“It’s lonely up here in Middle England,” laments RICHARD DAWSON on Jogging, the first single lifted from his latest solo album 2020. It would appear Northumberland’s finest harbinger of doom has bid farewell to the sixth-century kingdom of Bryneich that provided the grizzled backdrop to his last record Peasant, turning in favour of an all too familiar contemporary scene.
Whether detected in the nervous sideways glance of the jogger, in the pained expression of the Civil Servant severing another Disability Living Allowance, or stood quivering in the piss-specked shoes of the fulfilment centre employee peeing in a bottle to save missing their quarters, it’s easy to make out the emerging figure of a conflicted 21st-century Britain in Dawson’s tales.
Yet, despite the bleakness, 2020 still triumphs through instances of courageousness, black comedy and real lingering beauty. Tasked with decoding his aching accounts, David Weir caught up with the Hen Ogledd main-man to discuss UFOs, time perception and the ins-and-outs of writing a minor-key masterpiece.
There’s definitely a stronger pop feel on 2020 compared to your past records. What triggered the move away from acoustic and brass in favour of synths and vocoders?
Well, I think a big factor is Sally’s [Pilkington] influence. She’s been introducing me to a lot of classic pop that I’ve never really explored. Artists like Kate Bush, Erasure and Prince. This record needed to be really direct or ‘direct sounding’. So, I wanted to use the language of rock music to create these big, anthemic choruses, but then the words would be in opposition to that. I hope it makes for a really awkward feeling, but you might not even really pick up on why. Musically, it should almost sound ubiquitous. Peasant had a very distinct sound design. For instance Angharad Davies’ violin, I saw this almost as if it were a weather event, like frost.
This record needed to use this ‘common language’ of electric guitar and drums. It feels more familiar, like the estate where you grew up. These blocks of sound, all semi-detached houses. Then hopefully, the melodies and the words are the lifeforms that aren’t quite fitting in to that blander picture. It’s a strange aim to make a record that’s bland sounding!
I saw David Berman (Silver Jews) shared Jogging on release. It does feel as if there’s similarities between 2020 and the Purple Mountains record. ‘Anthemic choruses’ as you say, paired with unsparing, at times rather desolate lyrical sentiments.
I haven’t listened to that record just yet, but I plan to. I’d seen that he’d posted the video, which was kind of an amazing thing but also quite a strange feeling, I guess. Thanks for the comparison, I know his early work obviously. I know with that record people have been absolutely raving about it, so I must do that this week.
Peasant and The Glass Trunk required a lot of archival research, whereas 2020 is obviously more concerned with current affairs. Against the constant flood of news and media content, how did you manage to narrow down the individual accounts in these songs?
Well, I’m quite lucky in a way, people will just open up to us about things. This time around it was more through my own experiences, talking to friends, family and to a lot of people at gigs. I’m not one of those vulture kind of writers, always on the hunt for lyrics. But repeatedly people would mention the same kind of issues they were going through. It just felt like this was worth writing about.
When I’m working on a piece – I’ve had this sense more and more recently – of the people being real and alive. I recognise it could be a symptom of my mental health situation, but I’m convinced that it’s possible to be in touch with people in different ways and different times. You know our perception of time is that it goes in a line. Well, that’s our experience of it, for the sake of our bodies to manoeuvre them safely through space. But actually, I find time… it doesn’t work like that.
I’ve been singing this song about a mother in 15th-century Hexham and I really like this person, she’s alive! It’s not an act of imagination, it’s just a different way of life. When you’re working on these songs and these people make themselves known – whether or not this is all bollocks, and it’s just my imagination and I’m disguising that, the fact remains that you have to be honourable to these people and treat them with respect. It was just a case of following what they were trying to say, to do right by them.
Certain tracks remind me of David Foster Wallace’s short stories Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. Wallace was interested in our approach to ‘dreary, seemingly meaningless routines’. He spoke about the kind of freedom that’s truly important is the one we rarely hear about in the ‘great outside world of wanting and achieving’. I was wondering if you feel that crops up in the narrative at all?
I guess it’s more about what’s the stuff of life? In the space of all of this, whether it be certain routines that you go through, how do you keep your eyes and heart open? How can we really express something about what it is to be alive? Because these things like having to brush your teeth, wipe your arse, put on clothes in the right manner, it’s so basic yet it amounts to so much time. It has a massive effect on our day, though, and it’s not separate from a big life event.
If you don’t feel comfortable in your clothes, you’re going to feel awkward and anxious in public. Even just walking past people in the street, everyone you pass you’re going through an internal dialogue in your head at a hundred miles per hour. I don’t see separation between this and maybe more dramatic events. It’s amazing to think about brushing your teeth, all those little germs and microbes that you’re dislodging. If you could zoom in and see all the living things that are in between your gums. There’s drama at every level.
