Newcastle singer and all-round legend Richard Dawson talks to Ian Maleney ahead of his Irish tour this weekend.
Richard Dawson is somewhat frazzled on the eve of his first European tour. It’s also the first time the Newcastle native will have left England, so it’s kind of a big deal for the singer.
“There’s almost so many things to take in about doing it that I’m almost not even nervous any more,” he says. “I’m just way out of my comfort zone. In the best possible sense though. This is what it’s all about. It’s been kind of building to this. It’s the only thing to be doing so I should just stop whining.”
While the jaunt to the continent might be tough on a rookie tour, he is looking forward to spending a few more relaxed days in Ireland. The tour comes on the back of a very exciting year for Dawson, a year which saw him release The Magic Bridge, a slow-burn success that found a home in the hearts of anyone with a love for rough-hewn, passionate folk music. Getting the album out there was the toughest part though, and it took a little while to find its audience.
“It was a funny thing because it was about for a while and I felt really positive about the album,” says Dawson. “I shopped it around and nobody picked it up. Josef Van Wissem, he was going to do it on his label but then he heard it and he didn’t like it. He didn’t like the way it sounded, because it’s quite a rough sounding thing and it wasn’t for him. So I spent three or four months getting it about and then just put it out myself. Then it took ages to get any reviews of any sort coming in but it was the one in the Wire that happened and it was really ridiculous. It was a Saturday morning and I started getting all these texts off people who I never hear from saying like “Congratulations” and all this shit, congratulating us on a good review. It was lovely but I was kind of mystified as to why they wouldn’t just send a congratulatory text before. You need a review to tell you it’s good? I don’t mean specifically this album, I mean any album. It was a strange one, it was out there for a bit and we had a big launch in Newcastle which was really good and then it looked like it was just going to disappear again. Of course it works that way with national people, people you’re never going to come across, but I think I was surprised in Newcastle, there was a lot of people who only took notice of the album after that review. Almost as if it shifted their perception of the album from local music to something that might have wider appeal. It was really odd but really helpful as well. It was a surprise, definitely.”
From there it was a short hop to some key festivals on the British circuit, like Supersonic in Birmingham, Kraak in Manchester and, of course, Tusk in his hometown.
“Yeah, it’s really bonkers. I think the big thing was Tusk as well. I did a couple of things at Tusk like a wee bit of compering and a lot of people saw that and then Supersonic we got to loads more people. Those things helped. It’s been a few important little gigs like that, I mean they’re all important, but it just seems to have gee’d it along and this year it’s all just rolling suddenly. It’s really bonkers but I just have to go with it I guess.”
2013 has started with the release of a new album called The Glass Trunk, born out of an invitation to dig around in the Tyne-And-Weir Museum’s extensive archive of local history. The massive amount of source material proved a serious inspiration for Dawson, with the invitation lining up with his own ideas about attempting to write a solo vocal album.
“I had a free remit to look for whatever I wanted and make whatever I wanted and it just seemed to tie in,” he says. “As soon as they said it I knew that was the thing I’d been thinking about. You know that feeling like when someone mentions they might be going for a job or they’ve seen a house they like, you get that feeling that “yeah, that’s going to happen, that’s how it’s going to be”. It was just that kind of thing, same as The Magic Bridge. It just felt very natural. I didn’t give the album the name The Glass Trunk until after the whole thing was finished, I struggled with that badly, just the ideas I wanted to express in the title and I wanted to avoid certain things as well. But I settled on that because it kind of covers a number of spaces, it means a few different things. A trunk can be a lot of different things.”
“This great scrapbook I came across, it’s the most astounding thing, this book from 1791 and you open it up and it’s very much like a treasure chest. So that’s very obvious but the other thing was like a trunk being like a proboscis, something that’s like probing through the muck, searching for truffles or whatever. It’s kind of a funny word for a cock too, which is important. What I’d forgotten about is trunk being a word for the human body and when I was reminded of that, that was when it clicked that it was definitely the right title. Glass is fascinating too because it’s technically a liquid. A clear, solid liquid. It’s absolutely bonkers stuff, made up of loads and loads of individual little components. So that was some of the ideas behind that and it’s just a nice catchy title. The carrying around is a really important aspect. You don’t want to be too didactic and you don’t want to explain too much about things, about what the album is about but I think these pointers are alright. It’s alright to give a few hints.”
