I did this interview with Richard Skelton last year, for an online mag I used to write for.
Richard Skelton has released more than a half dozen CDs in the past 3 years, while operating under a number of guises: A Broken Consort (The Shape Leaves, Box of Birch, Crow Autumn, Crow Autumn Part Two), Clouwbeck (A Moraine, Wolfrahm), Harlassen (A Way Now), Heidika (Tide of Bells & The Sea), Riftmusic (self-titled), and the single release he has done under his own name, Richard Skelton, Marking Time.
(1) How would you describe what you are doing musically?
For someone who hasn't heard my work, I make acoustic, instrumental music which sits somewhere between modern classical, folk and early music. I often use quite simple melodic motifs, threaded into a dense and richly textured weave of shifting, interlocking layers. My compositions are quite loosely structured and often fairly long, which leads some to describe them as 'ambient' pieces, but I'm not really comfortable with that tag, as it feels like too polite a term. My recordings are more intense, raw and elemental: Bowed, plucked and chafed steel strings. Accordion billow. Bell-like piano chimes. Shimmering percussion. There's often a sense of urgency and drama. More abstractly, it's music as landscape and weather. A meditation on absence and loss – part memorial, part life-affirming ritual.
(2) How are your pieces conceived? Are they written, written and improvised, or pure improvisations? Can you describe the creative process?
Most of my music is written in response to landscapes – their topography, history, folklore, flora and fauna. I'm drawn in particular to a region of the UK called the West Pennine Moors, in Lancashire, not far from where I spent most of my childhood. For me, exploring such a landscape is also a form of self-reflection and transformation, an attempt to uncover a sense of place – of connectedness – to witness transience, change, and the slow shift of the seasons.
My creative process used to be quite straight forward, but has become increasingly elaborate over time. I used to simply visit a location which had a specific resonance for me, and play there. Later I began to make recordings in these places too. I then began to wonder what it would be like to hear this music as part of the landscape itself, so I started to visit these places with small, portable speakers, which I'd hang from trees or put in hollows in the ground. I'd then retreat to a suitable distance and listen as the music acquired a kind of density and physicality. I used to imagine it as a kind of liquid, seeping into the soil. From here I began to see the possibilities of music acting as an auditory bridge between disparate places, and became fascinated with the idea of taking the sounds recorded in one location, at one particular time, and replaying them in another. So, for example, it became meaningful to record the sounds of a wood in spring, and to play them back when the leaves were gone. Or to make a musical composition from the sounds played in isolated, ruined farmhouses – to bridge their isolation with sound.
Part of my reason for playing in these environments was a desire for the landscape to impress itself – however obliquely – upon my recordings. I thought that perhaps the topography might have some kind of residual energy, an acoustic fingerprint. This in turn led me to leaving my instruments overnight, or for days at a time, in certain locations, so that they might acquire something of the energy of a place. I still keep many sets of strings buried in soil or beneath stones on the moor.
Throughout this period, my main desire was to collude with the natural environment, and to allow it to transmit itself through my recordings. As time has passed, these processes and rituals have become more stylised and gestural. These days, for example, whilst recording in the studio, I might place a stone collected from one of these places on the body of my guitar. The act might have little or no acoustical effect on the recording, but it has huge significance in the ritual of creation itself.
(3) Are there any other musicians, or is it entirely you?
It's just me. The process of actually playing an instrument is very important to me. As mentioned previously, I'm concerned with the ritual involved - its gestural qualities, its physicality. Moreover, making music should leave a residue. Something more than memory. The pain in my fingertips from coiled metal strings. The marks left on my skin by the wooden body of an instrument. The feeling of it resonating against my own body. A feeling of connectedness. Of being a transmitter or conduit. It's a very private and meaningful thing.
(4) What instruments do you use? Is there a particular instrument that is most “instrumental” at the creative stage?
I use everything and anything that I can lay my hands on. Guitar, piano, mandolin, accordion, concertina, violin, dulcimer, bouzouki, lap harp. Mostly cheap, second-hand or broken. I often modify them, adjust or restring them. I do have one nice instrument, though – a beautiful guitar which was made for me by a luthier in Cumbria – but I may sell it, as I'd really like to buy a good violin, or possibly a cello. I seem to be gravitating towards bowed sounds - there's a seemingly infinite gamut of sound and texture – of feeling – that can be elicited from a single, taut string with a length of horsehair.
