Name: Richard Dawson
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Current release: Richard Dawson has teamed up with Finnish krautrock band Circle for collaborative album Henki, out November 26th 2021 via Weird World / Good to Go.
If you enjoyed this interview with Richard Dawson, visit his official website. He is also on Facebook, Soundcloud, and twitter.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
I'm not sure where it comes from. I had a feeling I wanted to make songs from about 11 or 12 years old. When I got my first guitar the first thing I did was sit down with my dad and ask him how we could write a song. It wasn't so much about playing the guitar but simply writing a new song. I don't know why I had this urge but it was very strong, more like an instinct than anything concious.
Of course everything you read and listen to, everything you experience in life, will find its way out again. Sometimes a meteor might land in your living room, a great big chunk of glowing rock, then you've got to let it cool and when it's cooled down enough you can get to start on chiselling away at it and see what lies at it's centre. Sometimes nothing, sometimes something.
I guess a big change for me was letting go of trying to express everything I was going through or thinking and realising that all of those things would still be in there ... that I don't need to be determined to express myself - it will all be in there no matter what I do. So I guess some time in my late twenties I made the choice to turn my gaze away from myself and look outwards. Of course that's an ongoing battle - the ego battle!
But this turn away from looking inward has really been 'the key'.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
It differs from project to project but I guess you start off having a vague sense of something, maybe it can feel like a big creature or a far off weather system ... and then you just move slowly toward it.
I've found that at some point down the line I'll tend to figure out a structure of things, or at least an idea of some 'limitations' or definite things I want to do - maybe just a setting, or a time period, or a particular way I want it to sound. Again, depending on the project, you leave a little or a lot of room for improvisation.
2020 was a much more controlled and rigid record than Peasant, for instance, in terms of it's sonics and arrangements. But both were structurally quite rigid, song to song.
Whereas Nothing Important was much freer musically, though the overall structure of the album is very deliberate and symetrical. Structure is everything really.
After I've got enough music kicking around I'll start to think about beginning 'in earnest'. I'll do a lot of research of immerse myself in the right kind of things to point me in the direction ... I dunno. At some point you've got to sit down at a desk. The last few albums I've tended to be working on music for maybe a year and a half, something like that, then when it gets to it I'll try to write the lyrics in one sustained period, maybe four months or something like that. I'm not sure - this could all be false. I don't want to lead you up the garden path. It's very foggy and blurry how these things happen, and it's difficult to look back. I don't want to think about it too much, just got to keep my eyes forward and on to the next thing!
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
I see all the different parts of writing and practising and performing as rituals. Writing and practice go hand in hand. I'll tend just to be practising and music will make itself known. Quite amazing how music will sometimes appear almost fully-formed. Though other times it can be like drawing blood from a stone. I think it tends not to be so good that way.
When I sit down to write lyrics I just need to find a quiet place. The last couple I did at home. Before that I used to go the reading room in the basement of the Lit and Phil Library in Newcastle. It's important to treat it like a regular '9 to 5' job, I've found that's the only way to make progress. Some days you can make no progress at all, sometimes even backtrack and erase what you wrote the last few weeks before. I tend not to write ahead of where I'm at in the song, I wait until I feel I've got the line as correct as it can be, so it can be a very slow and punishing process. Of course I edit a lot as I go too, but I don't race ahead. To me, this feels appropriate, like I am making my way through a place I don't know, one step at a time. Got to go slow and carefully!
On a more mundane level - yes, I drink coffee, though maybe I should stop as it worsens my tinnitus. And good light is a must as I'm partially sighted. I also have 'online thesaurus' and 'rhymezone' open on my phone at all times, you will be disappointed to learn!
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
Let's just say it can be very difficult. Writing Peasant, for instance was very difficult to begin. I started before I really had it settled enough in my mind and worked for a month then realised it was very bad so had to throw it all away.
But it wasn't wasted work. I think once you are on the right track then it's a case of just sticking to it, plodding on.
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
One thing that is interesting to me is how the music will sometimes suggest lyrics.
When the music is first kicking around I tend to sing the vocal lines in this improvised / made-up 'nonsense' language, but quite often that nonsense will suggest or hint at what the lyrics should be, almost like certain weird made-up words that just tumbled out when I was practising are like 'doors' into the song. It's not just for this reason but many other too that I often have the feeling that the songs are an element of a consious being that is trying to make itself known or take some audible form - ideas, people and sentences reveal themselves.
I guess this ties in with the idea of turning the gaze away from oneself ... sometimes I see my role as a songwriter to be more like ... a jug.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
I'm trying to get away from thinking of music/lyrics as 'good', or 'bad', or for that matter 'best', 'worst', 'favourite' etc ... I like more to think of things as 'correct' or 'right'. Maybe that's a slight semantic difference but there you go, it's the difference between competetive and supportive language.
I'm just trying to follow what the spirit of the song is, what the person in the song is trying to say. The goal is always to be as clear as possible. Of course sometimes that's not very clear at all - not everything can be said clearly.
Writing, particularly lyrics, but also music, can feel less like a creative act and more like 'problem solving'. Like, the answer is, and always was, right in front of you. You just have to find the right way to uncover it.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
Yes, lots of avenues open up, lots of little side paths off into the thick bushes. Maybe sometimes they're the right ones to take. I don't know. I think you have to explore all of these avenues, eliminate all possibilities except the one which is correct!
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
Yes, I've come to see songwriting as a spiritual pursuit, but I also see it as 'work', in the happiest sense of the word.
What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
In terms of knowing when something is done, well you hope it will keep on living for a good while after your part is done.
For me, there's lots of different stages of making something. An album tends to start very, very gradually then gather momentum until you are right in the thick of it, then it starts to die off again and hopefully you've done everything you need before it's gone completely.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
Well, just on a practical level you need a bit of time away from something to regain some perspective. So I'll tend to try and build in some time toward the end of the lyric-writing to really let things sit and then get back to making adjustments.
The same with the recordings ... because you're so enveloped in a thing you really stop being abe to hear it, at which point you have to just try and cling to the memory of all those feelings you had when you were writing it. The doubts can be severe! But then you just have to listen to your gut. You have to keep pushing until the thing has gone as far as it can go ...
But aye, you've got to have a big break before you make the final tweaks on the mixes.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
It's all absolutely essential, as much part and parcel of a record as the melodies or arrangements. I work really closely with Sam Grant on all these aspects, though of course he's the one in possession of all the technical wizardry!
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
Yes, I'm in that zone right now! It can be a big slump once you've finished something ... and usually I feel a bit down after release day, too.
All there is to do is take some time to recover your faculties, read, listen and watch, try and fill up the jug again ...
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
Actually my next album is just going to be recordings of me doing things in my kitchen - stirring a cup of tea, buttering toast, frying eggs ... that sort of thing. It's called 'Tasty Breakfast'.