IN one sense, part of Rab Noakes’s splendid new double album, I’m Walkin’ Here, is a poignant tribute to old friends who are

no longer around. Gerry Rafferty, for one. Noakes has not only interpreted a great Rafferty song, Moonlight And Gold, but has also written a song in his memory, with its beautiful, heartfelt line, “Feels like I’m gonna miss you/’til I run out of time”.

There’s a song in memory of Lindisfarne’s Alan Hull, another friend who died much too young. Michael Marra crops up, too, as do The Poets’ George Gallacher, and broadcaster Alastair Clarke, not to mention some of the bohemian, larger-than-life figures Noakes knew on the British folk-club scene five long decades ago.

Before we get into that with the venerable, Fife-born performer, it feels appropriate to mention that Noakes himself has had a serious illness. Last February, he was diagnosed with tonsillar cancer. Treatment was scheduled for March-May, which meant that the album’s release had to be delayed, from May to October.

“I’m still undergoing the effects of the treatment,” he says. “The diagnosis came along, and they said, ‘We’ve got treatment, this is what it will be and this is how it is’. You could tell from the outset that the treatment was going to be fairly substantial and a bit tough to deal with. For the past few months we – and I do mean ‘we’, because we’ve absolutely been tackling this together” – he turns to his wife, Stephanie, who is sitting next to him – “we’ve been tackling not so much the cancer as the treatment and the effects of that.”

There’s a quick smile. “I don’t wish to terrify anyone who’s about to start this.” He talks about the effects of radiotherapy and chemotherapy sessions over six weeks. “It has been affecting my mouth. Eating has been very difficult, and

there has been fatigue and all the bits around that.”

For a while he was fed by means of a tube inserted into his stomach via his nostril and oesophagus. The treatment regime took over his life for a while – Stephanie’s too, presumably – but in time things began to improve. “As soon as I could, I was eating, small and often, and still am,” he says.

“I use the phrase ‘fortifying myself’, and with good reason. I want to steer myself away from the terminology that gets used around cancer, that you’re ‘fighting’ or ‘battling with’ cancer. That’s not for me. It’s much more about acceptance and fortification, having a positive attitude to it. Setting goals has been good. I had the aim of getting to the [Musicians’ Union] conference in July – I’m on the executive committee. We made it down to Brighton for that, and had a nice week there.”

Despite everything he has endured lately, the 68-year-old looks in good shape. He’s been building his strength up, too, which is why we’re meeting in the cafe of his gym. “All the signs are good, though,” he says. “There are still some scans and various other things to

do yet, though. I’m dealing with things stage by stage.”

He returns to live performance a fortnight today, as one of the guests in Roddy Hart’s 70th-birthday tribute to Neil Young, at Aberdeen’s True North Festival. Beyond that, he has scheduled dates in November in Inverclyde, Kinross, Stirling, Campbeltown, Glasgow Cottier’s, Strathblane and Arbroath.

His new record is one of his most accomplished to date – no mean feat when you consider the quality of his previous 18 albums, a career that stretches back to 1970, and his debut, Do You See The Lights?

The title of the new album, incidentally, comes from an inspired piece of improvisation by Dustin Hoffman while the cameras were rolling on Midnight Cowboy. Disc 1 contains Noakes originals; disc 2 sees him interpreting (he loathes the lazy word “covering”) songs by everyone from Beck (Don’t Act Like Your Heart Isn’t Hard) to Garbage (Only Happy When It Rains).

Its highlights include It Happened All The Same (he knew it was time to do a new album when its chord sequence materialised on his late-1950s Gibson acoustic) and his reading of That’s The Way The Whole Thing Ends, from Gillian Welch’s brilliant album, The Harrow & The Harvest. There are 26 tracks in all, with a further seven tracks available as a free download.

What’s wrong with the word “covering”? “The use of the term becomes quite derogatory in that context as to me a cover is something quite specific. It’s, say, Craig Douglas copying a Gene McDaniels record and getting it out in the UK before the US version. “The art of interpretation is to my mind a valuable skill. I don’t like to see it devalued the way it is. It also devalues the art of professional songwriting, often in favour of inferior material deemed more valuable just because the performer wrote it. Everybody gets called a singer-songwriter now, which is also a bit lazy, I think.”

The bare bones of the new songs were recorded live with Noakes playing alongside double-bassist Una McGlone and drummer Stuart Brown, both recruited by Noakes’s producer, John Cavanagh. Guests who added contributions ranged from Barbara Dickson and Roddy Hart to Jill Jackson and Emma Pollock. To cap it all off, Noakes insisted that the entire record be mixed in mono. It is, he believes, “an album that only I could make – in a certain way, with certain ingredients.”

Many years ago, at the dawn of the 1970s, Noakes was a founder-member of Stealers Wheel. In his liner notes to I’m Walkin’ Here he recalls how he and Rafferty “would drink, talk and sing from dusk ‘til dawn on many occasions without repetition”. The opening line of No More Time, his song for Gerry – “The incident evaporates/the resonance remains” was actually a “pretentious” comment he made to a friend at a birthday party.

