Richard Dawson: Active Imagination
Richard Dawson is feeling strange. Having moved into a refurbished house only 24 hours ago, the pungency of fresh paint is making his unfamiliar surroundings pop with colour. “I couldn’t sleep here last night because the fumes were so strong. Everything had a strong outline. Very vivid. I was rambling, which could well continue now…”
It’s an opportune condition to find Dawson in. Much like the neurological wooziness that follows the inhalation of solvent paints, his music offers giddied side effects. Both the brazenness of his guitar playing and his cryptic lyrical prose seem synonymous with the ramblings of an unhinged genius. Famed for his immersive onstage theatrics, conflicting emotions of joy, dread, elation, rage and remorse can be simulated in a single jerk of Dawson’s head and aching crow through the mic.
Over the past few years, the Newcastle musician has become regarded as a virtuoso of avant-garde folk music. However, Dawson doesn’t simply play folk. He reimagines it as a broad unchartered landscape to roam around with total creative abandon. And that’s what makes his new album Peasant so explicitly exhilarating.
Similar to Dawson’s previous releases, Peasant contains a convoluted narrative arc. Each track, with titles such as Weaver, Soldier and Prostitute, represents the daily workings of separate characters existing within a pre-medieval microcosm of society; Dawson’s fictional Dark Ages community. It’s a moderate departure from his 2014 ‘breakthrough’ album, Nothing Important, which flitted between semi-autobiographical accounts from Dawson’s family life. But the notions of time, human interaction, memory and community still continue to dominate his thought processes. “I agree,” Dawson says when I highlight this correlation. “But this idea of ‘family’ doesn’t necessarily need to be defined by blood any more than a community is defined by geography.”
He continues. “Families can be much wider ranging than that. Thinking about a community is more to do with exploring and offering solidarity for everything that everyone’s facing. Even in boom times it’s hard enough just being alive. It’s sensory overload. Emotional weather. Paying the bills. When times aren’t so good or maybe things in your community are getting squeezed, how do you keep afloat? How do you make something meaningful when you’re just scrabbling to survive? That’s partially what I try to address.”
Dawson’s work can be intentionally aloof, but the synergy between the imaginary society in Peasant and the politically unbalanced reality of our own present world seems all too profound to ignore. “Perhaps,” he reflects, “and people have such widely varying ideas about what communities represent. Some ideas about community I find frightening. Some would have you believe that refugees and immigrants undermine our community, whereas I think the exact opposite. It’s amazing how much perspectives can differ. We’re not talking monsters here. Almost everyone is good and hardworking. But people can get to believe all sorts of horrendous things. Sorry, I sort of deviated a little bit there. I think the paint fumes are taking their toll.”
One of the most distinguished aspects of Dawson’s music is his approach to the acoustic guitar. The musician has a degenerative condition called juvenile retinoschisis, which has left him visually impaired. On a practical level, Dawson is unable to see the dots on the neck of his guitar so remedies this by using tape to guide his hands. However subconsciously, his trademark experimentalism seems to be influenced by his waning eyesight. “Because I’m visually impaired, I don’t really see hard edges on things. When you see the world with soft edges, you start to see emotional matters and moral matters with soft edges as well. Everything gets a bit smudged.”
And this smudging seems to help? “Well, we tend to think of things in binary, black and white. But life’s not like that. It can be two or more things at once. As you know, you can love somebody and hate them at the same time. I find that contradiction is my byword. That’s the flashing word that lights up in my mind. Contradiction is at the heart of everything. If you were to be clear and crisp about things then you’re already off on the wrong track. You need to head on boldly, but with doubt or a knowing that every path has a flip side.”
Despite its heavy conceptual framework and strikingly eccentric character, Dawson says Peasant is his most accessible work so far. Trawling over the credits, you’ll notice contributions from a familial triad of talent; Rhodri, Angharad and John Davies of the Aberystwyth Jazz Band, who have fleshed out Dawson’s sound. And for the forthcoming tour, this time Dawson will be playing with a full band.
While he remains staunchly committed to the underground and something of a lynchpin in Newcastle’s experimental music scene, with the new album Richard Dawson seems to have a slightly larger audience in mind. “Obviously, I would hope for the best for any of my records,” he explains. “But I never thought too much about how many people were going to hear it. I was just concerned with making it right. But Peasant is the first time I’ve really been concerned that people hear it, because that’s part of its spell. And the spell can’t take effect until it gets to enough ears.”
Peasant is released 2 June via Weird World
Richard Dawson appears at Supersonic Festival, Birmingham, 16-18 June