When you listen to an Alex Roberts’s song for the first time it’s like meeting an old friend. He sings you intriguing stories and sentimentally reminisces in such a captivating way that familiarity is almost instantaneous. His honed song craft simply draws you in and holds your attention to the very last note. The warmth of his voice and the finger style acoustic approach whether it be on guitar or lap steel are perfectly balanced. You can’t help to be willingly immersed into his musical landscape that he diligently and seemingly effortlessly creates before your ears. Drawing on folk, roots and blues influences he weaves a tapestry of fine original works that are undeniably charming and captivating. A modern day balladeer, his approach is sometimes a little raw, sometimes a little sentimental but his delivery is always honest, real and heartfelt, he is undoubtedly a modern day folk troubadour. (Aron Radford, The Weissenborn Information Exchange album review 2013)
When i reviewed his album back in 2013 “Waiting On The Sun Again” i was moved enough to award it TWiE’s best “Vocal/Playing” album of 2013. A point of interest here would be to say the album was and (still is at time of publishing) the first and ONLY album made up of entirely lyric based songs with continual Weissenborn accompaniment throughout, now i thought that would get your attention! At the time the website hadn’t yet been created but I had always wanted to meet and talk to Alex about this particular album. So with the website formerly established I approached Alex about doing a feature for TWiE and he kindly agreed to talk to me.
So tell us about your early musical development, I understand you studied music academically?
Not until after many years of self- learning. It’s the only true education. I’ve always had music in me, my mum played a bit of folk guitar, and taught me some, but really I learned to play guitar by starting my first band in high school. A grunge band called ‘Abby Moon’. We were really terrible at first; the drummer was the only one who could actually play so we were at least in time. After a few years we were big fish in a small pond, and had great fun making loud music. Back then it was an escape for me, I lived on an island where you either found your golden ticket off or you just got loaded. I did both for a bit until I found a love for solo acoustic guitar and realised that was my ticket. I wanted to play like Davey Graham and John Renbourn, and I saw that there was a fundamental element of discipline missing in my playing, so I left the island to study music composition, theory and classical guitar.
How did the love of folk music which has shaped your career first grab hold of you?
Well, as I said my mum played a bit of folk guitar, and I was fortunate that both my parents had a love of great music; Bob Dylan, The Doors, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Joni… It’s the story that really makes a song for me, and nowhere is this more prevalent than in folk songs. I remember thinking in that grunge band that somehow folk music was more punk than punk. This connection has become much deeper as I have practised my craft, and shared it on the road. Folk songs are myths, not in the contemporary sense, but in the sense that they are real, archetypal lessons that we grow from in our understanding of them. They celebrate our ancestry and our heritage; tell us where we’re from, and what we might encounter.
Artists that have inspired and influenced your songwriting?
There are too many to mention. Truly! Some of the great bards should be mentioned though; Homer, William Blake, W.B Yeats, William Wordsworth; All the unnamed voices that have passed our stories down countless generations. And more contemporaneously: Bob Dylan for so many reasons. Tom Waits for his comedy and tragedy. John Martyn for his delicacy and focused simplicity. To name but a few...
I know you don’t consider yourself a slide player but then again you are a modest chap and would never boast such a thing anyway, but the fact remains you are a very good slide player none the less. How did you learn your slide craft?
Thank you. The Weissenborn sound world first caught my attention in the days before internet with Ben Harper. It struck me as such a lyrical sound, perfect to carry songs, but also great as an instrumental sound. It also widened my appreciation of the scope of music. I imagined very different environs to my own when I listened. I just could not work out how this sound was created! It didn’t matter how much I tried, the traditional bottle neck just wouldn’t cut it. Eventually my good friend and superb player Kevin Walker showed me what it was all about. He lent me a lap steel and a tone bar. Around the same time I met Martin Harley, and between him and Kev, I picked up the tricks I needed to get the sound I was looking for. So I taught myself really.
Tell us about how you first discovered the weissenborn and your first experiences of playing one.
Err, well I’ve answered the first part of that one… My first experiences… Elating! Days and then weeks disappeared. I lived in a tipi at the time so all my world was complete!
What slide artists do you admire and say you are closet to in style and approach, i would throw in the name Martin Harley as I hear quite a few similarities in song writing and playing styles, less bluesy of course but very engaging both lyrically and performance wise?
