Happy Returns, Indeed
For roughly 25 years, English singer/ songwriter/ multi-instrumentalist/ producer Steven Wilson has reigned over the modern progressive rock landscape (although his tastes and styles expand far beyond just one subgenre). As the founder and leader of Porcupine Tree, as well as a collaborator in Blackfield, no-man, and even Opeth, among other projects, he’s penned countless classics that fuse gorgeous melodies, poignant lyricism, and intricate yet accessible arrangements seamlessly. In fact, he’s arguably thebest songwriter of the last couple decades.
Likewise, Wilson’s solo career (which began in 2008, with Insurgentes) has proven to be as fruitful, varied, and valuable as any of his other endeavors. Whereas his debut leaned toward sparse industrial/avant-garde compositions, 2011’s Grace for Drowning demonstrated a fantastic blend of hypnotic catchiness and ‘70s-esque jazz fusion frenzy (due in no small part to him remastering the earliest King Crimson gems as he worked on it). Afterward, 2013’s The Raven That Refused to Sing saw Wilson and co. diving headfirst into incredibly complex yet cohesive vintage prog constructions in the midst of telling sorrowful yet beautiful and unique ghost stories.
Last month, Wilson issued his fourth opus, Hand. Cannot. Erase., a harrowing yet gorgeous concept album inspired primarily by the heartbreaking life and mysterious death of Joyce Carol Vincent. Underneath that, though, the album also deals with the sense of nostalgic, disconnection, and loneliness that may arise from living in heart of London. I recently spoke with Wilson about his inspirations, methods, and reflections on the record, as well as a few other interesting subjects.
Obviously the album is inspired by the story of Joyce Carol Vincent. Does that mean that the entire record is a narrative about this one character, or does she only appear in some songs, while other songs are about other things?
Yes, the album is inspired by Vincent, but the character herself is not meant to be her. She’s a fictional construct that is ultimately an aspect of myself, like most fictional creations are for their writers. So she’s inspired by Joyce Carol Vincent in that she’s a young woman who comes to live in the heart of the city (London) and effectively disappears. She erases herself from the world and begins an inner dialogue, which is a set up that’s allowed me to explore many things that I’m interested in.
Some of them are things that I’ve explored before, in past work, like isolation, nostalgia, childhood, the internet, and social networking. The way those kinds of things can isolate people from one another. So the character really becomes a vessel for me to pour these ideas into.
Ah, okay. I see what you mean.
Yeah. So is it a concept album? I think so; I would say that it’s more of a concept record than I’ve ever done before in the sense that most of my records have a theme, but they’re not driven by narrative. This album kind of is. It does try, in a way, to tell a story and to have a journey, not just a musical one but also an emotional, narrative journey. Moving from point A to point B. I hope that’s answered your question [laughs].
Absolutely. I have to wonder if Vincent’s family has said anything about the project. Do they even know about it?
No, I don’t think so. I’m not sure if you’ve seen the documentary that was made about Vincent (Dreams of a Life), but they’re not even in that. They’ve been very much standing in the shadows when it comes to her. They haven’t really commented on the film or anything like that. I haven’t had any contact with them, but I have spoken with the filmmaker of the documentary [Carol Morley], and she’s been very encouraging.
To be honest, it was the documentary that inspired my character because it allowed me to find out a lot more about the circumstances of her death. I understood more about who she was: a very young, attractive, and popular woman, which made the whole story even more extraordinary.
Definitely. It’s fascinating and tragic. When it comes to the music of Hand. Cannot. Erase., I think it’s a significant departure from what you did with The Raven That Refused to Sing. There are still elements of that, but other parts of it remind me of Insurgentes and The Incident, actually.
I really think that in many ways this album draws together many aspects of my career. I’ve had people tell me that it reminds them of some of the old records I made with Porcupine Tree, or The Raven or, as you pointed out, bits of Insurgentes in the usage of electronics. In a sense, I think there’s a lot more diversity to this record, and that’s a consequence of the story.
When you start writing a story about someone’s whole life, you start moving from childhood to adolescence and then to adulthood, so you’re talking about dealing with all of the curves of someone’s life. All the twists and turns, like going from happiness and joy to anger, or from loneliness to melancholia. All of that stuff comes into play on this record, which gives me an opportunity to explore many different styles and sounds.
