Interview: folk musician Richard Dawson on modern folk and old tales
'There is some dreadful music out there at the moment which sounds like folk music but isn't'
To encounter Richard Dawson for the first time is an unforgettable experience. For this writer, it was at the 2012 Tusk Festival in Newcastle, where he sang '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. Drawing on old letters, photographs, poems and newspaper reports, Dawson created a vivid musical portrait of the community, interspersing vocal tracks with raw and jagged guitar and harp duets with Rhodri Davies.
'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. 'Like I said at the first meeting between me and them – it already exists. So everything was in the right stream. I could feel but not see how it would be. 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'.
Did he find that the archival material produced a different vision of the North East community to that presented in official histories?
'I think the difference was in the detail. 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 which sounds sort of like folk music but isn't, and which 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, feels like a Tory lie! The very pits in music. So I wanted to avoid that'.
Dawson's songs reanimate some fascinating and colourful characters. Asking if he has a favourite, Dawson replies that he is particularly fond of Sylvester Hurlbert, 'a daydreaming shipbuilder – a welder – from a song called "The Ice-Breaker Baikal". Though he is fictional, 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's songs look beyond Northumbrian folk traditions to reflect his interest in Gaelic psalms, Tuvan throat singing and the avant-garde vocal improv of Phil Minton.
'I'm interested in all kinds of music, it's all food!' he says. 'So it comes out the other end one way or another. The things I was trying to bring to the fore were, how can I say, well, back to that idea of seemingly opposing forces, the idea of something brand new and ancient all at the same time. The insuperable nature of the new and the old is something I think about a lot'.
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. It seems that the underground music scene there is really vibrant, much like in Glasgow.
'I don't know enough about the Scottish scene to say,' Dawson says. 'What I can say about Newcastle, and the wider north-east, is that there is a very independent spirit there 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 fish tanks'. Does he ever find time to relax? 'During 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, with Withered Hand, Jeff Lang and The Mae Trio. Dawson also performs at The Waverley Pub, Edinburgh, Thu 23 Jan with poet JDA Winslow.