Richard Dawson is an artist who is both instantly recognisable and nigh on impossible to describe. His work floats between Northumbrian folk song and qawwali devotional music, he plays the saxophone when it pleases him and the guitar when it doesn't, he draws up the archives of his local museum and throws in autobiographical titbits – such as when he skewered his hand on a screwdriver while trying to open as coconut. As we say, it's difficult to describe.
Actually listening to Richard's work, though, just got a whole lot easier. Domino Records have stepped in to re-release 'The Magic Bridge' and 'The Glass Trunk' – his two opening full length statements, albums that have become sought after, much cherished objects in their own, highly peculiar right.
“Originally, I think they were only in batches of 300 and they're long gone,” he explains. “It's just good to have them back in print, and if we keep 'em in print that would be great but we'd just like to have them out there.”
Copies of both albums are now in record shops across the land, austere yet poetic documents, unimaginably rich emotional stumbling blocks to trip up music fans as they peruse the racks. Something about Richard's music seems to connect with people, the highly individual and idiosyncratic nature of his work cutting through the noise.
“I suppose that's the aim of the game,” he says simply. “But not just with music – what we're doing now, just talking, or when you go down to the shops or meet up with friends. It's all trying to find ways to connect and understand each other. So music can do that really well but it's an extension of friendship.”
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'The Magic Bridge' was recorded in just 24 hours, while 'The Glass Trunk' was completed at the rather more leisurely pace of four days. “It's different to a live show,” he insists. “I'm not looking to re-create a live situation – you know yourself when you're playing a song if you're getting in the way, almost. If you're not quite nailing it. You want to put down the best performance possible, at least one that is genuine and one that does the song and the album justice. And does the listener justice. You have to get yourself in a position to do that.”
Continually moving forward, the songwriter admits that he found the process of re-visiting these two recordings quite difficult. “'Now, coming back, to it there are lots of things that are different about the way I would go about performing it, so I really struggle to listen to it. But I think that's a good sign. The songs continue to move and grow, so you don't want to infect your mind with this little photograph of them; it's a moment in time. So hopefully the idea is that a few years on I would absolutely detest an album. But I still think that it's a strong album – I just don't want to hear it.”
So a dose of progression, of momentum is key?
“Hopefully. Hopefully. But it's like, talk is cheap,” he says with a chuckle. “The proof is in the pudding!”
It's a potent potion, though, the brew that circulates on these albums. Shuffling between Delta blues stomp to found sounds, abstract folk to direct confessional, each record has a unique character of its own. The traditional songbook sometimes looms large, but this doesn't quite cut it for the singer himself.
“Folk music tends to be the more interesting one,” he muses, “but that could be anything – hip-hop or electronica. It could be any genre. Any genre could be folk music because it's about community and people. People-centric. The idea of community is not defined for me by place, it's defined by like minds and a willingness to step into each other's shoes.”
“It's a blurry notion,” he argues. “It doesn't really exist, as such. Things must always be entering into it. It's just not important, is it? These words. I'm not concerned about it either way, really. Music is music.”
The process of re-visiting these recordings has, it seems, been ultimately quite positive. Taking a break from his rigorous writing routine, Richard Dawson has permitted himself a rare backward glance. “You never see the change happening,” he says. “I guess it's like how people age – you don't see the ageing happening until you look back on a photo from a few years ago.”
“It has been interesting,” he continues. “I always felt that they would have a certain lifespan, and they would have their own momentum. So I know the essence of them is something good, and could be positive for people, for listeners. But from my point of view, once it's done I try not to listen, if possible.”
Continually working on fresh material, he conceives of both of these re-releases as albums in the classic sense – a cohesive work, a unified tapestry of sound united by recurring ideas, bound by certain sonic ticks and aural hues. “I always felt that going into the studio with these last three albums, that it wasn't just to record a bunch of songs, it was to make a whole album, a whole composition, rather than a collection of loosely linked pieces. Melodies that were reflected, certain motifs recur, certain words mirror each other. Lots of tangles all over each album.”
“The possibilities for an album are very great, because we have a tendency to use music in quite digestible ways, functional ways,” he suggests. “To rouse us in the morning or to maybe keep us going on a long journey in a car. The actual idea of sitting down and focussing on a record is perhaps getting a little bit obscured by the fast nature of everything. There's so much to explore now. There is something, I hope, still to be said for the experience of an album. That is a self-contained thing. I think there's a lot of possibilities for it yet. It's still a young art form.”
Currently piecing together material for his next full length statement, Richard Dawson is forever moving forward, continually peering ahead. “I've got a lot of the music prepared already,” he reveals. “But when I get down to the words it has to be a bit more disciplined. Pretty much 9 to 5 and have a lunch break – otherwise I just won't get through it. It's quite a wide-screen, bigger canvas proposition this one, so a lot of different elements to bring together. If I was left to my own devices I'd just lie down a lot and get distracted by the Playstation!”
Chuckling, he adds: “It's just one step at a time, is the way. But then, that would apply to anything.”
It's remarkable that such an assured songwriter can also be so flippant about the nature of his own artistry. But then, that's Richard Dawson – both plain-speaking and incredibly cryptic, wholly distinctive and thoroughly ordinary.
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The Magic Bridge' and 'The Glass Trunk' are available now via Domino.