Richard Dawson
Photo: Kuba Ryniewicz / Domino

Folk Songwriter Richard Dawson Discusses the Language of Time

Folkie Richard Dawson talks about his new LP The Ruby Cord, first-ever US tour, and the evergreen pleasures of Bulbils, his project with Sally Pilkington.

The Ruby Cord
Richard Dawson
18 November 2022

With each album, the story world of singer-songwriter Richard Dawson of Newcastle upon Tyne becomes more boundless. His latest release, The Ruby Cord (2022), may or may not be the capper of a trilogy that includes Peasant (2017), a collection of songs evoking characters of the early Middle Ages, and 2020 (2019), a decade-defining and powerfully observant examination of more explicitly modern tales of anxiety, labor, loss, love, sport, and social issues.

Precious little within Dawson’s choice of content or delivery could be called conventional. This unorthodox mode possesses something of the spirit of the Cynics. Tellingly, halfway through “The Hermit”, the lead single and opening track of The Ruby Cord, there’s a passing reference to Diogenes, that old “Dog” of philosophy. One wonders if Diogenes is also present in 2020 as the “Dead Dog in an Alleyway”. The listener’s recognition of the Cynics is one of a seemingly infinite number of pathways for navigating the tales told through Dawson’s baroque lyrics and enthralling melodies.

Touring the United States for the first time, Dawson is months removed from the release of The Ruby Cord when he sat down with PopMatters. Though the promotion of that album is over, in one sense, I find him refreshingly not reticent to discuss it again. I ask if the passing of time has allowed him to reflect on the album’s reception, a consideration he says he had in mind while creating the album.

“Even when I was working on it,” he says, “I felt like I was laying the groundwork a little bit for people, like for the label, before they’d hear it. Though I probably didn’t need to be worried so much. And then, before it came out, I was kind of prepared that people wouldn’t enjoy it. So I was sort of expecting the worst anyway. I didn’t really read the reviews for this one, but the impression I got from the little updates I’d get was that it was like a mixed bag. [laughs] I don’t know. People were maybe unsure about that first track because it was so long.” Indeed, “The Hermit” alone runs for 41 minutes, longer than many LPs. This feature was a common talking point about the album upon release and is a topic we will return to.

Dawson says none of his apprehension or the reactions of others drained his confidence. He explains, “I think I felt so comfortable about the album and confident that it was how it should be, in a way that I have not felt about other albums. You know, you try and do it as well as you can, but you get a bit of distance on it, and you sort of think, ‘ooh, I should have tweaked this, I should have done that.’ I still have those feelings about this album. There are some word choices where I’m just, ‘Ahh.’ Or, like a little mixing thing that I should have done differently. But generally, the overall structures and the shape of the album, I’m really pleased with. So, I wasn’t too concerned with how people would take it.”

He clarifies, “I was interested, though. I was really fascinated by what people would think. I think a bunch of people have come along for the ride, and that’s good. It’s totally fine if somebody wouldn’t like the album. I’d understand that. People have different uses for music, and maybe it’s not very useful.”

I ask about the utility of popular music criticism, where quantification obscures other ways of assessing the work. Does this approach to scoring and aggregating numbers disengage from the substance of the music? “It’s very strange,” he says. “If I’m playing a board game, I’m very competitive, but the idea of scoring something is a competitive thing. I think there are competitive musicians out there, or whatever, but I never really understand that. I don’t read reviews of other people’s music because I’m just not bothered. I would just rather find it myself.”

Many listeners who found The Ruby Cord by reading the music press did so through write-ups of the album’s epic-length opening track. While pointing out the song’s duration does arouse curiosity and generally primes the listener, there is a risk to only thinking of “The Hermit” in those terms. To do so overlooks the variety of fascinating creative choices, some quite momentary, Dawson makes as a writer, singer, and musician.

For example, one particularly arresting moment that absorbs me as a listener every time is his delivery of a single sung/spoken word, delivered a cappella. The character in the song hears (and repeats) the accusation, “MURDERER”, a transition point that ushers in some of the most contemplative choral music in recent memory. Therefore the ideal approach, it seems, is to see the temporality of “The Hermit” as another way to explore the character’s perspective in the song and be open to the horrors and wonders he encounters.

