FolkWorld Issue 33 05/2007; Article by Walkin' T:-)M
Another One for the Road
Robin Laing and the Water of Life
Scottish singer-songwriter is one of those lucky individuals who has turned his hobby into a career: Robin is passionate about whisky - uisge beatha, the water of life - Scotland's most important export and, as he says, her greatest contribution to humanity.
Tom:They say that in Scotland whisky is given to new-born babies instead of milk. What was first - the whisky or the music? Any early musical influences?
The Angel's Share (1997)
Imaginary Lines (1999)
The Water of Life (2003)
Ebb and Flow (2005)
One for the Road (2007)
The Whisky Muse (2002)
Robin Laing: From Family - none really. Not a musical family. My mum liked Nat King Cole and Jim Reeves and stuff like that. Any self respecting kid would run screaming from. At primary school I was into the Beatles, as were most of us. At Secondary school I was exposed to Gilbert and Sullivan, which I enjoyed, but got thrown out of the Chorus for making up my own words to the songs - an early talent for parody!
But eventually you picked up the guitar?
Robin: As a teenager I was very interested in classical music, from Bach to Bartok. In particular I loved classical guitar and had Julian Bream, Segovia and John Williams as heroes. I bought my first guitar at the age of sixteen and taught myself to read music because I wanted to play like them. At Edinburgh University I studied for a year at the School of Scottish Studies, purely out of interest, not as part of my degree. During this time my earlier interest in folk song was broadened and deepened. I was particularly influenced by the enthusiasm and wisdom of Hamish Henderson. I discovered Simon and Garfunkel. Ever since then my favourite songwriter has been Paul Simon??. I see now a tendency to favour male harmony singing groups. My secret ambition is to sing in a harmony line up. Unfortunately I donít have an ear for harmony.
However, you've got a knack for songwriting?
Robin: My first effort at songwriting came after listening to, and not particularly enjoying, a tape of Neil Diamond. This was in my early twenties. I remember thinking, ďIf he can do it, so can IĒ. My first effort wasnít very good, but it did show that I could do it. I went on to write a number of songs, mainly for my own consumption, over the next few years. Some of these are on Edinburgh Skyline, including the title track. My songwriting went into a different mode when I got more involved in the folk scene in Edinburgh in the early eighties. The Union Canal was written in a folk style, for a folk audience. That pattern continued for a while, but now I am just as likely to write in a more broadly contemporary style. As a songwriter I see myself as a lyricist first and foremost. I have a great love of poetry and my lyrics are sometimes influenced by people like Tennyson.??
How did you come about singing whisky songs?
Robin: Whisky is one of my hobbies or passions. Another is Scots traditional song. I began to realize a number of traditional songs have a whisky theme and put a few together with some stories, poems, anecdotes etc., and did a show in Edinburgh in 1997. It was sponsored by Glenmorangie and the tourists really enjoyed it. A number of them were asking where they could get the songs, so I quickly produced a CD called 'The Angels' Share'. Soon after I realized there was enough stuff for a book and produced 'The Whisky Muse', which has 95 songs and poems about whisky. After that I recorded the second whisky CD 'The Water of Life'. Now there is a third one and in a few weeks my second book will be published - called 'The Whisky River'. It is about the distilleries of Speyside.
Is your new album 'One for the Road' any different to the previous ones? I felt it is a bit more pop than folk music, is it?
Take clear water from the hill
And barley from the lowlands
Take a master craftsman's skill
And something harder to define
Like secrets in the shape of coppered still
Or the slow, silent, magic work of time
Now, the spirits starts out clear
But see the transformation
After many patient year
When at last the tale unfolds
For the colours of the seasons will appear
From palest yellow to the deepest gold
Robin: The first two whisky CD's were almost entirely Scottish, as was the book. There are still good Scottish whisky songs to be uncovered but I wanted to do something different. I had picked up a few good non-Scottish songs and was writing songs in a different style, because of the subject matter - the Al Qaeda song and the two songs inspired by my visit to Kentucky. In any case, whisky is an international phenomenon - Scotland's greatest contribution to humanity, and there is an international market for my whisky songs - so why not give this album more of an international flavour? The producer was the same as for my last three CD's (David Scott), so the music is not that different. It is more that the style of the song requires a different treatment, so we bring in electric guitars and pedal steel guitar for some of the 'country' tracks for example.
