Richard Dawson and Circle: inside the plant-based album of the year

The Newcastle maverick and Finnish metal icons have done a "life-changing thing"

The first time Richard Dawson ever saw Finnish rock group Circle, he barely heard them over the sound of his own voice. “I came to see them in Byker supporting Acid Mothers Temple when I was 21,” he explains, his tone shifting from enthusiastic to a slightly guiltier register. “I went with a girl that I was trying to impress, and she wasn’t really into it.” A pause. “I was actually into it,” he insists, building up a head of steam, “but she wanted to go somewhere else to talk so we ended up back at the bar and talked through Circle’s set.” 

Circle guitarist Janne Westerlund sits on the Zoom call smiling benevolently. “I wasn’t the only one talking – I wasn’t that guy,” qualifies Dawson. “I’m sorry Janne.” 

In November, Richard Dawson and Circle release Henki, a collaboration between the Newcastle singer-songwriter and the cult Finnish group whose reputation for spandex and self-identification as the “New Wave of Finnish Heavy Metal” belies a career that’s a Rubik’s Cube of all possible intersections between metal, Krautrock, jazz, psychedelia, stoner rock, ambient and art rock. Formed in 1991, in the Finnish seaside city of Pori, the band’s early shows were ritualistic affairs including nudity, fluorescent body paint and dead fish before developing into the kind of serious, non-conformist institution comparable only with Faust or The Fall. Dawson and Circle share more than just a Stakhanovite work ethic (Circle have released over fifty albums) – their output is at once ancient and futuristic, both medieval history documentary and science fiction cinema. Both are serial collaborators too, but for Dawson, this one was special. 

Time passed, and the promoter of that Byker show – perhaps sensing that more attention could have been paid – handed Dawson a bootleg copy of the concert he had chatted through. It consisted of essentially one riff played to pulverizing repetition for half an hour. Dawson was hooked. 

“Shortly after that, I was working with Ben Jones and Alt Vinyl, and he was a massive Circle fan,” Dawson explains. “One day, he was playing [2007 Circle album] Tower, and I was like God, what is this? It was one of those obsessional moments where you just have to gather everything.” Speaking to The Quietus in 2019, Dawson described the Holy Trinity of his musical influences as Sun Ra, the French electronic composer Eliane Radigue, and Circle.

When Janne Westerlund first heard the music of Richard Dawson he was prudent enough to remain silent. Having chanced upon a review of Dawson’s 2014 album Nothing Important, he decided to investigate. 

“I was totally amazed by it,” explains Westerlund. “I just listened to the other albums and within a day I had become a massive Richard Dawson fan. At that time, I still used Twitter, and dared message him saying that this is fantastic stuff. I was really surprised when I got his reply – ‘Wow, this guy read my message!’ He told me that he was actually a massive fan of Circle.” The pair began a conversation, both self-effacing figures surprised to find an admirer in the other. Both began privately contemplating a collaboration. “I kept thinking, ‘Should I dare ask Richard really?’” reflects Westerlund, “But I did, and that was the starting point.”

Dawson takes a deep breath. “It was a big email for me to receive that, put it that way. It was like a dream. I’d had those same thoughts but I wasn’t close to asking. Like everything, it feels very in the fates.”

Circle then invited Dawson over to join them for a performance at Helsinki’s Sideways Festival. Dawson wasn’t entirely sure what the group particularly had in mind – a couple of tracks on stage perhaps. Circle had other ideas. Why not write and rehearse an entirely new set in 48 hours? During rehearsals, Dawson remembers Westerlund suggesting that the musicians stop being so straightforward and start behaving more like a plant. This would prove important.

“It was a very, very intense event,” says Westerlund calmly of the show that followed, “and very exciting. I must say, I was a little bit nervous because it was hard for us too, and you never know beforehand what the chemistry will be like when you share the stage. You don’t know that before you do it. It was like a revelation. We all found it very easy, actually, to play with you. It was a very important experience.”

“I had this moment where I looked around,” remembers Dawson, “realised I was on stage with one of my favourite ever bands, and then realised that I couldn’t remember any words. And then I realised it was probably the biggest audience I’ve ever played to. I could not grasp the words, I was going to bomb. And then… it just happened.”

The Helsinki set would not be the last time that Circle’s powerhouse approach to graft took Dawson by surprise. Once recording sessions began in earnest – in their native Pori – Westerlund recalls extended sessions without rest or sleep, where “nobody dared say how physically tired they were getting.”

“I had to lie down halfway through and shut my eyes,” concedes Dawson. “I was absolutely done. I felt I was going to fall to bits and really didn’t want to do that in front of everyone.”

Mercifully, by the time the pandemic hit, enough material had been recorded to ensure that the album could be completed whilst travel restrictions remained (indeed, Circle and Dawson are still yet to be reunited). This would shape the album in crucial ways, affording Dawson more time to work on lyrics.

