We had the privilege to ask some questions via email to English artist Richard Skelton of which we reviewed one of his last works, “Border Ballads”. Even with the limitations of a conversation by correspondence a clear and strong picture appears: the portrait of an artist whose path is not limited to musical expression but is first of all a journey of human, cultural and existential search towards the mystery of life, about man’s relationship with the visible and invisible world that surrounds him.

Let’s talk about the new album, “Border Ballads” and how it was born. It seems to us to show a simpler and more direct approach than in the past … is it a choice you wanted from the beginning or did it develop while you were recording? How much is planned and written and how much is improvised or unexpected in your compositions?
There isn’t necessarily a compositional difference – in terms of complexity – between longer and shorter pieces; it’s more a question of scale. “Border Ballads” emanates from my relocation to the Scottish Borders in the UK, and my investigations – on foot – of this new landscape. Perhaps there’s something in the relative brevity of those local walks that is reflected in the music.

Now let’s talk about album title. We were intrigued by the use of the term “Ballads” which is usually associated with songs. Why did you choose this term? What is a ballad for you?
The title is a reference to the corpus of folk songs called the “border ballads”, made famous perhaps by Sir Walter Scott’s book, “Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border”, and later Francis Child’s “English and Scottish Popular Ballads”. ‘Tam Lin”, as interpreted by Anne Briggs, Fairport Convention, or Current 93, is an excellent example. But my use of the term is really something of a sideways glance, as these recordings aren’t directly influenced by the border ballads in any demonstrable way. As a matter of fact, the traditional ballads were sung unaccompanied, so my instrumentals are somewhat heretical. Perhaps they could be viewed as a ghostly parallel tradition of songs without voices; the murmurings of the border landscape itself.

The other term used is “Border”. The idea of boundary that your music transmits is certainly a metaphysical one, but unfortunately our daily reality is threatened by the more concrete and violent meaning of this term … Can you explain to us what are the boundaries your music talks about?
The area my wife, Autumn, and I moved to is close to quite a few borders. A mile or so to the south is the English county of Cumbria; a similar distance to the east is Northumberland; and a short drive to the west takes us into the Scottish ‘unitary area’ of Dumfries and Galloway. So, here in Roxburghshire, it feels almost islanded. The boundary with England runs along a river, or as it turns out, several rivers and streams that interconnect. Crossing the river therefore has a double sense of transition. This undoubtedly seeps into the music. I see the cello, with its low undertow, as a dark, riverine presence. It underscores everything.

Your music sounds “mysterious” to the listener and for this very reason it’s wrapped in a particular charm. What intrigues us is whether the mysterious component remains even for you, its author. Do the compositions come to life and escape your control? Do they become fleeting creatures for you as they appear to our ears?
Yes, that coming to life you mention is integral. When I record a viola or cello and listen back to it, I’m looking for those unrepeatable sonorities; something beyond simple melody. I don’t necessarily know what I’m looking for; I want to be taken by surprise. I always want to approach an instrument with an element of wonder, and to play it in a way that is as open as possible to producing sounds beyond its ‘ordinary’ gamut. There are certain techniques that can be employed, but ultimately it’s simply a question of playing and hoping something will happen. There is an element of faith to it.

It seems to us that in this work the piano sound is more evident than in the past. Is it a predetermined choice or compositional process has guided you towards the use of this instrument? In general how do you decide which “voice” that your compositions should have?
I nearly always begin with strings, and quite often it ends there, as my palette of sounds is generally restricted to instruments that I own. I’ve tended to use piano sparingly because it can easily become foregrounded, and I like the idea of each instrument playing an equal part in a composition. But many of these compositions began with piano, and there is an evident arpeggiated melody that brings it to the fore. I’m not quite sure why – these things aren’t planned, they’re intuitive. It could have been an unconscious cue from this new environment I find myself in, or simply a desire for change. Recently I’ve actually begun introducing more electronic elements into my recordings – “A Great Body Rising and Falling” would be a good example. In such cases there was a desire to bring two different kinds of sound into uneasy combination; to create an unsettling effect. Similarly, my recent ‘Front Variations’ album was entirely composed from sine wave tones. As the recording was about ice and glaciers, it seemed natural to use the purest tones available to me.

Can you tell us about your relationship with nature: a fundamental element in your music, as well as an entity that each man approaches, according to his intimate convictions, in a sacred and religious manner or in a secular and ancestral manner … In which of the two approaches do you recognize yourself more?
Most religions are ontologically hierarchical, and I’ve always found this problematic. It implies categorical distinctions between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’, and even scientists, who generally worship at the altar of rationality, still use this kind of language when describing the natural world. For example, vascular plants are often termed ‘higher’ plants, in contradistinction to non-vascular plants. The same is true of ‘higher’ primates, etc. I’m currently half-way through a PhD in which I’m researching prehistoric attitudes to the natural world, and it’s opened up the possibility for conceiving of non-hierarchical worldviews in which natural entities are considered categorically identical, but in possession of differing amounts of power. I’m very much drawn to such ontologies, which are predicated – not on reverence for the natural world (which implies a hierarchy) – but on respectful and reciprocal relations. Many of these ideas are based on finding commonalities between outwardly different phenomena. Sacredness implies its own (lesser) opposite: the profane, but in such ontologies everything is sacred – all of life – and therefore nothing is sacred, because there is no need for such a distinction. I find this idea profoundly moving, and try to remember it when I interact with the natural world. Everything we encounter, whether it is a ‘sacred’ site or an ‘empty’ lot, is worthy of respect.

