An Interview with Robin Williamson

Tim Hoke conducted this interview  in 2008.

You’ve been described as a Scottish multi-instrumentalist musician, singer, songwriter, and storyteller, who first made his name as a founder member of The Incredible String Band and The Merry Band. That was over thirty years ago. How would you like people to think of you these days?

Well, since the nineties, I’ve been working more in Britain. I was based in America for a while in the seventies and eighties, and back in Britain I’ve been continuing to work; touring, telling stories, singing songs, doing all sorts of gigs. I also work as a duo with my wife Bina, and we’re doing a series of seasonal material; concerts which mark the turning of the year and trying to present the things which relect the mystery of being alive in various ways.

Going back to the beginning of your career as a musician, how was The Incredible String Band different from what other Bristish folk musicians such as Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, and Pentangle would be doing within a few years?

Well from my point of view, I started out with the notion that it might be a good idea to use different instruments in different ways in one piece of music. I admired that kind of stream of conciousness writing of people like Jack Kerouac, you see? I decided I would try to write in a free-flowing style like that. But I also liked traditional music, so it was kind of paradox between those two things: contemporary improvising, stream of conciousness stuff, and traditional stylized, ancient styles. And then I tried to use instruments that I couldn’t play, like naive painting, you know, trying to make sounds on things. This is the days before the synthesizer. So I was just making noises on different kinds of instruments. Those were some of the elements of it, anyway.

In an interview with you that Charles de Lint did, he refers to you as a Celtic bard. I want to resurrect the question he asked: Could you give us some idea what’s meant by this?

Bard’s a funny word, because nowadays it means something specific in Wales, where I live. It’s part of the Welsh Eisteddfod, the Welsh national musical Welsh language festival. A bard is somebody who manipulates the Welsh language in contemporary poetry. But traditionally, it meant somebody who sang the praises of a king, or recorded the deeds of heroes in various ways. It doesn’t mean any of those things to me. What it means is somebody who has some sort of an inspired voice. Looking back behind people like Jack Kerouac, back in their antecedents, you’ve got people like William Blake. And looking back behind William Blake, you’ve got people who are inspired, visionary kind of voices. That is a traditional Celtic thing that was called a bard, but one of the things had to do with prophecy. Not so much to say what was going to happen, but more talking about things from a different viewpoint of what actually is happening. That’s prophetic as well.

So do you think that’s a fair labelling of what you do?

laughs It’s a label, you know.

How did storytelling enter the picture for you? When and why did you take that up?

In 1980, after The Merry Band, I began working on my own again, and looking for another element to add to it, I began trying to tell stories. I didn’t know anybody else who was telling stories at that time, so I just had a go. I first of all began to try to tell traditional Scottish and Irish stories, and gradually I did the musical element, because the harp was a very important part of what I was trying to do musically. Harp was traditionally used in storytelling, but nobody was quite sure how! So, again, I just had a go at trying to do that sort of thing, spontaneous improvised harp with spoken word.

That was my next question. What about the spoken word pieces, the long poems with music, like Five Denials or The Song Of Mabon?

These are all things that grew out of that same general wish to make incantatory rote, words with music.

Can you tell us a little bit about traditional storytelling and how it has survived over the years?

It’s very much alive! In Scotland, for instance, where I’m from, it never went away, particularly among the sort of outcast class of people known as Travellers, who were pretty much like hunter-gatherer people. In the fifties, they were still living mostly outdoors in tents and so on. With them, storytelling had never gone away, it was their most important sort of wealth, because it was a kind of treasure that couldn’t be stolen, because it didn’t belong to anybody. It didn’t have any weight. It would shorten the road if you told a story. It would make a hard job or a long journey pass easier.

How has your storytelling evolved since moving to Wales?

I came here originally to work on The Mabinogion, which are the traditional big stories of Wales. I was part of a theatrical production here, which went on for three different performances over about five years. It was a large-scale theatrical outdoor performance of these ancient Welsh legends in which the deeds of wizards and kings are thinly disguised tales of earlier, almost god-like ancestors.

Still on the subject of Wales and its influence, I can easily imagine you playing a crwth or a triple harp. Have you been influenced by traditional Welsh music since you’ve been living there?

