Music Q&A:
Rab Noakes

The Scottish folk singer celebrates turning 70 and 50 years on the road by playing a series of shows including Roots Music Club at the Ukrainian Centre, Doncaster, 21 July

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What informs your music and songwriting?
Tunes come relatively easily, mostly from a guitar. I have a few guitars, and different instruments can lead you to a variety of styles and feel. Lyric construction varies, from coming quickly to taking a lot of refinements to get right. I like it best if there’s a spark of something lyrically early in the tune’s evolution. That generally leads to the finished piece having some synergy between words and music. The references musically are occasionally specific, more often an amalgam of all I’ve listened to over the years and what I listen to now, which is a mixture of old and new. Lyrically, it’s taking experience and observation with a dollop of imagination to craft a song that’s concise, meaningful and entertaining. I like to leave things open enough to interpretation by listeners. That aspect isn’t really about what I mean but about what it might mean to you.

How have you evolved as an artist over the years?

I think the basic ability evolves very quickly and then it’s honed and put to use in as many different circumstances as possible. My main thing for me is singing, so the musicianship, primarily acoustic rhythm guitar, is designed to accompany. I think I’ve gradually got better at that over the years. I play both plectrum guitar and fingerstyle and try to use it to the fullest advantage in serving the song. I like collaborations and working with a range of groups of people as that can push me into challenges. I think I sing better nowadays and the confidence and structure I can bring to shows has improved. I think the songwriting reflects the advancing years too and are now the record of the experience of someone in his seventies.

What are you up to at the moment artistically?

I’m touring 70/50 in 2017 which is a series of concerts celebrating my 70th birthday and 50 years of touring. The show features a range of my songs from 1969 to the present day. I played a major show at Celtic Connections in February with a custom-made, eight-piece band. Right after the concert we laid down basic tracks with that line-up so an album is work in progress from those recordings. I’m also working on the release of a double CD, which’ll contain three of my albums from the 1970s that haven’t yet been available on CD. It’ll be called Bridging the Gaps and will be out in October. I am playing a concert with a long-time friend and collaborator, Barbara Dickson, in Pitlochry in August. I also play a part in Greg Lawson’s orchestration of Martyn Bennett’s Grit. That’s a big event with over 80 people. It’s been performed three times to date and there are plans for more. I am also trying to carve time aside to write some essays. They do form a kind of memoir and the working title is Reunited with my Luggage.

What’s on your rider?

Accommodation where appropriate. A cuppa tea on arrival with a hot meal, probably after soundcheck. During the show it’s water, then more water when I’m by myself. Perhaps some wine and beers when I have musicians with me. Very staid and practical, I’m afraid.

Tell us your most embarrassing or surreal experience.

There are few things that influence a singer’s style more than dentistry. I used to have a false front tooth, on a plate. It’s now been upgraded to a bridge as the plate became something of a liability. I recall once, on the 1972 Lindisfarne tour, I got a little excited as I performed my verse in the finale song The Battle of New Orleans. My plate flew out and led to me completing the song with an Alfred E Newman gap. Oh, how they laughed. It was located after the show, on the stage, in need of severe cleaning. Luckily no one had stood on it.

What song do you wish you’d written?
Running Scared by Roy Orbison and Joe Melson.

What’s your worst lyric?
My best critic and editor is my wife Stephy. She never lets me get away with substandard stuff so all my duff lyrics are consigned to the dustbin. The result is they never see the light of day in public. (Does that response duck the question successfully?)

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Rab Noakes

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