INTERVIEW: Richard Dawson | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Image by Kuba Ryniewicz

This is an extended version of the interview that appeared in the November edition.

Interviews with Richard Dawson end up as wonderful, free-flowing conversations that are, to be frank, a fucker to squeeze into a NARC. interview. We were ostensibly discussing The Ruby Cord, his seventh album and the final part of a putative trilogy that also includes Peasant and 2020, with the new album taking us into a version of the future, but one that’s seen through the prism of video games and fantasy. As with Peasant, one of the striking things about the album – and about the mammoth 40-minute opening track The Hermit – is that Richard clearly loves language and have a love for archaic or obscure words. Words like clavigers and mantuas and cobles.

So firstly, I wondered if loving a particular word encourages an image or whether the image requires you to use the best word you can find?

Peasant afforded a good opportunity to use all kinds of old language, even though it wouldn’t really have been spoken at all and it’s really not recognizable. But with this one I was thinking about a place where people would have access to information at the blink of an eyelid. it makes sense that that’s gonna really change our language, that we might be able to use a lot of words. And so it allowed me to open up this possibility of using a more technical language. I always have this thing of like, ‘what would the person in the song use? What would they think?’ Most of the time you wouldn’t think something like ‘interstix’, for instance. You would just think ‘the bit between my toes’ or whatever. But because you’d have instant access, you can use a technical term, you can describe it. So there’s a good reason for using this kind of language.

I mean, we could talk about this all day, it’s one of my favourite topics. A word has its first meaning, but then it has the meaning that comes from the sound or any similarities it bears to other words. Like, when you meet a person and they remind you of someone else, you can’t really ever quite separate them from that person they remind you of. I think it’s the same with words: there’s the real meaning, the sound meaning and the visual meaning.

“Sometimes we have the idea that words are about pinning down something or that the word is the thing. But they never are. It can be very blurry, and we see it with what happened to the word ‘woke’. Now ‘woke’ is quite crisp. Its meaning now has changed, but for a while it was incredibly blurry. And I love the combination of a word with melody and how that can also change the meaning of both the word and the melody. So there was this chance to really push the language, it’s descriptive of the kind of information overload and this overlapping of different styles of language as well. It helps describe the overlapping of different environments. The writing on 2020 was very unflowery and there was no place for anything like this because It just wouldn’t serve the people in the songs. But if it’s a video game or alternate reality and you are interacting with this world and you don’t know what that thing’s called, a digital click or whatever is gonna give you the very precise term that you wouldn’t have an everyday conversation perhaps. And it could even be wrong as well. There’s some details in the album which could never actually happen or coexist. They could seem impressive, but actually they might be wrong in a certain situation.”

So have you been a big reader? And do you read lot of fantasy?

I don’t read as much as I would like to. After I’d finished writing this album, I read all the [Ursula LeGuin] Earthsea books. Really beautiful. And I read the Vorrh novels before I started writing the album, by Brian Catling who sadly died recently. I don’t know a lot about fantasy. What, what else? Some Arthur C Clarke and Frederick Pohl.”

Nev Clay had mentioned that you’d recommended Michel Faber’s Book Of Strange New Things to him.

There’s nothing else like that book. Even if it were a bad book, which it’s not by any means, but it was something new, then it would still be great, you know?”

So is writing a novel something you could see yourself doing in the future?

I would love to, I think more and more how much I would love to do that. But I always, simultaneously think I might not be able to do that very well. It’s like the opposite of songwriting and I’m trying to go further with my songwriting. I just think there’s such good writers out there and I feel like I’m some distance along the road with making songs. I put a lot of work into that and if I’ve still got further to go, then I should do that. Thinking about Michel Faber, I’ve been reading Thomas Pynchon in the last year or two, and Iris Murdoch, and you just read these things and go ‘This is so, so good.’ And I think I would just be pouring mucky water around the edge of the well. To me, when you come across a great book, it just seems so unfathomable and it’s like the most incredible thing that a human could make, even more than a film, which I know is technically a bigger endeavour, but I sort of could grasp the different parts of how you’d make a film.”

