Time travel, BHS and urine – the strange world of folk singer Richard Dawson

The Newcastle singer meticulously researches the worlds he conjures up in song – and that can mean details of local history or the minutiae of medieval dyeing processes, he explains

In the kitchen, Richard Dawson stands before the refrigerator, looking like a man who hasn’t quite grown into his house yet. It is only a handful of weeks since he and his partner, Sally, moved here after years of house-sharing, and he still seems surprised by domesticity and the newfound space around his elbows. He makes tea, offers a Terry’s All Gold, points out the washing on the line – giddy in the Newcastle sun, all with a quiet reverence, as if seeking ceremony in the mundane.

Dawson, eight albums deep, is a seasoned chronicler of the commonplace. Among his most popular songs are a tribute to a Poor Old Horse; William and His Mother Visit the Museum, in which William and his mother do indeed visit the museum; and Nothing Important, in which he narrates the story of a school trip where he injured his hand with a screwdriver while attempting to open a coconut. They offer a new kind of folk – heightened accounts of the everyday, frequently dour, and lit up by detail: spittled handkerchiefs and Ladbrokes’ pens and BHS cafes.

He is also an extraordinary performer, his arresting voice blowing an untempered north-easterly, but given to sudden beauty and shades of Robert Wyatt. His guitar style is as much inspired by qawwali, a form of Sufi devotional music, as it is by Mike Waterson. He does not, in conclusion, quite fit anywhere, and to see him on stage is, in fact, much the same as seeing him standing, mildly bewildered, in his own kitchen.

On his new album, Peasant, Dawson sets his 11 songs in the pre-medieval north-eastern kingdom of Bryneich, yet their tales of a society at odds with itself, of community and family rent apart, are strikingly contemporary. Each track is named after a different individual – Ogre, Masseuse, Scientist, Shapeshifter – unfolding a world of atrocity, hope, regret and parental bond. Like most Dawson projects, it was extensively researched in the history section of the Literary and Philosophical Society. “And also on the internet, of course,” he says now, sitting on the corner of the sofa, an unassuming figure with a gentle face.

This delving into unknown worlds is one of the great joys of Dawson’s songwriting. “With [the track] Weaver, I didn’t know anything about textile preparation, so I had to find out about that,” he says. “I didn’t know about the role of urine in the preparation of cloth. Or the materials they use for dyes, such as lichens, so I was getting into all the different types of lichen … But that kind of leads you down [that path] and then you realise: ‘Oh fuck, I’ve spent three days reading about lichens!’”

The role of detail in Dawson’s songs “is not so much about being accurate,” he says. “I don’t think that’s necessarily important – a thing can be true, even if the facts aren’t correct. It’s more about perspective, different levels of focus, different lenses.”

This fastidiousness began several years ago, when writing the song Wooden Bag. “It was the first time it struck us that I need to work harder,” he says. “I wrote something about paracetamol, and then I thought: ‘Hang on, would that have been available?’ Because I’d dated the song. And, of course, I checked and it wasn’t.” He is keen to point out the limits of this approach, however: “I can’t retain all these things. I’m not a smart person. I’m not trying to be falsely modest – I know what my qualities are, and one of them is being quite dogged and obsessive and curious, I guess, which can be good and bad.”

He was always this way. As a child he watched the film Labyrinth “most days” and later became besotted with the TV series Red Dwarf: “I just would cane it, watch an episode, rewind it, watch it again. I would study every detail.” Early musical infatuations included Michael Jackson and Iron Maiden. “And then you get into your late teens and early 20s and get obsessed about other things,” he says gently. “It’s positive when you apply it to making something or studying something, but obviously it’s incredibly negative if you apply that same approach to a relationship or friendship. You’ve got to try to be in charge of the tap.”

Richard Dawson
In deep: Dawson likes to delve into the subjects of his songs. Photograph: Sally Pilkington

Even if the facts don’t linger, something else does. His 2011 album The Magic Bridge, some of which drew on the Tyne & Wear Archives, left him with “the sense of layers in the city – everything started to look paper-thin. The buildings, and then the people on the streets. And it’s kind of stuck with me, the idea that you peel back the layers and there’s some older things there.” He feels this more still after writing Peasant, “the feeling that times are right next to each other”.

Lately, he has been thinking a great deal about time. “And how we experience it in a straight line, so our bodies can get through it safely. But, actually, that’s not really how it is,” he says. Whenever Dawson approaches discussion of a complex subject such as this he dips his chin towards his chest a little and his voice slows to a burr. “Sun Ra said time was more like a blanket that goes in all directions,” he adds, and frowns. “It’s tricky when you start to think like that.”

It was unquestioned that he would work again with the harpist Rhodri Davies – “my musical brother” – but for Peasant he also brought in Davies’s father, John, to supply swells of brass, and his sister, the violinist Angharad Davies. While Dawson saw the role of Rhodri’s harp as “an unspoken character, just present in all of the scenes, but not necessarily partaking, just keeping an eye on everything,” he envisaged Angharad’s violin as “being like a layer of frost, or maybe dew, or maybe like a light fog, just clinging to everything”. Despite having a degenerative eyesight condition, he will often speak of music in visual terms – he describes the track No-One as being like a “marsh of flies and low light”, and talks of viewing Peasant as a whole as like “a filmed painting”. And perhaps this accounts for his love of detail too, the eye leading the ear.

Art is also his other great preoccupation – on the living room walls he has hung some of his paintings and collages of snowflakes and dry stone walls. Dawson intended that the sound of this album “needed not to be this distorted guitar sound, it needed to be like a creaking animal, like a wooden animal, or a ship”.

He has often spoken of his work as something akin to “ritual community singing”, and that quality is there keenly on Peasant’s choral moments. “I was thinking about how a community might be,” he says, “how the worst of it would be gossip, and the best part of it would be support, so I was trying to hint at that.” When we hear his voice alone, then, the comparison serves to highlight it. “Like on Photoshop – it just turns the contrast up a bit.”

Dawson is soft-spoken, contemplative and his sentences occasionally feather into mid-air, but on stage he transforms himself. There he is commanding and strange, the songs seemingly not composed but hauled up from some deep, ancient place. “I think the best times are when you disappear somewhat and the song’s just moving through you,” he says of his live singing. “That’s the best moment, when time slows down, you can feel every moment of it, and you can do a number of different things inside of it, there’s a level of detail you can go into. I guess it’s something like a trance state.

“I think of the way I shape and project it as like painting it again,” he adds thoughtfully. “I have the painting memorised, but why would I try and paint it exactly the same? I’ll add an extra dollop of paint this time, or I’ll think: ‘Let’s add a frickin’ character in here!’ You try to make it alive.”

Peasant is out now on Domino. Richard Dawson performs at Green Man festival, Brecon Beacons, 17-20 August.


Laura Barton

The GuardianTramp

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