Dusted Features

Roberts' Rules: An Interview With Alasdair Roberts

today features
reviews charts
labels writers
info donate

Search by Artist

Sign up here to receive weekly updates from Dusted

email address

Recent Reviews

Dusted Features

Dusted's Jon Dale talks to the Scottish folk-singer formerly known as Appendix Out, Alasdair Roberts.

Roberts' Rules: An Interview With Alasdair Roberts

“I think of singing the old songs in maybe a psychoanalytic way, with a Bloomian kind of anxiety of influence. Feeling the weight of tradition, of all kinds of earlier voices, bearing down, and paradoxically wanting to respect them and pay tribute to them while also being aware of the need to move the thing on to something new and not being afraid of messing around with things.” Alasdair Roberts and I are working through respect for the past, figuring out how performers both place themselves in and are placed by tradition. It is a continuous theme throughout Roberts’ music. Most of us encountered Roberts through his group Appendix Out, whose first 7” was released on Will Oldham’s Palace Records. This fact, combined with certain surface similarities in the grain of Roberts and Oldham’s voices and a shared fascination for the subtle re-reading of archetypes past, led to inevitable comparisons. However, Roberts has always seemed far more earthed than his first benefactor has, never ‘performing’ his voice’s idiosyncrasies. By the time of Appendix Out’s first album, The Rye Bears a Poison, Roberts’ songs were determined things, explorative and eloquent, and only ‘archetypal’ in that their production values suggested a certain corollary with the Witchseason productions of the 1970s.

The three Appendix Out albums released by Drag City, 1997’s The Rye Bears a Poison, 1999’s Daylight Saving and 2001’s The Night is Advancing, plot alternate courses for songform. They are full of mysterious pathways, elliptical verse and ingenious, sidereal arrangements. Daylight Saving’s “Merchant City” maps the psychogeography of an unnamed town, the church leading to an orchard giving way to a black cat beckoning you to the wasteground, Roberts’ vocals ghosted by the understated colloquialism of Kate Wright of Movietone. The following “Exile” calls the song from the bottom of a well, a tale of love and death writ in parsed, miniaturized verse. The Night is Advancing is seriously expansive, the group at their most collaborative, bringing in Sean O’Hagan to co-produce and push the songs into other zones: at times free jazz, the water music of Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom, and the dark corners of Bill Fay.

Roberts is characteristically pragmatic about the changes the group went through. “It wasn’t planned - I didn’t have a long-term sense of what would happen from record to record. I see the first two Appendix Out albums as siblings but the third one as unrelated to them somehow. There was definitely a gradual lessening of autocracy on my part from record to record, now I think of it, and a greater willingness to take on board the views of others.” After The Night is Advancing, Appendix Out released a handful of EPs, one including an intensely spooked cover of “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” while Roberts released his first solo record, The Crook of My Arm, a collection of traditional songs. Its one-man-and-an-acoustic-guitar setting is the classic traditionalist’s move, usually mired in the discourse of the ‘stripped back,’ authentic performance (no one, it is said, can hide behind such a minimal set-up). Roberts, however, invests the songs with a halting, negotiable tenor, and takes liberties with arrangements, melodies and lyrics. In his own notes to the record, he quotes Roland Barthes’ essay “The Death of the Author”: “The responsibility for a narrative is never assumed by a person but by a mediator, shaman or relator whose ‘performance’ - the mastery of the narrative code - may possibly be admired but never his genius.”

What is interesting about Roberts’ music is the tension between deep respect for the tradition of folk music and an aesthetic imperative toward messing with the songs’ constraints. This is a gesture that rubs against the grain of the orthodoxy, and it’s in this space that Roberts’ music asks its most critical and probing questions. An inquiry about the ongoing ‘radicalization’ of folk music through the re-reading of its core tropes (conducted at various times, by 1970s folk-rock, or some modern free folk), an analytical dissection of the supposed rarefied structural impermeability of folk orthodoxy, yields the following response. “I think that to speak of ‘radicalization’ is to reduce it to a kind of linear/temporal political dialogue, when I believe those songs occupy a metaphysical sphere beyond time and space and politics and the matrix of oppositions such as conservative/radical. That sphere is one of paradox. To clarify, I think that the act of singing the old narrative ballads, in particular, is like a juggling act between a myriad of voices - you have to sing the song in your own voice (which I’d regard as the cause of the perpetual radicalization you mention), but also let in the voices of those who sang the song before you (which explains what some would see as the apparently innate ‘conservatism’ of singing these songs), and the voices within the songs, the voices of the characters, which I think are the primal voices. To connect with all three kinds of voices is important, and I’m not sure if I manage, but listening to the singers of those songs whom I admire most, I get a sense that they are experts in wielding all those voices – the radical, the traditional, the primal (or, looked at another way, the personal, the communal, the dramaturgical).”