Dawson explains that “time is probably the most important component” when working with music. “It’s in every aspect of what you do, is time. So when you work with something that’s longer-form, there’s got to be a good reason for that. Time has its own language. It might sound like a song if you tune into any individual little part, but the individual parts function differently just by the sheer length of it. It has its own sort of gravity. So that’s quite interesting to work with and affords you different opportunities in how you tell the story. The reason it’s so long is because of the story, what happens to the person, and the discovery that they go through–the gaining of one thing and the loss of something else–it’s not something that you could arrive at an understanding of quickly in life. So it has to be reflected by the music.”

It’s also worth noting that Dawson did not set out to make a song of this scale. “It was never going to be that long, that piece of music. But it just felt like, I know what I’m trying to get at here, but I don’t have the room. So I kept having to expand parts of it, and when you expand one bit, it suddenly necessitates somewhere else in the song to keep it balanced, to keep it making some kind of sense; for the momentum to be right. So, sometimes you make a choice because it’s what the story and the character need you to do. And then other times, it’s more practical. The house, the building will fall down because you’ve got too much weight over here, so you need to counterweight.”

The falsetto delivery that appeared comparatively gradually on Peasant, seemingly tied to certain characters and predicaments, bloomed into something more akin to a heavy metal version of falsetto in 2020 and now occurs throughout The Ruby Cord. When I ask whether there is any organizing principle to that singing technique, Dawson recounts a recent instance of engaging with that dimension of his voice as a listener. “It’s funny,” he says, “I was working on some new songs in the studio with Sam [Grant] last month, and I just had a moment of being able to hear it. Like as if I was just a listener. I was like, ‘bloody hell, that’s a bit bonkers, isn’t it?'” He mimics the sound he was reacting to, singing high to low to high, all while using his finger to trace the trajectory of his voice in the air.

“I’ve heard that said before, that the falsetto doesn’t seem to have any rhyme or reason to it,” he recalls, laughing. “But I’ve never thought about it. It’s just like a melody. You just kind of follow it. I like working in that place because I can’t really sing very well up there, so it’s quite nice to sing in a place where you’re unsure. And it has its own kind of story there, which often, that will fit with what the character is doing. Maybe if I’m in a place where I’m unsure or not on solid ground, technically, that can happen, that it marries up with the person who’s not on solid ground in the song, perhaps. It seems to go that way often, anyway. It’s not so much like a conscious thing. It’s just following where the melody wants to go and how it cuts through the music, as well.  

“I think a lot of it is simply because the guitar is in this mid-range, a lot of it, and it suits to have something [intoning falsetto] poking or slicing over the top. Other times, you need something lower. But yeah, I definitely get drawn to these areas where my voice isn’t so strong, which is the lower ranges, the middle ranges, and the higher ranges.” The implication is that he does not think his voice is strong in any range. This self-deprecation contrasts with his overall confidence in the work and fails to square with the reality of Dawson’s one-of-a-kind, bravura voice. 

Rather than contest his conclusion, I ask about some of the recurring themes and lyrical, rather than vocal, motifs that link his previous albums to The Ruby Cord. Dawson says he does not always recognize the connections that listeners spot before they point them out to him. For example, borders and border-crossing are conspicuous elements of Peasant and feature in various ways in The Ruby Cord songs “Thicker Than Water” and “Horse & Rider”. Dawson admits, “I don’t think I clocked it in other ones before, but it wouldn’t surprise us. Sometimes, it’s quite nice that people might pick on something in the lyrics and tell me about them. I go, ‘oh, I missed that.’ Because I’m so careful about what goes in there, but it’s nice to be surprised by those things as well.”

The borders crossed in Dawson’s work are not strictly geographical. The Ruby Cord negates anachronism by being set “500 years into the future,” a setting no listener has experienced and for which there is no record or passed-down memory to consult. Further, in this landscape where the virtual has overtaken the actual, the simulacra defy the boundaries and constraints of time. The journeying character in “The Hermit” experiences an enhanced perception that Dawson details within the song’s lyrics. This upgraded way of seeing the world remains inaccessible to the listener in real life, at least for now.

However, Dawson points out that our present is not so different from the song’s imaginary landscape. “Well,” he notes, “these kinds of technologies, it seems fantastical the idea that somebody would have an in-eye display where they could zoom and bring up information about an object that they look at. But we’re already there, pretty much, with things like Google Glass, where it can overlay information about the world. We have that, and they’re already working on in-eye…implants, or it must be some kind of projector or something like that.”

