Richard Dawson: anthems for a blighted nation

Celebrated for his incredible voice and outsider-folk charm, the musician is stepping out of the shadows with his new album, 2020, a one-of-a-kind opus that is being hailed as a masterpiece

Here’s one of the most audacious, esoteric British stars of our times, shuffling into an anonymous industrial unit between Heaton and Byker in Newcastle (the city’s Blank Studios, where he records, are housed here). His look brings to mind a wayward Father Christmas off-season: a tweed-patched baseball cap over silvery hair and a beard, a plaid shirt over a T-shirt celebrating Finnish metal band the Circle. From his right hand swings a bunch of six bananas. “Would you like one?” Richard Dawson gestures, shyly.

We’re here because of Dawson’s one-of-a-kind, state-of-the-nation new opus, which is called, very simply, 2020, and has been hailed by more than one reviewer as a masterpiece. It’s a record about the bleak lives of civil servants, convulsing fulfilment centre workers, and homeless people sleeping in alleyways next to happy families coming out of Nando’s. It’s a very different proposition to his last LP, 2017’s Peasant, a research-heavy odyssey set between AD400 and 600, mixing together the rawer moments of folk, punk’s attack and squiggling psychedelia. It nevertheless made many end-of-year lists, partly because Dawson has a way with a tune despite his avant garde leanings, but also because of his incredible voice. At times, it’s the plangent roar of an ancient summoner. At others, it’s a sad, high quiver, as if Neil Young had gone northern. (When I first saw Dawson sing a cappella at the 2017 Green Man festival, the power of the experience floored me: I was rooted to the spot, agog and in tears.)

2020 adds BBC 6 Music-friendly poppy choruses and riffs to Dawson’s musical palette (bar one track, he plays every instrument on the album). Its first singles, Jogging and Two Halves, are particularly earwormy, but listen more closely. Jogging is about a man recently made redundant, getting paranoid about “people getting nastier” in lonely middle England. Two Halves describes a boy playing football and being hectored from the touchline, leaping between comedy (“stop fannying around”) and tortured sadness (“at the final whistle I am inconsolable”).

Watch the video for Jogging by Richard Dawson.

“I wanted to make these almost anthemic choruses, so it sounds like pop or what have you,” Dawson begins, arranging two chairs in the corner of the studio, his bananas now sitting next to him on an amp. “Some sort of slightly skewed version of what might be coming out of someone’s radio, for the songs to seem quite glorious, but once you start digesting them a bit, they get stuck in your throat. Maybe like a slight queasiness.” He describes his approach, and indeed lots of things today, in sweetly wonky terms. “The sound’s a bit more, ‘I’ve seen that outfit before’, but the clothes are a bit too small for the people in the songs. Or too baggy. Like these more standard kinds of modes would not fit the characters well. So we click into something else, something deeper, as we listen.”

Born in 1981, Dawson was the youngest of three children in an upwardly mobile Newcastle family. (“We moved into a house with dado rails when I was little,” he says, by way of explanation. “Ooh! We’ve made it!”) His mother was an A&E paediatric nurse who became a child protection officer, his father a packaging worker who was twice made redundant, then became a running coach. Dawson’s older sister Gina and brother were sporty too, and now work in that field; the young Dawson, conversely, was a bit of a swot. “But then I really messed up at school. Because once I got my guitar, I was just obsessed with songs. Everything else disappeared.”

Dawson was the kid who put a poster up in the canteen wanting somebody to be in his band, who spent hours watching Iron Maiden videos. “All the big sets and the moves! And I always got such a chill off the sound of…” He mimics the white noise of an audience cheering. “So many people happy.” But he admits that from the age of 14 or 15, “I wasn’t well, you know. I got myself in a mess.” He “cocked up” his A-levels, spent a year barely leaving the house, working his way through the world section of the local Showstopper video shop. Then he worked at a record shop, exploring the wilder bits of its jazz section. Seeing the Sun Ra Arkestra live was an epiphany, he says. “To see [saxophonist] Marshall Allen playing his horn, staring us straight in the eye, chucking the sound out of his instrument straight at us… I was like: ‘Oh my God! That’s what I want to do!’”

