Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
On being nothing, looking outward, and the obstinant relevance of that popular art form, song.
Richard Dawson is a force of nature. Even though that’s been said about many people, I really mean it this time. Ask anyone lucky enough to have seen him in the past few years and I doubt you will find any argument. His sets leave people with a confused throat-lump laugh. For example, I recently insisted a friend of mine—who maintains music has no real emotional impact—come and see Richard the first time he played in Dublin, and even he had to admit that after the gig, he shed a tear or two.
His music is familiar and unsettling, like some half-remembered childhood moment that comes up in the midst of a god-awful hangover, crippling in its sweetness. His music has a brutal nostalgia to it, often drawing on moments from his formative years but stripped of any saccharine nostalgia. He regularly brings us back to the sober present with a bang through his savage commitment to the idea that his songs be about real life, not some fantasy of what a song should be about. His songs mention WHSmith, Asda, Anadin Extra, Newcastle United: places and things that hover around the margins of the average UK consciousness, and that most of us are not used to hearing sung about at all. They are songs about our everyday life to enhance our everyday life. In the process of songwriting, these moments become kaleidoscopic, transcend the everyday reality they come from and become a sort of hallucination of Richard’s life, taking on a new strength in the process. Similarly, Richard’s guitar playing is always towing the line between dissonance and sweet melody, and is catchy in the strangest way—you’ll find yourself humming his melodies long after hearing the songs, but straining to get the notes right. And his voice is fucking powerful. Never had I heard a man with a thick Newcastle accent roar his head off in a way that touched me so until I saw Richard. Don’t take it from me, go see him and see for yourself.
I had the pleasure of asking Richard about all these things and much more, including his new album, Nothing Important, over Skype and some wine.
Cian Nugent Rhodri Davies plays on the new album a bit doesn’t he?
Richard Dawson Yeah. He plays on “The Vile Stuff.” It’s not so recognizable as a harp but it’s pretty integral to the recording.
CN Is it a bowed harp? I thought the harp might have been the droning that comes in towards the end.
RD No, it’s nothing like that. There’s a synth that was in the studio and then I used a program on the tablet called ThumbJam. I played lots of trumpet sounds and string sounds on that, but put them through amps so they sounded less digital and more fucked up. There are some actual saxophones too—I borrowed some saxophones and struggled to blow on them.
CN It sounds great. It’s very nice to hear you fleshing out the arrangements a little bit.
RD Yeah, it’s a tricky one, it’s good. I wondered how it would impact on the live thing, but it’s fine. I’ve always wanted to do something with that Qawwali beat. I love Qawwali.
CN Can you explain a bit what Qawwali is?
RD It’s Sufi devotional music: people like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Aziz Mian … I just love that music. There’s a picking apart of a lot of religious themes going through the lyrics of this album, so it felt appropriate to have an element that was explicitly, musically religious, to counteract some of the other ideas. Sufism is very interesting—a lot of it is quite apt and correct I think. I don’t subscribe to any religion apart from my own though! (laughter)
I read a lot of Rumi too, a really beautiful twelfth-century poet, who wrote really amazing poems on the void and being nothing. There’s a real practical side to his writing.
CN Did that influence the album title?
RD Maybe. I guess it’s all in there, so it must have in someway. Everything sticks.
CN I like that lyric where you say, “I am nothing … ” How does it go?
RD “I am nothing, you are nothing, nothing important, death within a dream.” It’s tricky because I thought, Is that cliched? It could have easily been very bad.
CN I like that it feels that that isn’t a negative thing
RD Oh yeah, it’s very much not a negative thing. I always mention this YouTube clip where Harry Dean Stanton quotes Lao Tse. He says “To know you’re nothing is wisdom, to know you’re everything is love.” I like that, and, though it might sound silly to quote an interview on YouTube, that influenced the album a great deal.
How about you? What are you working on at the minute?
CN Well, I’m in the process of trying to write some new songs. It’s been taking me a while, but it feels like things are starting to take shape now, which is nice.
RD Songs with words?
CN Yeah. That’s been part of the challenge—getting into writing lyrics and also just learning how to use my voice.
