Inside the experimental folk artist's collection of absinthe drippers, wooden belts and crusty Care Bears
Richard Dawson is the sort of musician that every city in the UK has: the guy who works in the record shop and makes a bit of music at home in the tiny bit of spare time he has when not listening to other people’s music; someone entrenched in the underground scene of their city; someone who quietly creates utterly idiosyncratic and staggeringly inimitable music loaded with a deep knowledge of the esoteric, obscure and avant-garde. These are the sort of people who often go relatively unheard outside of fellow head circles, who never go beyond 500-run small label album releases and who play to rooms full of people that can probably vary between 20 to 100 depending on the night of the week. They are immeasurably important and interesting but rarely celebrated on anything resembling a larger platform.
Richard Dawson aligns with many of these scenarios but recent years have seen him slip away from the obscurity that sadly so many artists like him are often left to thrash around in and reach something resembling the mainstream, or at least the alternative mainstream.
He began making records – some solo, some collaborative – ten years ago. Some people began to pick up on the momentum of him and his work through 2013’s ‘The Glass Trunk’, a discordant, experimental folk record in which Dawson searched a local database for unusual tales of death to bring to life. (Anybody that has seen Dawson perform in recent years will know the profoundly moving yet darkly funny tales such as ‘Poor Old Horse’.) However, for many the entry point into Dawson’s world was through a disastrous school trip as told in the superlative 16-minute opus ‘The Vile Stuff’ from 2014’s ‘Nothing Important’, a piece of music that unravels and broods with such a rising intensity and fierce, absorbing narrative that it’s akin to experiencing something on the scale of a novel or a film.
Aside from the crippling potency and blinding brilliance of that song, the album was also on a new label – Domino offshoot Weird World – meaning a lot more people had their eyes opened to Dawson and could buy his music easily.
‘Nothing Important’ remained a fairly out-there exploration of something far more in sync with the avant-garde world than the mainstream, yet five-star broadsheet reviews followed, along with a front cover appearance on The Wire magazine and high placing’s in multiple 2014 end-of-year lists. It means that his forthcoming 2017 album, ‘Peasants’, is an album loaded with genuine anticipation in a world much, much larger than his leftfield origins may have ever seemed possible.
This isn’t coincidental, though. Dawson – whilst undeniably rooted in the experimental – has more than a degree of accessibility to him. The first single from the new album, ‘Ogre’, is awash with melodic charm and a glowing choral chorus that toils closer to the area of avant-pop than the often unhelpful folk label that has been placed upon him over the years. It has a broader appeal in the same mildly unexplainable way that someone like Joanna Newsom has, in which the clear talent and innovation supersedes its genres and the perceived mainstream acceptance of them.
‘Peasant’ is the best album Dawson has ever made and is alive with innovative ideas, be them in the form of the wild, loose, unravelling structures that seem to gloriously contradict one another in their colliding of the accessible and the discordant, the always engrossing lyrics or the narrative concept of the record itself, which tells the story of a functioning society through characters and scenarios. Each song is an ostensible character in this ever-moving society (‘Soldier’, ‘Weaver’, ‘Prostitute’, ‘Begger’) and whilst conceptually this may take place in pre-medieval times, there’s an allegorical function to them that keeps the record far from being a history lesson. “This is about the future. If people think this album is about the past then I have absolutely failed,” he tells me when I arrive as his home in Newcastle. It’s a new place that he’s only just moved into, and is still stacked with boxes.
“I didn’t tidy up for you because I thought that would be dishonest about who I am,” he says with a hearty chuckle as we sit down and he talks me through some items of significance in his life.
I write the music at home and try and play guitar every day. It used to be hours but now it tends to be half an hour to an hour. It’s good for me; it’s like eating. Everything fits into place when I’m playing. Writing words, I go into the Lit & Phil, which is like a private library here in Newcastle. It’s open to anybody but to use the quiet room you have to pay a membership and you can use this room with really plush, beautiful architecture. It’s quiet and it’s so hard to find quiet anywhere in Newcastle. The city library, the first time I went to write there, there was a guy having phone sex in the booth next to me. It was horrendous – people reading newspapers really loudly. Awful. The Lit & Phil is great but they’ve fixed the antique clock in the reading room and now it really loudly ticks, so now I have to go in and wear ear defenders to work. I thought it was going to be really quiet here [in the new house] but the neighbours at the back just play crazy, crazy music with speakers out in the yard full blast. It’s great – it’s like Pakistani orchestral pop with vocoders. I’ve never heard anything like it, but it’s very loud and they just shout at each other, like 10 of them.