In the life of any authentic folk musician, you’ll find something of the hero’s quest. It’s a winding road from which they sing and certainly has been for Fraser Anderson. But with a musical journey born in tragedy the singer is surprisingly open to joy.
Lauded by BBC Radio 2’s Bob Harris as ‘truly beautiful’ and praised by the legendary Chuck Berry who Fraser toured with, Fraser is unassuming and self-deprecating. But perhaps that’s because he never expected to be where he is.
Beginning life in a little Scottish village where his father was the local butcher, Fraser thought boys didn’t cry and they rarely sang. ‘Around age five I used to stand on top of my father’s meat freezer belting out songs for customers,’ he laughs. A couple of years later, he fixed a paper cup to his Gran’s broken gramophone and held it up to his ear, listening to the My Fair Lady soundtrack for hours. ‘But that was about it’ he shrugs.
That is, until an event that changed the course of Fraser’s life and compelled him to write songs.
He was fourteen and the young man, a friend of the family, was twenty-one. The night before, they’d stayed up engrossed in one of those kindred-spirit marathons that would come to pepper Fraser’s life. In the middle of this conversation, for no apparent reason, his friend looked straight at him and asked: ‘Have you ever seen a dead body before?’ The next day, on the side of an icy mountain in the Scottish Highlands, his friend was dead.
Etched into his consciousness, Fraser watched helpless as his friend’s Land Rover lost control over a cliff, flipping over and over and, as the young man tried to escape, the vehicle finally landed on top of his friend. ‘It’s a weird thing to watch someone go from life to death. Especially at fourteen,’ Fraser says. ‘`That question he asked the night before, it was like a premonition that still haunts me.’
To this day, life’s preciousness is a theme that runs through Fraser’s music. But at the time, he had no real words for it. ‘Where I grew up, you just kind of got on with it. My parents didn’t really believe in therapy or talking about difficult things’. So he began scribbling in the back of school books, spewing out unresolved thoughts and feelings as his own therapy.
He would sneak into a local church to sing – Rosslyn Chapel, of The Da Vinci Code fame, which in those days was empty.
‘I suppose I felt free, hearing the sound of my own voice coming back to me. It was my little thing, no one else’s.’ Worried about being teased, he’d tell his parents he was going to play football, then tell his football friends he had to go home.
He had picked up a battered three- stringed guitar from a car-boot sale and started playing. Called to sing, he didn’t yet believe being a musician was going to become an option.
Aged just seventeen, he met his future wife and they fell madly in love. She was older than him, more confident. By the time he was nineteen they were married with kids. Head over heels and young, it didn’t occur to him what a struggle it would be to support a young family and make a career in music. And yet somehow, through passion and grit, he did.
‘Playing music, I just got a feeling like – this is me – this is the most me I’ve ever felt.’ In fact it wasn’t long before his hero, the Scottish folk legend Dougie McLean, spotted Fraser and invited him to join his band. He took up the challenge and never looked back.
Fraser worked around the clock – bringing in the money as a builder, looking after the kids, and writing songs into the small hours of the morning. His acclaimed debut album ‘and the girl with the strawberry….’ was recorded wedged between a mattress and a wall in the corner of a friend’s bedroom, duvets and pillows piled over him, to muffle the sound. ‘There I was, singing in the dark and it just got hotter and hotter. I think most of those vocals were recorded with me wearing pants,’ he laughs.
Soon after, his parents and siblings moved to Australia, and Fraser was alone in Perth, Scotland with a young family to look after. He and his wife took the kids to live in the isolated beauty of rural France. Raising three young children, one of whom had autism, made touring very difficult. But nonetheless, Fraser kept recording, building up a devoted BBC Radio 2 following.
A devoted husband for almost twenty years, many of his songs reflect the burned heart of a difficult marriage; a man giving his all, struggling to understand what went wrong.
Even in ‘and the girl with the strawberry… ‘you can hear the painful lament of a lover waiting for his muse to return: ‘You were alone in someone else’s home, seeing if the grass was greener. Now at least we know.’
The wounds return on ‘Coming Up for Air’: ‘Take good care of your home,’ he cautions.
A proud, Scottish folk artist, he weaves personal stories and observations over intricate finger picking, in virtuoso falsetto vocals hailed by big names like Zoe Ball and Rolling Stone magazine. ‘Cos people are different from you, they’re so misunderstood…and they feel like giving in, I wonder where your heart has been.’
His acclaimed third album ‘Little Glass Box’ blends stripped-back folk and horn-inflected jazzy laments. It boasts the double bass of musical legend Danny Thompson (Nick Drake and John Martyn) and set him journeying through Europe. But even more strikingly for Fraser, it resulted in a choked call from his usually stoic father to say how proud he was.
Amidst the musical praise though, was great personal challenge. Fraser returned to London in 2013, and soon became the sole carer to his three children. A doting father, his kids have inspired his music.
‘I’d choose broken bones over broken homes, I’m here for you, my darling boy,’ he pledges in ‘Rising Sons’.
‘I think we learn more from our kids than they learn from us. It takes you to new levels of empathy and patience.’
Somehow within all this he’s managed to appear at some of Europe’s best folk festivals, not to mention concerts in the USA and Canada.
In 2016, Fraser launched his latest and most experimental album to date ‘Under the Cover of Lightness’, to critical acclaim. Lauded as a ‘masterpiece’ by Microsoft News and voted ‘Album of the Week’ by BBC Radio Ulster, it is a beautiful genre-blending dance amidst the ashes of a marriage. ‘I look back now, and it all moves by like a passing cloud without making a sound at all.’
There’s a strange but beautiful circular synchronicity that runs through Fraser’s life. Joan Armatrading was an early idol; he was invited to support her. As a kid, he used to listen to The Christians’ smash hit ‘Harvest for the World’ on a battered cassette; recently he ended up joining them on stage to play that very song.
At a Bush Hall concert he announced a crowd-funding campaign for his album; a female fan came up afterwards and offered the £15,000, ‘this angel out of nowhere.’
So, what’s next?
It’s a new chapter for the folk family man. In the past, looking after the kids and paying their way was rightly a priority. But now his boys are old enough so he’s finally able to plan proper tours.
In a wonderful twist of fate, Fraser has new management and industry support from Sound Advice. Everything is lining up.
Ever since that early day in the Highlands, his preoccupation with life’s precarious beauty has been a refrain. And the sense of love amidst the impermanence of everything continues in his forthcoming album ‘Sankalpa’ ‘This album was the most enjoyable album I’ve ever recorded. There’s a real sense of freedom for me now, and everybody involved is amazing. I feel like it’s the best work I’ve ever done.’
It’s a stripped back solo journey, a gift to listeners who for years have badgered him for it. ‘I was told once that the violin was created to emulate the human voice. And on every other album I’ve had strings. So this time I wrote string arrangements but sang them instead.’
Taking its title from Sanskrit, the album is Fraser’s call to awakening, to the heart’s deepest desire – which for him, is a celebration of the power in vulnerability and the exploration of human connection. “The only times I ever know are the ones that live inside of me, and the only hands I’ll ever hold are the ones that show what love could be,” he sings.
‘We’re all born with this inherent desire to connect, to love and to be loved. I think that’s pretty much all we are when you strip it all back – all the other nonsense just gets in the way,’ he says.