Well the first I heard as I said was Ben Harper, but my highest admiration would have to be for the work of Kelly Joe Phelps. I would suggest, and I think Martin would agree, that if anything connects mine and Martin’s music it would be Kelly Joe Phelps’ inimitable mastery of the style. I loved seeing Bob Brosman perform, he really had something otherworldly going on there. Recently I have been listening to DebashishBatthacharya’s sublime raga work for weissenborn. It is majestic!
That would be great gig to see you and Martin on the same stage “folk slide meets the blues slide” 🙂
Ah, you missed it Aron… It’s happened many times. We even played together in Barbados. But you are right though, we should definitely book another one.
The album “WOTSA” was entirely played with a Weissenborn. Now correct me if I’m wrong but that was a world first, an entire album of lyric based songs with a continual Weissenborn accompaniment. Albums of yours prior and subsequent to that release don’t really feature Weissenborn very much at all. So what was the spark that lit this Weissenborn adventure on “WOTSA”?
I think you might be right, though I wasn’t aware of the fact until you brought it up! It wasn’t intentional really. I was working on another album at the time in 2013, ‘Love & Supernatural’ and as it panned out there was no slide featured on it. Not a conscious decision, but it was just that the songs on the album didn’t require that vehicle. In my live work though the Weissenborn is more of a feature, and I had had a lot of people ask if would record it. So in between putting L&S together I started another project at home, which became ‘Waiting on the Sun Again’. No frills, no overdubs, just a few mics in the living room and a good view. By the end of an afternoon the record was finished. So I suppose I did it at the request of my audience, but also to lay it down once and for all for myself. I have come to see WOTSA and L&S as a double album really… the Yin and the Yang of my craft.
Were all the songs on “WOTSA” written specifically on and for the weissenborn? or had some been written before you discovered the weissenborn?
No they weren’t. I don’t write songs with a specific instrument in mind. Once it has taken shape the song chooses, then it will often show me aspects of itself I had not imagined before. So the instrument is like another guide for the song after me.
Approach to songwriting? do you draw solely from personal experiences or do you have a great imagination and fervent story telling itch?
As I alluded to before, it is vitally important for us to discriminate between what is a Myth and what is a fiction. We are living in a society today which marginalises the imagination, represses creativity, and shuns diversity of thought.It is very sad to see this, and I often feel that our roles as Songwriters are to break this spell. So I let my imagination run away with me. Personal experience directly informs my imagination, and inspires me to write my own myth. My myth is my truth. My Gnosis if you please.
Favourite tracks from “WOTSA” and why?
Well I don’t really have favourites, but I am proud of ‘The Pyramid’, for its ease of access to sociological ideas that may be challenging or even upsetting. It always goes down well at my shows. ‘High Hopes’ came out really well I think, I like singing that one, it lifts my spirit. ‘Word to a Son’ was a hard one to write for personal reason, and it was hugely cathartic to lay down.
What tracks from the “WOTSA” do you play regularly as part of your set these days?
Certainly ‘The Pyramid’ and ‘High Hopes ‘ get frequent outings, but the one I get asked for the most is ‘All That You Want’. If I’ve ever written a ‘Pop’ song I suppose that would be it.
What tunings did you use on “WOTSA”
All the songs are tuned to DADF#AD or DADFAD with a capo here or there. I have since tried to move away from this tuning… I think WOTSA was everything I wanted to achieve with it.
Where and how did you record the tracks on “WOTSA”
I recorded it at my home out in the sticks of Dorset, on my PC using Cubase. I used a couple of Focusright compressors, a Rhode condensermic on my voice and one on the Weissenborn, I had the Wiessenborn plugged into my Fender blues amp in a separate room for a bit of ambient growl, and I had my stomp box going in as well. So I just left it all running, opened a bottle of red and played my songs. Honestly, some of them had never been played with the wiessenborn until that session, and everything on the album was first take.
Tell me the story behind my favourite track “Someone Knows” is it autobiographical or about another artist perhaps? Dylan maybe?
