Roddy Woomble: ‘I was interested in the shared collective melancholy’

Roddy Woomble’s appearance at next week’s Long Division festival in Wakefield comes on the back of his fifth solo album, Lo! Soul.

Roddy Woomble. Picture: Euan Robertson

A predominantly electronic affair, it’s something of a sea change from the 45-year-old singer-songwriter’s previous, folk-dominated solo work or the indie rock records he has made over the last 25 years with the band Idlewild.

It follows an experimental EP, Everyday Sun, that Woomble created last year with Idlewild bassist and guitarist Andrew Mitchell.

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He says: “I’ve always listened to electronic music, and enjoyed it, but I’ve never really aspired to make anything like that because I’d always collaborated with other musicians who didn’t make that kind of music, so that always guided the kind of stuff I wrote.

“I’m not really much of a guitar player myself, so I always tend to work with someone else or with the band.

“But (the new direction) was also to do with the fact that Andrew, who records under the name Andrew Wasylyk, has put out ambient soundscape music for the past few years and he’s got this little studio set-up in Dundee where we made the Everyday Sun EP with him doing the music and me sort of speaking over it.

“The idea was to do another EP which was maybe even more leftfield and then lockdown started, so we focused on it more and it just became more song-based. Through lockdown it turned into more of an album project.”

Woomble says he’s happy with the way things transpired. “I think things turn out better if you don’t plan them, it was unexpected. Creativity was more important.”

With Woomble forced to work at home in Iona as Scotland locked down, the experience proved “definitely different” to the exchange of ideas he’d been used to in the past. “Normally I would make records with people, but we weren’t allowed to see anyone so Andrew would send me ideas and I would send him back things and we worked that way over the internet,” he explains.

“Last summer when lockdown eased up I went to see him for two days and we mapped out the songs and I recorded a lot of the vocals. So we did actually have a small space where we were physically in the same room, but largely the whole thing was done (separately).

“All the contributions by other people, like Danny Grant and Jill O’Sullivan, who did a lot of the backing vocals, they did that in their own little home studio set-up. It was quite a weird record in that way, but it’s got an intimacy to it. At the same time it’s basically me, recording remotely.”

The finished product might sound strikingly different to Woomble’s other records, but his basic working methods were essentially the same. “Normally when I’m writing songs, even if it’s written on the piano, I would say (to Andrew) could you show me the basic chords to it on my acoustic guitar so I can finish the lyric,” he says. “Even if the song sounds like it doesn’t have any guitar in it, I probably worked on it as a guitar song top finish my words, so in that way (my working methods) didn’t change that much but I do think that sonically the sound of synthesisers and keyboards and electronic drumbeats is such an unusual place initially for my voice to sit.

“You usually hear my voice within a rock band or acoustic guitars. That’s what changed for me, that the voice can sound so different within a musical setting.”

Not one for unifying themes on his records, Woomble says he wrote Lo! Soul “from the perspective of one person looking out on the world, like we all were”.

“I think for everyone it was a really reflective time. Everyone was kind of focusing on different things, but I was interested in the shared collective melancholy and the shared idea of people clapping out of their windows and only allowed out for an hour a day in the fresh air.

“It was certainly not about lockdown or a global pandemic. It was about a change of thought process, and it was influenced by film, which I love. I get a lot of ideas from film dialogue. Basically I’m a cinephile.”

Having said he found the absence of gigs during the past year “anxiety-inducing”, Woomble was relieved to recently perform at folk festivals with his friends Kris Drever and John McCusker. “It was strange though to get back into that,” he says. “Scotland is definitely on a different path to England in that way. When we played in Scotland everyone was wearing a mask and socially distanced, in England there really is no social distancing and no masks. We always knew the countries were different but there’s a definite change there. That will take a bit of getting used to. In Scotland people are definitely more cautious, but to actually music with other people, it was strange how it felt like nothing had happened and we just played as we would normally play... It’s a strange psychological shift that a lot of performers are going through across all spheres of music, as we get back into it.”

He is, he says, “looking forward” to Long Division, which is celebrating its 10th edition this year. His set will be “just me and Andrew playing, we’ll be concentrating mainly on the newer stuff form Lo! Soul and Everyday Sun, with a few songs from the other (solo) records”. “I tend to steer away from Idlewild these days because there’s lots of interesting solo material to explore...I think there’s a big element of the crowd that come now aren’t that bothered if they don’t hear any Idlewild songs. That gives me confidence to be a lot more experimental.”

Roddy Woomble plays at Long Division, Wakefield on Saturday September 25. longdivisionfestival.co.uk