Image by Kuba Ryniewicz
This is an extended version of the interview that appeared in the November edition.
Interviews with Richard Dawson end in wonderful, free-flowing conversations that are, to be frank, a motherfucker to insert into a NBOW. interview. We were ostensibly discussing The Ruby Cord, his seventh album and the final part of a putative trilogy that also includes Peasant and 2020, the new album taking us into a version of the future, but seen through the prism of video games and fancy. As with Peasant, one of the striking things about the album – and the gigantic 40-minute opener The Hermit – is that Richard clearly loves the language and has a love for archaic or obscure words. Words like clavigers and mantuas and cobles.
So first of all I wondered if liking a particular word encouraged an image or if the image required you use the best word you can find?
“Peasant offered a good opportunity to use all sorts of ancient languages, even if they wouldn’t really have been spoken at all and really aren’t recognizable. But with this one, I was thinking of a place where people would have access to information at a glance. it makes sense that this will really change our language, that we might be able to use a lot of words. And so it allowed me to open up this possibility of using a more technical language. I always have this thing like ‘what would the person in the song use? What would they think? Most of the time, you wouldn’t think of something like “interstix”, for example. You would just think “the bit between my toes” or whatever. But because you would have instant access, you can use a technical term, you can describe it. So there is a good reason to use this kind of language.
“I mean, we could talk about it all day, it’s one of my favorite subjects. A word has its first meaning, but then it has the meaning that comes from the sound or any similarity it has with other words. For example, when you meet a person and they remind you of someone else, you can never really separate them from that person they remind you of. I think it’s the same with words: there’s the real meaning, the sonic meaning and the visual meaning.
“Sometimes we get the idea that words are about pinning something down or that the word is the thing. But they never are. It can get very blurry, and we see that with what happened to the word ‘awake. Now “awake” is pretty neat. Its meaning has now changed, but for a while it was incredibly blurry. And I love the combination of a word with a melody and how that can also change the meaning of the word and melody. So there was this chance to really push the language, it’s descriptive of the type of information overload and this overlapping of different styles of language as well. It helps to describe the layering of different environments. L The writing about 2020 was very sparse and there was no room for something like that because it just wouldn’t serve the people in the songs. But if it’s a video game or an alternate reality and that you interact with this world and you don’t know z not what this thing is called, a digital click or whatever is going to give you the very precise term that you might not have an everyday conversation. And it might even be wrong too. There are details in the album that could never happen or coexist. They may look impressive, but in reality they can be wrong in a certain situation.
So have you been a big reader? And do you read a lot of fantasy?
I don’t read as much as I would like. After I finished writing this album, I read all the [Ursula LeGuin] The Earthsea Books. Really beautiful. And I read Vorrh’s novels before I started writing the album, by Brian Catling who sadly passed away recently. I don’t know much about fantasy. What, what else? Some Arthur C Clarke and Frederick Pohl.
Nev Clay mentioned that you recommended Michel Faber’s Book Of Strange New Things to him.
“There is nothing else like this book. Even if it was a bad book, which it definitely isn’t, but it was something new, so it would still be great, you know?
So, is writing a novel something you could see yourself doing in the future?
“I would love to, I think more and more how much I would love to do that. But I still think, at the same time, that maybe I wouldn’t be able to do that very well. It’s like the opposite of songwriting and I’m trying to take my songwriting a step further. I just think there are such great writers and I feel like I’ve come a long way in making songs. I put a lot of work into this and if I still have some way to go then I should. Thinking of Michel Faber, I’ve read Thomas Pynchon for the last two years, and Iris Murdoch, and you just read those things and say, “That’s so, so good.” And I think I would just pour muddy water around the edge of the well. To me when you come across a great book it seems so unfathomable and it’s like the most amazing thing a human can do even more than a movie which I know is technically a business more important, but I could kind of capture the different parts of how you would make a movie.
Speaking of movies, The Hermit comes out with a “40-minute pop video” that doesn’t seem obvious.
“I think it was just kind of a perverted thing really. I just thought ‘well, that should be the single’. Everything seems to go faster and faster these days, with TikTok or YouTube. People are digesting music on Spotify with commercial breaks actually in the middle of the songs now. So I like the idea of this contradiction of making a pop video for a very long song.
The Hermit might be the most beautiful thing you’ve ever done, especially the softly choral section towards the end. New [Clay, who recorded it alongside Cath & Phil Tyler, Yakka Doon and Hen Ogledd bandmates among others] told me that the whole session had been very emotionally charged, something very special. Did that sound like it to you?
“I think when I was doing it, I felt good. I think I’ve had that feeling many times before, especially doing certain things on Peasant. And when I did the voice of Jogging, I had the same feeling of ‘it’s a lot like that!’. It’s so nice to have friends in the studio. Because that’s also a pretty sweet part of the song, it was like doing a group meditation or something.
Rhodri [Davies – harpist, composer, Hen Ogledd member] is all over The Hermit and it looks like he’s playing kora, or is that just a style of playing?
“It’s a full-size concert pedal harp, but it obviously uses extensive techniques to get different kinds of sounds out of it. He brings a lot of different music, Ethiopian and Celtic influences and beyond. So there are a lot of things that go into his game and he also has a lot of choices he can make in the moment.
When you record, do you wonder how you are going to play it live? Does it ever affect your intentions?
“I think I thought about it afterwards. But not so much, ‘how are we going to do it?’. It’s more like ‘how will this be received?’ Towards the end of the 2020 gigs, when we were doing the trio, they almost felt like rock gigs and it was kind of exciting, but I really don’t want to go that route. So it’s sort of the opposite of that, and we just have to choose the locations carefully. I won’t be able to do as many different kinds of shows as I’ve been doing for a few years with this new material. But you can’t let that stop you from doing things. I mean, I hope people enjoy it, but I can imagine people might come to a gig and be disappointed because they might want to hear the 2020 uptempo stuff.”
Another song I wanted to ask you about is Horse & Rider, which closes the album. To me, it kind of evokes a particular kind of catchy school anthem, something religious but patriotic like When A Knight Won His Spurs. Is it just in my head?!
“This track has been around for a while and I tried to record it in different forms, but it was never the right thing. I even tried to have it on Glass Trunk. I just couldn’t get rid of the melody. But then everything came together very easily for this one. I love that it feels like this uplifting, catchy, carefree, happy song. But I think with the album that comes before, it’s kind of no, we already know that things aren’t necessarily what they seem. So I like that, it’s not just a carefree happy ending or something, it’s not that clear.
I wanted to ask about Circle – that Boiler Shop gig was absolutely phenomenal and you were clearly living your best life there. So, will there be more of this collaboration?
“Well, I’ve been there several times this year for concerts, and we had a few recording sessions. At the last, I think it felt like we were on our way, but it’s going to be long. I have a lot to do before, so we’ll take it very slowly. And I hope to continue after that.
The way they accepted you into their band – not just letting you be in the Big Circle Pyramid on stage but with the whole project – shows a generosity and flexibility, and obviously you bring something powerful to their music.
“Yeah, they’re really amazing people, and so welcoming, and it’s really, really easy. Very natural, working together. But I think we probably felt that while listening to each other’s music, so it wasn’t really a surprise! I really like the guys and I really miss them. I don’t want to speak for them, but I feel like it’s so nice to make music together and as long as it makes sense, we’ll do it.
Richard Dawson exits The ruby cord Going through Strange World/Domino Enabled 18e November. The film The Hermit is filming in selected cinemas throughout November, including a screening and Q&A in Newcastle’s Star and Shadow Enabled thursday 17e November.