Alasdair Roberts on mining the Middle Ages for new album The Fiery Margin

He may not be a household name but 25 years and umpteen albums into his career Alasdair Roberts’ distinctive trebly tones have finally made it into the households of the nation by that most subversive of means – the trailer for the latest series of The Great British Bake Off. Roberts joins a host of other voices from around Britain, Band Aid-style, in singing a line of The Beatles’ All Together Now for the promo clip – although he notes with wry amusement that he was asked to re-record his contribution to make it sound more joyful. “I thought ‘are you sure you’ve got the right guy?’”

L-R: Ailbhe Nic Oireachtaigh, Stevie Jones, Alasdair Roberts, Alex Neilson PIC: Audrey Bizouerne
L-R: Ailbhe Nic Oireachtaigh, Stevie Jones, Alasdair Roberts, Alex Neilson PIC: Audrey Bizouerne

It’s true that Roberts’ is probably not a voice for celebration, being a spindly, haunted tenor spinning dark tales across a catalogue of sparse and spectral recordings which draw on the melodies, themes and language of the folk music traditions of these islands.

“I struggled for a long time with the idea of being called a folk singer,” says Roberts. “I felt like I did a disservice to people who really were folk singers because I conceived of myself as a songwriter. But then I started singing more traditional songs and I realised maybe from a certain angle I am a folk singer.”

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Roberts has the blessing of no less an authority than the great English folk singer Shirley Collins, who acclaimed his 2018 album, What News, recorded with Amble Skuse and David McGuinness, as her album of the decade.

In fact, if it even matters, Roberts is following in the family folk business. His father Alan was a guitarist, best known for his partnership with Dougie MacLean, and his parents ran an agency in his mother Peggy’s native Germany in the 1970s, booking Scottish and Irish folk bands, before they eventually settled in Callander to bring up their family.

“I think people often imagine that if you grew up in a small town in Scotland then there are ceilidhs every night but it wasn’t like that at all,” says Roberts. “So I had to discover the music myself through my parents’ record collection and later on in researching in archives.”

Roberts’ music career started to take shape in the mid-90s when he moved to Glasgow and began performing as Appendix Out at key grassroots gig venues such as the 13thNote, where it was clear that his otherworldly yarns had at least as much in common with traditional music as with indie rock contemporaries such as Mogwai.

By 2001 Roberts was recording under his own name, moving seamlessly between albums of original material and centuries-old folk songs, which were virtually indistinguishable in style. In recent years, he has become more selective in his archival research while continuing to honour the spirit of the ballad tradition in his own songs.

“When I was younger I was more interested in the darker, tragic and often supernatural ballads,” he says. “I prefer the ones that are more vague or universal or archetypal. I’m not necessarily interested in singing a song about an ancient battle, there are more interesting things which are about a common human experience. The Cruel Mother is a ballad I’ve been singing for many years and will probably continue to sing to the end of my life – I don’t need another ballad about infanticide…

“The songs I write myself, often I’ll take a traditional melody as a starting point and maybe skew it a little,” he continues. “I frequently return to the same preoccupations, which are possibly the pre-occupations of a lot of songwriters – love and death, the metaphysical questions.

“I like the idea of heightened language. For some reason it might feel more natural for me to sing an archaic word than a contemporary word which doesn’t fit in with the notion of the songworld that I’m trying to create.”

Roberts’ latest album, The Fiery Margin, is another evocative collection of brand new ancient songs, inspired variously by the writings of 15th century Christian mystic Margery Kempe and Irish medieval apocalyptic texts. And while it is tempting to assume that the track Europe is Roberts’ response to Brexit, it is actually based on a documentary about a Holocaust survivor, which gave Roberts cause to muse on his own German roots.

“My mum was born just after the war,” he says, “and her parents lived through it. Her dad was called up to fight though he was always anti-Hitler, but my mum’s mum had been brought up in the League of German Girls [the female wing of the Hitler Youth] and even up to the 60s she wouldn’t hear a bad word said about Hitler. But then she killed herself when my mum was very young so I think she had been traumatized by the whole experience.”

Despite his family history, Roberts is not (yet) one for penning personal chronicles. He is, however, a serial collaborator, whose albums are rarely solo efforts. The Fiery Margin depends in part on drummer Alex Neilson, bassist Stevie Jones and violist Ailbhe nic Oireachtaigh for its rich and playful melange of psych, prog and country elements.

Roberts is also a member of the award-winning Furrow Collective, with Rachel Newton, Emily Portman and Lucy Farrell, the freshly minted a cappella quartet Green Ribbons and the touring line-up of David Tibet’s cult gnostic rock outfit Current 93, and the projects just keep flowing.

Of late, he has been dabbling with writing songs using his “basic” piano skills (“everything sounds a bit like Imagine but with less interesting chords”). A residency with French vocal trio Tartine de Clous is already in the bag and there are plans afoot to work with a group of Norwegian musicians at the start of 2020. Not bad for a reluctant folk singer.

“I have some good connections through that world but maybe everyone feels like an outsider,” reflects Roberts. “Maybe there is an orthodoxy which has a stronger and more vociferous take on what constitutes folk music and maybe I’m not part of that, but I feel as immersed as I need to be.” Fiona Shepherd

Alasdair Roberts plays the Blue Arrow, Glasgow, on 17 October, Bowhouse, St Monans, 18 October and Sneaky Pete’s, Edinburgh, 19 October. The Fiery Margin is out now on Drag City