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

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Image by Nick Wesson

In the last couple of years, it has become abundantly clear that two sons of the North East are the most exciting contemporary talents in their fields. Newcastle songwriter Richard Dawson is about to follow his remarkable breakthrough record Nothing Important with the equally astonishing follow-up Peasant, whilst Durham-born journalist and novelist Ben Myers has just published The Gallows Pole, capping a run of exciting , original novels including Pig Iron, Beastings and Turn Blue.  There’s a clear affection and mutual respect between the two, as well as some parallels in their work, so much so that a collaboration of some sort has been mooted and could happen if their hectic schedules allow it.

With this in mind, NARC. decided to get them together in Dawson’s flat, armed with tea and strawberries , for a lengthy conversation that ranged across patriotism, the class system, the nature of evil, the Royal Family and how to be a YouTube hero. But it was their discussion of their working methods and their art which proved the most compelling.

Myers kicked off by inquiring about the amount of research Richard puts into his work, especially for Peasant. “You seem to draw a lot on myth, and history, and it comes out in a kind of… I hate to use the word ‘gothic’ because it gets misused, but there’s a gothic element, an old time storytelling element, to what you do lyrically.”

Writing is just words and I got into the idea of treating it like writing spells

“I don’t really have knowledge. I don’t know anything, so in a pub quiz I’m completely hopeless,” explained Dawson.  “So the research that happens for an album, it’s more thinking about what I want to address, and what function do you want this piece to have? And then figuring out a way to make it be the most powerful spell, the most direct spell, you can cast.”

This notion of casting a spell with your art clearly resonated with Myers. “Writing is just words and I got into the idea of treating it like writing spells, once you get the right combination of words in a sentence, you can have an impact. So this isn’t at the forefront when I’m writing but the idea of making someone cry in Canada, or making someone vomit in Australia, by reading something… that to me is a modern kind of occultist practice, being able to make someone punch someone in the face from the other side of the world.”

Dawson went on to enquire into Myers’ working practices, explaining that whilst his books seem direct and punchy, they’re clearly well-crafted.  “I tend to write quickly,” Myers responded. “The best thing about being a writer for me is the first draft. You have an idea and you go a bit mental for a few weeks getting a story down … then you have to spend time cutting it. You don’t just take pages out, you read every sentence and if it’s got ten words in you think, well, how can I make it seven? How can I rearrange these words so that they still say the same thing but in a shorter, tighter way and with more impact?”

Myers then reflected Dawson’s query back at him. “What about when you’re writing songs? How laboured are they? Obviously, you have a lot of ‘noise pieces’ which are very different to the extended lyrical narrative pieces like The Vile Stuff or Ogre?”

“The approach is the same, really,” Dawson explained.  “Sometimes you don’t need any words, if you can possibly avoid it! That would be brilliant. But mainly you need a figure in the foreground – I always think of it in terms of painting and my favourite kind of paintings are portraits. So I will write very slowly, generally I will have the music ready first and write the album as a whole rather than a song.”

“So you see it as a whole work?”

“Yeah, I don’t write a song and move on, I’ll work through each song, line by line – I don’t work ahead of the line I’m working on – and to go back to the research we touched on, the research happens while I’m writing, so I’ll have a thesaurus open on the iPad…”

The conversation moved onto language and their common approach. “Language seems quite important to you, your use of words, lots of archaic words.” explained Myers. “I noticed you used the word ‘tarry’ which means to stay a while, which I didn’t know until I came across that word whilst writing The Gallows Pole, which is a book set in the past. I wrote it in a fairly modern way and then almost translated it into archaic language and slang, and words like ‘tarry’, which I’d never heard in a song before, rarely gets used these days because it’s actually probably eighteenth or nineteenth century. So to hear it in a song – and I listen to a lot of music and meet a lot of songwriters and bands…well, it’s rare to meet someone who actually bothers with the language at all. I get quite frustrated with lyrics because I find that 90% of lyrics are just lazy, throwaway, not thought out.”

Dawson concurred, despairing at the paucity of most modern lyrics. “There are a lot of great songwriters out there but there’s a lot of bad stuff. It’s about the word’s sound and just fitting, and that’s enough. Whereas there’s so  much that can be achieved, not only with the choice of the word and the shape of the sentence, and the delivery and how that ties in with the melody, but how you load  your brush and how you apply that to the canvas, how quickly you make the brush stroke. And then what the actual story of the painting is, three or four levels down.”

I wanted to make a panoramic painting of a society or just a region, from people who are really struggling to wealthier people

Myers went on to explain that it was actually Dawson’s lyrics that first caught his attention “I first heard your music via The Vile Stuff and then worked backwards, Ghost Of A Tree I listened to all the time while writing the new book. Most of what I write is about people moving through the landscape so as soon as I heard Ghost Of A Tree, I just thought, ‘this song is fucking brilliant’, I could see it! Anyway, I got into it through The Vile Stuff because of certain lines in the song. ‘Si Shovell fills a Reebok pump with the pulp from his belly’, that was the line, I was like ‘what does that mean?’”

Talk turned to the themes and ideas of their work, and Myers asked what Dawson was setting out to achieve with Peasant. “I wanted it to be the musical equivalent of tapas. That was my only aim with this album. I wanted to make a panoramic painting of a society or just a region, from people who are really struggling to wealthier people, but not to be too critical about that, so each song has a title of a role or something, so some of them are jobs and some of them are more magical creatures.”

“There’s one line in Ogre, ‘in the face of the cliff a ghastly doorway’, that I got quite fixated on,” Myers interjected.

Dawson responded, “Actually, those last lines in the song were the only ones that were written quickly on the album, all sixteen of those lines, I was like ‘huh!’, surprised.  The idea with the magical elements in Ogre – well I don’t want to say too much, to explain things…but I wanted to use the idea that there’s something awful occurring and rather than look at actual explanations and tackling those, there might be more fantastical reasons for any ills within their community. So in my mind part of the story is about this horrendous creature… whereas part of me knows it’s absolutely  not that.”

Myers then went on to ask about Dawson’s musical choices. “I’ve said elsewhere that I’ve felt haunted by your music, but that needn’t be a bad thing,.  Not like a ghost, but that feeling when you walk into a room and feel there was something there before. And I feel like there’s voices from the past in your music, it’s not just the stories you’re telling, I like the fact you play the wrong notes, or there’s a discordance there.. like with Ogre, it starts off with quite a pastoral melodic folk song, it reminded me of someone from the early seventies like Pentangle,  but then it goes into kind of bent notes and drones .. it’s almost like you’re resisting being too obvious and that creates that haunted feeling I think. Notes come at you, the melody turns on a sixpence…”

“I don’t deliberately do anything wonky or anything like that…  I guess it’s where you’re coming from but there’s nothing too outlandish in there.”

“The first song, Herald, the brass one, reminded me of the theme from The Flumps”, added Myers, as Dawson guffaws. “Specifically Grandpa Flump… it’s like the Flumps at the end of an all-night jam. It’s like that song dying…”

There follows a rousing, parping rendition of the Flumps theme, which seems like a good point to leave them both, with their tea and their strawberries and their tenuous football analogies.

Richard Dawson’s new album Peasant is released by Weird World on  June 2nd and he plays a special album launch show at The Cluny on  June 10th.  Ben Myers’ latest, The Gallows Pole, is out now, published by Bluemoose.

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