When a Kris Drever solo album comes out, it's a relatively rare delight. If you take the intervals between "Black Water" in 2006, "Mark the Hard Earth" in 2010 and 2016's "If Wishes Were Horses" as a number pattern, then the next one is due in 2024. If you're assuming he's been twiddling his thumbs in between, then you only have to skim-read his discography to see that all of his digits have been decisively and dynamically twiddly in the time between solo works, on collaborative releases with Eamonn Coyne, with Boo Hewerdine, with John McCusker and Roddy Woomble, and as the engine room of stalwart folk futurists, Lau.
Having recorded "If Wishes Were Horses" with a band featuring Ian Carr, Louis Abbott and Euan Burton, he took some of those songs on the road on his own recently, stripping them back to suit just a single guitar and his richly sonorous vocal tones. Such is the scope of the sound he makes with six strings (the man has skills), even 'stripped back' Drever often sounds like there's more than one guitarist at play.
A long way from his current dwelling place on Shetland with his wife and young son, Contact Music caught up with Kris before a recent gig in Radstock (surely a great name for an 80s revival festival). After a mouth-watering and tantalising conversation about the holistic delights of a well-made coffee and Kris' garage full of home-brewed beer back home, we got round to talking about some of his better-known creative processes.
Contact Music (CM): The BBC Folk Awards are coming up soon, with nominations for you as a singer and as a songwriter. Are you especially pleased to gain recognition in those categories?
Kris Drever (KD): Yeah. I wasn't sure about the record. I thought it was a very good record, but I was worried it would sink without a trace. So, it was good to know that a few people had noticed it had come out.
CM: What made you think it would sink?
KD: I think just natural pessimism, really. And awards aren't the be-all-and-end-all, but it's nice to know that people who are in your sphere are paying attention to what you do.
CM: You use the phrase 'natural pessimism'. Does that mean you're a natural pessimist?
KD: In some ways. I always hope for the best and I always expect the worst.
CM: It makes me think of "I Didn't Try Hard Enough" off the album. That repetition of the simple 'Oh well' in the chorus is pragmatism or it's pessimism, depending on how you look at it. How do you see it?
KD: I've been described as 'arch' before. I'm OK with that. My humour is quite dry, but I do intend things to be fun. I think humour is important in songwriting. It's so easy to be po-faced and take things seriously in the way you wouldn't if you were just talking to somebody. Even if you go to a family funeral, there's going to be some levity at some point; it's not all earnest, shoegazey bullsh*t. There are some people cracking wise, there are funny stories, and that's true in almost every walk of life, I suspect. Even if you went and spent time in a refugee camp, I bet you'd still be exchanging jokes with the people living there in one form or another, even if the humour was pretty black. So, I do like to make sure that there's an element of that in as many of the songs I write as I can get.
CM: Going right back to "Black Water" in 2006, it was always talked of as if you had to be persuaded to take the limelight and play some of your own stuff. Did the recent album feel like the biggest toe in the water so far for your songwriting?
KD: I'm always writing - a lot with Lau and co-writing other stuff with people like Roddy (Woomble) and John (McCusker), and stuff with Boo (Hewerdine). The album was a collection of songs that were just there and seemed like they'd make sense as a record and it had been a while since the last solo record. To be honest, with the "Black Water" thing, if I'd had a big enough repertoire to go and do feature-length solo gigs, it wouldn't have fazed me at all. It's just that any record that you're doing with more than just yourself, in terms of musicianship, on some of the tracks you inevitably hang on some of the musicians and those tracks won't work so well solo. Two-thirds of "Black Water" probably worked with me on my own; that's not a very long concert. I spent quite a lot of time doing those shows playing with more than half of the material, really, that I wasn't super-comfortable with, but obviously there's ten years between that and "If Wishes Were Horses".
CM: I've always thought of you as a great collaborator, in terms of the number of people you've recorded with and toured with. How does it feel to be on your own on the stage now?
KD: I really enjoy it. I think it's a bit harder on you physically, on your voice, because you have to sing for an hour and a half every night, but it's great to have the freedom. You can make things up; you don't have to do the same set every night.
CM: I've frequently seen you reacting to the musicians around you, riffing off them, improvising - do you miss any of that?
KD: Because of where I'm living right now, I'm not getting to do lots of social playing. There's a lot of travelling to do and long periods away, up on Shetland, so I miss that on a life level, but not a touring level. It's got twelve shows, this tour and then I'll be playing with some other people. I had a tour in Denmark just before this tour with Ian Carr, and I had a tour before that in January with Julie Fowlis, Padraig Rynne and Aoife Ni Bhriain, so this tour is only a couple of weeks on my own.
CM: You come from a rich Orcadian tradition and a Scottish music scene that many of your English listeners won't have experienced. Can you sum up that scene, that background that you come from?
KD: There's a strong folk scene up there, a lot of social music, a good vibe. I don't know how representative what I do is of Orkney in general, but I am a product of that place, so in some way I must be very representative.
CM: With Lau, you're always associated with innovation. How do you arrive at that distinctive sound?
KD: We all have a reasonably large overlap of musical taste, the three of us. There are certain things that people try from time to time, and they often fail for one reason or another. We always agree on why those things fail, so when we go and try to insert different kinds of sonics into a piece of music, it's about finding that area of taste that we can all agree is not sh*t. We'll use electronics and a bunch of guitar effects on a bit of folk music and think how're we're going to make sure that's not just rubbish, that we're not just doing it for the sake of it, that it's not just somebody playing a fiddle tune over some incongruous reverb. So, really it's problem solving as much as innovation for us, that problem being how to make it not sh*t.
CM: As in play about with something that's traditional and has lasted for years?
KD: We've all heard bad use of effects, like someone playing "The Irish Washerwoman" while somebody beatboxes. It's not innovative, it's just a bad idea, at least to me and, I suspect, to the boys. That's not an example I've seen, which is why I'm using it. There needs to be a bit of depth and a bit of thinking to these things in order to make them musically plausible, so when we use these sonics, we want to make one complete bit of music that makes sense, rather than two badly-stitched-together ones.
CM: "Decades" comes out on June 16th - a ten-year retrospective, packaging together the best of Lau's albums so far. How did it feel putting that together?
KD: It was good. It was interesting making a record where we didn't have to actually write any music. That was quite strange. Some of the tracks were chosen by contributors, fans on social media via polls. We chose some things, but a lot was generated by the people that come to the shows and listen to the records.
CM: A nicely democratic process
CM: And you're touring in November?
KD: We're out doing the festivals from June onwards. We're doing a lot of festivals, then a big tour in November.
CM: In terms of songs you play that you've picked up from other people, which songs do enjoy most?
KD: I still love "Black Water", "Harvest Gypsies" and "The Call and the Answer", but there are so many. If you asked me tomorrow you might get a different answer.
CM: Very much today, then, if you had to name one of your own songs that still makes you think, 'bloody hell, I wrote that', which would it be?
KD: "Ghosts" is very popular with other people and that's always a marker of if you've triggered something. In terms of what's the most complete or the most harmonically interesting, maybe "The Longest Day" from "If Wishes Were Horses". I'm happy with everything I've put out, ultimately.
CM: Finally, you're up against Martin Green in the 'Best Song' category at the Folk Awards; have you practised your different reactions for when they announce the results?
KD: It's happened before that we've been up against each other in different categories at awards ceremonies, so it's OK. I'm probably due a beating, to be honest.
Interview with Jon Kean
Photo: Genevieve Stevenson
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