Not only that, but this is a record that’s very much about life in the heart of the city in the 21st century. So straight away I’m thinking that my musical palette will be more electronic, with perhaps some elements of industrial sound design in it. Obviously I’m trying to reflect this feeling of isolation in the heart of a metropolis, which is a very different thing from what I was doing with The Raven. There, I was delving into classical ghost stories and an old-fashioned method of telling them. So that difference suggested a different musical palette right away, so you get everything from pop to electronic, long, progressive pieces, and even some ambient sounds. In that respect, it feels like a summary of many aspects of my past, but also some new aspects, too.
You’ve also said that it was inspired by the work of Kate Bush, correct?
Yeah, yeah. The main Kate Bush influence was something very specific—the use of a solo choirboy. She used that technique on her fourth album, The Dreaming, which is probably still my favorite of hers. I thought that the time, and I still do, that it was an extraordinary thing to find on a pop record. It was a very strange thing to do, like something only Kate Bush could’ve come up with. So I fell in love with that record and I’ve always had the ambition to do something like that on one of my records. Luckily, I’ve finally managed to do it.
Oh, it’s very effective, for sure. Along the same lines, and we’ve discussed this in the past, I wonder how you respond to listeners who try to confine you to a specific style. You know, how if you step outside of what they expect, they may reject what you’re doing or even rebel against it.
That is actually part and parcel of being a musician with a career, you know? Every time I make a new record, some of my existing fans are going to like it and some are not. It’s inevitable, and it’s part of the deal. It’s part of the job description. You cannot please everyone, and I think that what’s important, ultimately, is to make sure you please yourself. If you start trying to please other people, you’ll just go around in circles.
What I do is I basically make records to please myself first and foremost, and so one of the most important things for me as a musician and a writer and a producer is to feel like there’s always a sense of evolution and reinvention with each record. As you can see, each one of my four solo records is distinctly different, and that’s very important. They have their own character. What’s inherent in achieving that is knowing that it’s unlikely that any one person will enjoy them all equally. Each one is very dissimilar and people have varied musical tastes, so some people will say—and some already have said—that Hand. Cannot. Erase. is the best album I’ve ever made, while others would have preferred The Raven ... Part II.
I mean, it would be completely anathema for me to do that anyway, but I’m sure that’s what some people would probably want. Anyway, the bottom line is that I’ve made the record that I needed to make, and at this stage all I can do is hope that it finds an audience.
Of course. You have one of the most diverse array of styles of any modern musician, I think.
I hope so, yeah. To be honest, I think that’s reflected in my fan base, too. I think my fanbase is not as conservative as they might be because they’ve gotten used to the idea—or maybe they even expect—that sense of reinvention. I think my fans are much more open minded than some other bands’ fanbases are. That’s part of what it means to follow someone.
Sure. It’s what makes someone a true artist.
So you wrote the album and guided the arrangements, but I wonder how much room the other musicians had to improvise or change what they played. For example, was this process less collaborative than it was for The Raven?
I’d say probably slightly less because The Raven was very much meant to be played live by six people in a room. This one was more of a studio construct. In fact, there are some tracks on the record that pretty much only feature me. “Perfect Life” is 95 percent just me, so I think this one’s got a bit more of a studio feeling about it and a producer feeling about it. At the same time, I’ve still got these extraordinary musicians on here and it’d be very foolish to have them but not allow them to bring something to the table, so I’m hoping, and even expecting, that they’ll have some ideas of their own. Luckily, that’s always what happens. So yes, it’s a bit less collaborative overall, but the identity of these musicians is still a big part of what makes this record special.
Naturally. Are there any melodies or themes that reoccur on the album to give it some conceptual continuity? If I’m not mistaken, both “Regret” pieces share a chord progression, right?
Yes, they do. Also, “Perfect Life” is based on the chords from “Happy Returns”, so there are motifs that reoccur throughout the album. You can hear a bit of “First Regret” at the beginning of “Happy Returns”, also. Some of them are obvious and some of them are less obvious, so it’s only if you study the music that you’ll realize it. The concept and arrangement and treatment are all different, though, of course. I’ve tried to create some musical clues in addition to the lyrical ones, I guess.
I love when albums do that. Do you have any particular track or moment from the record that stands out to you?
I’m really fond of “Perfect Life”. To me, it’s one of what I call my “nostalgia songs”. Nostalgia is very fascinating human emotion, in that it’s looking back at something very fondly, with happiness and joy, but it’s also looking back and knowing that you could never recapture that moment again. It has this melancholic sensation, too. It’s an odd combination of joy and melancholia, and I tried to capture that feeling in songs over the years and I think that “Perfect Life” is one of those moments where I really feel like I captured that sort of bittersweet nostalgia.