(5) What are some of the frustrations and failings you encounter in the processes of creating and recording?
I'm sometimes thwarted by unwanted environmental noise, as quite a proportion of my recordings have been made on windswept moorland. I have hours of material that's been rendered unusable by a slight breeze playing across sensitive microphones, or ruined by the sudden intrusive sound of traffic. Sadly, as the UK is such a small country, it seems like you're never more than a stone's throw away from a road, which is why I often record very early in the morning.
But the actual process of making music is a joyful mystery. It's life-affirming and sacred. I discovered quite early that a key to overcoming frustration is to embrace one's own limitations, as it's actually in the flaws – those unrepeatable sounds – that something unique and beautiful often happens. Moreover, I have no expectations about the end result. No preconceived ideas. No demands. Why would I make music if I knew in advance how it should sound? Each time should be a process of discovery or revelation. Obviously, as I've become more proficient, I've come to have a better idea of what works for me. In a sense, I feel that I'm writing the same song again and again. Using the same handful of notes, intervals and sonorities. But it's always changing, and the results are always unpredictable. Like walking along the same path in the woods on different days. It's the same place, but it changes all the time.
(6) Do you have any personal favorites? Was there a particular piece whose final execution vastly surpassed your initial expectations?
My personal favourite is usually the piece I'm working on at the moment. Mainly because I'm so involved in it. The song becomes a space in which to reside – for a while at least. A conjured landscape. But in general, given that I have no expectations to begin with, it's difficult to choose an overall favourite. In terms of the effect they have on me, then perhaps something that's still and haunting, like 'And All Their Silver & Gold' (from 'The Shape Leaves') or 'Lowe' (from 'Marking Time'). In terms of complexity and intensity, then maybe 'Something Fell' (from 'Box Of Birch') or 'The River' (from 'Crow Autumn Part Two'). But then there's the Carousell album, 'Black Swallow & Other Songs', which has some of my oldest, simplest and most beautiful pieces...
(7) Do you have a sense of the direction things will go creatively in the future? Are there things you have in mind? Are there any people you would like to collaborate with?
I recently collaborated with Canadian songwriter Autumn Grieve on a mini-album entitled 'Stray Birds'. We recorded her performing a selection of her songs on acoustic guitar, and then I later added string and piano arrangements. She was a joy to work with, and very gracious, especially as I'd never written arrangements before. It's a whole different art, song writing, and her music is subtle and intricate, with strange chords and beautiful changes. Each time I listen new things reveal themselves, new shades and colours, new depths. We're planning a follow-up album soon, once we've found somewhere beautiful to record it.
Apart from that, I have a few other irons in the fire, so to speak, but I'd rather not reveal them just yet, if that's okay. It's not that I'm superstitious, but in the past I've been guilty of announcing things that have failed to come to fruition. My main hope is to continue making bespoke editions of music, published through Sustain-Release, my own private press. Working this way allows me to establish a meaningful relationship with my customers – it feels more personal than the traditional retailer/consumer paradigm – although, ironically, if interest in my work continues to increase, it may be difficult to sustain, as it's quite time-consuming and labour-intensive work.
(8) You have staked out a distinct niche in the ambient world. In my opinion, the emotional depth and technical execution of your pieces is unsurpassed. Do you feel you have succeeded in what you are doing?
For me it's interesting to ask myself what I would do once I'd succeeded. Would I stop? Do something different? I think perhaps musicians, or at least music journalists, are obsessed with change. To stay the same is a kind of damnation. But I always think about bird song. There's a blackbird that sings outside my window each morning. The same blackbird. The same song, each day. The same, but different. I've mentioned already that it feels like I'm writing the same song, over and over. Ploughing the same furrow. Am I slowly perfecting something through repetition, or is each iteration a variation on something that's already perfected? On reflection, I think each piece succeeds on its own terms, regardless of its lineage, or the expectations placed upon it.
