Siobhán Kane talks with Richard Dawson ahead of his Dublin concert this weekend
Richard Dawson is something of a treasure; a genuinely interesting artist from the North East of England, he has quietly been creating brilliant work from 2005’s Sings Songs and Plays Guitar, to 2011’s The Magic Bridge. In the last number of years he has released a split record with Jazzfinger, used the Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums to create last year’s The Glass Trunk, and created soundtracks for theatre; all the while giving incendiary, and unforgettable live performances all around Europe.
His is an independent, free, and generous spirit, and the last time he played here, he brought the house down, with his rendering of the composition Poor Old Horse a particular highlight. Ahead of his return, Siobhán Kane talks to him.
Where did your deep love of music stem from?
The first thing I remember was my Dad having tapes in the car, and lots of sixties and seventies stuff, that song ‘I Hear You Knocking but You Can’t Come in’, then Michael Jackson – cracking my head open on the marble floor on holiday in Cyprus whilst doing the Moonwalk, then my sister had Iron Maiden’s first album which I put on a cassette tape. After that it was exploring the local library, it had a jazz and a world section, and I would bring home big bags of tapes.
Your work is linked with the musical and cultural traditions of the North-East of England, another identity in itself – can you expand a little on those traditions?
I would say that maybe the musical link isn’t as strong as you would suggest. The words and stories are generally focused around this area, and there are some musical elements come into play….. for instance certain influences from small pipe music, as well as football chants – and Nev Clay, Cath and Phil Tyler, and Louis Killen. What I hope does come through is a certain sense of character – Newcastle and the North East is quite a warm place, and tough also. So I hope there a down to earth-ness about things…..but who can say?
Landscape informs so much – sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously – how do you think the landscape of the North-East has influenced you as a person, and as a musician?
Oh I couldn’t say really. There are so many factors that go to make up where a person is at at any given moment. The biggest influences in life are other people, surely.
The North-East has a tradition that is not “English”, if that makes any sense, the way that the Cornish tradition is not “English” either – what are your thoughts?
Yes, I would agree. I don’t think of myself as English. I tend these days to think of myself and others as borderless but if you asked where I would place myself culturally it would be northern, or Geordie, but definitely not English. There is not too much to be proud of in middle England right now, all the good stuff, old and new stuff, that is happening at the edges.
When you worked on The Glass Trunk, you spent some time in the Tyne & Wear Archives and Museum, and the resulting compositions are beautiful, and richly rendered. What was that experience like?
It is difficult for me to answer because it was a time ago now and I have moved on, I don’t want to make something up or be inaccurate, or rose tinted or anything like that. I didn’t really perceive it as being ‘surrounded by history’, it all felt very present and real. So there were bursts of excitement, like stumbling across the wonderful old scrapbook from 1971, where it was like days of wonder pouring over these pages. But the practicalities of the job led it to being more mundane, being methodical, breaking things down, taking notes, making links. That’s not a very exciting answer but I don’t want to lie! What was and is always exciting and humbling was to be around people working, and just getting on living. Sometimes it can be a bit reclusive doing music on your own so it felt good to be out and amongst people, approaching it like a nine to five thing, it was good.
Poor Old Horse makes me sad every time I hear it, and when you perform it live, it seems to take so much out of you – what is your relationship to it?
With any song, because it takes so much rehearsal, and also because you invariably end up playing it over and over live, if it’s any good that is, the initial impact of the notes and chords and lyrics changes. So it becomes much more of a physical, energy thing. I don’t feel sad when I sing the song, but I am still of course really respectful of the subject. This would apply to any piece of music I perform. But I try to live it and be as much in the song as possible. I think if I were to go there and really feel the tragedy, or whatever, of a song, then that could only get in the way. It would be dogmatic or something. I’m not telling, I’m asking, ok? After all, Poor Old Horse, for instance, is not just a sad song about three men killing a horse, I hope it’s also a very hopeful thing. Or something else entirely. The song doesn’t take it out of me. It tends to get a very good reaction from audiences which is like rocket fuel to me!
You have previously spoken about Sylvester Hurlbert being one of your favourite people you have come across in your research – “a daydreaming shipbuilder” – can you tell me a little more about him?
His name belongs to a man arrested in the early 1900’s for ‘false pretences’, a guy with an amazing photograph, he looks like a wolf. I liked the sound of his name, very rounded and peculiar. I did research for this song around things like diet and fashion, also the geography of Walker, where the song is set, which was a bit different now than it was then. I have a really strong sense of this man, he feels very real to me. I don’t want to say too much….apart from there is not much description of him, or his emotional situation, I hope the story of his character is told through objects, and foods….I hope that he would be very recognisable and distinctive to each close listener. But who can say? A large part of it for me was the style in which I perform the song….. I tried to channel a bit of Bob Copper in there, he has such a lovely rumpled heartiness to his voice on that recording – “oh the hard times of England, in old England very hard times….”
There are elements of throat singing, gaelic psalm, and sacred harp in The Glass Trunk – are these influences that you have often tried to filter into your work? The magic of that kind of music is because it feels like it comes from a greater force.
