Interview with "Rock'n'Reel" magazine 2007

RnR: Have heard you described as a Scottish traditional folk singer and as a political singer/songwriter. How would you describe yourself and what you do?

DG: I tend to not pay much attention to whatever labels people are trying to hang on me. I have a horror of genres; they really fulfill no role at all other than helping marketing people justify their existence. When they're used as loose, amorphous descriptions then I can live with them but when people start trying to use them as absolute definitions I usually make an excuse and leave.

The only label I'd be prepared to hang on myself would be "musician". To me that covers everything from playing an instrument to singing to composing to everything else. My craft is music, in all its forms and varieties. I have no particular genre or stylistic preference and no taboos, I'll try whatever interests me at any point. Anyone trying to define me on the basis of what I happen to be doing today is going to be confused when I do something completely different tomorrow. The only constant within my work is that I try as honestly as I am capable of to express my views of the world around me. That, of necessity, includes what people call "politics".

RnR: From your solo work, then playing with trad based act Boys Of The Lough and then non trad folk-rockers Five Hand Reel and more latterly Clan Alba where have you felt most at home.

DG: There are two answers to that - with whatever I happen to be doing, and nowhere at all.

Those might appear to be contradictory but they're not really. As a musician, I'm possessed by a restlessness. I'm not very interested in doing what I already know how to do. I am passionate - obsessed - about learning what I don't already know how to do. As I hinted in my answer to the last question, I regard "style" as anathema.

People thought I was crazy leaving the Boys of the Lough just as they were beginning to become commercially successful. People also thought I was crazy after having made "Handful of Earth" not to follow it with HoE Mark 2 and capitalise on the modest popularity it had had. But their thinking is on a different planet from mine. I'm not the slightest bit interested in whether or not I'm regarded as being "popular" or "successful". I just do whatever interests me and if there are people who want to hear that, wonderful, I'm honoured, and if enough of them want to hear it then I might make enough to pay the rent. If there are no people who want to hear it, no worries, I'll do it anyway, and find some other way of paying the rent.

I've lived long enough to know that "success" and "popularity" are transient, short-lived phenomena. I could name you several dozens of people I know who were hugely popular and successful at various points between the 60s and the 90s who most people would now struggle to remember their names or what they did. So anyone who bases their artistic work on such ephemera is likely to become ephemeric themselves, constantly chasing something which will bring back the fame they had but no longer have. Not being interested in fame, that's not something I've ever had to worry about and I can quite happily feel completely at home with whatever I'm doing, whether it be Five Hand Reel, Clan Alba or just schlepping around the planet with an acoustic guitar doing small solo gigs.

RnR: Do you think the political nature of a lot of your material has hindered you at all within the folk scene as to festival or club bookings?

DG: Unquestionably. From the mid 1980s, a lot of the folk world radically changed in its attitude towards "political" content but I didn't so I ended up wildly out of step with a lot of it. A large part of the folk world became middle-aged, middle-class, comfortable and escapist, and for those who went that road, coming to one of my performances held as much appeal as sitting on a landmine pulling out their toenails. With a handful of exceptions like Stainsby, Cleethorpes and a few others, most English folk festivals never book me.

I accepted years ago that if you insist on doing what I do, a few people will want to listen and the rest will get pissed off. And as I said already, that's not something I spend any time worrying about. If it's a trade-off between singing banal shite and being popular, or singing what I feel to be true and being unpopular, there's no contest.

RnR: You've a writing and theatrical background with 7:84 (remember them from 'Dario Fo's 'Accidental Death Of An Anarchist' and 'One Big Blow', both of which played in my town in the 80s) is music the first love and priority of your career or would you like to stretch your wings further.

DG: As I said, I regard everything I do as learning, a journey of exploration and discovery. As the number of things I don't yet know how to do is infinitely greater than those I do, I'm not likely to ever get bored and there are loads of things I want to do. On and off across the years I've composed for film, theatre and television and I'd like to have the opportunity to do a lot more of that. If my life had gone differently and different opportunities had presented themselves, I'd have been happy doing more acting and/or more orchestral composition. But I'd need several more lifetimes just to scratch the surface of the pile of things I'd like to do.

RnR: You've played all over the world where did you feel most pleased to appear and what appearances have given you the most pleasure.

DG: That's almost impossible to answer. After 36 years fulltime on the road, much of it coalesces into a sea of impressions with the specific details of places and individual gigs becoming a bit blurred. The 1972 tour in the USA with Boys of the Lough is still fresh in my mind as it was a huge experience for a 24 year old kid from Leith. But in general I tend not to hang onto the past too much; doing that can make you old before your time.

RnR: Where do you stand on the Scottish national question?

