Richard Dawson – Interview – 2017

He’s already got a formidable body of work behind him. A leftfield folky outsider of sorts who can wring the most unlikely of songs out of his battered old and cheap acoustic, whilst utilising his voice in the most startling of fashions, sometimes a capella. But this is the first album – his sixth so far – where he’s got a band in tow. On the surface it might not sound too promising; a song cycle of sorts about the lives of the inhabitants of Bryneich, a kingdom in Yr Hen Ogledd (the Old North) in early middle ages Britain. But rather than don the pitiful olde worlde finery of, say a Ritchie Blackmore and waffle on about mystical creatures and alluring maidens. Dawson has carefully crafted a progressive-folk album that is both exhilarating and beguiling, as well as timeless in content. His objective was to create, “A panorama of a society which is at odds with itself and has great sickness in it, and perhaps doesn’t take responsibility – blame going in all the wrong directions,” whilst utilising a number of occupational archetypes, such as a herald, an ogre, a prostitute, shapeshifter, scientist, weaver, soldier et al. Quite unlike anything else you’ll hear all year, Peasant is a shoo-in to be on many album of the year lists.

Where are you and what are you up to today?
I’m in Newcastle, the west end of Newcastle, a place call Fenham. Just moved a few days ago. I just painted my entire sink, inadvertently, and I’m steaming! I painted the sink blue. And, I had a bit of mould on the wall, and I was trying to paint that. I started with the wrong colour and then spilled some paint on the carpet… I’m not equipped in any sense for DIY. I’m not a master of molecules. I’m more of an ideas man.

Tell me about the new album, Peasant. My history is not very good, I have to say!
Nor is mine. It doesn’t need to be. I just got off the phone doing another interview, and they were really taking the history angle, which is fair enough. But at every turn I was trying to disuade him that it was a historical record, in any sense. It’s set in Bryneich, dated around the late 400s, 500s, 600s, in the North East of England. But, if it’s anything but a modern record, then I’ve failed.

Can you tell me how this idea came about?
When we started making it there were going to be these brass pieces, kind of semi-improvised, but then that would shift the more composed pieces over the course of the record, and that would be narrated. I was thinking about the kind of people who could narrate this story set in the 500s, 600s. I was thinking of Michael Gambon, and Harry Dean Stanton would be amazing. And Molly Parker, Samantha Morton, Maggie Smith, someone like that. That was exciting, and I was all guns blazing to do that. And then the songs would be set, would be more modern day, and to have those two things intertwining. As it went on I wrote a few songs and they just weren’t happening. It wasn’t right. And I wondered about switching it around, so that the brass pieces would be the modern story, and the songs would be older. As we progressed the modern side dropped away, and I realised as I was writing, it was really modern situations that I wanted to write about and what people are going through now. That is one side of it. I’m not quite sure how we arrived at this time period. But, after doing a little bit of research, I was gravitating towards this time period, and Yr Hen Ogledd, the Old North. I knew a little bit about it through Rhodri Davies, who plays on the album, and who I collaborate. Please stop me if I’m waffling on. I’m a little high on paint fumes. It’s making interviews pretty interesting.

No, that’s fine! There surely must be an almost total dearth of evidence about what that period was actually like?
Compared to a lot of historical periods there’s relatively little written. There’s so much Roman history, and then there’s this gap. In terms of a canvas there was only vague outlines. There was a lot of space to play with, and a lot of room to breathe. That seemed appropriate if I wasn’t going to make something historical.

So you let your imagination roam free?
Some things have to be right and correct about the period, otherwise it becomes something like tinsel, or a wrapping. There are some burial finds. Probably that would be wealthier people. Also, the writing tended to be people from religious writings, later on the late 800s, 900s. So, again, there’s money tied up with that. There’s no even-handed documentation. But that would ring true for more recent histories, too.

It’s not a historical album. We wanted to throw a stone into the woods and have people beat their own path towards it. The idea of not making something addressing various situations going on today. The idea of not making something for the moment, would be ludicruous. More recently, singers and songsters, or whatever you want to call them, have been co-opted for light entertainemnt, for advertising. But, it’s always the job of the singer to spread the news. I’ve never been concerned too much before with who heard the album, and what they thought. But with this album I am very much concerned with it being heard. That is the only way that its spell can take affect. And I hope it’s a really positive album without being optimistic, but without being pessimistic either. I hope it can be something of actual use! That would be my hope.

You have described the album as being like a mural…
There are lots of reasons for me describing the album like a painting, but one of them is that it hopefully encourages thoughts along the lines that things aren’t one way. We understand that intrinsically about poetry. Its sound, as well as its written words, and its visuals. Sometimes I feel that we don’t always understand that with sounds. The same way a painting can be a song, or a thunderstorm. I think this extends to all things. People, situations, morals, are not just one way. They are many ways at once.

The video for ‘Ogre’ is fascinating and funny. It looks like you tried to transport yourselves to that unknowable time…
It was interesting. I like to be in control of most elements of the album and how we present it, but I handed it over to Matt Stubbs (the video director), who I trust a lot. The kind of dress we were wearing was much more modern. It wouldn’t have been correct. There were lots of hints; modern jewellery, tatoos, modern footwear. It was a magic day. We were away from everything, almost like we were in another world for a day. I think when you strip away the modern trappings you can lose sight of time really quickly, all these very surface things that let us know where we are. I think we experience time in a line. But that doesn’t feel right to me. That’s not how time works. It’s necessary for us to move our bodies safely, to navigate our minds. But I feel that all time exists. Everything has happened already. So, it’s possible to step into different times through music and conversations, and any art.

Do you hark for a simpler time?
No. But I appreciate those values. I hark for a time when maybe advertising wasn’t so prevalent, for example. But I want now to be better. There’s lots good about now, but there’s also lots wrong. It’s impossible for us to know, this romanticised idea of the simpler life. You can’t know what kind of struggles people would go through. But, it’s also horrendous for some folk now.

Tell me about the guitar you use. Just the one, right?
It’s the same guitar I’ve had since The Magic Bridge album. A few years before that it was in different permutations. Its top caved in. I stood on it. Then it got stood on. And again. And it’s had a new top put on. But, it’s the same instrument through the album. Although it was recorded differently this time. It’s not through an amplifier, whereas it has always been before. It’s completely acoustic.

I feel so tied up with this guitar. It was a Baby Taylor, a little budget travel guitar. And now it’s a bit of a mongrel. New top, new bits and pieces. It’s little. A really dilapidated, budget, mongrel guitar.

On tour I have a really nice back-up, a Burns electric, which plays the same. That’s enough. I had a couple of others, but I sold them. It was silly having them kicking around.

This will be your first tour where you have played with a band?
I never have played with a band, although I did play at school with a rock band.

What were you into then?
Heavy metal is my teenage love. Iron Maiden.

Run To The Hills!
Exactly. But it’s the first two Iron maiden albums… some people think of them as fantasy metal, Bruce Dickinson’s warbly voice. Those first two albums with Paul Di’Anno singing are absolutely righteous. I would recommend re-visiting them.

Back to your tour…
Yeah, this is the first time playing my songs with a band. I do play sometimes in a trio with Rhodri and Dawn Bothwell (as Hen Ogledd, an improvisational trio). This band will have Rhodri, his sister, Angharad, Johnny and Matt who play in Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs. Dawn will sing some, as well as my partner, Sally. They are all friends, that’s the most crucial part of it.

It’ll be a different touring experience for you, I should imagine.
It could be a bit of a challenge making sure everything works on time, and to try and not be a knob. Because I can easily drift into being too much of a knob, as you may have already ascertained.