Richard Dawson :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Richard Dawson of Newcastle Upon Tyne. This is how the songwriter credits himself on the cover of his new record The Ruby Cord—the third part of a possible trilogy (beginning with medieval Peasant, and modern times in 2020) which finds him delving into the different timelines of communities in England. The music throughout the album is a combination of older and newer sounds, representing a post-apocalyptic (and often post-human) future that has spun back around to resemble a semi-robotic Middle Ages. At 80 minutes (more than half of which is dedicated to 41-minute opener “The Hermit”) it’s a lot to take in, but I have found it, like all of Dawson’s work, endlessly rewarding. 

I spoke to Dawson over Zoom. It was a freewheeling yet gently paced discussion, interrupted only by Zoom room time limits and a cat named Trouble. | a riggs

Aquarium Drunkard: How did you start your day?

Richard Dawson: Well, I’m a mixed bag. I haven’t really been feeling myself this year but that’s fine. So today, I got up quite late, and I quickly snaffled half a stubby before I ran to the train. Then I went to Corbridge to buy a leaf shaped table which I saw five months ago. I needed to get some walking done because I haven’t been out of the house much this week, so I went to buy this leaf shaped table. It actually sold a few days earlier, which is how it goes. So I just had a nice train ride and walk in Corbridge, this picturesque little town. It has a very nice posh bakery with these cakes which are like modern art or something.

AD: I often walk by or drive through cities with little pockets of what someone would weirdly call the arts district, but it is usually just a place where the posh restaurants and bakeries would be. It’s weird what passes for fancy in some areas of where I live. 

I live in North Carolina, in the states, Durham, and there’s a weird kind of dichotomy between holding on to a southern identity and also trying to lure more people who aren’t from the South here. People are either trying to exploit that southerness or trying to hide it. When it comes to stuff like bakeries, we kind of get Capital “N” Nice looking pastries and cakes and everything. It’s all very cookie cutter, no pun intended.

Richard Dawson: I don’t really know what that means, but I can look that up. I’ve heard that expression before. 

AD: It’s very much like something has been made in a mold. It’s like we have one mold for a thing 

Richard Dawson: So what you’re saying is these nice, deluxe bakery products don’t really tally with being working class?

AD: No, not at all. I have this weird theory about baked goods that the “uglier” a pastry or a bagel or something looks, the better it ends up tasting. Because if you’re not so worried about getting it to look like a painting of a bagel, you actually end up making a really good bagel.

Richard Dawson: That could be applied to many things in life. 

It’s funny I was thinking about when coffee shops first came to Newcastle or when alfresco coffee was trending. There were seats out on the street and it was madness, especially given the climate here. We seem to have embraced it behind the times a little bit, but I still got plenty of pals who chastise me for buying a coffee. The very idea is like “Why? What are you buying a coffee for?” 

AD:  Do you drink coffee?

Richard Dawson: Yeah, that’s a good question. I’ll be happy if we can manage to go the whole interview just talking about coffee and bakeries. That stuff would suit me.

Yeah, I love coffee. I have to be careful because I’m prone to getting quite jittery, so I have to limit myself to a couple of cups. Rhodri Davies, my pal who I play music with, gifted me a Delonghi espresso pitcher, which is something I never would have brought myself to buy. I can make a good latte with that, so that’s my coffee drink of choice. I like to grind the beans on the day in my little nutri bullet. Then I have my latte, usually just one a day.

AD: When I was listening to [The Ruby Cord] compared to Peasant and 2020, which are very bleak. I think bleak is an easy term to label on some of your songs, and some of the album themes of both of those. There’s something compared to those other two records that feels weirdly hopeful. Even though a lot of press and lyrics of this album led me to believe that this was going to be something that was a little bit more deep in the muck of it all, I leave this album feeling…. It may just be because the end of “Horse and Rider” is just this big grand, major key thing, but there is something I think, very optimistic about the album. I could be completely off base, and there’s a chance that I am. 

What were your feelings about ending this trilogy? Or if there is an end to this trilogy?