He predicts, “It’s not inconceivable in the next 30 or 40 years that the Internet will be incorporated into our bodies. And when we meet someone, we will be able to know if they’re single, employed, criminal record, what their health is like. Maybe different people will pay for different services, so you get more or less information depending on how affluent you are. I mean, we’re already there. It’s in its infancy, but it’s not fantastical. We’ll be able to draw up information about anything and zoom into things.”

Dawson’s mind is not just on how humans can access information about each other but also how they can communicate with one another, one of the ostensibly more benign outcomes of such technology. “I mean, you know this translation earpiece?” he asks, with reference to Douglas Adam’s Babel Fish, a fantastic idea that has now emerged in reality. “That’s another example of something that’s so futuristic-seeming, but it’s here now. The idea that you could suddenly have a conversation with a person of any nationality is really amazing and exciting. But we have never had to deal with that before.

“That’s going to profoundly change how we interact with people and the meaning of national borders because they’re somewhat linked with linguistic borders. So all of this stuff is very close. I was thinking a lot about social media and how 10-15 years ago, that would’ve seemed completely bonkers. Even mobile phones, when I was a teenager, it would have seemed insane what we do now with our phones and how we are integrated with them, almost as if they are an extension of our bodies sometimes. So, that’s all in the mix.”

Yet just as the original story of the Tower of Babel is a cautionary tale, any of these advancements is susceptible to misuse or unintended consequences. There is a voice for such a skeptical perspective in The Ruby Cord song “The Tip of an Arrow”, in which the narrating character Temperance insists that “real knowledge must be earned” and not perfunctorily gleaned from technological integration. Does Temperance reflect Dawson’s sense of caution or perspective on modernity and futurism? 

“I mean, part of me feels that way,” he responds. “But I think I’m excited by all of these new things, too. And I think there’s a danger in holding on to the past, as well. I don’t know. It’s always a contradiction at play all of the time. I feel the pull [of] tradition and the old. I feel the loss. I mean, we talked about going to record shops before, and it’s wonderful that people now can bring up any kind of music at the touch of a button and explore so many different kinds of music. Whereas when I was first getting into music, I had three pound 50 pocket money. 50p into town, and I had three quid to spend on either three seven-inch singles or two or even one I really wanted. You would just get home and play that one single all week and engage with it in a totally different way. That kind of focus is lost.”

On the other hand, he says, “So much is gained, too. So I think the way I see things is it’s never just straightforwardly good or bad. It’s the same with social media. It brings a lot of good things. But there are so many dangers with anything of progress and the potential to further isolate ourselves, especially with things that have the illusion of connectivity. Like that song, ‘Tip of an Arrow’, I would probably tend to put a bit more of a value on traditional things. But it’s not so simple.”

Dawson also mentions political rhetoric and activity that attempt to redefine the past as evidence of the “danger” of overemphasizing one person’s attachment to tradition. “I was talking about before, on a national level, some of the kind of rise of right-wing stuff across the world is rooted in these ideas of the past, which were probably never real in the first place. So, it’s to be wary of. It’s all to be wary of, though. It’s a minefield. All of it. It’s very confusing.”

Another unavoidable context for discussing the past few years of Dawson’s career is the global COVID-19 pandemic. This period did evince some of the good humans are capable of doing. However, those years also heightened the disparity and precarity that were chief subjects of 2020, whose fall 2019 release occurred months before the pandemic declaration. When I remark that 2020 seemed prophetic and remained eminently relatable (and listenable) throughout the pandemic, Dawson replies, “some of the album seems really understated now.”

I ask whether he originally intended to tour more in promotion of 2020 before the pandemic began. “Yeah,” he says, “and from one point of view, it was really a pity because it felt like momentum was building. I had a lot of shows planned, some Europe shows and another UK tour, and I had this Glastonbury slot, which was going to be televised. But honestly, I was relieved, as well. Because the music was closer to something like rock music or a bit more straight, so it felt like almost rock gigs at points. I think I just thought, ‘I’m not sure this is me,’ you know? So it was a pity because I certainly would have kept going for a while and shared that a bit more. But it was also a relief. It was good to get onto other new things, and I guess the album caught [on] a little bit.”