“It’s interesting,” he concedes now, “how a phrase like that, a little bit cumbersome perhaps in conversation, when you put it into a song, it can actually work. I like writing lyrics, always have done. Some have been better than others, but it’s something to work on – the conciseness and brevity that is the stock-in-trade of lyric writing. The slightest change in a word or a tense can alter the whole mood, the whole context of the thing.

“Plus, there are ... Would I call them ‘tricks’, the things that you do with a song? In No More Time, the rhymes are the same all the way through, that sort of thing.”

The song is preceded on the album by a finger-picked guitar doodle that would become the melody for No More Time. “It was all about songs between me

and Gerry over those years. I knew

there would be a song [about him], but

I didn’t push it.

“I would sit and play that tune to myself late at night. It was almost like a Pavlovian thing: he would just spring to mind when I played that tune.”

The melody having been established, he jotted down lyrics in piecemeal fashion during a visit to London with Stephanie, and unscrambled and reassembled them when he returned. The result is a quietly affecting tribute to his old friend, who died five years ago come January.

If you think Garbage’s bleak 1994 hit, Only Happy When It Rains, is an odd choice for someone of Noakes’s vintage, bear in mind that he has previously done a high-quality reading of Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer. The Garbage song here gets a reflective acoustic treatment, but its essential message remains intact. I ask Noakes about the band’s Scottish-born singer, Shirley Manson. He smiles again. It’s clear he admires her.

“I liked her with her first band, Goodbye Mr Mackenzie – they did sessions for us when I worked at Radio Scotland. Shirley was always really professional, down to earth, a bit forthright, an interesting person.

“That success of hers was one of those you really appreciated. Those guys in Garbage were looking for a singer and they picked her out. She grabbed that chance with both hands. She wasn’t just a front person for the guys’ ideas; she’s right in there, writing the songs.

“She’s an example of how to do a certain kind of pop music. An awful lot of pop is other people’s ideas and the people up front are dancing puppets of one kind or another. But Shirley is far from that.

“I like songs like that, that are quite prepared to be so dark,” he adds. “I shy away from it myself, sometimes – I maybe start writing something like that but would probably pull back from letting something be quite as dark as that. Notwithstanding there may be an irony afoot, it’s an opportunity to be dark with someone else’s song.”

We touch on the contributions made to the new album by McGlone and Brown. Noakes freely acknowledges that both are very good “in a musicianship kind of way, and that’s quite interesting for me, because I never really think of myself totally as a musician, as such.

“I haven’t trained myself in the way a musician trains himself. I’m a performer and a songwriter. I like to sing; the popular song is my currency all the way. Any musicianship I have is in an accompanying context to those things.

“Having dialogue with musicians is interesting, because they approach the craft of making music differently from me. That creates a kind of language between us that is interesting.”

Why the insistence on mixing the album in mono? “It’s not an evangelising thing,” he insists. “It was a creative statement, which bounced off the fact that some favourite records from the past have been reissued in really good mono mixes lately.”

The knowledgeable music fan in him surfaces, and he cites Beatles and Bob Dylan mono reissues. “You’ve never heard Beatles records properly for years,” he says, “especially when they got to albums like Rubber Soul, when their studio craft had been honed to perfection. Listening to it in mono, it’s just so much more alive and quite bold. I thought, why don’t we do the new album in mono? It gives it a whole different atmosphere, a more congealed sound than you would get in stereo.”

Noakes has had a long and fascinating career, and he seems to have met everyone. His liner notes in I’m Walkin’ Here reveal that Jerry Leiber (of legendary songwriters Leiber and Stoller) who, in his New York office, offered him the song Pearl’s A Singer, back in 1974; it was later a hit, of course, for Elkie Brooks.

When I ask Noakes which Neil Young songs he’ll be playing in Aberdeen later this month, he says Time Fades Away and Pardon My Heart. “I can anecdote that first one,” he says, “because when I made Red Pump Special [his 1974 album, re-released last year to mark its 40th anniversary], producer Elliot Mazer and Neil Young were just finishing Neil’s Time Fades Away album, so I was around when these mixes were being done, and visited [Young’s Broken Arrow] ranch in California.

“I’m just practising singing at home,” he continues. “The voice has not been terribly damaged. I’m just focusing on getting my energy back up and getting the full power back to it. I aim to be in perfect shape in November for that.”

Has he ever considered writing a biography? He has, it turns out, been tinkering away at a “series of essays” which may end up being posted on his website rather than in book form. He even had a title for it: Reunited With My Luggage.

“There have been a few interesting episodes,” he says. “I have been present at a number of events and occasions that turned out to be reasonably significant. And I’ve tried to get some of that across on the new record.”

I’m Walkin’ Here is released on October 16 on Neon Records. Website: