Alasdair Roberts, talks exclusively to FRUK explaining the detail of collaborating with Robin Robertson and setting his poetry to music for the superb Hirta Songs, one of our Albums of the Month (review here). We also have exclusive video from the album launch at Toynbee Hall in London.
I’m intrigued to know what started the whole project off and how Robin came to the story of St. Kilda. I’ve read the notes and understand that Robin’s trip had a profound effect on him. When he approached you to make the record where you already familiar with the story of St. Kilda?
I was vaguely familiar with the story of St Kilda before Robin approached me with this collaborative idea. Of course, through working with Robin, a man with first-hand experience of the archipelago and a great deal of knowledge about it, I learnt a lot more. I was, of course, also led to do more background reading on the subject before we made the work together.
You seem to have a natural affinity and ability to collaborate with others, what do you look for in taking on a project? What was it that you saw in this one in particular?
Yes, I like collaboration. At its best, something alchemical happens in collaboration where whatever elements the individuals involved bring to the process merge to create something exciting and surprising, something of which an individual working alone would not be capable. Well, it’s not a given that all Scottish musicians or writers are particularly interested in Scottish traditional music and culture, or Scottish folklore and history, or Scottish poetry and the Scottish oral tradition. But I am one of those Scottish musicians who is interested in those things, and Robin is one of those Scottish writers who is interested in those things too. So in some ways it could be said that we have some similar artistic preoccupations or a shared, or at least overlapping, sensibility. Although I’m interested in those things and drawn to the past, I’m also concerned with the future and creating new work, work which is original but nevertheless rooted in and part of some kind of Scottish cultural continuum – and I believe that Robin is, at times, very interested in doing this too! So with that in mind, I felt that Robin and I could work well together – as we had done once before a few years ago, when we wrote just one song collaboratively for Chemikal Underground’s Ballads Of The Book project, which teamed various Scottish writers with various Scottish musicians. As that process had borne fruit, and as through that process I had come to form a friendship with Robin in addition to our working partnership, I felt that if were to collaborate again in the future it could yield some satisfying results.
How did the music take shape? What approaches did you take to the songs? How did the tunes suggest themselves?
I’m not a Scottish Gaelic speaker – I took some lessons last year and have a few words and phrases – but I have a strong interest in Gaelic music and culture. There have been times when hearing Gaelic song has elicited an extremely strong emotional response in me. For example, I remember a friend, an artist from London named Victoria Putler, playing me for the first time a recording of Murdina MacDonald of Ballantrushal, Lewis, singing the evangelical hymn ‘Tha Do Rìoghachd Làn Do Ghlòir’ (‘Thy Kingdom is Full of Glory’), recorded by Morag MacLeod in 1969 – and it having a profound effect on me, one which could maybe even be described as epiphanic. A sense of something both alien yet familiar… the language being lost on me, but some emotional core of the music coming through nonetheless in the grand, flowing, shapely melody and the gently melismatic singing. Maybe something like what I later learnt might be called, in Irish singing, the ‘nyah.’ When I was growing up, a family friend was Roddy Campbell of Barra, a fine Gaelic singer from a family of musicians, who at that time was living near Stirling in central Scotland (as was I)… and I remember being intrigued as a child by my father telling me that Roddy had centuries-old Gaelic songs ‘about trees’, as he put it. I don’t know about the veracity of that, but you can understand why it might intrigue me – and still does, the idea of these ancient bardic survivals in contemporary Scotland. Mostly what I would listen to in recent years, in the belief that it was important, as a Scottish musician, to familiarise myself with this material, would be recordings of older singers… singers such as William Matheson of North Uist, Flora McNeil of Barra and Calum and Annie Johnston, also of Barra. Listening to the Gaelic songs and reading the lyrics in English translation.
Anyway, for this project with Robin, I felt that musically I wanted to locate the songs within this Gaelic song-world which was both alien and familiar to me – because, of course, the islands of St Kilda were inhabited by Gaelic speakers. So the melodic material for the songs is drawn from Gaelic songs… I listened a lot to Gaelic song of all kinds as ‘research’ – a pleasurable kind of research for somebody who concurs with fellow non-Gael Alan Lomax in his description of the Scottish Gaelic song tradition as ‘The flower of Western Europe’! There were maybe eight or nine Gaelic song tunes I had in mind in the early stages of the project, when I first encountered Robin’s texts, and so it was a case of discerning which, if any, of these pre-existing Gaelic melodies might suit Robin’s words. In some cases I felt that the tunes fitted pretty well as they were – for example, the tune used for ‘The Plain of Spells’ is ‘Mor a’Cheannaich’ (but a little slower than you might hear it fiddled at a session in Babbity Bowster’s in Glasgow on a Saturday afternoon)… and sometimes the tune is adapted quite a bit – for example, ‘A Fall of Sleet’ has skewed and stretched the timing somewhat of the Gaelic song tune ‘The Battle of Inverlochy’ on which it’s largely based. That same tune recurs later in the album in a minor-key variant – a form of ‘closure’ but in a more sombre mood to match the song which relates the story of the habitation of St Kilda coming to an end.
Sometimes the Gaelic song tunes I had in mind wouldn’t really seem to work as the basis for Robin’s lyrics… so I would just make up my own tune – that’s the case with ‘The White-Handled Knife.’ Then there are echoes of piobiareachd, or pibroch, what’s known as the ceol mor or the ‘big music’ of the Scottish highland bagpipes – those lengthy, almost proto-minimalist compositions with their origins in the mediaeval courts of the clans of Gaelic Scotland. It’s a music which often strikes the contemporary listener as sombre and elegiac (perhaps some of the pieces weren’t really conceived with that effect in mind, but then perhaps many of them, being laments or commemorations for battle, were). There’s also a little bit of the influence of the kind of traditional Gaelic psalmody which is still practised in some churches in the Western Isles (not to mention some Gaelic churches elsewhere, including Glasgow, where I live). The ‘precentor’ (in this case, me) ‘lines out’ the phrase which the congregation then follows in a manner which sounds/has the effect of being very improvisatory, free and loose. That psalmodic element occurs in the coda of the very last song – I gathered a group of friends in my flat to act as the congregation and one of them, Luke Fowler, recorded the results.
Can you introduce the other players and what drew them to the project. Where did you record and how did you approach the recording.
Tom Crossley played drums and flute and did some singing. I’ve known Tom since about 1996 or so. We both moved to Glasgow at about the same time. Back then, he had just started his group International Airport (I think he’s currently in the middle of making the next International Airport album)… and was also playing in The Pastels (who have just put out a new album and, I believe, have just been touring in Europe). He played with me when I was still using the name Appendix Out, in the late nineties and early 2000’s (including the second Appendix Out album ‘Daylight Saving’ which was recorded entirely in Tom’s flat in the west end of Glasgow!), and has played on a bunch of the recordings that have been released under my own name (but which nevertheless feature other musicians). I love Tom’s approach to playing the drums, and to playing flute and I love his singing voice… I sense his personality coming through in everything he does, every sound he generates by whatever means, and it’s a personality of which I am very fond. So I approached Tom to see whether he’d like to play on this Hirta Songs session.
I’ve been playing with Stevie Jones for about five or six years now. He’s also played with Arab Strap and the guys from those bands in their solo projects, among many other things in his illustrious career. He also does a lot of theatre sound design work. When we play together he mostly plays upright bass while I sing and play guitar… although like Tom he’s a great multi-instrumentalist who can also play piano and guitar and probably anything else that comes his way. He’s also a very great recording engineer – we mixed this session together on his studio set-up in Glasgow (while playing chess, Stevie invariably winning!) and, while he didn’t engineer the session, it was his suggestion that we record it at Chamber Studios in Edinburgh with Graeme Young at the desk. It was a studio that he’d enjoyed working in before with his old band El Hombre Trajeado, and it seems to be one of the few studios left which offers recording in the analogue domain. So we recorded the session to two-inch reel to reel tape, then bounced the session down to Protools for mixing and some overdubbing.