I’ve got lots of friends who do those sort of things, but I just play the standard Celtic harp.

Your wife, Bina, is described on your Web site as a voice of resonance, innocence, and warmth, drawing on a variety of Indian styles as well as the Celtic heritage and British folk traditions. I assume she’s an intrinsic part of your creative process?

Well, she and I work together quite a lot at the moment. We’re just finishing up a record which we had done together. She was raised in East Africa, she’s East African British Asian, and her native language is Punjabi, so she sings in Indian languages of one kind or another, but also in English and Latin; we do material that’s in Latin, as well.

How much of your storytelling is based on traditional sources, and what are your favorite sources?

Some of it’s based on traditional sources, but there’s two kinds of stories. There’s those which started out almost poetic, and with them, all I try to do is restore in English something of the flavor they might have had in the early Welsh or Irish. But the other stories, wonder tales, I just take liberties with those, evolve them and elaborate them in various ways.

Is there any difference in the way you approach the writing of a song, a story or a poem? The song has no ending; how does it begin?

Ohhh… I’m not sure how to answer that. How does an idea occur, do you mean?

If you’re writing a song, or you’re writing a story, is there a different approach to those, or is the creative process the same?

They both start out with some basic little idea which I can work on in various ways.

The influence of Celtic bardic poetry is pretty em in your work, and you’ve acknowledged the Beat poets as a source of inspiration. Are there any other poetic influences that you consider significant? Sufic? Indian? Romantic?

Yeah, all of those things. I love all of that stuff. I mean, particularly the work that me and Bina are doing, we draw on works that are Sufic traditions, Indian mystery traditions. Hafiz is a great, wonderful poet. Rumi, of course. And then also, we draw on the Bible, the folktales of various countries, Celtic mysteries from the Druidic and Bardic tradition.

You mention bards. You’re Honorary Chief Bard of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids. Even given that this is an honorary position, has it impacted your work in any way?

Well, I end up doing a fair bit of work for the Druids, and they’re quite a wide-ranging body of people. Not exactly what you’d call cohesive. There’s many, many kinds of Druids, vaguely sort of pagan. But I don’t consider myself exclusively a pagan. I also like Biblical traditions. I’m not sure exactly where I stand, except I don’t like to be hedged in with dogma.

Why Pig’s Whisker Music as the name of your record company?

There’s no particular reason. It’s just a name.

I’m relaying this from Cat Eldridge. He says that Robert Holdstock in Mythago Wood makes use of the wild boar as a motif, as does Neil Gaiman in Neverwhere. So he was wondering, why the wild boar in this usage?

Pigs were important to the Celts, but Pig’s Whisker Music was just a name, really.

Relaying a couple more questions from others: Charles de Lint wants to know if there will be more poetry collections or annotated poems, like Five Demials On Merlins’ Grave.

There’s a company in America that’s hoping to put out and updated version of The Craneskin Bag, so that may happen. But, other than that, I’m still continuing to record in various ways. The most recent three records have all been on ECM. and they’ve got a lot of poetry on them. So over the last years, there’s been a few of those things on the label ECM.

Two people in my house want to know if there will be another recording of children’s music.

Yeah, that might be a nice thing! Not right now, but yes, that would be great!

My last question, and you’ve talked about this a little already, but what are your latest activities, as a writer and as a musician?

I’ve just done a record of songs with guitar, which is going back to roots for me, because I’m doing a lot of things with harp lately. But this one that’s coming out in Spain, this September, songs with guitar. Me and Bina have got a record later this year, called Listening, which is spiritual songs of various kinds, songs and tunes and spoken pieces all of them with a magical, or mystical, or spiritual slant. And there’s a record coming out in Sweden, which a re-release of various tracks of mine, and also on GottDiscs, there’s a record coming out very shortly of Journey’s Edge plus ten unreleased tracks from the early seventies.



About Diverse Voices

Diverse Voices is our catch-all for writers and other staffers who did but a few reviews or other writings for us. They are credited at the beginning of the actual writing if we know who they are which we don’t always.

It also includes material by writers that first appeared in the Sleeping Hedgehog, our in-house newsletter for staff and readers here. Some material is drawn from Folk Tales, Mostly Folk and Roots & Branches, three other publications we’ve done the centuries.