled to seven albums with the release of double LP Big Wheel And Others last October. The rumbling, rolling title track opens with: “I dig the taste of diesel and the sound of big rigs/ Rubber, metal, oil and stone/ Scoring at truck stops, lot lizards and driving far alone.”
McCombs’s music is neither folk nor country, rock nor soul, yet touches on all four, as nomadic as its creator.
There’s no money in touring at his level, he tells me. He can’t put his band on a wage – “There’s nothing to pay them with” – and he can’t afford roadies. So why tour? “It’s a reward, it’s what it’s is all about,” he says. “We get to travel and talk to people and learn about what’s up in these different places, instead of reading it in a newspaper – which is valuable – but to hear what people are saying about politics or whatever, it’s essential.
“What it comes down to is feeding off that moment. It takes a long time to create the space where that microsecond of creation can exist. Because life is just a crazy science experiment, like a mad doctor’s laboratory, and it could go one of a million different ways.”
With nothing but musical satisfaction to offer his band, how does he keep a steady – and happy – line-up? “There’s a loose policy to the band, how it’s organised,” he says. “It’s like a tag team. I understand people come and people go – that’s natural. Everything should be fluid and natural, and imitate the natural world. So if you’ve got to go you’ve got to go. But I’ll find a replacement.”
The singer is speaking from New Jersey, where he is spending time having just completed a North American tour before heading to Europe next week. McCombs’s show in Scotland on Thursday will be his third time in Glasgow. Asked for his fondest memories of the country, the road takes centre stage once more.
“It’s always so wonderful driving into Scotland,” he says. “It’s such an emotional experience just to watch the terrain turn … Scottish,” he chuckles.
McCombs’s oh-so Californian evenness vanishes briefly at the suggestion he should visit the Highlands. “Oh, I would love to,” he says animatedly. “One of these days.”
Until then there is the endless road and recording with which to keep busy. Having delivered seven albums in 10 years, besides his debut mini-LP Not The Way in 2003, McCombs is among the most industrious artists around. How does he view the evolution of his music?
“I don’t really think about it, y’know? I don’t like mirrors. I have this thing with some friends of mine, where if a question is too personal we say: ‘That’s a mirror.’ When you look in a mirror you can do your make-up or fix your hair but it doesn’t actually show you what you look like.
“It’s a reverse image and it’s a distortion. It’s not even three dimensional. It’s a two-dimensional reverse image of yourself. I feel the same way about trying to assess my feelings on myself. It’s not up to me to know.”
While his records are dotted with musical and technical imperfections (his second album, PREfection, concludes with 10-plus minutes of a car alarm going off), it’s possible McCombs’s profile is most hampered by what can be interpreted as prickliness, but which is in all likelihood little more than a distaste for the rules of the game. Here is a songwriter with all the chops of, say, the late Elliott Smith, Josh T Pearson or Jimmy Webb, but little of the kudos. Is he a square peg in a round hole? “I don’t know if I’m a square,” he says, sniggering. “Maybe a rhombus or a triangle. A giant triangle trying to fit into a tiny hole.”
How, then, does McCombs explain his failure to prosper, financially if not creatively? “There are so many factors to making music. There’s music, that’s number one. That exists beyond any business model, before all the chatter. It’s a very tranquil dimension. Then you sprinkle in the physical reality of trying to perform that music, and the gas it takes to be able to do that.
“Then there start to be corrupting agents, and it takes effort to maintain music as just music. You want to keep it music, and everyone wants to turn it into some kind of dialogue. Well no, I don’t want it to be a dialogue. No-one wants it to be a dialogue except you.”
At this juncture McCombs is at his liveliest. Whether by “you” he means music writers or not is unclear.
“It’s not a dialogue. It’s not a concept. It’s not a genre. There’s no reason – it’s just music. Can’t we just have our music be music? Why does everything in the world have to be commerce? I don’t get it.”
His point made, McCombs collects himself and continues: “I actually like this business. It’s fucked up and stupid and wack, and everyone’s wrong, but I kind of like it. It’s like prison – it’s evil and awful and scary but it’s real, and in some ways it’s better than not being in prison.”
I ask what he’ll do when he hangs up the phone. “I’m just gonna walk around in the snow a bit. It’s a winter wonderland out here.” Another echo of restlessness. For Cass McCombs, drifting beats standing still every time.
Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.