Speaking of films, The Hermit is being released with a ’40-minute pop video’ which doesn’t seem like an obvious move.

I think it was just a kind of perverse thing really. I just thought ‘well, that should be the single’. Everything seems to be moving faster and faster these days, with TikTok or YouTube. People digest music on Spotify with advert breaks actually in the middle of songs now. So I like the idea of this contradiction of making a pop video for a very long song.”

The Hermit might be the most beautiful thing you’ve done yet, especially the gently choral section towards the end. Nev [Clay, who recorded it alongside Cath & Phil Tyler, Yakka Doon and Hen Ogledd bandmates among others] told me the whole session felt very emotionally charged, something very special. Did it feel that way for you?

I think when I was making it felt good. I think I’ve had that sensation a few times before, particularly doing some things on Peasant. And when I did the vocal for Jogging, I had the same feeling of ‘this feels a like a lot!’. It’s so nice to have friends come in the studio. Because it’s quite a gentle part of the song as well, it was like doing a group meditation or something.”

Rhodri [Davies – harpist, composer, Hen Ogledd member] is all over The Hermit and it sounds like he’s playing a kora, or is that just a playing style?

It’s a full-size pedal concert harp, but obviously he uses extended techniques to get different kinds of sounds from them. He’s bringing in a lot of different music, from Ethiopian and Celtic influences and beyond. So there’s a lot that’s going into his playing and he’s got a lot of choices that he can make in the moment as well.”

When you’re recording, do you ever consider how you’re going to perform it live? Does it ever affect your intentions?

I think I thought about it after it. But not so much, ‘how are we going to do it?’. It’s more like ‘how will that be received?’ Towards the end of the 2020 gigs when we were doing the trio, they felt almost like rock concerts and it was kind of exciting, but I don’t really don’t wanna go down that road. So this is sort of the opposite of that, and we need to just choose the venues carefully. I won’t be able to do as great a range of different types of shows as I’ve been doing the last few years with this new material. But you can’t let this stop you doing things. I mean, I hope people will enjoy it but I could imagine people might come to a concert and be disappointed because they might want to hear the uptempo 2020 stuff.”

Another song I wanted to ask you about what Horse & Rider, which closes the album. For me it somehow calls to mind a particular kind of rousing school hymn, something religious but patriotic like When A Knight Won His Spurs. Is that just in my head?!

This tune’s been kicking about for a while and I’ve tried recording it in various guises, but it was never the right thing. I even tried to get it on Glass Trunk. I just haven’t been able to shake off the melody of it. But then it just came together really easily for this one. I like that it has the appearance of being this uplifting, rousing, carefree, happy song. But I think with the album that’s come before, it’s sort of not, We already know that things aren’t necessarily how they seem. So I like that, it’s not just a carefree, happy ending or anything like that, it’s not so clear.”

I wanted to ask about Circle – that Boiler Shop gig was absolutely phenomenal and you were clearly living your best life up there. So will there be any more from that collaboration?

Well I’ve been over there a few times this year for gigs, and we’ve had a few recording session. At the last one, I think we felt like we’ve got underway, but it’ll be a long time. I’ve got a lot of stuff to do before, so we’ll just approach it very slowly. And hopefully keep going after that.”

The way they accepted you into their band – not just letting you be in the Big Circle Pyramid onstage but with the whole project – speaks to a generosity and flexibility, and obviously you bring something powerful to their music.

Yeah, they’re really very amazing people, and just so welcoming, and it’s just really easy. Very natural, working together. But I think we probably just felt that from listening to each other’s music so it wasn’t really a surprise! I really love the guys and I really miss them. I don’t wanna speak for them, but I feel like it’s just so nice to make music together and as long as it makes sense, we’ll do it.”

Richard Dawson releases The Ruby Cord via Weird World/Domino on 18th November. The Hermit film tours selected cinemas throughout November, including a screening and Q&A at Newcastle’s Star & Shadow on Thursday 17th November.


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