David Ian Roberts – From the harbour – interview & review

From the harbour

A few weeks ago, an artist I’d not heard of before, David Ian Roberts, dropped into my twitter feed (Cheers Nick!). Several people were waxing lyrical about his new album, ‘From the harbour’. The musical references peaked my interest and heading over to BandCamp I listened to an album that has easily catapulted straight into my albums of the year. I also discovered the other two excellent albums in his back catalogue: ‘Travelling bright’ and ‘St Clears’. Each record has a different feel and atmosphere and you can see the progression from each album.

David’s is seeking Kickstarter funding to get ‘From the harbour’ on vinyl. It’s getting closer to the total – if you love the album – don’t just stream, invest in a great physical product and support the artist. The cover is also a great piece of art that David painted himself.

‘From the harbour’ was recorded in lockdown, just David on his own. You can clearly hear the influences in his work – CSNY, Elliott Smith, Nick Drake, John Martin. But it all sounds fresh, lifted by some effortless lyrics and stories. His voice also reminds me of Badly Drawn Boy. AKA Damon Gough.

The album has echoey acoustic guitar (reminds me of Shack) and rich harmony folk. There’s some great tonal, windy, guitar solos – more than other albums – particularly on the opener ‘Slow burn’. There are some great lyrics in there- listen to ‘Dream A Fallen’ – “There’s no way out when it comes, it fills up like a flood, the zeros and ones pick you up, and the screen gives you nothing but love”.

I was able to grab a chat with David last week, to talk about musical influences and making ‘From the harbour’.  It was a great insight into David’s approach as a musician.

Steve:  My usual opener – your house is burning, which three records would you save?

I think I’ll say some of the records that are at my parent’s house.  They’ve got a really early ‘Déjà vu’ Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, it’s kind of battered but still sounds good.  It’s got the gold embossed stuff on it.   My Mum’s got a really early ‘Blue’, Joni Mitchell, love that.  And then ‘Harvest’ (Neil Young) I think.

I can certainly hear the CSNY harmonies in your work, has that aspect has influenced you?

Absolutely, I love the way they stack up – the four voices, how they come together and I’m really interested in how they mix that as well. They take a lot of the bottom and top of the harmonies.  They have their own little spot in the mix and it’s like an organ chord sometimes.

Moving on to the new album, could you say a bit on how it came about.  You recorded it by yourself during the lockdown period?

I had some songs on the go around February time, they were coming together and I was thinking that I would record them myself, just as an experiment, because I hadn’t done that for a long time.  So I thought it would be nice to try something fairly simple, guitars and a few others bits, before trying anything too ambitious.  When lockdown happened I thought – ‘that’s it – I’ve got to do it now.’  Because I had so much time on my hands – I went for it, knuckled down and finished the songs.  Spent a few hours every day on it….I really enjoyed the process, it was fun really.  It wasn’t stressful, it was having a good time with guitars.

Was there a theme, something that bound it all together?

As the process went on and I was looking for a title,  that’s when it made sense.  I didn’t have a title and I picked out 10 songs. I asked people – ‘what’s the best album title here?’ and they all said ‘From the harbour’.  Because that feels like where I was during lockdown.  We were in a little safe space in our little house.  You didn’t have to go anywhere, you didn’t have to worry about obligations. A safe space you were looking out from.  After the songs were finished, after lockdown, I could see that the songs were expressing a need, or that desire, to get out into the world a bit more but also with a sense of longing that you can’t do it yet.

Is it an album with melancholy or just reflective of that time on your own, space to think?

There’s no melancholy in it for me, that’s not how I was feeling or how I was wanting to spend my days feeling.  I wanted to feel joy and positivity.  You have to decide what state of mind you want to spend you time in. 

Compared to your other albums there are more guitar solos.  There are some great tonal, winding solos in there, is that because you had more time to experiment?

Yes, exactly. I wasn’t paying for any studio time.  I could do 25 takes for a solo (laughs) and just have fun with it. Playing guitar for its own sake.