While you were watching Tiger King, baking and staring into the void, Dawson and his partner Sally Pilkington aimed to record an ambient record every day during lockdown – eventually releasing fifty such releases on Bandcamp by August 2020 under the name Bulbils – whilst Westerlund bunkered down and focused on his carpentry course (now close to graduating, he joins us today in a short break from sanding down a cabinet). All the while, Westerlund’s guidance to Dawson and the band had planted a seed.

“I kept thinking about it – imagining music as a plant,” explains Dawson. “I’d liked some plant based records before. There’s a great record called Patterns of Plants by Mamoru Fujieda, where the music is derived from data collected from the surface electricity of leaves, scored for traditional instruments. There’s a few other plant records. I didn’t think there had been a plant metal record, though, or a plant rock record. So you just think about it. The last few albums of mine, I’ve been trying to get different perspectives on time, so maybe by engaging with plants that would afford me a different perspective on time.” 

If you’re looking to understand Richard Dawson’s output over the last half decade, look not to another musician but instead to Hilary Mantel. Across the Booker Prize-winning novelist’s Wolf Hall trilogy, through a detailed and total recreation of Tudor England – and a process she describes as communing with ghosts – Mantel has used the past to say something important about England now, and the way that the past holds hands with the present. In a revealing moment in a recent interview with US YouTuber Anthony Fantano, Dawson hinted at a belief that the present day may be able to influence events of the past in much the same way that past events alter the course that leads us to the present. Consider this when listening to Dawson’s peerless 2017 album Peasant – a series of character vignettes drawn from life in the fifth and sixth century Kingdom of Bryneich (that’s some of south-east Scotland and much of north-east England) – and his 2019 album 2020 – a series of character vignettes about life in the modern north-east. 

Where Peasant involved a level of research more synonymous with academia than indie music, Dawson began to look into historical figures who might be useful to this new plant project. Isabel Clifton Cookson was a 20th century Australian botanist whose research transformed studies into the earliest arrival of plants on Earth. One of the earliest plant genus was named Cooksonia in her honour, as was the first track on Henki

“I couldn’t find an awful lot on her,” explains Dawson, “the library I use is a great library but there wasn’t much there. I didn’t want to speak about the science too much, more the idea that people could turn themselves back through time with concentrated thought. In this case, the world before there were plants on the land. Once you know it’s not going to be a thorough biography of someone, you kind of have to go the other way.” 

Dawson’s research similarly led him to the history of silphium. Silphium is a historical plant whose identity has never since been discovered, but became central to the Greek and Roman economies (indeed, so central to the ancient North African city of Cyrene that it was the emblem on their coins).

“It was both aphrodisiac and contraception,” explains Dawson of its function, “which is a great contradiction. It was in food, as a seasoning. I think it was burned too, as incense. It had all these great qualities, and it was incredibly prized but they couldn’t control it.” The contemporary love heart symbol (immortalised in Dawson’s 2019 track ‘Heart Emoji’) may even have originated from iconography of silphium. “It seemed to me that there was something quite pertinent about this plant, which was so treasured, but they never learned to cultivate it,” says Dawson. “The system that the civilisation was basically built on was something that they couldn’t control. It’s like the building of the house on sand. When they overharvested it, they just took too much, and I’m sure you can draw the parallels with what we see today with lots of things. That got me thinking about that city and merchants who had built their whole trade on it. I was thinking a lot about vape shops, and how tenuous a business that is. I know that sounds ridiculous, but in a few years’ time if vapes are discovered to be incredibly harmful, what are all those tradespeople going to do?”

Illustration for the album by Iris Priest

Only one track on the album – the storming glam metal chug of ‘Lily’ – is unrelated to plants. “We have a lot of ghost stories in our family, we even have a headless railway guy,” explains Dawson. “The one detailed in the song is when my mum was a trainee nurse. She had to go to a different hospital and they had a very old fashioned, very long ward with about twenty beds on either side. She could see a very old woman stood at the end of the bed. She’d walk towards her, but by the time she’d get there, the woman would be gone. She said she saw it three times.” 

Did the figure vanish? “This is it, it’s not that she vanished, there was no moment where she disappeared, but by the time she got there, she was gone. The nurses were just like ‘Oh yeah, that’s just Phyllis’. Apparently she was a very obsessive woman who would never stop washing her hands. She had died there some years before.”

For both Dawson and Circle, the collaboration has fertilised new modes of creativity that one suspects they will be pruning for years to come. 

“Because of our discussions, I have decided that I’m going to start writing entirely in Finnish,” explains Westerlund. “We talked about literature and poetry and lyrics, and you gave me the courage to use my mother tongue, which I’ve always found quite hard somehow, but you’ve opened my mind.”

Dawson agrees. “For me, it’s been quite a life-changing thing. I’ve always been quite positive, but I didn’t really believe that what you were telling me around the show was possible. And to make it through sheer force of will, and luck I suppose, I feel like I’ve been able to take it on since then and apply it to other things. No! You can do it!”