The Alasdair Roberts og Völvur album The Old Fabled River came out on July 23rd. What can you tell us about the new album?
Alasdair Roberts: When the group first came together in Oslo in early 2019, it was the first time we had all met. Hans Kjorstad became a temporary artist in residence at Riksscenen, Oslo’s centre for Norwegian folk music, and as part of his role there he was able to invite certain guest collaborators to the venue for a series of concerts, and one of those guests was me. We’d never played all together before, so when we first came together, we played it fairly safe in terms of what material we worked with – mostly songs from my back catalogue which the others had very thoughtfully taken the time to listen to, and learn, from the original recordings!
However, a year later I was able to invite them to the UK for concerts in London and Glasgow. We arranged to do some recording in London when they were over in January 2020. We all thought it would be a good opportunity to expand our repertoire with new material and also include some Norwegian songs as Marthe Lea, in particular, knows many. Also, before the Scandinavians came to the UK I sent them rough solo demos of the four self-written songs of mine as possible options for recording. We ended up playing some of these live, and amazingly Hans went as far as taking the time to score some arrangements for a couple of the songs.
The most solidly prepared material for the Völvur recording was the four self-written songs of mine; I think once we’d recorded those, we turned our attention to the other pieces – the two traditional Norwegian songs, the Scottish ballad and the song by Robert Burns. The Burns song and the traditional ballad were both Fredrik Ratsen’s idea. We’d sung Now Westlin Winds in concert in Fanø the year before. The Scottish ballad Sweet William’s Ghost was one that I’d recorded as a solo version many years ago; that version features on a compilation CD which had somehow found its way online and from there into Fredrik’s attention.
For the two Norwegian songs sung by Marthe, the approach in the studio was largely improvisatory, guided by her singing. There was no overarching concept to the record, really. However, a couple of days ago someone asked me whether it was a concept record – noting that it begins with a song of welcome, then a Norwegian song about the sun rising, moving eventually through the month of August (the Burns song), closing with another Norwegian song about the sun going down. I said to this fellow that any concept wasn’t by design, but that the record had somehow attained its own circularity, which I admit to finding quite satisfying.
This musical project brought you to Norway. What was that visit like?
Alasdair Roberts: I’d had the good fortune to visit Norway a few times previously, for example on holiday as a child and for various concerts and music festivals over the years. However, I’d never really had the pleasure of visiting in the depth of winter – late winter, really, when the snow had been lying on the streets of Oslo for long enough to have turned into a fairly treacherous sludge underfoot! As a Scot, the long hours of midwinter darkness were familiar to me; however, in recent years at least, Scotland has seen far less snowfall and our winter climate is probably generally a bit less bitingly cold. The welcome we received at Riksscenen in Oslo was great. What Cecil Sharp House in London is to England, in terms of being a national centre for folk music, is what Riksscenen is a bit like for Norway.
How do you see the musical landscape of Norway and the Nordics? Have your visits to the Nordics had an impact on your music?
Alasdair Roberts: I’ll focus on Norway particularly, as the range of countries is so diverse. Of the Nordic countries I’ve visited (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland), I’d say that it’s perhaps in Norway that I found most affinity with Scotland somehow. That’s in various ways – the temperament and demeanour of the people, the culture and music, the weather. Musically, I find something in some of the traditional styles, particularly of singing, to be quite reminiscent of certain styles found in the Gaelic-speaking areas of Scotland. I’m thinking particularly of the subtle use of ornamentation in much Norwegian singing, and the same in, for example, ornamentation in Gaelic singing in the Isle of Lewis in particular – an island with a long history of contact with the Nordic world. I’ve had a particular fondness for hardingfele music since I first recall hearing any significant amount of it, which I think would have been on a solo tour of Norway some fourteen or fifteen years ago. I bought some CDs of archive recordings (players such as Eivind Mo and Odd Bakkerud) and listened to them on the train from Oslo to Bergen and then up to Trondheim and back. I wouldn’t claim to fully comprehend that music, but it’s definitely left its mark on my musical consciousness.
Aside from traditional Norwegian music, I was struck by how the music scene in Oslo reminded me somehow of that in Glasgow, in that it seems, at its best, incredibly diverse, supportive, open-minded and collaborative. It seemed to me that the players in Völvur are involved in a similar kind of grassroots, DIY movement in Oslo as my Glaswegian friends and I are back home, one which brings together a wide range of people with varied yet complementary musical interests and approaches.
Hans Kjorstad, how do you see the musical landscape of Scotland?
Hans Kjorstad: I’ve been fascinated by the music and culture of Scotland (also Ireland and England) for some years. I find the depth and beauty of the instrumental music, the different singing styles and the epic elements in the ballads very interesting. And of course, I was listening to the work of Alasdair Roberts for many years before I contacted him. I was introduced to his records by a couple of friends in Oslo. What I like about him is the seriousness of his approach to tradition whilst simultaneously creating songs that approach something timeless. I think this is what Anthony Braxton means when he talks about ‘restructuralism’.
A fun fact is that quite many traditional tunes in Gudbrandsdalen (the valley I come from) are named after the Scottish captain George Sinclair, who led an army of mercenaries walking through our valley back in 1612. They were heading for Sweden but never made it past Gudbrandsdalen as they were killed in an ambush. Many of the tunes bear some resemblance to bagpipe music.
What are the future plans for Alasdair Roberts og Völvur?
Alasdair Roberts: If the state of the world allows it, we will play some more concerts in Norway and Denmark in September 2021. Beyond that, I’m not sure. It’d be great at some point to be able to bring the Scandinavians back to Scotland and England to play gigs, but the logistics and expenses of bringing six people to the UK are a lot tougher than those of bringing one person (me) to Norway! Before Hans and the others came to the UK last January he’d mentioned his interest in working up a version of ‘Draumkvedet’, a mediaeval Norwegian poem; however, at that point time constraints and so on didn’t really allow for that to happen. But that’s a potential future Völvur recording project, perhaps…