Richard Dawson: clear as folk
The Newcastle singer-songwriter talks about his new album, The Glass Trunk
Newcastle artist, singer and songwriter Richard Dawson's emotional blend of folk storytelling and improvised instrumentals are delivered in the unmistakable accent of the post-industrial north. Photograph: Declan Kelly
Richard Dawson is an artist, singer and songwriter from Newcastle. His emotional blend of folk storytelling and improvised instrumentals are delivered in the unmistakable accent of the post-industrial north. He released his second album, The Glass Trunk, last year.
You’re about to embark on your third tour in the space of a year this week. Before that, you’d never toured at all. How have you been finding the sudden switch to life on the road?
“Yeah, really amazing. I hadn’t left the country since I was about 14 or 15 so I’ve never travelled abroad as an adult. Then, within the space of a week, I’d been to a few different countries. I was 32 then, or just before 32. It was just really exciting. When the second tour came along, I already felt a little bit calmer about it by then, a little bit less anxious about travelling and just really, it was what I always wanted to do so I needed to get out and share the music. To see a little bit of the world in the process was just really exciting.”
How do you think your music works away from home and in places where they don’t speak your language or get your sense of humour?
“I think I was really pleasantly surprised by how open people were to it. I think I thought perhaps there was a danger that it might be too Newcastle-centric and that it might be closed off. That certainly wasn’t the design of it – I’d hoped it would reach beyond that. I think as well that the Newcastle humour can be a bit difficult, sometimes even if you’re from not so far away. It’s kind of like a bit of a pisstake. It works well in Dublin because everyone just takes the piss out of each other, it works well in Liverpool and Scotland, but certain places it doesn’t translate so well. But it’s all fine. I’m learning not to panic so much and not to let my ego get so offended.”
Your last album, The Glass Trunk, began to pick up lots of admirers in the months after its release; it was a real slow burner. In some ways, the culmination of that was being picked for album of the year by Stewart Lee in the Sunday Times. Did that come as a surprise?
“It was a surprise. Rhodri Davies, who plays on the album, I knew he was going put a copy in Stewart Lee’s hand and that Stewart Lee had an interest in improv. So I knew he was getting a copy but I never thought about it further than that. So when he praised it, that was very nice to hear because he’s obviously an amazing writer and a good guy. Like I said before, it’s a surprise when people come to the shows, it’s a surprise when anybody likes it.
I really believe in the music, otherwise I wouldn’t put it out there, but it’s always a surprise if anybody else enjoys it.”
The Glass Trunk had a bit of a story with it, with you digging in the archives and turning these old stories, forgotten but true, into songs. Do you think the album’s backstory helped people get into it and maybe gave the album a real sense of place?
“I think I underestimated how accessible a thing it was because it had that backstory, and also because it was quite a clearly laid-out thing and quite a strong flavour. It was quite apparent from the outset whether someone might enjoy it or not. I guess people like to see the cogs of the thing as well, how a thing is made – that’s all interesting stuff. Maybe with a lot of music, you just get to see the finished product. I think the machinery of this was quite apparent, but was a real part of it and really tied into the stories as well, the industrial side of things, how things are made. It’s all in there.
"I’m a pretty proud Geordie and I love to hear the place in music as well. That’s what’s interests us in music: identity and distinctiveness. Whether it’s played well or crafted well or poorly, if it’s distinctive, I think then it has strength, regardless of the art form we’re talking about. That exists outside of art too. Distinctiveness is a real attractive quality to me.”