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f36 Beyond Tyneside

Bearded man cites Mike Waterson, qawwali, English folk, drones and Kenyan guitar among his influences. Richard Dawson is clearly one of us then. Cara Gibney investigates.


ichard Dawson was on the phone from Newcastle. He was half asleep, he told me. He had been a little under the weather. I felt bad, suggested that he

can leave the interview at any point. “It’s not a problem,” he replied, and forged ahead with talk of heavy metal and Indian music, record shops and trance-like states, protest, horror, and love. There was also Judas Iscariot (“he was in a very difficult position”), and rubbish collection, but alas our word count here is limited.

Not a strong respecter of genre, his music incorporates English folk and psych folk. It is experimental, avant-garde. Uses drone and free improv. “I think there’s something quite evident in my music,” he told me. “I mean hip-hop, you couldn’t hear a lot of hip-hop in there, but it is; it’s all in there.” Wikipedia says “Dawson himself cites qawwali, a form of Sufi devotional music, Kenyan folk guitarist Henry Makobi and folk musician Mike Waterson as influ- ences on his work.”

Dawson is softly spoken on the phone, but his singing voice takes on roles and moods through his songs, shifting from del- icate falsetto to scratchy tenor, a cappella to salt-of-the-earth balladeer. His much loved low-cost guitar has been stood on

and busted, fixed and re-fixed. It is played discordantly, and manically, and strangely. Catching the mood, ancient and modern, while destroying your chances of falling into an easy beauty.

His songs tell of cruelty, accidents, love, sex, death, piss, and slobbers, dotted with off-the-shelf minutia from our daily lives; his lyrics exhumed from a stretch of research, a feeling, event, or personal hap- pening. Take for example the sixteen- minute The Vile Stuff from 2014’s album Nothing Important, recounting a school trip gone drunk and disorderly. “My A-levels drifting away from me/Matthew Mooney’s hockle in my hair/Smells like menthol tabs.” Then there is the soul-stopping Wooden Bag from 2011’s The Magic Bridge, detailing the handbag relics of a much missed, much loved soul. “A cloth-bound diary/Filled with cartography/Countries that you saw/Whilst you were asleep.” Now, with a body of work that reaches back to his 2007 debut release Richard Dawson Sings Songs And Plays Guitar, he released his eighth album Peasant In June this year.

Michael Jackson’s Bad was the earliest record he “got proper into”. Then his sister obtained a copy of Iron Maiden’s first album, and Michael Jackson was out of his life. “I really really got into [Iron Maiden]” he recalled. “Then that kind of opened the door to heavy bands. I think listening to heavy bands first, sort of made other things more palatable. I know a lot of peo- ple who came to lots of different musics through heavy metal, extreme metal, and [music] like that.”

Indeed, Dawson’s music is marked by the elements and influences of myriad gen- res and styles; that is the most natural state he feels his music could be in. “It’s a contra- diction that music is seen as the most acces- sible of the art forms, that it’s for anybody,” he told me. “There is this hierarchy. An idea of how something should be. More than any other art form it feels like [music] is divided up into all these different genres. And actu- ally it is just not an accurate picture of how music works. Everything feeds into every- thing else. I never understood these genre boundaries and I don’t recognise them.”

The young Richard Dawson spent important years working the avant-garde circuit in Tyneside with groups like improv trio Jazzfinger, and electronic drone project, Eyeballs. Before that he was in a heavy metal band, then went on to perform solo. But the solo work “was very bad, it was very

straight, very sentimental, and very poor”. On leaving school he eventually spent ten years working in record shops. “That was education” he asserted. “That was like uni- versity. I would recommend it to anybody.”

Drone continues to hold sway in the music he creates. “You can investigate one space and open up a huge cave just in that one space” he explained. “I think there’s something in that that is sort of alive. Partic- ularly in Indian music because it has arrived at a lot of things that western music is still getting to – trance elements and the impro- visational elements. In the ’60s you had the European and the London improv scenes. In America free jazz was kind of exploring that territory. But it already had been embraced and was part of the classical musical tradition of India for centuries. So it’s nothing new.”

tronic musician Dawn Bothwell), Davies knew Dawson “before his solo work took off really”. Davies says of his own work: “It is trying to touch on something that is diffi- cult to pin down. Once it becomes obvious to me or readily recognisable then maybe I lose interest in it because, you know, I don’t see much point trying to play music that kind of already exists.”


“I am fortunate enough to work with the composer Éliane Radigue, of whom Richard is a big fan as well,” he went on to tell me. “I wouldn’t call her music drone but there are elements where there are long notes and harmonics changing in a really slow way. So it’s definitely an area of music which Richard and I are both very interested in listening to and performing. Both of us are really inspired by a lot of music from India and Pakistan. I think qawwali music particularly resonates with Richard as a singer, with those sorts of intensities and ecstatic zones that one can get to through performing.”

The beauty of Dawson’s work though, is that it is as grounded as it is esoteric. For every potential ecstatic zone there is an earth-born detail, a seemingly lacklustre product of daily convenience – Anadin Extra, Ladbrokes pens, Castlemaine XXXX, blood, snot and curry. “If you put these things in different art forms you could talk about them and it wouldn’t seem strange. But there is almost an expectation of a song, and it is a big surprise to hear about

arpist Rhodri Davies would agree. Even before contribut- ing to any of Dawson’s albums and collaborating in their pro- ject Hen Ogledd (with elec-

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