Rafe Fitzpatrick plays the fiddle on Hirta Songs and we’ve been playing together for about three or four years now. He’s a Welshman living in Glasgow – he also played on, and contributed a Welsh rap to the last record to come out under the name Alasdair Roberts & Friends, A Wonder Working Stone. I love Rafe’s touch on the fiddle – he has a great sensitivity and a very developed improvisatory sensibility also… I mean, even when not out-and-out improvising, as on this session.
Basically how it worked was I let these fellows Stevie, Rafe and Tom know the chords and the structures of the songs; we rehearsed them in Glasgow for a couple of days and the fellows came up with their own parts. Then we took them into the studio and recorded them in another couple of days. It was all pretty quick.
I had been a fan of the Incredible String Band for a while – one of the more important and interesting bands to emerge from Scotland in the latter half of the 20th century; all amazing musicians and, later when it was the core of Mike Heron and Robin Williamson, both gentlemen capable of writing some wonderful and beautiful songs! I like what Robin has gone on to do, for instance on an album such as ‘The Iron Stone’ – seems like he’s had a serious immersion in ‘the mysteries of Britain’ – that Celtic lore, the ancient Fenian lays of Ulster, Alba and Dalriada and the Cymric wonder-tales for one thing (I suppose some things which interest me also, and things in which I am sure that Robin Robertson is also pretty well-versed), in his development towards full-flung bardism… but also seems just a very inquisitive and open-minded musician all round, open to ideas and to working with different kinds of players.
I had approached Robin Williamson about the idea of touring together when I was working on a piece of puppet theatre with my friend Shane Connolly – the idea of us doing our ‘Galoshins’ Scottish folk play piece with Robin doing his bardic thing – singing, storytelling, guitar playing, harping. That didn’t happen, but nevertheless I met with Robin one winter’s day in Cardiff when I was on tour and during our conversation it emerged that he was a keen player of the hardanger fiddle. Robin Robertson had previously expressed an interest in having some hardanger fiddling on this session – as something capable of conjuring a sound which is somehow perhaps slightly similar to the drone and skirl of the Highland bagpipes, yet more capable of being easily integrated into the musical setting with which we were working… and also something which echoes the Norse history and connections of the islands of St Kilda. So anyway, it ended up that Robin Williamson recorded hardanger fiddle for two of the songs in Cardiff and emailed them up to us in Glasgow!
I had worked with Corrina Hewat before – I did a gig along with her and Karine Polwart in London a few years ago. Robin Robertson had also expressed an interested in having some instrumental sections to the work to act as a sort of connective tissue for the songs. The tunes around which Corrina is improvising are based on tunes published in a collection of songs from St Kilda itself. Again, she recorded these parts at home and sent them to us to add to the mix.
I guess the words are evocative for the telling of the human story and capturing nature’s bounty and fury, but contrasted against the startling geography. The long Leaving Of St. Kilda draws you into the arcane mystery of the remoteness. What were the challenges of setting that? It’s a quite beautiful piece.
I suppose that the challenges of setting that piece were really Corrina’s! We sent her the recording of Robin reading the poem and I think she spent a bit of time improvising things on harp around it, then she presumably sent us the take, or composite of takes, that she was most happy with. At some point Robin and I were considering the idea of setting it with Highland pipes as well as harp, or instead of harp, or not setting it musically alone and letting the words stand without accompaniment. Actually, recording the two poems of Robin’s for this record proved challenging. It happened that on the day that Robin came to the recording studio he was suffering from a cold, so that studio recording of him reading the poems wasn’t really useable. I ended up taking my digital eight-track down to his home in London to record him there!
Will you be touring the album? It has the feeling of a complete work that needs to performed in sequence.
I think we will do one or two full-band shows at least, but I am not sure whether it will be a whole tour.
Interview by: Simon Holland