Autobiographical: When I was 16 a very good friend disappeared. He literally just disappeared. Here one moment, and gone the next. On an island rumours spread like wild fire for years, but no trace of him has been found to this day. I’m 35 now. His family and friends have never had closure. Police were utterly useless, and frankly still are. They have ignored statements that clearly indicate foul play, and the implication is that this may be due to corruption in local law enforcement and government. When you do a bit of research you will be shocked to find how many children go missing every day in this country alone. There are extremely dark and insidious reasons for this, which lead right to the higher echelons of our societal ‘elite’. Look at the BBC harbouring paedophiles, or the Government, or catholic church for example. Or even the music industry… Someone Knows. They should speak out.
You endorse Anderwood Guitars weissenborns and have done a lot of promo work for them in recent years (especially the early years). How did you initially hook up with Ed Greenfield &Anderwood?
The Greenfield family are absolutely lovely, and Ed has been an overwhelmingly positive support for what has become a thriving grassroots music movement. I met Ed when he walked up to me during a break in a gig I was doing in Dorset and he handed me one of his guitars to take home. Just like that. He asked me if I liked it would I endorse it? Well, I can’t recommend Anderwood highly enough. They sound great, they play great, and mine has never let me down. It’s great to see Anderwoood guitars growing as a company, and making this amazing instrument a part of our culture.
I have always noted that some of the best musicians and songwriters have travelled abroad extensively broadening their horizons, have you done so yourself and if so how has that affected you as a musician and songwriter?
Yes, I’m no exception to that notion. I have travelled a lot, and my music enables me to continue doing so (for which I thank the Gods each day!). There is a very special magic that happens on the road. It is the magic of synchronicity: Meeting the right people; making lasting friendships; finding beauty in unexpected places. These things happen, but only when we learn to improvise, to be self-reliant and responsible for our action. But these things also come about from just learning to cut yourself some slack. This is vital. Slack Magic.
Do you teach music professional?
I do, peripatetically and privately for a few hours each week. I have also run workshops, retreats and given the odd seminar or lecture here and there. It’s good to pass the knowledge on, and in the process it keeps me on my toes.
I understand you’re bit of a promoter on the side too, securing artists and bands for various festivals in the UK?
No, I’m not a promoter. As I mentioned, there is a thriving ’underground’ grassroots music movement happening in this country. We support each other, and that is how it works. I book the bands for a festival on June 19th&20th in Damerham, which is in the south of England. If this gets to print beforehand then it would be great to see some of your readers there. And your good self of course. It’s called A Dam Fine Affair, and details are here:www.musicunbuttoned.co.uk/dam-fine-affair.html
Other British Weissenborn playing artists or bands to check out?
Actually most of them are playing at Dam Fine this year which is amazing!…Wille& the Bandits, Sam Green & the Midnight Heist, Hip Route, Grizzly & the Grasshoppers The list goes on.. Come to our festival and check them out..
What are you immediate plans musically, touring and recording wise?
I am planning the release of a new album called ‘The Deamon &The Eidolon’ for the autumn, and have also recently recorded a live album in Brussels. So there are new albums on the way. I’ve been collaborating with other musicians a lot more recently which has been really great, and I intend to do this a lot more. In the meantime its festival season so I’m on the road a fair amount.
Any plans for more weissenborn based music from Alex Roberts?
Yes I think so… something divergent I hope! There is some new material coming out on these recordings which bring something different to the style I think. I’m really satisfied to see how the weissenborn works with other instruments, particularly cello, fiddle, flute, in a contemporary English folk style. I call it Anglicana.
Longer term goals you wish to fulfil?
To firmly place Anglicana on the musical map, and also I would like to learn to play the Dulcimer, particularly in the Persian style, and to play Cello. To learn is the greatest thing. I’m looking at doing more touring in Europe, and at some point I would like to head to Canada and the America. That said, we are experiencing some heavy hits from the ruling class over here, and it’s looking like the next few years are going to be very turbulent. This has begun with further attacks on freedom of speech, and even human rights, in the name of terror. I aim to continue the tradition of the Bards and Troubadours, and to speak through my songs about the change we can make. If this legislation is passed it might be the case that taking these issues on, speaking or singing about them will be considered illegal. This is all the more reason to do so. We must do what is right and honourable for our folk. I hold this to be the only long term goal.
Thank you for your time Alex is been a pleasure talking to you, all the best 🙂
My pleasure Aron, thanks for inviting me. Go easy
Visit Alex’s Website @ www.alexrobertsmusic.com