CN That’s something I’ve found you to be very inspiring in, in that you sing very much in your own voice. When you’re singing, it sounds the same as when you talk. My issue with singing has always been that I didn’t want to put on a fake accent. So much of rock ‘n’ roll is American, and especially when I was getting into playing I felt almost obliged to have an American accent if I was going to sing. But obviously, I didn’t, so I just chose to remain silent in protest.
RD (laughter) That’s a good protest. Certain word sounds don’t seem like they’ll lend themselves to singing, certain vowel sounds or phrasings of a word, but I think it’s important to find your own way because that American thing is so hard to get away from. I listen back to my first recordings and it’s just an American accent all over the place. How are you finding it? How’s your voice doing?
CN I’m still getting used to it, but I’m beginning to not hate singing.
RD (laughter) That’s a good start.
CN I’m starting to feel a bit more comfortable. It’s interesting to hear you say that you feel like your older music had an American accent, because every time I’ve seen you play, I’ve thought, Wow, it’s so much his own accent and voice.
RD I’m talking about the very first album, and it’s not a huge problem, just certain word sounds, like letting the ts soften in an American way. I definitely remember The Magic Bridge(2011) was the first time I felt I knew what I was doing and I felt good trying to follow my own way, rather than trying someone else’s. Also, I started looking out, rather than inward. I think a strange phenomenon of making music is that you can often look inward. But you start looking out and you start hearing better.
CN What do you mean by looking out?
RD I guess I’m talking about the ego and the letting go of that ego. Ego is always thinking about how things will be perceived. Once you let go it becomes much easier to be natural and open. At least this is the aim. I almost equate it to being a stuntman: the idea that right just before the end of the ramp when the stuntman is about to take off, there’s a moment of doubt and thought about the landing. If you have that moment of doubt, then you’re just going to crash and burn. You just have to go hell for leather, just put it all out there. I think that’s the idea with singing. Otherwise it’s not going to fly. I can’t wait to hear you singing! (laughter)
CN Thanks, I’m sure it won’t take long. With some musicians, it feels like their performative side is very different from their personality. For you, it feels like the two meld very well, which is something I really admire about your performances and your records. I think the way you talk on stage very comfortably coheres well with the music, rather than taking away from what you’re doing. You do look out with your music.
RD In terms of playing live, it’s about responding. It’s a community thing. We’re all in it together at a gig, and maybe I’m operating the strings, but everybody has a bit of control over how the gig goes, in terms of the energy. You need to be aware to respond to all of that. I think you kind of hinted there as well about the idea of performance, because there is a difference between how I am at a gig and how I am every day, but it’s a fine line. In that same interview, Harry Dean Stanton says, “Every moment’s a work of art.” What we’re doing now is a work of art. I really like this idea that every moment is a chance to practice or hone, talking now is a chance to explore the voice, to be mindful of how you phrase a word or to be mindful of the timbre of your voice. By trying to eliminate, or at least blur, the lines between life and performance, you get hopefully a more collective, inclusive thing.
CN Has all the traveling and playing to audiences made you look out more? Has it made your music more social?
RD Having things go so well with the music—to be offered more gigs, and through that have people say nice things—and just the feeling that this is going somewhere and people are responding to this, is very nice. In the past it could be hard to keep the chin up sometimes. I would think, Wow, I’m never going to make a living out of this and I’m not really making a difference to anyone. So, to be getting out there, I can’t not be changed by that. It’s given me more of a sense of people too, something like empathy, though I also think that’s just something that happens as you get older too. I’m slightly more jaded, but also there’s more love, a grumpy kind of love. I feel much more miserable these days, but also I laugh a lot more. (laughter)
CN Do you find that in Europe people don’t understand what you’re singing about sometimes because it’s so specific to the culture of the UK?
RD Yeah, but I think people hear the melodies and get it, if they want. There’s been a misconception in a few places that I’m doing traditional folk music. Some people think that this is Northumbrian or North Eastern traditional music! (laughter) It’s not at all. I think that’ll be less of a problem with this new album, though, because the last one it was all unaccompanied singing.
CN Sometimes I wonder if you’re kind of satirizing England in your music.
RD I don’t think of it like that, no. I don’t want to be negative about things I don’t necessarily understand. There are pockets everywhere that have a strong local identity, and I just happen to know more about Newcastle because it’s where I’m from. But really I don’t ascribe even to that—whether you were born in one place or another, we’re all from the same place. I wouldn’t intend to satirize anyone unless I was satirizing myself first.
