NORTH BY NORTH-EAST
Before performing at Celtic Connections, cult folk hero Richard Dawson talks to Stewart Smith about his lyrical inﬂ uences and his problem with Jimmy Nail
Feature | MUSIC
T o encounter Richard Dawson for the i rst time is an unforgettable experience. For this writer, it was at the 2012 TUSK Festival in Newcastle, where he performed ‘Poor Old Horse’ a cappella. In a voice that ranged from a deep, ragged bellow to a choked, ghostly falsetto, he sang of an unfortunate nag’s prolonged execution at the hands of hapless tanners. A devastating performance, it was the perfect introduction to an artist considered a cult hero in north-east England.
That song is one of several from last year’s The Glass Trunk to be based on research Dawson undertook in the Tyne & Wear Museums archive. ‘How it came about was a mixture of the museum asking me to make half an hour of responsive material, and me thinking about doing a pretty intense solo vocal album, and those two things coinciding,’ he explains. ‘I knew I wanted to address issues of violence – not just as a negative but also a creative force – family, and class. I became obsessed with mirror images, and opposing forces . . . the idea of something brand new and ancient all at the same time’.
Did he i nd that the archival material produced a different vision of the north- east community to that presented in ofi cial histories? ‘I think the difference was in the detail,’ he says. ‘What I miss in a lot of lyrics is the small detail. That’s just a personal preference, but for me that’s the way forward to painting a bigger, more vivid, connective picture. There is some dreadful music out there at the moment that sounds sort of like folk music but isn’t, and that deals in cliché after cliché and propagates this myth of the working-class north as some sort of hive for the honourable worker bee. Just a really lazy, homogenised history-based easy-listening song, which feels like a Tory lie! The very pits in music. So I wanted to avoid that.’
re-animate some fascinating and colourful characters. When it comes to choosing favourites, he speaks fondly of Sylvester Hurlbert: ‘a daydreaming shipbuilder – a welder – from a song called “The Ice-Breaker Baikal”. Though he is i ctional, drawing on a lot of different sources, he feels so alive and good to me. When I sing that song it isn’t me singing it, it’s him; or maybe half and half. I heard Sting has written a song for this folk-opera [The Last Ship] he’s doing with bloody Jimmy Nail, about a shipbuilder – a welder – who daydreams at work. I think I’ll have to sue!’
Dawson was joined on The Glass Trunk by a number of north-east musicians and singers, including Cath Tyler who is performing with Dark Northumbrian at Platform during Celtic Connections. ‘In Newcastle, and the wider north-east, there is a very independent spirit musically, rooted in community, and it’s also very supportive. It’s not really English, which
I think helps.’ Dawson is currently writing the lyrics for his next album – ‘a real ball-ache!’ – and is also composing a score for improvising musicians which involves ‘suspending collaged ping-pong balls in i sh tanks’. Does he ever i nd time to relax? ‘During the summer, I plan to watch all of the World Cup and make a techno record.’
Richard Dawson performs at Celtic Connections Rewind, Platform, Glasgow, Fri 24 Jan. To win tickets, see page 77. Dawson also performs at The Waverley Pub, Edinburgh, Thu 23 Jan with poet JDA Winslow. 23 Jan–20 Feb 2014 THE LIST 69