And again: do you think that nature is a blank canvas in which man depicts his own cultural suggestions or do you think that man, entering in communion with it, can access an ontological dimension of nature that is not affected by human conventions?
This is a complex subject. Ruskin would argue the former, and coined the term ‘the pathetic fallacy (referring to attribution, often for poetic reasons, of human emotion and conduct to things found in nature that are not human, ED). I do not necessarily have a problem with anthropomorphism. The difficult – increasingly – is rather in asserting that there is anything inherently human. We are constantly discovering – to our amazement – that skills or attributes which we thought only humans possessed are in fact also shared with others. This is why I find the “Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness” such a moving document, because leading neuroscientists are concluding that consciousness – possibly the key identifying ‘quality’ of humanity – is shared by numerous species. The phrasing is as follows: “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness”. This declaration of sameness by 21st century science is something that indigenous cultures have asserted for millennia. It is therefore somewhat ironic that early anthropologists labelled indigenous peoples as ‘primitive’ for maintaining such beliefs.

“Ambient” music is often labeled as boring music “in which nothing happens”. If someone asked you why he should listen to your music, what would you say? And above all, which approach would you suggest?
I don’t have a problem with this. The wonderful thing about music is that there is such a variety to suit every taste and sensibility. Some people are drawn to minimal music or art, and others aren’t.
As musicians, we have to be humble and realise that not everyone is going to like what we do. Clearly, I would like more people to like my work, but I have no control over that. I don’t think we can or should convince someone else of the merits of what we do. We’re not politicians seeking votes. People should come to it naturally. Admittedly, there is an increasing problem in contemporary culture with short attention spans, and this is something that artists can resist by not pandering to it. The ‘slow film’ movement is a good example of this kind of resistance.

Your career has always been characterized by strong independency (see the experiences of Corbel Stone Press and Aeolian Editions). In your opinion is this choice necessary to safeguard the essence of your music?
Yes and no. I’ve been fortunate to work with labels such as Type, Digitalis, Preservation and Tompkins Square, who were careful to safeguard what I do, and offered me a great degree of artistic control. But I began in 2005 by self-releasing and, notwithstanding the financial hardships, it has worked well because it has allowed me to invest more care and attention into the physical artefacts themselves. In the early days each CDR was made to order with unique artwork and a dedication to the recipient – such things wouldn’t have been possible with a record label. These days, Corbel Stone Press has become more like a small label, so there is less distinction between what we and other labels do – it’s just a question of scale. Undoubtedly, if I was to work with a larger label there may be some concessions and compromises with formats and designs, but I would hope they would still be respectful of the music.

Crowdfunding tend to create a direct and disintermediate relationship between the artist and the listener as you’re experimenting with Bandcamp subscriptions to Aeolian Editions. How do you live these new possibilities offered by the web? Does the sense of confidence in feeling supported or the responsibility towards subscribers prevail?
It’s a little of both because the Bandcamp subscription service itself is fairly impersonal. It’s all automated and there’s little interaction. As such it’s difficult to know if subscribers are happy simply to be supporting us, or whether they’re keen to receive a steady supply of exclusives. We’ve got a few ideas about how to make it more interactive, so we’ll see how it develops. It’s certainly an exciting opportunity.

Let’s finish with a classic question: what are your desert island records? Which are the albums that you consider the most formative ones for you as a musician?
Not so much albums as individual songs. Here are a few, in no particular order: Nico “No One Is There”; John Coltrane “Spiritual”; Planxty “The Blacksmith”; The Stooges “We Will Fall”; Sly & The Family Stone “Africa Talks to You”; Sandy Denny “Blackwaterside (BBC In Concert)”; The Raincoats “You’re A Million”; Ramp “Daylight”; Throwing Muses “Rabbits Dying”; John Jacob Niles “Edward”; Nick Drake “Black-eyed Dog”. These are obviously all songs, as opposed to instrumentals. I’d say the person who’s had the most influence on me is John Cale – both his viola playing (which appears on “We Will Fall”), and his production/arrangements (i.e. Stooges/Nico). I believe he also produced Nick Drake, but I’m not a fan of the rather lush production on “Bryter Layter”. I can only imagine what his viola scrape would sound like on “Pink Moon”.