CN Maybe satirize is the wrong word. When you mention things like Asdas and WHSmiths, it’s interesting because it points out something that we don’t normally think of as being a part of our actual lives.
RD Those things sometimes get a laugh as well, but there’s nothing put in there to be funny—though obviously some things are going to be funny and that’s fine. It’s more for the quality of the word sounds and what they actually are. It goes back to the idea of Americanisms: people often look towards other cultures for these wondrous exotic things: deserts, cactuses, truck stops and cafes, and other cultures as well, India or Japan. But nobody sees their own home as being incredibly incredible, or unique, or of poetic worth, when in fact there’s a lot of worth or color or meaning all around in the everyday.
CN It’s affirmative really.
RD I hope so.
CN I think perhaps the reason that it gets a laugh is that you don’t hear about that in songs normally and people are amused to hear about things that they actually know about. Also, I think we do, as people, deserve culture about our culture.
RD I think you’re getting at something really crucial there. Asda has the appearance of being this upper middle class supermarket, nice and affluent, but then we’re all—even despite the fact we may have dado rails and conservatories in their houses—still working class people, only with more possessions, more illusions of things. Apart from being kept reasonably poor, we’re being encouraged to work incredibly hard and spend what money we do have on crap. Most people are still struggling to get by; we just have the illusion of comfort. I’m not into that. I don’t think it has to be that way. Part of it’s just about looking. It’s all under our noses but it’s so hard to see anything. You miss so much right in front of you. I do anyway. I’m not proclaiming to be any further ahead, I hope it doesn’t’ sound like that. I’m way behind.
CN I feel like you’re making a start on something though.
RD (laughter) Giving it a go!
CN It does feel like it’s time for new culture to be developing.
RD There are always good things going on, but it just feels like there a general tide of apathy going on at the moment. I’ve never really known it to be quite so bad, but I don’t think it’s a cause for despair either. I think these times are just a bit lost in general. I’ve only really been crystallizing these ideas over the past couple of years or so, and I’m just not buying into the whole thing anymore, you know?
CN You can get a lot through in music.
RD With one line, you can say four or five different things, better than I can do talking. But really, it’s in the eye of the beholder. I try to design things so that they seem fixed but they’re actually fluid.
CN When you’re writing songs do you pick up things as you go and say, Oh I must use that in a song? How do you approach songwriting?
RD I think I used to be more like that. But The Glass Trunk was very focused. I just set out the melodies and then sat down and wrote the lyrics, working on one song at a time. With this new album I had the music all ready and just started at the beginning of each song. I had the first line of “Nothing Important” for two or three years: I wanted to start a song with being born. I liked the idea of writing about growing up. I tend not to write ahead, so if I get stuck I’ll just stay on that line until I can figure out what it should be and then carry on writing. Then when I get to the end I go back and make adjustments or move things, certain lines that you realize are problematic, but once you start changing one thing you inevitably create five other problems elsewhere in the song and on and on? It’s like a puzzle. I’m quite rigorous. I just sit down, focus, try and make sure that every line is on the nail, and really bang away until I’m absolutely satisfied. Even now there are a few lines on the new album I feel I could have done better with. It’s too late, but hopefully we can take on the next one and not settle for anything less than just right. How do you approach writing words? Because if you’ve never sung you’ve never written lyrics?
CN Yeah, it does feel new. I’m trying to figure out how I want to do it. I’ve been trying to write things and then see what I like. I find it can be hard to get in the right frame of mind to write songs. The moment when I’m falling asleep—that can be a good headspace, but then the issue is you have to be awake enough to write it down. I record things on my phone a lot, and I find that has been one of the biggest helps for writing songs.
RD For sure, it’s good. Do you just set off writing before having even thought about what the song would be about? Or do you have a topic in mind?
CN There’s one song I wrote which did have a specific topic, which was just about not being able to fall asleep and the flow of thoughts that you get about that and about the area I grew up in as well. Then other songs have been more about having one line and then following on from there. I haven’t cracked a method of how to do it yet. If I had, I probably would have already written the damn songs.
