While allowing us our number one coping mechanism in such bleak times
Richard Dawson believes in the power of song. “The song is magical,” he says. “I mean real magic. It can affect things, at its best. That’s what a song is capable of.” The words come softly from his mouth, gently spoken, humble and understated. Dawson is all of these things, although if it were up to him, you would never know that he himself is one of the most empathetic and incisive songwriters of his generation.
“I don’t mean to suggest that any of these songs necessarily do that,” he continues, referring to the ten tracks that make up his astonishing new album, 2020. “Although it’s got to be the aim. I feel like maybe the aim with a lot of songs you hear is not to change things, but to sell things.”
He has a point. We talk across a table at one of his favourite cafes in his native Newcastle-Upon-Tyne a few weeks ahead of the release of 2020, his sixth studio album. After the relative breakthrough of 2017’s Peasant, an album set in Bryneich, the kingdom that occupied the North East of England over 1000 years ago, this record is, on the face of it, a marked departure.
Its songs are rooted, as the title suggests, in the here and now. Each told from the perspective of a different character, they make up a patchwork of contemporary England, and not a positive one. Homelessness, zero hours contracts, the indignity of work, the cost of living, fear of climate change, all made fearsomely real.
“If you’re really not well off, even if you’re doing reasonably comfortably, you’re still struggling. Even if you’re quite well off, you’re still struggling. It’s across nearly all spectrums,” Dawson explains. “One aspect of the album that I wanted to be there was this idea that people can exist so close to each other but have such different situations. That feels like something that’s quite part of the fabric of society.”
Pay a little more attention, however, and it’s clear that these subjects have always been at the heart of Dawson’s writing, whatever century the setting. “I joked on tour with Peasant that it was a pre-medieval album as a metaphor for our current times, and the next one will be set currently but will be a metaphor for the pre-medieval times. I like the contradiction – maybe you have to step outside your own section of time to get more connected.”
It most certainly feels connected, both to this time and to the real lives of the people all around us. That has always been Dawson’s skill, dating back to his earliest recordings. After establishing a cult local following with albums such as 2011’s The Magic Bridge, his exposure rose to the next level with the release of Nothing Important in 2014, his first for Weird World Records. His free range, hyper-personal storytelling, as evidenced by the 16-minute opus ‘The Vile Stuff’, which documented a real school trip from Dawson’s adolescence that descended into alcohol-fuelled debauchery, seized the attention of several corners of the music press and made Dawson one of the buzziest names in British alt. music. His live shows, a blend of primal, eviscerating expression and down-to-earth conversations with the audience, only cemented his reputation.
When he set about writing the songs for this album, he started speaking to people: friends, family, but also people that he would meet after gigs or in his everyday life. “Certain things kept coming up,” he says. “You want to be careful with people’s experiences and certainly not trivialise them. You know, like, there are some writers that are like vultures, they just vampire your experiences for their own gains – I hope it’s not like that. It’s a fine balance between being faithful to your own experiences and that of your friends, but at the same time you have to follow where these characters want to go.”
It is this dedication to his characters that sets 2020 apart. Whether assembled from genuine real-life stories or spun out from Dawson’s fertile mind, he has created his own dramatis personae, each role fleshed out in touchingly honest detail. From the jogger who fruitlessly searches for properties he can’t afford on Zoopla to the civil servant who fantasises about smashing his colleague’s skull in with a sellotape dispenser, each one is deeply relatable. Dawson voices them all himself, from the perspective of the characters’ inner voices, at their most private and intimate.
“I like the idea of maybe having something that functions more like thought, more like that blooming, misty process,” he explains, when asked how he begins to access the innermost thoughts of these characters. “It’s not crisp, it’s poetic in its own way, the way we think, but it’s not usually wordy or that erudite. At least my thought isn’t. And it’s not fast.”
The result is a convincing depiction of our normal stream of consciousness – the lyrics sound like our thoughts. “It’s funny that people aren’t afraid of that stuff in novels or films. I think there’s something strange that’s happened to song that people underestimate what it can do.
“I don’t know why that is, whether it’s because it’s become a functional thing for getting people to work, or for allowing for there to be adverts in between them so it has to be short and direct and simple. Is it people’s attention spans? I don’t believe that.”