Have you got any particular influences for that part of your playing?

I think I have been more excited about playing guitar solos this year. I hadn’t done much of it for a long time on recordings, but last year I was listening to Steve Gunn a lot… he’s a fantastic guitarist. He plays finger style stuff but he also does these incredible electric guitar solos. I was listening to three of his albums non-stop last year. There’s also a Chris Forsyth album that I like – ‘All time Present’.

In terms of the orchestration – you’ve got some strings on there? How did you manage to work that during lockdown?

It’s me doing my best, on my cello. I inherited my Great Auntie’s cello a good 15 years ago and occasionally I’ll pick it up, try and get a tune out, but I haven’t got the technique for anything complicated. So I would just do a bunch of takes until I got a decent sounding note by my standards..with a bit of editing and tuning on the software it sounds presentable enough.

With a cello you only need a few notes to get that deep resonance of the sound?

Yeah, definitely. It instantly gives you another flavour in there.

Does that influence come from people like Nick Drake?

Probably, I love Nick Drake. I don’t think I would consciously think about that. I guess ‘Cello song’. A lot of music I like has that combination of cello and guitars.

In terms of your lyrics – where do you get the inspiration from?

It’s different for every song. It’s hard to pinpoint where you get your inspiration from. I think the non-specific, abstract lyrics might not be so coherent at first.  I’m probably very influenced by Elliott Smith on that. His lyrics take a bit of deciphering and you can never quite know what he is on about sometimes. That is what I enjoy – allowing the listener to bring something of themselves into it, relate it in their own way. Whatever the lyric is it can mean something different to each person.

The landscape, the countryside around you, is that an influence on the music?

Definitely, I spend a lot of time staring at trees (laughs) – my girlfriend makes fun of me.  I love being out and struggled a bit with the lockdown.  I’d go for drives up to local bits of woodland and the gates would be shut and there would be nowhere to park – that got to me a bit. Definitely, nature, landscapes, mountains. I talk about that stuff a lot on the album. 

The cover for the album – I think I read somewhere that you painted that yourself? I wondered what that was of? Something from your imagination?

It was something from my imagination.  I very rarely paint but one day I got a set of oil paints and one day in April I fancied having a bit of fun with it. I painted this landscape with sun rays and mountains, taking you off over the horizon.  We thought about that as the album cover at first.  But then we were thinking about singles and we took a close up photo of little areas of the painting and one of them came out really nicely and that is the cover now.

It can be challenging for musicians to make a living from music these days, are things like BandCamp and Kickstarter important – are they the best way for you to reach your audience?

BandCamp is brilliant and seems to be gaining in popularity. That’s really positive. Making a career out of music, as a full-time thing, is not something I’m worried about.  I have my guitar teaching work and I really enjoy that and I feel that if my output with my recording continues to improve, which I’m hoping it will, things will just happen as they’re supposed to and if I make some money out of it then great.

With this album, I finished it and I didn’t expect to do anything with it really. I just thought, that was a nice project and great to listen to.  But I sent it to Toby at Cambrian Records and he said, let’s put it out. Just release it and let’s do Kickstarter pre-orders for the vinyl and that will be a way to complete the project. It’s nice to have done something in six months, which is a rapid turnaround.  Hopefully we’ll get them made.

We’re 64% on Kickstarter with three weeks left.

In terms of live gigs – what sort of places do you play at?

There are a lot of monthly things where people tend to put on a gig, and those have been the most fun.  There’s a few great places in Cardiff – the Penarth acoustic club is great.  Various places around Wales, London, Brighton, Norwich, Ipswich, Bristol. I haven’t got a big following or anything, so I can’t turn up in a city and expect a crowd. The ones that have worked best for me are were they have a monthly night, they have an audience that trusts them to bring in someone decent and they will turn up each month. 

Any festivals?

I’ve done Green Man. Toby at the label has curated a stage there on a few occasions.

And that’s it – thanks to David for a great interview and look forward to seeing the album out there in physical form soon.

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