“Secret teachings take me somewhere strange, shadows gained and bottles drained… Let your tears fall in the shape of every one of the American states.”
Lyricist, singer and musician Roddy Woomble’s journey with his band Idlewild was an epic one. When they began, in Edinburgh in 1995, they were proto punks with a sound that then-influential weekly music magazine NME described as resembling “a flight of stairs falling down a flight of stairs”. Woomble describes his own early performances as consisting of “rolling around on the floor of various toilet venues, with beer in my hair, screaming”. The band’s sound developed, album after album, seeing them fill the same hook-heavy gap that REM had all but vacated sometime after Automatic for the People. There were video collaborations with Wim Wenders and literary ones with Edwin Morgan. There was a slavish following. Greatness and fortune beckoned. And yet, while they may have been one of the most perfect bands of the last 20 years, they never quite clicked commercially, and failed to make the move into stadium-level territory.
There was always an acute literary awareness in Idlewild’s work (“Gertrude Stein says that’s enough!” insists the refrain of “Roseability”) but the band also began to add complexity to their sound as Woomble spent more and more time roaming the Highlands, islands and wild places of Scotland. There were strong and increasingly surprising folk elements in the later albums. Still, few could have predicted the way Woomble’s career would pan out. At one point he relocated to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He married fellow musician Ailidh Lennon (bass guitarist with Glasgow band Sons & Daughters), at a ceremony in Reno and they had a son, Uist. Then, with Idlewild in hiatus, there was a retreat with his family, offshore, to the Isle of Mull, and the subsequent transformation into one of the most respected contemporary folk artists of his generation. Since 2006 he has recorded a collection of collaborative songs – Before the Ruin, created with Kris Drever and John McCusker – and three solo albums, the latest of which is Listen to Keep – all of them galaxies away from the Sunday supplement artifice of Mumford & Sons and the poseur populated, faux folk explosion south of the border. We spoke to him at home in Mull, while he was preparing to tour his latest work.
Civilian: You talked about reading and being very influenced by two specific books for the last album – Growth of the Soil, by the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun, and Independent People, by the Icelandic author and Nobel-winner Halldór Laxness. What drew you to those books initially?
Roddy Woomble: Scandinavian culture is very appealing to me. Much like Scotland, these countries are full of wide-open spaces and wild landscapes, with long and interesting traditions of storytelling. Both these books are poetic and direct in style. They are like modern sagas.
There are parallels between the Scots and the Scandics, both linguistically and in other ways, aren’t there?
There’s the bleakness, the dark nights and alcohol. We border the same seas and share a similar landscape. Traditional food is similar too: langoustine and lobsters, porridge and ale, mutton and berries. Of course the Scandics have a cool eye for design and a very high standard of living, which aren’t necessarily Scottish traits.
What were you reading before you started recording Listen to Keep?
There is a well-documented dualism in the Scottish psyche: Scottish or British; rural or urban; educated or un-educated; Highlander or lowlander; east or west
I’m always reading something, and always scribbling down words, sometimes the former influences the latter, other times not. This time round I was reading more serious non-fiction, so the influence was minimal. I discovered the Swedish author Sven Lindqvist in 2012 and read most of his translated works. Highly recommended.
If we wanted to get a deeper understanding of modern Scotland – rural and urban – what should we read?
George Mackay Brown is my favourite author and I think his poetry and short stories show great insight into the human condition and the conflicts that we all have with our place in the natural world. In Mackay Brown’s case this was the Orkney Islands, but the feelings are universal. He was in no way an urbanized Scot though. Lanark by Alasdair Gray is a visionary tale of an artist in Glasgow. It’s probably the finest modern Scottish novel, and a great peek into the psyche of the city. I don’t read much modern Scottish fiction, but you can’t go wrong with Ali Smith or Alan Warner.
Could you tell us a little about your relationship with the late Edwin Morgan, how you got to know him and what he was like to work with?
I went to see Edwin Morgan and Alasdair Gray give a talk in 2001 and it influenced me hugely. I wrote a letter to Edwin afterwards and that started the correspondence. He was interested in my experiences being a 25-year-old lyricist in a rock band and I was interested in this fascinating 80-year-old man who had chronicled his life in poems.
