Interview with Ray Cooper

Ray Cooper photoTalking to Ray Cooper (aka Chopper of Oysterband) - ‘Tales of Love, War and Death by Hanging’  

FW: What was the drive behind the solo album? RC:Well it’s been in the back of my mind for years. Like most musicians a solo project is something you think about but perhaps never get round to doing. Mind you, I think the question should be: “Why has it taken so long for me to get round to it?” I don’t have a ready answer but the songs, tunes and timing just felt right. 

FW: Is ‘Tales Love, War and Death by Hanging’ a folk album? RC: I was prompted to make a folk album after I was told that England has a fantastic treasure chest of folk music and culture. So I decided to look for it. I opened the chest to see what it contained. Oysterband have their own style of music that’s heavily influenced by folk – most of the band played a lot of folk music when they were younger. When I joined I came to a band that had folk as one of its sources but I’d never played with or delved into the source myself.

FW: So where did find your sources? RC: I bought Walter Scott’s book of border ballads and just amused myself going through them to find out those that were relevant to me. At the same time I was also reading through an old Swedish hymn book. Mostly, I was looking at the tunes, particularly those from 1500 and 1600. Interestingly, several of them were secular tunes that had become hymn tunes. This was a fresh source of inspiration especially the shape and structure of the tunes. My wife is Swedish and I spend much of my time in Sweden so there are obvious links. Although on the album there’s more of a Scottish tradition than Swedish.

FW: What attracts you about Swedish folk music? RC: I first heard Swedish folk in the early 80’s – and it immediately caught my attention. There’s a distinct essence about Swedish folk – it has a strange rather dark quality – a pervading string of melancholy runs through the songs and the tunes. There’s a sense of longing, a strangeness to it that’s perhaps caused by the dark nights, emptiness and space.

FW: How about the song ‘The Grey Goose Wing’ can you tell me about that one?  RC: The genesis began when I started shooting longbows and became a seriousRay Cooper archer. My head was so full of archery that I found I had to write a song about it. I was listening to the radio and heard about a book talking about the victory parade in London after the battle. That image was so strong for me that I started writing a story about it. Initially, I didn’t have a tune or even a metre to write the words in. I’d heard about the Agincourt Carol written about the time of the battle and downloaded the music. I found that I already knew bits of that tune and decided I wanted to base my tune around it or at least include elements of the carol in the song.

FW: Where did Macpherson’s Rant come from?  RC: I came across the song in a book and liked the lyrics. I didn’t do too much to it. Clearly, it’s a Scottish story, although I’ve added a Swedish rhythm to it. I particularly like the instruments talking to and answering each other.

FW: Do you enjoy re-writing old songs and old tunes for example on ‘The Border Widows Lament’? RC: The drive is much more than ‘just because I like it’. I thought it would be a good idea if the traditional songs didn’t sound too traditional; equally I wanted the songs that I’d written to sound traditional. I wanted the album to have a unified sound to create a sense of unity across the songs.That way there wouldn’t be such a gulf between them. For example on ‘The Border Widows Lament’ there’s a rock rhythm. Actually, the strong riff was originally a guitar riff that Alan Prosser came up with.

FW: In your view is there a definition that says this isn’t folk or this is? RC: I don’t really categorise music in that way. Folk music today adopts a  middle-class approach. However, that’s not the world the 'middle class' view thinks that 'folk' came from. It’s like the Dickensian Christmas, it never really existed. Folk music was invented if you will, as an idea maybe a couple of hundred years ago and it went hand in hand with the rise of nationalism. Walter Scott was a musicologist collecting folk music because he was into old Scottish culture. Even though there are great collections, they proscribed folk music by much of what they left out as much as what they included. Folk is like all music - it's for everyone and anyone that it touches or that are touched by it. Once again, I rarely approve of categorising music to define and exclude. Folk music is undoubtedly the music of everyday people and for all people. It simply changes as people write it - people that write history always bring a new angle to it, it’s the same with folk.

FW: Is this album an exploration of culture? RC: For me exploring folk music is a way of exploring my own culture. There is much indigenous English culture but an awful lot comes from elsewhere. To some degree it's as if English folk has become disassociated with its cultural roots.When I joined Oysterband I became more interested in the culture of the British Isles. Of course, people like John Bowden, Liza Carthy, Seth Lakeman and many others are making English folk popular again. There is a concerted drive in recent years to encourage England to make more of its folk culture. Indeed, the same is true of Ireland and Scotland.

FW: How about the rise of cool folk? RC: Any fashion arriving in any discipline creates cool artists that cool people go and watch. Often, all ages appreciate the music and follow the artists but they sometimes stand for a younger generation. New young artists bring a certain cool to music and maybe they contribute to the rise of modern folk or perhaps cool folk.

FW: With ‘Tales of Love, War and Death by Hanging’ behind you is the engine for solo albums still driving? RC: Yes it is. There’s much more I want to achieve - but the next album might be a while gestating.


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