DG: Same place I've always stood. 100% in favour of an independent Scottish Republic. The United Kingdom has always been an uneasy alliance which managed to hang together because of the massive profits pouring in from the exploitation of Empire providing the ability to paper over the cracks. The empire is now history and the Union is an anachronism. It's only been made worse by the ridiculous attempt to salvage it resulting in the situation we now have whereby Scotland and Wales have our own semi-autonomous legislative bodies while England does not. It does no favours to the peoples of any of the constituent nations of these islands and its long past time to scrap it and develop a new, more evenly balanced, set of relationships between us. It's interesting to see that a growing number of English people are starting to think the same.

RnR: What attracts you to a song that you play or record, and how do you discover new material.

DG: I'll leave aside songs which I only learn and sing informally for my own pleasure and speak exclusively about what I do as a professional. In order for me to sing a song I have to have a complete uncompromised belief in the truth of it. I have to believe and feel comfortable with every word of the lyric and every note of the tune. I have to think I understand it and I have to believe I can add something to it by singing it. If I don't believe it to be true, how the hell am I going to convince an audience that it's true? If people shell out their hard-earned money to come and hear me sing, they don't want to hear me fudge my way around a lyric that I find awkward because I don't understand it or don't believe it, they want to hear me sing it with complete conviction. And if I can't do that, then I won't sing it at all.

RnR: I've read that the death of Victor Jara inspired you to play 'more than tunes'. Do you feel the folk scene and the wider musical world needs to follow that example in the current climate of American imperialism, sabre rattling and illegal wars?

DG: I don't like other people telling me what I should or shouldn't be singing about so I'm not going to start doing it to anyone else. I can only carry on doing what I'm doing and saying what I think.

But I'm part of the generation which grew up with the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, the nuclear arms race, the armed struggle in Northern Ireland and there's a song on the last album I did (Lucky For Some) called "Whatever Happened?" which is simply me asking the rest of my generation why so many of them seemed to put their brains on hold around 1979 and forgot to switch them back on again.

The Thatcher/Reagan era did bring about a philosophical change in society, which was primarily to make greed and self-obsession respectable and absolve people of any responsibility to the rest of society. Everybody and their dog can sit down and give you a list of their rights. Very few have much to say when asked about what their responsibilities might be. As we are now learning to our severe cost, rights without responsibilities is a recipe for chaos. When there's a problem, people no longer ask, "What can I do to help solve it?" They mumble, "It's not MY fault - somebody else is to blame." And instead of trying to fix what's broken, they spend their time and energy looking for scapegoats. It's like living in a school playground with everybody yelling "It wasnae me - a big boy done it and ran away." Which is why people keep voting for idiots like Blair and Cameron. Politicians are no longer elected to lead, they are elected as scapegoats for the rest of society's apathy. In general I despise politicians as a breed but I do have some sympathy for the position the rest of society has put them in. Whenever there is this kind of chaotic shambles, the far Right starts to gain ground.

So we end up with a world where nobody takes responsibility for anything and we define our relationships to the world around us in strictly passive terms. We no longer live - we have "lifestyles". We no longer have poverty - we have "social exclusion". And we have a whole army of social workers, probation officers and drug dealers to keep the lid on those who can't afford "lifestyles" and are "socially excluded".

In times like these, the responsibility an artist has is to engage with and challenge the apathetic, the comfortable, the smug, the self-satisfied and the self-obsessed and make them feel a bit less comfortable and smug. But that usually means becoming unpopular and as popularity is a highly addictive and pernicious drug, the pressure to give up struggling and settle for regurgitating bland pap becomes too great for many.

Most of my generation are a lost cause. They got too comfortable and copped out of the struggle for - even the belief in - a better world and far too many of them are now just sitting around waiting to die, wondering "Where the hell did my life go?" but too scared to admit it, especially to themselves. What we need from the generation now in its late teens and early twenties is for those who haven't yet accumulated stuff they'd be worried about losing to start kicking up hell.

RnR: You built a reputation as a fine guitarist. Who inspired you to originally pick up the guitar and performance style wise who do you admire?

DG: I come from a long line of musicians. My father started out playing fiddle but took up the guitar during the 50s. I grew up playing it, just took it for granted without thinking much about it. It was pretty much the only thing I ever wanted to do. The most significant in terms of direct influence on how I play were probably Doc Watson, Hank Snow, Davy Graham, Bert Jansch and Martin Carthy. I was influenced by many others but those were guitarists that I made a deliberate conscious effort to learn from rather than just absorbing unconsciously from them.

RnR: Future plans?

DG: Don't really have any. Just keep on keeping on. There's never been any Grand Plan, I just do what I'm doing and when I've done that I do the next thing, whatever it might be.

Top of Page