I’m really proud of “Routine”, too, because there’s a real challenge in writing a piece of music that’s almost like a three-way vocal performance. You have my voice, the voice of Ninet Tayeb (the female Israeli singer), and the voice of the solo boy chorusman. It’s interesting to work all of that onto a song, so I’m really happy with how that turned out.
It’s a great synthesis. When it comes to the title track, which I think is undoubtedly one of your most accessible and catchy songs yet, it’s blunt lyrically yet it’s also a wise commentary on the expectations of modern romance. What inspired it?
Sure, sure. This is the point in the character’s life when she’s doing what she thinks she’s supposed to do. When you’re of a certain age, you’re supposed to couple off. Pair off with someone and be together. There has to be this element of togetherness. It’s what society and her family expects of her, but she really doesn’t feel like she’s enjoying it. She feels like she can’t wait to be back on her own again.
The interesting thing about this character is that she feels like she’s supposed to be alone. That idea that you’re supposed to be with someone—I don’t think it works for everyone. There are people who genuinely feel happier in their own company. So this is a song about that realization. She feels trapped and she can’t wait to escape it.
That sentiment definitely comes through in the lyrics, such as when you say, “Trust means we don’t need to be together every day.” Along the same lines, I wonder what inspired “Happy Returns”. It reminds me of the title track from The Raven in that they’re both connected to loss and written as a message to a sibling.
“Happy Returns” is really the end of the story, yet it ends in midair. It doesn’t conclude, which I like. It’s ambiguous. It’s the idea of someone who is isolated and alone in the city reaching out to her family for possibly the first time in years. Of course, the implication in the way that the song ends is that the letter was never completed or sent, so it’s a kind of what-could-have-been moment. In fact, when Joyce Carol Vincent died, she was in the process of wrapping Christmas presents, presumably for her family, or at least for her nieces and nephews. They were never sent, and there’s a great feeling of loss about that.
This song tries to capture that feeling. That letter is trying to reach out to family and friends, yet it never does. It’s really the crux of the whole album.
As you said, it’s left unfinished, so the remainder of the track is a kind of atmospheric trailing off. It’s very pretty and emotional.
It’s a very peaceful ending, with the piano and the choir. I’m very happy with that, too.
To change the subject a bit, you recently recorded a song with Mariusz Duda (Riverside/Lunatic Soul) called “The Old Peace”, which was inspired by a poem written by Alec Wildey, who passed away last August. How did that collaboration come about?
Oh, well basically one of Alec’s last wishes was that he wanted his two favorite musicians to work together to set one of his poems to music. At the time, I was right in the middle of recording Hand. Cannot. Erase., so I asked Mariusz to write something and then I’d add my voice to it. The way it worked out was that Mariusz wrote a couple of beautiful songs, we chose one of them, and he put down his guitar and vocal parts. Then he sent it to me and I added some mellotron and replaced some of his vocals with mine and that was pretty much it. We had a master.
It was very easy and simple because he’d written a beautiful song. So it’s basically Mariusz on guitar and me on the mellotron. That’s really all there is to the music on the track.
It really sounds like a perfect blend of your styles and his, as obvious as that sounds. Now that the crowdfunding campaign is done for it, are there any plans to do anything else with the song?
You know what? It would be a shame if it just disappeared, wouldn’t it? I don’t know; maybe we’ll do a Record Day release for it on vinyl. I haven’t discussed it with Mariusz yet, but it’d be nice to come out with a B-side and put it out on 12” or 7” vinyl. That’s a possibility.
Go for it. Lastly, Gavin Harrison is coming out with Cheating the Polygraph, which reimagines some Porcupine Tree songs as wildly altered instrumental arrangements. In some cases, his version sounds like a completely different song. I couldn’t even recognize them at first.
I’ll tell you something—neither could I! I’ve heard the album, and it’s fantastic. He played me some of them and asked me if I recognized my songs in them, and I said, “No. I’ve listened to it for a couple minutes already and I still haven’t figured out what song it is.” So you’re not the only one; even the person who wrote the songs couldn’t quite tell [laughs]. It’s remarkable, though. I don’t know who’s going to listen to it or who the audience for it is, but I guess that if you’re a Porcupine Tree fan and you’re curious to hear what can be done with it in the context, it’ll really appeal to you.
I can’t wait to hear more from it, and from you, Steven. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me again, and congrats on the new record. It’s phenomenal.
Thanks, Jordan. Speak to you soon.