What first caught my ear was the song 'We Can't Let Al Qaeda Get Their Hands On This'. At first I thought the song is about that there isn't a 'world of whisky' out there 'from Japan to the Hebrides'. But there's another story behind. What is the song really about?
Robin: If you check out the Bruichladdich website, you can read about this amazing story, apparently true, that the USA were spying on them because they thought they might be making weapons of mass destruction. Bruichladdich is one of my favourite distilleries and the guys there - Jim McEwan and Mark Reynier - are natural storytellers. There is never a dull moment at Bruichladdich - read their thing about Weapons of Mass Destruction 2, when they found a yellow submarine floating in the sea. That might be the next song. 'Uisquebugh Baul' is also about Bruichladdich. I'll be singing at the distillery in May at the Islay Festival.
Well, I'd guess that Al Qaeda's getting more relaxed after having a dram. You perform your Whisky & Song shows all over the world. Are there different reactions from different audiences?
This life is difficult and hard at times
When your dreams get hammered by the daily grind
The barley bree, the barley bree
It makes your heart and your conscience free
You'll never need to pay a doctor's fee
With daily doses of the barley bree
Robin: Actually I'm slightly worried that Al Qaeda may consider me a target. Even more worryingly, the USA might consider me a target. I wonder which side will get to me first? I did have some Americans walk out of a dinner at Limburg Whisky Festival when I sang that song. It wasn't so much the song as the audience reaction to the line about dying from American beer. Generally I find audiences pretty good everywhere. Obviously the language is a bit of an issue but whisky seems to be a common language and after a few drams we can all speak a kind of Gaelic.
What is the reception from German audiences?
Robin: I did five concerts in Germany recently and the audiences were great. Some shows had whisky tastings and music and some only had the music. I had a horrible cold and could hardly sing, also I don't speak German very well - only a few words. Yet the audiences were really appreciative. I sold all the CD's I brought with me and saw some lovely parts of the Southern part of Germany from Munich to Saarbrucken. Come to think of it, the audiences were better that I get in England.
What is your favourite whisky song then?
From the Lowlands to the Highlands
From Japan to the Hebrides
From Orkney to Kentucky
And the far Antipodes
From Tennessee to Canada
And Irelandís emerald land
Thereís a world of whisky out there
So letís have another dram
Robin: I don't really have a favourite. All the songs seem to have a different colour, a different story to tell and a different 'take' on whisky. All songs on the new CD add up to an album which - although it is themed - is far from one-dimensional. I do like 'Elijah Craig' because it tells of a man from Scottish descent who had an impact on the whisky making in Kentucky. You find the same story in many areas - there is a Moonshine Whisky Museum in Gore, South Island, New Zealand, which tells the story of how a family of MacRaes from Kintail took whisky to New Zealand. I also like 'Bottle of Gin' because it is an American songwriter, who lives in Germany, wanting to switch from American whisky to gin because it seems to be a less unhealthy drink - on account of the well-behaved picture he has of Englishmen! Layers of Irony.
If send to a lonely island - which brand would you take with you?
Robin: The next one! But I have fond memories of A'Bunadh, Bowmore 17 years old, Bruichladdich Flirtation and Glenlivet Nadurra. I do tasting notes for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society and the philosophy of that organization is that single casks are best, though they are by definition limited edition. Once it's gone - it's gone.
Do you have any recommendations where to go when visiting Scotland?
Robin: Edinburgh - my home town! The Clyde Valley - where I now live! Islay - whisky island! Indeed anywhere on the west coast and Speyside - whisky heaven!
Alright, let's have another dram! Slainte bhath!
Robin: I have the best job in the world - doing whisky and song.
(1) Robin Laing;
(2) Luath Press;
(3)-(4) Greentrax (taken from website).
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© The Mollis - Editors of FolkWorld; Published 05/2007
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