RD (laughter) Yeah, but you will. Crack is a good word for it. You just gotta keep hittin’ away.
CN It’s as much a matter of discipline as anything else.
RD I think perhaps the attraction of guitar playing is that it’s so fluid and there’s such a spontaneity to it. The illusion is, because lyrics are a part of the music, they should be spontaneous too. Maybe they are occasionally, but I think being rigorous is a much better method. Why have words there if you aren’t invested in them? If you’re going to use words they need to be absolutely as you say: “cracked.”
CN If you’re saying something, you want to make sure you’re saying something. Do you ever improvise lyrics?
RD When I forget them! (laughter) I’m always improvising them when I’m at home, singing little funny songs, doing the dishes or whatever. But not with the songs that go onto albums. They take a long time. It’s a horrible, horrible experience. But I must enjoy it, because I get locked into it.
CN It can be quite horrible trying to write music.
RD Even if the last ten songs you’ve written have come out really well and you know it’s just part of that process of blasting through those first few tricky days, that feeling comes back of, “I have no idea how to write a song at all! What if this is it and I’m a spent force? I mean, what now? Is it just instrumentals from here on? Cian’s gonna be getting all my gigs and I’m gonna have to live Cian’s life?”
CN (laughter) I wouldn’t wish it on you.
RD (laughter) Nor would I wish you this existence. I’d rather you have yours, and I, mine.
CN I think this album gets closer to replicating what your live performance is.
RD Yeah, I think that’s partially to do with the recording.
CN It’s a nice recording, raw but still clear, compared to, say, The Magic Bridge.
RD It was done with Phil Begg, so it was a different vibe. He’s a lovely guy, he does Midnight Doctors and Hapsburg Braganza. The last two albums were done with Sam Grant so there’s just a different energy to it. They’re both amazing people. We worked quite hard on this one, getting the guitar sound right, getting the room right. He’s a real wiz.
CN Was it done in a studio?
RD Yeah, Blank Studios. Sam and I—I know we’ve only made two albums together—but we’re very much a team in terms of the albums. He’s such a massive part. I’ve just started to write the new one and we’re already talking about it. He wants to be involved right from day one, just suggestions here and there, getting the feel of it—it’s all about the feel.
CN On this album you put the acoustic guitar through an amp, did you?
RD Yeah, it’s a mongrel guitar now, it’s got loads of different bits in it. We put it through my Fender solid state amp, not a valve tube amp—I know that’s the thing amongst guitar men, but it’s solid state for me. Then we put that through an Orange amp. I’m not too big on gear, but I’m pretty sure we just put it through those two. Then we sent the recording back through more amps and we did the same with the singing as well, we sent that back through some amps as well, just to have a bit more control over the sound of the room, the ambiance … (laughter)
CN The guitar through the amp and the voice through the amp give them a harshness, which is really nice. It’s a contrast to the quality acoustic guitar normally has.
RD It gives it a bit more cut to certain phrases that need it and to the dynamics as well.
CN Another thing I wanted to ask you is, have you always been a singer?
RD I always loved singing, even when I was a kid. I was really big-headed when I was a teenager. I used to think I was a brilliant singer and I used to tell people. I was a real tit. But actually, I wasn’t very good, I was sharp and flat and singing in an American accent and just doing a bad Mike Patton impression for years and years. (laughter) I only really learned to sing maybe around The Magic Bridge. Even then—I don’t listen to the albums back much at all but I heard the odd bit of it and I heard problems with the singing already. After that record I started thinking about it in a different way. I learned a lot from Phil Tyler and Sarah Hill, who’s one of my best friends. It’s about being yourself, and singing in an unadorned style. There’s a fine balance between really considering the sound that you’re making while also being natural. So I feel like a real beginner again, in some ways. I’ve been doing it for a long time, building up strengths in certain areas, but you get to a point where you realize you know nothing.
CN I think so much of singing is just being comfortable with opening your mouth and sound coming out though, isn’t it?
RD Yeah, I feel really comfortable in a gig situation singing. It does take a bit of letting go, not worrying about your voice cracking. Technically, I’m not the best, I can’t hold notes or I can’t do anything flashy. I can sing loud and I can sing quite high and quite low, but that doesn’t make good singing. It’s not those things.
CN Well, you can take it from me, you’re a good singer.