The performer henceforth becomes conduit for meaning and history while allowing his or her interpretation of the song’s narrative and key overarching theme to spill loose from the tongue. There is a simultaneous historicization and modernization going on: the ‘placing’ of the self within a historico-critical discourse that continually intervenes through the interpretive ‘bastardization’ of traditional text. “It’s a process of people finding their own voice in a tradition,” Roberts qualifies, “and of using the raw material of the past to assemble discourses which help them explain the world around them as they find it in the here and now.” At the same time, there is a fundamental core narrative meaning to certain songs. As an example, Robert cites “The Two Brothers” from his recent No Earthly Man, which he claims “couldn’t really stray that far from how it stands narratively without becoming a different song entirely, as the symbols and characters are so starkly resolute.” These narratives are often analogous to modern concerns. “I think that those kinds of fundamental cores of meaning within certain songs don’t have to be actively or consciously preserved, as they’re basic human preoccupations,” Roberts adds. “As long as they are basic human preoccupations, and as long as they serve the psychological needs of an individual or community, then those cores of meaning will survive out of necessity in that individual or that community’s musical/cultural products. It doesn’t matter if one day they don’t, because that will merely indicate that that individual’s or community’s need for them has lapsed.”

The Crook of My Arm consisted of 12 love songs, many of which were ‘soured’ by the death of a protagonist or lover. No Earthly Man contains eight death ballads. These are Roberts’ only releases that consist entirely of traditional material. This thematic coherency hints at an overriding power and content to the songs chosen. They demand contextualization. For Roberts, this key theme is often effaced by the (sometimes-implied) ancillary content of the songs. “I didn’t consciously choose to record a lot of songs about mortality,” he suggests, “In some ways I think that the other themes in many of the songs on No Earthly Man are more important than the death theme. For example, “The Two Brothers” to me is about a lot more than just two brothers wrestling and “Lord Ronald” is about a lot more than a sweetheart poisoning her lover – if that’s all they were about, I doubt I would be compelled to sing them. When I say ‘compelled,’ I’m kind of implying a derogation of responsibility for ‘choosing’ to sing songs – it’s more like an unconscious, magnetic process of attraction between them and me rather than a conscious choice.”

The death ballads gathered by Alasdair Roberts for No Earthly Man are exemplary in both content and configuration, centering on the incremental repetition that scholar Francis Gummere noted as one of the ballad’s principal structures. Roberts’ approach to these songs is startling. Where traditionalists often get lost in the dusty shelves of post-F.J. Child scholarship, Roberts reanimates the songs through avant stratagem. He is one of the few performers to have correctly divined Bob Stewart’s proclamation that “there is never a correct version of any folksong, only variants sung by folk-singers,” which echoes Roberts’ earlier comments about finding one’s own voice within the body of the tradition. If anything is going to ‘capture’ Roberts, it is his personal history: his late father was a folk singer of some renown who traveled the English folk circuit. When I ask Roberts about the ‘appeal’ of folk music, what drew him to traditional songs, he rebuts, “I don’t know if ‘appeal’ is really the right word. Sometimes, in some ways I feel trapped by it, overburdened by it, or doomed to it, in a similar way that one might do to a genetic inheritance. I think about the manner in which I tie my shoelaces, in a really laborious, ham-fisted way, and how I was doing that one day in front of my mother and she said that my father used to tie his shoelaces the same way. I find that my guitar playing takes after my father’s a lot too, more and more, but whether the similarities in knot-tying and guitar playing are genetically inherited or something else, I don’t know.”

So the historical resonances in Roberts’ music are many: within the body of the songs themselves, there is a traditionalist discourse, a counter-discourse of radicalization, and a desire to search out one’s true voice through traditional music. There is also a personal history to Roberts’ engagement with folk music. Each of these leaves sediment in his performances. Likewise, in Folk Song in England, A. L. Lloyd documents a shift in balladry over the centuries, from the epic/magical to the heroic and onto the domestic. If the heroism of the ballad’s protagonist has been ‘downsized,’ Lloyd notes, “In many of these ballads… ideological strata are found from all the savage and heroic ages that the ballad-idea has traveled through.” Roberts’ settings acknowledge not only the personal, social and historical resonances captured in the folk ballad, but also his own place in a creative arc of reclamation and regeneration. Some of these recordings are as expansive and form-disruptive as Fairport Convention’s “A Sailor’s Life,” or the episodic structure of Shirley Collins’ “Murder of Maria Marten.”

Many of the great death ballads involve the premature end of a relationship, and No Earthly Man features several representative tableaux. Whether the death is intentional, as in the murderous mistress in “Lord Ronald,” or accidental, as with the anthropomorphic tale of “Molly Bawn,” Roberts etches the songs with an observational air, precluding vocal pathos for musical settings that loosely parallel the narrative. His approach to both songwriting and interpretation shares with folk and certain other forms a core ‘impartiality’ - Roberts tends to evacuate himself from the songs in service of the narrative, or to abstract a set of conditions addressed sufficiently from the first-person singular so that the lyric may open to others. Roberts quietly concurs. “I’m not really interested in doing straightforwardly autobiographical songwriting, one reason being that I don’t think that my life is interesting enough to justify it. On the other hand, I am seeking a kind of non-literal autobiographical truth in the songs I make – a mythic rather than historical truth. The sentence “Jonah was swallowed by a whale” is perhaps not literally ‘true,’ but when it’s analyzed in mythic terms, other kinds of truth encoded in it reveal themselves. In a similar way when I sing about having a son and a daughter in “Down where the willow wands weep,” it’s clearly not historically true, it is symbologically so, in a very personal way.”

By Jon Dale

Read More

View all articles by Jon Dale

©2002-2011 Dusted Magazine. All Rights Reserved.