To return to a favourite analogy – for me, they're like landscapes, these songs, so you might as well ask whether a particular landscape is more successful than another. Birch wood or wild moor? Meadow or mountain? It's down to personal preference. People write to me and describe their feelings upon listening to a particular album. The images evoked. The memories recollected. Some of the descriptions are astonishingly vivid and varied. Different moods and emotions. Are any of their responses more valid or apposite than others? I don't think so. I think it's just important to put something out there and let it find people who connect with it, in whatever way they choose.
(9) The physical packaging of your CDs is also unsurpassed: please discuss the physical packaging of the “Special Editions.”
The original impetus behind starting my own private press was to publish the artworks of my late wife, Louise, along with my own musical offerings. So from the very beginning, I wanted to place the 'packaging' and music on an equal footing. Physicality is very important to me, perhaps because of the loss created by her physical absence. The senses become more acute when they are deprived. The music has weight and density, being born of touch, pressure, friction and vibration. You can hear those things in the recordings - the whine of horsehair on metal, or the rattle of fingertips on steel strings and wood. Even though the resulting sound is just a disturbance of the air, it has an almost tangible presence. 'Packaging' is a way of creating a landscape for the music to inhabit. It grounds it in reality. Gives it a sense of permanence. My idea for packaging this music was to create something beautifully tactile, intricate and delicate. There are many layers, and so opening one of my releases requires a certain degree of patience - almost reverence. A kind of ritual.
My 'Special Editions' take this idea one step further - lifting the lid off one of my wooden boxes is a transformative, sympathetic gesture. Each of the items contained therein has a kind of totemic power. By touching them, they are activated, and become an element in a ritual which connects and transports the recipient into the landscape of the song. Typically, I fill each box with items collected from a specific location. These places have a very private and real significance for me, acting as the venues for recordings, or the focal point and inspiration for a composition at a later date. So I might collect fallen leaves, seeds, bits of wood or bark, small stones, bones, feathers, phials of water or soil. When placed together and removed from the landscape, they act as connective tissue - what I call 'thing-poems' - a synecdoche for the landscape itself. In many cases, the items contained in each box have literally been used in the act of creation - either directly, as plectra, or by simply placing them on the wooden bodies of my instruments. In all, the idea is to create a box which is filled with something that is both beautiful and meaningful. Something utterly unique.
(10) Have you played live? Do you have any plans to perform live?
Playing live is quite a difficult proposition for me. Performing my music is primarily a private process. I'm dealing with loss, memory and a sense of place. The fact that I published it at all is almost a fluke. A leap of faith. My motivation in sharing it was to publicly commemorate the life of my late wife. But to perform it in front of an audience - I wouldn't want to make a spectacle of something so private. Likewise, judging from the way people respond to it, I imagine that it's quite a solitary, internalised, listening experience. Is it something that people would want to experience in company? I don't know. I do get asked to play live quite a lot, and have turned most of them down so far. One of the other factors is purely technical - on most of my records I play maybe a dozen instruments. The music would be difficult to recreate in a live context, without help from other musicians or some sort of technological sleight of hand. Would people want to watch me fiddle with a laptop? I have played in some ensemble settings, and those experiences have been really good, but it has never been 'my' music. It's always a group effort, and the music goes in weird and wonderful directions because of it. Having expressed all those reservations however, I would eventually like to put on some kind of live performance. These things take time. I just need to discover how best to make it work, and to hopefully find a sympathetic promoter and venue.
(Note: Richard recently played some shows in London.)
(11) Any other pertinent info you’d like to share?
Well, I suppose – quite understandably – this interview has concentrated mainly on my music, but that's really only a part of what I do. It forms a complementary strand to my work, along with photography, film-making and writing. They're almost interchangeable – to me at least – and I'm currently in the process of collecting these things together, with the intention of shortly publishing a book of photographs and writing, along with an album of material entitled 'Landings'. The whole enterprise is intimately concerned with my explorations of the West Pennine Moors, and may provide a more balanced and thought-provoking insight into my work than I've been able to share in this interview. Other than that, I'd like to thank everyone who has personally contacted me, shared their impressions and expressed sentiments of good will and encouragement. It's a privilege to continue to share my work with such caring and generous people.