Such a wealth of source material necessitated a planned-out approach, a new way of working Dawson.
“I was pretty disciplined about having two weeks solid research and then stopping there,” he ays. “After a couple of days you begin to realise you could just keep going on and on, it’s really hard not to want to keep going back in there because you just don’t know what you’re missing. Even in that book along you could spend weeks in it, it was absolutely rich. With all these things, there’s a sense of rightness, that same feeling where it’s like it already exists and it’s just a case of uncovering it and feeling the right path. So there’s not been any worry about leaving anything behind. I think the stories that got used are the ones that wanted to take on that form, so it feels ok, kind of.”
One unforeseen challenge was inhabiting the characters that Dawson had drawn on to write the songs. Songs like ‘The Quiltmaker’ feature intimate and sometimes disturbing details about the lives of people long dead. Recording most of these songs in just one day in the studio, the demands made by these characters on Dawson’s performances were enhanced greatly.
“Most of the songs feature a character and you take on a bit of a character when you’re signing the song, “ he says. “I’d never done it in such close quarters before, like in the house I’d practice a lot but I’d tend to practice the same song on the same day and suddenly on this day I found myself flicking through all the different moods of these people and it was very certain little inflections on the voice maybe or the way I would stand or tiny changes in the shape of the mouth but it was just being in that mindset, I found that a bit mental.”
The intensity of the recording process, going from nothing to final mix in just four days, was another new challenge for Dawson.
“It was a really good way to do it in those intense few days, just get it nailed,” he says. “That’s definitely the way I’d like to do it again but it takes a few days to come back from. I might not have come back from it, I might be scarred forever to be honest! It was good though. There was lots of planning, I usually stumble around these things but I planned this one out and executed it. There were tight margins but it all seemed to work out somehow. “
The album features a choir of sorts, a group of local friends and musicians who joined together to lend their voices to the album. In many ways, this group reflects Dawson’s passionately local approach and highlights his standing among the local art community.
“All friends, some very close friends, mixture of experienced musicians and non-musicians,” he says of those who helped out on the album.
“I had people there like George Welch who is kind of a legend in Newcastle, he’s a Geordie folk singer, really beautiful voice and very talented guy, very funny guy. Then we had Nev Clay, who is another Newcastle legend, genius songwriter and a beautiful man. We had Catherine and Phil Huyler who are just absolutely awesome musicians. We had loads of kids as well, Katherine and Phil brought their kid Byron, Lee from Tusk brought his three kids, Graham who is putting out the vinyl brought his little one, Josh. Then I had a few friends who weren’t trained singers but thought they’d give it a go anyway. Yeah, it was ace, it was a very celebratory kind of day, had a nice family feel. I thought it was important to have some kids singing too. You can hear Byron stomping around during one of the verses. Some of the people were sacred harp singers as well so there was a bit of that. There were a couple of young lads as well, up from a heavy band in Newcastle, Nately Whore’s Kid Sister who are a really good, up-and-coming, noisy band. Just good lads. They’ve always come along to loads of shows so I thought it’d be nice to get them in on the act.”
Dawson’s love for Newcastle is clear in both his music and conversation. It’s a home and feels close to it all the time. “I love the city, it’s got a village mentality,” he says.
“Everyone knows everyone else really. I find it quite supportive. It’s a lovely place, it’s worth a visit. It’s just people really, really friendly, but no fucking about. People take the piss out of you, that’s the kind of humour, a gentle piss-take. Lovely people and a lot of creativity, a lot of good work being made. Not just music but some really great artists as well, people like Anthea Carey and Iris Priest who are really incredible illustrators. There’s a lot happening. I’m kind of born and bred. I don’t know whether I’ll stay here forever but I’ve never lived anywhere else so I’m kind of a Newcastle boy but I don’t have the “son of the Tyne” kind of a thing going on, “We are the likely lads”, that’s all bollocks. That’s not what Newcastle is, it’s a lot more subtle than that. I love it to bits though, it’s got it’s own identity, very much separate. It’s not English and it’s not Scottish either, it’s just Newcastle and it’s out on its own, I think that’s what I like about it most.”
With the talk of a referendum on Scottish independence constantly at the edges of British politics, is there any chance Newcastle might join the Scots in seceding from the Union?