Dawson says that, in general, he prefers “flying under the radar.” He reasons that “there’s a lot more to navigate if you get a bit more visible, a lot more pitfalls. You’d have to follow certain things if opportunities came up. You’d be foolish not to share your music as widely as possible without diluting it. But yeah, honestly, I was also relieved as well as disappointed.”

I observe that Henki, his 2021 collaboration with Finnish rock band Circle, seems like it might have given Dawson a chance to stay a bit more “under the radar” while still enjoying a full rock show/rock band experience. He agrees it was more comfortable, explaining, “I was so excited to be playing with them, and it was nuts. It was a leap up. This is really a rock show now. This is the real thing. Such an amazing band and so powerful and nuanced. So yeah, some of the shows we did, it was really a leap, I think, for all of us. For them, they were playing bigger shows than they were used to, and they were big shows for me, as well. Although, I’ve had a little bit of experience with some of that size of shows. But I hadn’t had experience with that kind of energy level. So it was like a baptism of fire or something like that. That felt really good because it was a shared thing, and it was contained by needing to share the album Henki.”

Concerning his solo songwriting process during that period, he says, “I knew that I wanted to take it in another direction, and it would be a challenge to pull it away from sharing it with more people. It’s quite a difficult thing. You don’t want to disappoint people, but you have to be willing to. The pandemic, the silver lining of it, made it easier to get on to the next thing and focus more on that. And The Ruby Cord was quite a complicated thing to make, quite difficult. So it needed the focus that this time, this quiet, pandemic time allowed.”

The first live Richard Dawson performance I was aware of during the pandemic was his October 2020 show at the Barbican, played to a compulsorily limited audience and shared via a live stream. When I ask about that concert, he identifies it as a memorable reintroduction to performing live. “I’ve played to some big audiences before,” he says, “but I think mainly with a group, like a big room of that size. So, I had some experiences with big rooms, and I’d supported some big bands in my younger days.”

The challenge for Dawson was the contrast between years of regular live performances and the fallow interval of the pandemic. Before, he says, “you’d do a gig, maybe minimum, once a month from the age of fifteen, probably more likely three or four times a month, without really any breaks. Probably the longest break I’d ever had was a month in 25 years. And then suddenly to have this enforced break of, I don’t know how long it was, five months or something? Then you’d have to go on stage, and it suddenly was like all of that–I don’t know whether it’s armor or just some skills that you’ve learned to deal with it–suddenly, you’re like, ‘whoa, this is real. How do I remember all of this music and words?'”

He continues, “So it was quite challenging, in that sense. Suddenly, the weight of it, or how special it was to do it, was there. Usually, you’re sort of shut off from that stuff when you do a gig. But it was like, ‘Wow, this is really special to be back with people again.’ You definitely take it for granted, and you kind of have to [in order] to function. Unless you’re a lunatic, which I’m sure plenty of musicians are. And I’m sure I am in different ways. Maybe I was when I was younger; I craved the attention. I definitely don’t crave that at all.

“So suddenly being on stage, I mean, it was 300 people, but it was terrifying, just really weird,” he continues. “So, that side of it got a lot more challenging, and I’m still sort of coming back from that and having to use more breathing just to keep level. I’ve kind of trained my brain now not to think about the gig at all on the day, practice really well, but then when it gets to the day, just don’t let your mind go there at all.” The “good thing” that he says he hasn’t “been able to shake” is “how lucky a thing it is to be able to share music with a group of people who have chosen to be there.”

Dawson’s first-ever US tour is about to begin in late March, and his tour mates are Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs, a Newcastle metal band on the road behind their new (and Dawson-featuring) album Land of Sleeper. While the pairing might not seem like the most natural fit from the standpoint of musical styles, this tour makes sense because, “quite simply,” Dawson explains, “it’s just because they’re pals. I work with Sam, the guitarist. Sam’s recorded my last however many albums. Johnny played in my band for a while, as well. And I get on well with everyone in the band, so it’s kind of a no-brainer. And it’s a nice way to get over in a kind of low-pressure way, too. If the show doesn’t go so well for me, I can just get off stage and let the main act on. We did a few shows together before, and it really worked. Maybe the audience were a bit surprised that a singer-songwriter might just be stood up on the stage supporting a big band, but it worked really well.”

