Their Library: Alasdair Roberts

Literary influences explored...

Alasdair Roberts has built up a singular, curious and ever-entrancing catalogue.

An artist rooted in tradition yet refusing to be bowed by it, the Scottish songwriter is capable of crafting deeply moving work, songs which recall history while sitting resolutely in the present.

The singer's new self-titled album is out now on Drag City. A warm, embracing return, the enhanced instrumentation is matched against some of Roberts' most lucid, insightful lyrical word play to date.

Directed by Joseph Briffa, you can watch Alasdair Roberts' new video below. Alongside this, Clash invited the Scottish artist to enter Their Library – check out that literal themed Q&A after the jump.

What is your favourite book and why?
There are many books I enjoy, but I think that if I could only take one book with me to a desert island, it would be 'Gargantua and Pantagruel' by François Rabelais. It's a book which I enjoyed hugely when I first read it only about five or six years ago in Burton Raffel's translation. Despite the huge cultural differences between the context of its creation (mid-16th century France) and the context of my own reception of it (modern Scotland), the lewdly satirical humour speaks across the centuries.

In particular the concept of the 'carnivalesque' as it is embodied in Rabelais' work (and in the work of those writing about him, particularly Bakhtin) has been, at certain times, an interest of mine and has fed into some of my own work. 'Gargantua and Pantagruel' is a weighty and complex enough work that, if I had plenty of time on my hands and a good annotated edition of the text, it could keep me occupied, amused and enlightened for a long time.

What other authors do you like?
There are many authors I could name, and also many authors with whom I am largely unfamiliar, and that vexes me because I wonder whether I will ever manage to get around to engaging with their work. For example, I tend not to read much contemporary fiction, for whatever reason, but an exception to this is that I recently enjoyed the first novel of the Irish writer Eimear MacBride, 'A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.'

Stylistically it is pretty unique, written in a sort of fractured, disjointed stream-of-consciousness style quite unlike anything else I've encountered recently. I also found it extremely harrowing and dark, but nevertheless captivating. For the past year or so I have been exploring the work of Doris Lessing also – I enjoyed a collection of short stories, then 'The Grass Is Singing' before reading 'The Golden Notebook', which I found less immediately engaging than the aforementioned writings. I feel that she writes particularly perceptively on issues of class and race.

What draws you to certain books?
There are different reasons for reading certain things. Often I go for long spells of only reading non-fiction, then have the feeling of something missing from my intellectual or emotional life that only a well-written novel can fulfil. Other times I might find myself reading a lot of poetry of various kinds – for instance in recent years I've come to enjoy much of the writings of Peter Redgrove, whose vast body of work I find pretty psychedelic, and another recent discovery is Seán Rafferty, who's quite different again – he seems to me to be a more pared-down writer, grounded in something ancient and formal while being thoroughly modern.

Have you ever discovered a real lost classic? If so, what is it?
No, I'm afraid to say I don't think that I have!

Do your literary influences have a direct impact on your songwriting?
Although I read fairly widely in different areas, I think the kind of literary material which has had the most impact on my own work is a particularly Scottish poetic one, encompassing the richness of the country's traditional song and ballad heritage as well as those writers who recognise its value and who draw on it in various ways.

This is a thing going right back to the anonymous Gaelic bards of the Dark Ages, through the mediaeval Scots 'makars', up to Burns and his generation and through on into the 20th and 21st centuries, taking in more recent writers such as Violet Jacob, Edwin Muir, William Soutar, Iain Crichton Smith and so on, towards contemporary writers such as John Burnside and Robin Robertson.

What are you reading at the moment?
By my bedside is sort of a work-related tome – 'The Singing Tradition of Child's Popular Ballads' by Bertrand Harris Bronson, which is an abridged version of 'The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads' in one volume. I am also reading an abridged Dover edition of Robert Burton's 'Anatomy of Melancholy' which I received as a Christmas present, but I am looking around for the next thing to read… hopefully something unabridged!

What was the first book you remember reading as a child?
I remember reading the Ladybird 'Peter and Jane' books while standing around the teacher's desk at primary school, around the age of 6 or 7, I suppose.

Did you make good use of your library card as a child?
The library in our school was fairly good and well-stocked but when I moved to Glasgow in my late teens I began to make use of the city's Mitchell Library, which is a great institution. I'd use it not only to read but also to visit the piano booths which can be rented by the hour – a good place to sit and play music awhile.

Have you ever started a book that you simply could not finish?
I tend to be the sort of person that feels the need to struggle through to the bitter end of a book, even if it feels like it's not really doing anything for me.

Do you read book reviews?
Yes – I fairly regularly read journals such as the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books, just to see what's going on in the world of published material, get an overview of what's being written nowadays – sort of as a substitute for actually buying and reading all the individual books themselves.

Would you ever re-read the same book?
Yes – I recently re-read 'Lanark' by Alasdair Gray, which I first read about ten years ago.

Have you ever identified with a character in a book?
I once struggled through to the bitter end of a tedious book about a white guy who plays guitar and sings songs.

Do you read just one book at a time, or more than one?
I normally have two or three books on the go at one time, for different purposes, but also treating each with varying degrees of engagement.

Is there an author or poet who you'd love to collaborate with?
I've collaborated with the aforementioned Scottish poet Robin Robertson, which was a very enjoyable experience. We made a record named 'Hirta Songs' together, for which he wrote the text and I wrote the music. I'd definitely be interested in collaborating with another writer of some kind; perhaps it would be most rewarding to do so with someone from a completely different kind of literary background, such as someone who writes books for children. That could be fun.

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Photo Credit: Drew Farrell

Alasdair Roberts' new self-titled album is out now.

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