And so he did. But it took 13 years for Dawson to make the record he wanted to. This was 2011’s The Magic Bridge, an album of beautiful, brutally stark outsider music; he disowns his 2007 self-release, Richard Dawson Sings Songs and Plays Guitar, currently going for £65 on record collector site Discogs, describing it as rubbish. What happened? “I don’t want to go into it, because it involves other people, but I had a very difficult time at, I don’t know, 26, 27. I had a little toe over the precipice. And when you’re in this extreme place…” Friends took him in, he worked at their pub, he started making music again. “And The Magic Bridge came out of that.”

We take a walk down from the studio past the impressive Victorian bulk of the Byker Bridge, to Dawson’s favourite pub, the Cumberland Arms (several people stop him warmly on the way, embracing him like dear friends; he’s obviously well known and liked). Settling down with pints of Guinness, we get talking about Dawson’s degenerative eye condition, juvenile retinoschisis, which began in his childhood; it generally stabilises in young adulthood, before getting worse in middle age. Dawson’s older brother has it too and is now registered blind. Dawson used to have a lifetime disability living allowance to help him, but personal independence payments replaced those last year, which Dawson applied for. These were initially denied (after several appeals, he now receives them).

“I got zero points across the board.” He recalls describing no longer being able to see when his food was cooked, worrying if he was being believed. “My assessor told me: ‘I’m regarded as one of the kinder assessors, because I’ve been told by my bosses to lower my average points award per week.’” He shakes his head. “Just hearing that. And the people I spoke to on the phone who just sounded fucked. Knowing they can’t help. And they get phone call after phone call from desperate people.”

In the opening song on 2020, Civil Servant, Dawson puts himself in their shoes: “In my bed I can hear the strangled voices/of all the people I failed, I failed, I failed, I failed.”

Richard Dawson performing at the Islington Assembly Hall in London, 2017.
Richard Dawson performing at the Islington Assembly Hall in London, 2017. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

The album’s other stories come from people he knows, or conversations he’s had with fans at gigs. He was keen to write stories that resonated across the country, he adds, with references to Premier Inns, bags for life and Cash Converters reflecting the details of how ordinary people speak. That said, his trademark mystical spirit still exists in these songs. “How little we are in the mouth of the world,” goes the closing line of The Queen’s Head, a song about a flooded pub, and the people struggling desperately to save it.

Brexit isn’t mentioned though, surprisingly. Dawson laughs at the suggestion, adding he didn’t want to be that specific. He mentions the “fat-headed butcher” also in The Queen’s Head, who slams “benefit-scrounging immigrants” as the closest he gets. “I see Farage in him, or Johnson. But I’m not anti-butcher! My grandma was a butcher!” But with political music and political art in general, he says, you’ve got to be careful. “You can’t be didactic and you can’t tell people what to think. That’s precisely what we should be trying to get away from.” He loves how Sleaford Mods write personal stories that address issues without being preachy, he adds. That’s what he aims to do. “And that’s how people should be.”

Making 2020 was bleak at times, Dawson admits. He was in “a real state”, particularly, finishing off the song Jogging. He also finds touring his stuff solo hard. But other things have been making Dawson happier in recent years. One is playing in the psychedelic band Hen Ogledd (their debut album came out last year, their next is out in 2020). The band contains his “musical brother”, harpist Rhodri Davies, and Dawson’s partner, Sally Pilkington, who has been educating her boyfriend about pop. “Kate Bush, Erasure, all that amazing stuff. I missed them somehow. Sally’s been writing music for the first time too. Hen Ogledd’s a very happy thing.” The couple have also been thinking about moving to the countryside (“having more room, maybe making more music”).

Plus he’s already started on a new solo record. “2020 is part of a trilogy in my mind, you see.” The Peasant being the past, 2020 the present, I suggest, and the next one… the future? He smiles. “Well, I have these ideas.” He looks happy as he says this, raring to go. Roll on next year.

2020 is out now on Domino


Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

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