We met only a few times, once at his flat, where I recorded him reciting the poem he had written for my band Idlewild, “Scottish Fiction”. We later put it to music and it closed our 2002 album The Remote Part. The second time was several years later in the nursing home Edwin had moved into. This was shortly before he died. We talked about Ballads of the Book, which was an album he and I had conceived – Scottish poets writing the lyrics for Scottish singers and bands. The album had turned out well and we were both happy with it. Mainly though we wrote letters to one another.
Edwin’s flat was very neat, full of books and there was an old typewriter on a table in the middle of the living room where he wrote. I find his poetry illuminating and always interesting. He wasn’t afraid to experiment, and to challenge the reader; a Scottish Allen Ginsberg if you will, although his style is all his own.
Some of the strongest contemporary music being made in the UK is folk and from Scotland, but if you compare something like Withered Hand with what you do, the work is very different. You seem to be set aside from much of modern life.
I am not particularly interested in modern life as it moves in the city. I wasn’t even when I lived in one, so my songs never deal with that. I am interested in a song capturing an idea, and a feeling – the way that words can hang onto chords to create something memorable. Basically I write down words that I like and I try and sing them into a good tune. I don’t worry about it too much. Time will always decide if it is a good song.
Do you think that any of the work you are creating now could be created if you were still living in Glasgow?
My first solo album, My Secret is My Silence, was written mostly in a one-bedroom flat in Glasgow in the early 2000s, in the comedown from the Warnings/Promises era of Idlewild. It was a time of long tours and record company pressure. I had a longing for wide open spaces, glens, rivers and trees, and to be rid of the trappings of a moderately successful major label rock band. So that record is all about escapism. Now I feel a greater contentment, and I feel that creatively, I can do what I want. The only pressure is from myself.
Do you find literature the best way “in” to a place? You wrote a lot about a kind of mythical America with Idlewild, and the country clearly holds a lot of romance for you.
Growing up it was always American bands and authors that inspired and influenced me. From 1989–91, between the ages of 13 and 16, I lived in Greenville, South Carolina. This is a pretty impressionable age for anyone. I had a friend at high school who played drums in a punk rock band with his older brothers. He introduced me to a lot of the great underground American bands: The Replacements, Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth and the Minutemen, amongst others. His band would play gigs in Athens, Georgia every weekend. I already loved REM, so that town was mythical to me. Playing drums in a punk rock band on a Saturday night in Athens seemed like something to aspire to.
I formed my first band in 1990 with a couple of guys from school. I was on drums. Around the same time I discovered and read books by Jack Kerouac, Richard Brautigan, J.D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut and John Irving. It was a fruitful time for the mind, and it is all still with me. I go back to these bands and authors regularly.
Most of the Americans I know are very ambitious and driven, talk a lot, and are fixated on having perfect teeth
How does the American psyche compare with the Scottish?
There is a well-documented dualism in the Scottish psyche: Scottish or British; rural or urban; educated or un-educated; Highlander or lowlander; east or west. There is always something that you’re not, basically. And it’s a small place. There is an old Scots proverb: “Oor first braith is the beginning o daith”. I think that says a lot about our psyche. I wouldn’t want to comment too much on the American psyche, other than say that most of the Americans I know are very ambitious and driven, talk a lot, and are fixated on having perfect teeth.
Have you had any of those cinematic, wild west, Paris, Texas experiences, in the middle of nowhere?
Yes – driving through the Arizonan desert on a tour bus in 2003, watching the sun go down, drinking a beer, with “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” by the Byrds on the stereo. It’s a cliché, but a good one all the same and a memory that I will keep.
And in terms of New York, is there anywhere in particular you’d revisit in a heartbeat if you could be back there?
Plenty, although I haven’t been back to America or New York City since 2005, and I imagine much has changed. I lived on 13th Street between Avenue A and B, so the East Village was the area I knew best. I liked to wander. I was essentially a tourist on extended stay. There was a bar called B-Side I went to a lot, a “dive bar” as they call it in America, with a real mix of interesting characters. The Bowery Ballroom is great for gigs. And I liked going to the Clinton Street Bakery for pancakes and coffee in the morning.