“I’m not sure if people would vote to be a part of Scotland, just financially it might not be sound but in terms of what we’d be proud to stand with, I think Scotland is a bit closer,” says Dawson. “There was one that actually happened about ten years ago. It’s really fascinating how they did this. They actually had a vote in Newcastle whether we wanted to be part of Scotland basically but it wasn’t publicised at all, there were no leaflets given through doors. And the really crazy thing about it was any no shows were counted as no votes. So because nobody knew about it, I think two percent of the people turned out to vote and it obviously came out 98% “we want to stay English” but that’s because nobody knew about it.”
At the moment, any movement for independence might find strong support among artists in Newcastle as the local authorities attempt to implement a 100% cut to arts funding in the Newcastle area, with serious consequences for public libraries, local festivals and other arts events. Dawson says things mightn’t work out like that though.
“It looks like there might be some kind of a turnaround on that and I’m not sure where its come from because it’s not the same place where that money was coming from,” he says. “Essentially that 100% amounted to £1.2m and now Newcastle Council are saying there will be a fund of £600,000 for the arts, which has come in from different sources including donations. It’s a different way of funding the arts, so there’ll be cuts there but it’s not as drastic. It’s a really tricky topic. Obviously I think the arts should be supported, and things like the libraries. I think they’re closing eight or nine of the libraries in Newcastle which I think is disgusting, swimming pools too, but I understand those things might have to go if it was a question of health services being cut or services for people with mental health problems, which his the case so I understand things have to go.”
“Also there’s certain arts institutions in the North East who just aren’t catering and do nothing for North East people, as far as I can see. You’ll go to a show, you’ll see a bad piece of work and you won’t hear a North East accent in the place, in a packed out place. I don’t want to name names for obvious reasons but you have to wonder, what is this? I know it brings a small bit of business to the pubs in the surrounding area but other than that it’s just a source of jobs for people outside the area. Which is fine in itself but I think there’s been a lot of misspending. There’s also been some great things happened, but there’s an awful lot of money that has been misspent. It’s kind of shameful. I could go into more detail about it but it’s probably best I don’t.”
Fighting against the cutbacks, in the arts and everywhere else, is something Dawson believes has to be approached in pro-active, intelligent way. Simply complaining is unlikely to do much good.
“Obviously there’s been demonstrations and stuff like that, which is great that people will march out against cuts to the libraries, but it seems to me that we can take more practical measures,” he says. “So do more fund-raising things, more illustrative things as well, lead by example. Just keep making, that’s the thing. I’ve talked to some people and it seems like this awful idea that if there isn’t funding there, then the work they want to do isn’t going to get made. That just seems absolutely ludicrous to me, you find a way to make it. If there’s no money, you don’t stop making. That’s a side of Newcastle I like, it’s always been a creative place before we got an influx of money, whatever it was, 15 years ago. There’s always been a lot going on, it’s not dependent on money, I don’t like that attitude much. Although money is great, don’t get me wrong! There’s a lot of good done with arts money and National Lottery money as well. It’s not a question of no cuts, there are going to be cuts, it’s more how that money is dealt with and how people respond to it.”
His attitude is clear and simple; art will be made. Dawson’s passion and commitment to a general creativity is important and perhaps an under-exposed emotion in trying financial times. The desire to create is separate from that of money and it goes against the recession rationale of measuring the arts in terms of their financial contribution to the economy. Dawson’s vision of the arts is at once much more broad and more local than that.
“You find a way, either way really,” he says. “You know the Star & Shadow where Tusk festival happens? They receive a little bit of funding, very miniscule amounts, they’re all volunteer-run, no one there gets paid and it’s the most crucial space for the arts in Newcastle. It’ll survive, it’ll find a way because of the kind of characters involved. That sums Newcastle up for me. If it the Theatre Royal went it would be an absolute shame but I wouldn’t be saying this. It kind of caters to people with loads of money, I could never afford to go there! I’d much rather have the Star & Shadow. Well, thousands would probably disagree!”
Thursday 7th March Dublin, Upstairs at Whelan’s with Raising Holy Sparks, Yawning Chasm & Birchall/Cheetham duo €8
Friday 8th March Cork, Plugd Records with Raising Holy Sparks €7
Saturday 9 March Galway, DeBurgos with Brigid Power Ryce & The Driftwood Manor €7