People in these songs are often simply just trying to catch their breath or start their day on the right side of the bed…
Yeh, for sure. We wake up and we just get stuff hurled at us in a way that has never been part of the human make-up ever before. Just the sheer amount of information we’re processing and the different ways we’re engaging with faces and people, all the streams we’re looking at. It’s so brand new. We haven’t adapted. I think it’s a really crazy time to be a human.
We wonder why we’re kind of confused and a bit lost, but the landscape has just changed so dramatically that it’s no wonder. It would be more of a wonder if we weren’t anxious or depressed. It’s more of a physical reaction to being surrounded by stress, information and fast change.
One of the songs that jumped out at me was Fulfilment Centre. It sounds heavily inspired by the recent stories about hostile working conditions at Amazon.
I think it’s all there in the song. You can look up online about these places and some of the stories people tell. I do think those kinds of places are sort of amazing. There’s just a lot there. The conditions people are working in, but also all these incredible things that they’re dealing and sending out into the world. And the amount that’s being spent on all these packaged things and the money spent as a means to distract ourselves. Really crazy times.
Although there’s a lot of fears and anxieties shared, the record’s also full of hopeful moments. Like Fresher’s Ball for example.
It’s all quite sentimental. I think a few of the songs are overly sentimental in the ways that we all can be. Fresher’s Ball is almost over the top. You know how it goes when you feel emotional about something, there can be an almost enjoyable aspect to it where you push yourself to really dwell and stay in that state. I really like this song because it’s a really pleasant melancholy, a bittersweet thing that the person is thinking. It’s certainly a happy time for his kid, she’s off to Uni and super strong, telling her Dad not to worry. There’s a lot of hope on the album, even if it is predominantly sad.
Two Halves is another song I absolutely love. It reminds me of the football match in Kes, with the abusive P.E teacher.
Well, that was in the back of our mind, for sure! I’ve been going to watch my nephew play football at Walls End Boy Club and the atmosphere is so great. I won’t say which team, but there’s a club in the area with a really badly-behaved manager, who just screams at the kids, a really nightmarish guy. So that’s all there. It’s another happy song, I think. It’s more exciting than going to a football stadium. You’re right there and there’s more happening, I guess. It’s fabulous.
Black Triangle is a standout for me. It begins with a UFO sighting. Do you feel these kinds of reports are founded in escapism or something else?
From my experience with these kind of things, no. I’m sure that’s an element to it, you see all these conspiracies on YouTube. But this song is not about that for me. None of the album is autobiographical, but the first half of this song is drawn from something that happened to me and my pal Neil. We did see this incredible black craft come over my parents’ house and it wasn’t a commercial aircraft either. The government released papers on this phenomenon, as it’s the most widely spotted UFO. It was so crazy the explanation they gave, they said it was a “triangular illusion” created by plasma. I can tell you with certainty, this isn’t what we saw. This was a solid thing and it moved incredibly fast and silent. So, it’s either a secret aircraft or it’s extra-terrestrials. I don’t see that there’s any other explanation. It’s a hopeful song in some ways. He goes out to the country with his daughter and they share in watching the stars together. I can’t think of a happier moment than that, really. There’s a lot of hope on the album, even if it is predominantly sad.
It can regularly feel as humans we’re chasing some form of magic or mystery. How do you feel that plays into you work as a songwriter?
I believe in magic. I’ve talked in a few other interviews about Alan Moore and an interview he gave where he speaks about the role of the bard. In the past, the role of the bard was doubly important because not everyone had access to the written word. So, to cast a spell was simply to ‘spell’ – this is Moore talking, not me. I’ve thought about this a lot since, what the role of a musician is.
The power of a word or a melody combined is something I think can be quite profound: it can change minds, it can change the way in which people perceive things, it can change the way people act. So, it’s absolutely the highest honour and of grave importance to try connect with people. Without wanting to be self-righteous, you feel that you’re maybe fighting the good fight. It’s probably a losing battle but those are the only battles worth fighting anyhow.
So, is that how you keep faith, then? Does sharing it within a musical community help strengthen that feeling, maybe making it more impactful?
You don’t have a choice whether you do it or not, really; you just do it. People have always made stuff regardless of the scene or what the wider picture is. Even just playing music at home, you’re communing with something off in some far place. Music is alive and that’s enough. But, if you share it with other musicians and audiences, you can really change things. We’re all making an impact. Hence why you’ve got to be careful with your time and be considerate of how you live. It all has an effect. Whether you’re doing something public and outgoing or something quiet and private. I think that as much as I treasure the role of the bardic tradition and my place in that, I see that it’s not brain surgery. It’s not being a nurse, fireman or teacher. I’d be very remiss to place it in any hierarchy, because how can you say anything is more life-changing than those jobs.
Richard Dawson plays Parr Street Studio 2 on Saturday 23rd November. 2020 is out now via Weird World.