Saturday 9 January 2010
Robin Williamson 2005 Interview
Back in the sixties, the Incredible String Band jumbled up Celtic folk and orientalism, and raised the consciousness of a generation with records like The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion and The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. It makes sense that ISB’s Robin Williamson should also record for ECM, home of Jan Garbarek and purveyors of jazz-friendly mysticism. His far-flung cultural references and spiritual undertow fits the ECM ethos nicely. At the time of the interview, Williamson had released his second ECM album, Skirting the River Road, which contained his settings of William Blake and Walt Whitman. The occasion was a concert tour as a duo with Pentangle guitarist John Renbourn. A shortened version of the interview appeared in Metro (Newcastle edition). Dateline, 20 January, 2005.
MB: Has the public perception of you changed since you became an ECM recording artist?
RW: That's a very philosophical question. I don't think so. I think the things that we're doing with ECM are a direct extension of all the things I've wanted to do. I'm very, very pleased with the way they've turned out. A lot of the creative work I'm doing at the moment has been in collaboration with my wife Bina, so that's all going on on the sidelines. And then I'm continuing to do solo work, and I'm also getting back into painting quite a lot, so there's lots going on.
MB: Do you think the Incredible String Band paved the way for the ECM sensibility, with their esoteric cultural references and mystic inclinations?
RW: I don't believe so. I mean the Incredible String Band is now so long ago for me. It's like, forty years ago. Of all the members of that band, I'm the only one who continued working the whole time. I lived in America for twenty years. I toured all up and down the length and breadth of America and Canada, Europe and Britain, the whole time, doing things in the seventies with the Merry Band and in the eighties with the storytelling revival, and continuing to write. I worked quite a lot with theatre in Wales, and doing various film scores, including stuff with George Lucas: a variety of things anyway, in the twenty years between the sixties and the eighties. Between the eighties and the nineties, I began working on doing Pig's Whisker Records - a massive number of records - and that financed the Incredible String Band revival, which Bina and I put together. So anything that's happening now is happening on the tail-end of quite a lot of ongoing work.
MB: Do you resent that you're mostly known or remembered for those few golden years in the Incredible String Band?
RW: I don't think I am mostly remembered for that at all. I've been working the whole time.
MB: I don't want to harp on too much about the Incredible String Band, but the fascinating thing is the range of references on albums like 5000 Spirits and Hangman's Beautiful Daughter. Where did the inspiration come from?
RW: Again, we're harping back forty years before the world music and roots music revival occurred. People were listening to African and Indian music for the first time in the west, and I took the liberty to think, well we can have a go at trying to sound like this. It was a question of fools rushing in where angels fear to tread. The idea was to have a go at doing an innocent and naïve version of world music, which was a little bit ahead of its time. Jack Kerouac was really the main influence for the writing styles.
MB: That struck me with force with the ECM album, Skirting the River Road. To hear 'Crossing Brooklyn Ferry' is to realise that the beats sprang direct from Walt Whitman.
RW: Absolutely. The beats sprang from Walt Whitman. Walt Whitman had a lot to do with Blake and several other people and Henry Vaughan, the other great person we draw on on that record. The sense of visionary inspired voice is a very ancient Celtic idea, going back to bards and druids and so on. The notion was you could draw on the inspiration of the universe and come up with something that was sort of prophetic, not necessarily about the future, but to reveal something different about the present. That sort of vision was what Whitman drew on, and what later on, the beats drew on, and what the hippies drew on. It's what I drew on in hippy times.
MB: Does the artist or musician have any special purchase on deep spiritual truths?
RW: I think nowadays, in the absence of a coherent, living tradition of what you might call shamanic or truly therapeutic spiritual activity that's got a cultural root of any depth, then art has to supply things that would normally have been supplied from a variety of sources. People have come up recently with a definition of art that says - if it's disturbing it's art. There was an earlier definition of art that went - if it's healing or inspiring, it's art. I definitely incline, in my own work and with my work with Bina, towards the healing side of the vision in art.
MB: Can you tell me something about your rediscovery of the bardic tradition?
RW: I don't think it ever went away. That's what I'm saying. It continued through people like Blake, Whitman and the beats, up to the present day. In Wales, of course, they've got something called the Eisteddfod, which is full of official bards. Elsewhere it's a word that, for lack of a better one, expresses someone who draws on the inspirational power of the universe. There is something in life itself that reveals new and meaningful truths.
MB: Was it a relief to find an established tradition with a readymade mysticism instead of borrowing bits from all other cosmologies, as with the Incredible String Band?
RW: The quest was always the quest for one's own voice, and so rather than finding a readymade mythology, it was finding the basic mythology that was central to one's own character. All of these things are just painting faces on the unpaintable, and saying things about the unsayable, you know. But the great nothingness from which things emerge into reality remains a creative root for every voice, including every person's deepest self.
MB: Are you still adding to your knowledge and learning?
RW: I don't see any reason why that should ever end. I don't feel that I'm any sort of authority or anything, in fact rather the reverse. I feel very much that I'm still continually seeking and continually finding out new things. For instance, you'd think that with 34 strings on the harp, you'd run out of combinations, but in actual fact it seems to be absolutely endless.
MB: You seem to lead an active life.
RW: Yes, I'm working quite vigorously. Bina and I are collaborating on a bunch of new projects. Mostly seasonal. We're doing things that have to do with the four seasons and the passage of life and time. So we're working around the edges of a lot of things there - country village halls, libraries, art galleries, churches.
MB: Tell me about the collaboration with John Renbourn.
RW: John and I go back a long way. We're both roughly the same sort of vintage. It's very pleasant to be able to get together with John. He is, as you know, a slightly jazz, slightly baroque guitar genius, and to that I'm adding a kind of ragtime harp. I play bits and pieces of other things - mandolin, viola, whistle and what not. We do quite a lot of things together. Indeed, we got nominated for a Grammy a few years ago for a record called Wheel of Fortune. Dylan got it though. Bastard!
MB: So the emphasis is very much on the now. It's not a retrospective show?
RW: Oh no. A number of the songs are traditional but they're not harking back to Pentangle or the String Band. John's name for it was the Impenetrable String Tangle.
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