He recalls, “I think we tried to get some American shows going before, but maybe there’s a bit more interest after the 2020 album. But basically, Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs asked me to just go out with them to do all of their dates, which I think they’re up for two and a bit weeks, and that I could ride in the van with them. So it was like, ‘oh, yeah, I think so.’ That’s a bit too many shows for my liking. For my self-preservation, as well, I think less shows is better for me. Also, to save my voice a bit, it’s quite demanding. And I wouldn’t see anything, which is important to me, that I would like not just to be riding around playing. The show’s a drain, so I need to look after myself a bit. So, I realized it wasn’t going to be a good idea to do all of their shows, but I wanted to do some of them so we could share a bit of their adventure.”

Dawson will headline a show in New York City because he says, “there’s enough interest there. So it’s like a mild version of their tour, really, like it’s a tour for a very jaded, middle-aged man. It’s just right for me, and then I’m not away from home too long.” Dawson laughs again, saying,”I don’t think I’m a very good professional musician at all. I’m just very soft and probably a little bit vulnerable in some ways. So it’s good to measure it a bit. But they’re a bit younger than me, and it’s a different kind of music. It’s energy music.”

As for how his headlining shows on the tour will differ from his set supporting Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs, Dawson says his supporting sets will be shorter but that he would “just shape it accordingly.” He says he does not “use a set list, ever if I can avoid it,” and for that reason, “it’s always a little in flux so you can respond to the situation.” He adds, “I guess it would be a bit more energetic at the Pigs show, but I only have a limited amount of energy. It has a ceiling.”

Fans of Bulbils, one of the projects in which Dawson collaborates with Sally Pilkington, might be surprised to hear him say he has limited energy. Launched during the pandemic as “a way to deal with coronavirus/lockdown,” Bulbils has created dozens and dozens of albums since their self-titled debut release on 23 March 2020. What began as a daily project has transformed into a more sporadic release schedule, but the amount and quality of music Bulbils has released in three years is staggering. 

“It’s a different sort of thing,” Dawson says of Bulbils, “because it was so good for us in the pandemic to have this kind of structure and be trying to make one a day or one every two days, or whatever. It was so quick to do, and they were very rough; very little quality control. There was some quality control, but not much. And that was kind of part of it. It was such a nice thing for me because I’m so used to honing–you’d never know it–but chip, chip, chip, careful attention to detail.”

Lately, Bulbils has started to involve the deliberate approach he applies to his solo work. “I think we’ve sort of started to put more time into each release, and so it’s changed. It just happened; naturally, it’s not like a decision. But maybe we were like: We need not repeat so much. It’s fine if we do, but let’s try not to. So now we’ll be multi-tracking things. We never multi-tracked anything until about number 65 or 66. It’s kind of still going, but it’s one a month or something like that. We’ve got some gigs,” he reveals, laughing with surprise. “Unbelievable. We never thought anybody would ask us to do gigs, but they have.”

I mention that one of my favorite Bulbils releases is 60, their 70th album, released a few weeks before The Ruby Cord. “This one was for our friend Nev Clay,” Dawson explains. “He’s a very old friend of mine, and it was his 60th birthday. And he is a great Newcastle songwriter. I mean, he’s just a great songwriter and a very beautiful guy. So, we wanted to make a special one for him. And I think from there on, because we put that amount of effort into that one; now we did a good one. We have to keep it going.”

I acknowledge Bulbils’ constant presence in my own pandemic-time listening, with albums such as Together We Can Make It (2020) and Mining Olympus Mons (2021) having become permanently embedded in my mind and memories of the period, further establishing my opinion of Dawson as an essential artist of his time. For a Bulbils devotee, there is also the pleasant surprise of hearing the title track of Bulbils’ 17th release, Distant Memories (2020), take new shape on The Ruby Cord‘s “Museum”.

Dawson shares an enthusiasm for Bulbils, saying, “My own [solo] work, I don’t even engage with it in this way, but Bulbils, I really love to listen to and enjoy all of it. It’s really nice, a nice thing. I don’t know if I should even admit that. Sometimes I put Bulbils on to work to, because it’s like, I can’t think of anything else [laughs] I would rather listen to. Is that really terrible?” To me, it’s not terrible at all. Like 2020 before it, Bulbils became a part of pandemic life, sometimes at the forefront, sometimes in the background, but always present. “That’s great,” he responds. “That’s how we feel about it, like a part of our fabric.”   

Richard Dawson headlines a show at Union Pool in New York on 30 March and will be on tour in the US and then the UK through early May.