Yes those three things were primary in their influence on this album, I was very inspired by my friend Sarah who has thrown herself into sacred harp singing these last few years, and just what it’s all about – a real down to earth, welcoming, community spirit combined with this otherworldly rush of sound wonder – all from a group of friends sitting singing in a square! That magic arises from people … this greater force we speak of, it all comes from people, or it could be that people are the flowers of it. You know when you hear Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sing, and the idea is he is bringing us closer to God, we can hear God! Well, it’s just people, God is people, people is God, for God’s sake!
You have previously said that you have been working on a score which involves suspending collaged ping-pong balls – how has that been going?
It’s been and it’s went. I am incredibly disappointed with myself regarding it. The Ping Pong balls themselves were beautiful, I was very pleased with how they came out. But I didn’t nail the thing after that. The musicians did a really great job. But the problem was I didn’t nail my end. Just a matter of a few simple choices but I made the wrong ones and I think consequently the power and life of the piece were lost. I shan’t beat myself up too much over it, it was new for me in a way….. but the truth is I was concerned with the new album, with writing it and focused on that, and the sing song sung piece came up right in the middle of it. It was such a nice project to do, and good people to work with, but I should have turned it down because there was no way I could give it the attention it deserved, so yes, when I think about it I feel very poorly and disappointed with myself over it.
You said at the beginning of the year that even though you were writing lyrics for your new record, you were probably going to take the summer off to watch the World Cup and “make a techno record” – can this really be? I do hope so – particularly the techno record bit.
The new album is recorded. I’m excited about it. I can’t say too much more right now I’m afraid. And yes to the World Cup. Perhaps to the techno.
What have you been listening to in the last while, and reading, and watching?
I’ve been listening to bits of techno, some Eskimo music – the Eskimos of Hudson Bay and Alaska recording by Laura Bolton on Ethnic Folkways, ex Easter Island Head Large Electric Ensemble, Derek and the Dominoes ‘Layla’. I have been so excited to get back to reading – I can’t read when I’m writing, so haven’t read anything since midway through last year…. Butchers Crossing by John Williams, So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell, which is very solemn and beautiful, and I am just finishing up The King by Kader Abdolah., which is very good. Next up – Shirley Jackson, Donna Tartt and Thomas Mann, and who knows? I haven’t been watching much at all, the odd Philip Seymour Hoffman movie…..I am still gutted.
A sense of community seems hugely important to you, and your work is about true connection – there is such an emotional pull in your work – do you find that the response from audiences tends to be emotional, also?
Yes, sometimes. I’ve had some very intense feedback from people. For instance, a man emailed me to say he had played my music whilst he had his beloved dog put down…… I was very moved by this.
This is present in the way you also help others, you have a very generous spirit, and I cannot help but wonder – have others been very generous to you over the years, also? It’s a really lovely quality.
That’s a very nice thing to say Siobhán. I suppose, to go back to your last question a little bit, I really struggle to connect and like to be off on my own a bit. I’m not very good at ‘community’. But I do think it’s important. So I’m just learning. I have some amazing friends who embody this idea of generosity, and am getting to meet people from all over now who are reshaping my ideas even further. I have definitely been very lucky in the people I’ve known.
Have you listened to much Irish traditional music at all? I think there is some crossover between the North-East and Ireland, with a strong Irish community in that part of the world.
Not much at all, little bits here and there. Ireland is probably the place I’ve felt most at home away from home, so I guess there must be something in common there. I’ve been to Dublin, Cork, Galway and Belfast…. everyone so far has been bloody amazing, so friendly, no bullshit. Just class.
Your work with Rhodri Davies is really great–how did you two meet? You seem to really thrive on the collaboration with each other. I hope that you will do more.
He moved to the area five or six years ago and he came in to the record shop I worked in. We just got to being pals, you know? We have a similar sense of humour, and take the piss out of each other as much as possible. The music came much later, is still a very new thing. You might say me and Rhodri are very old friends.
Your visual art is a huge part of your creativity, is that something that has always been very present in your life? And do you think the impulse is a very similar one to when you are making music, with a story at its core, or do you think it is quite different?
It’s quite new for me. I started drawing – pretty badly – a few years ago and then started making collages maybe three years ago. In a lot of ways it feels like a similar process, a sort of combination of shamanism and puzzle-solving. I’ve always tended to think of doing music as painting, or having a set space and a structure, how you place colours next to one another, the depth and intensity of a brush stroke here, a big cloud of grey fuzz there….it is painting. So I guess it makes sense to make actual visual work as well. It feels very natural and right, when it’s right.
Your drawings often make me laugh out loud – particularly your little rabbit character, do you draw all the time?
In short intense bursts, often when I should be working on something else. Procrastination! I reckon drawing is the only thing I do which might be in some way a therapy, or a diary. I’m no good at it but it’s a nice thing for me to do. It’s in a very different place for me than my collages, or music.
What other projects are you working on, and what are your hopes for the next while?
I’m going to have a break, and try and read lots over the summer. I might be working on another local musicians big band album, perhaps singing a few songs……but primarily I just want to refuel, and then think about beginning to write something really grand from autumn onwards. Also I’m hoping to push the next album and do plenty of touring, again from the autumn. The next piece is starting to take shape, or the clouds of it are starting to gather, something like that…….