RD (laughter) That’s nice of you, but you’re a pal, so you’re very biased. I just want it to be as much me as possible without me getting in the way and without it being about me, just embodying the song. Hopefully the values that you hold in life translate into the songs. Then when you perform them, it’s a case of trying to do justice to those values.
CN I’ve been thinking lately about the difference between personal songwriting— writing about how you feel—and songwriting that’s more about the world around you. Do you try and write that’s not about yourself?
RD Yeah. There’s a contradiction at the heart of it though, which is that you have to write about what you know, but I try to write about things from my life in a way that is sending out rather than receiving. A song about “My heart is breaking. I believe this I believe that,” that’s not going to cut the mustard really. It’s not going to have that much value unless somebody’s in the same situation, and then they might not feel so alone. And there’s value to that, for sure. But I think there’s more to be achieved with a song. The expectations are so low with a song. It’s become the most accepted form of music, but it’s also the most derided. It’s still a relatively young art form and I think there’s a lot more that can be achieved with it. It’s important to keep pushing, because it’s something that is so accessible. It is an art for people. It’s not a highfalutin thing. It’s something that’s always existed as a means to deliver the news. Hundreds of years ago, this is how people would hear the news from town to town, the great bardic tradition. It’s an art for people. Whereas theater, until recently, would have only been for the rich, and that’s still true to a degree. Put the poor people way up in the heavens!
So the idea that you’re not doing justice to the form, but also not doing justice to the community that you’re a part of, if you’re just singing about yourself—well, it has to be something grander. The idea that you would want to make something bog-standard or average, I don’t get that. Let’s be ambitious, even if it really fails. Let’s try and connect more, find new ways, change things. I don’t presume for a second that’s what I’m doing, but I think that has to be part and parcel of the aim. It can’t just be about entertaining or maintaining the status quo. Too many artists of all sorts, from what I can see, have got it too cushy, and aren’t pushing hard enough. Art as business is a very strange concept.
CN It’s interesting to hear you say you try not to be too personal because a lot of the jumping off points for your songs seem to be very personal, or maybe they come from memories, but without being too sentimental.
RD Everything is drawn from real stuff and stuff that’s happened to me, but there’s almost a transition takes place –just through the process of writing. Even though it comes from more personal stuff and because it’s a very personal experience, by the end it’s hopefully something that can have meaning for other people. I’ve been thinking about the idea of contradictions being at the heart of everything, and I see more and more that that’s the way of things. It is incredibly personal, but also not, and both are possible, they’re both contained within each other. I think it’s like that with everything. I think the white wine’s having an effect on me now.
CN (laughter) I’m interested to know at what point you got interested in folk music.
RD I don’t really know a great deal about folk music. I mean, I’ve been listening to folk music, but more from all around. I like a lot of African and Indian music. I never really listened to English folk music that much. Maybe a few years ago, Cath and Phil Tyler—hearing them and then getting a bit interested and learning a few songs. I’m a real layman, which is funny when people ask me about folk music, because I really know only a tiny bit. I know much more about Indian music or experimental music. Which isn’t much.
CN Well, folk music is for the layman isn’t it?
RD That’s why when you get it eventually you go, “Oh! This is alive.” It’s about sharing songs and there being no weight of the self, just all about being part of something larger, part of a community. The singing group at The Cumberland Arms changed my perception, just hearing all kinds of singers, from very the accomplished—and I use that word very guardedly—to those who would struggle to hold a tune, but who were invariably the better singers. They had amazing wobbly voices and cracks and were getting the words wrong, but that was always the most fascinating stuff to hear in those sessions and always the most full of heart. I wonder if it just to do with confidence. Why don’t more people sing with their funny voices? It’s a mystery. There’s a guy who sings at The Cumberland called Joe and he’s got a really round voice like little boulders. He’s got this song he wrote about how much he loves cheese. He’s a real beautiful guy, very gentle, but tough as well. He doesn’t take any shit. He sings this song: “I’m a man who loves cheese,” and it’s so hard to even discern the words he’s mumbling so much. It’s the best. (laughter)
CN I’d love to hear that. Maybe you could bootleg him.
RD He wouldn’t mind. Maybe I’ll get to work on that and get the cheese song out there.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.