Richard Dawson: Well, I’m not even really clear whether it is a trilogy. It definitely could be, but it also might not be. I sort of feel like the other records have quite a lot of optimism about them, even though that might not be what you see in the songs. I think a song like “Beggar” is ultimately quite optimistic, but really nothing that happens in the song or about that character is particularly optimistic. “Soldier” ends very optimistically, but the last song on that album is really horrible. And then in 2020 as well, I sort of thought that felt like- 

AD: There’s a lot of little victories on that album. 

Richard Dawson: Yeah. It’s exactly that. There’s lots of these moments. If you look at life all at once, it can seem a bit sad. If you focus in on things, that’s where that’s where it gets rewarding. 

For instance, I’ve played all of it myself, and then right at the end, I’m joined by a bunch of friends on vocals and other instruments, so that feels very hopeful to me. It’s quite an isolated album, but then in the last 30 seconds, everyone joined. It felt quite meaningful to me. 

Then with this one… I don’t wanna be close with you, but after a few interviews now, I realize I’m quite guarded about it because I just don’t wanna influence too much. It’s not even out yet, and I want people to spend some time with it. Maybe in a few years I might talk a bit more about what it meant to me, about whether or not it’s optimistic or pessimistic.  I’m glad that you’ve found some optimism. 

AD: Something that I really enjoy about your work and something that I’ve used as kind of a selling point to others for your work is that you are a very empathetic songwriter. You’re coming to these stories very much like a bard, and a lot of these are character studies. You kind of have to become the character and become empathetic towards that. Bringing up the little victories thing, the end of [2020 opening track] “Civil Servant” is one of the most anthemic, positive releases of rage I think I’ve ever heard in a song. I just love that song very much. 

Richard Dawson: Yes. That’s a funny one, that one.  I found that song very troubling to make because it’s about somebody who’s got quite the cynical outlook. And I don’t know how I feel about the end. I can definitely sort of take how you feel like that it’s a positive and that they’re standing up against this situation that they’re in and don’t want to be a part of, but at the same time… What are they gonna do now? 

AD: Yeah, yeah exactly. That’s the thing. In the moment, this is very much like a calling, a I’m-not-coming-into-work-today. Then the phones get slammed down, and then that person has to go on with the rest of their day.

Richard Dawson: Yeah, they would probably take a few months just to play Call of Duty and a little bit of Ocarina of Time, and then they’d figure things out after a while. 

AD: I remember you pointing out in an interview a couple of years ago, I remember you bringing up the idea that just because you are singing the song doesn’t automatically mean that the narrator is male. I think it was in reference to something like “Two Halves.” What role does observing another person’s gender and how they would react to a situation play? How much does that factor into when you are inhabiting a character or writing a character? 

Richard Dawson: Yeah, it was interesting. I mean a big part of writing Peasant was being very careful not to gender anything. There wasn’t a kind of reason for that in terms of the storytelling, but it was more just the instinctual thing. I wanted to provide them almost like a dot to dots, but people need to color it in themselves. So even on a song like “Prostitute,” it was really difficult to do that because of the language, and to find the right way to say those things. Especially in terms of having a child, I suppose it’s a very strong suggestion that it’s a woman in that song. There’s a couple of other moments on the album where it was just impossible not to gender somebody with “king” or something like that. 

That carried through to 2020, and I kind of started with this idea that I wouldn’t gender anything there either, but as I went on, it became important for the sake of some of the stories. For instance, in “Heart Emoji,” it was always a female narrator in my mind. Then I read some review that said something along the lines of it was like a jilted boyfriend thinking about taking revenge. I don’t think I ever would have written that song about a person considering stabbing their girlfriend to death. The other way around was still horrendous, but that was somewhere I was sort of willing to go. Other songs on that album are quite definitely women for me, but I didn’t want to say it unless it’s really important to the story; that the gender is an important factor. I think that “Heart Emoji” was really about this kind of certain male bravado disguise and a lack of character, so in that instance it was important to it. 

It’s very complicated with this one because it’s sort of constant with identity. I sort of have an idea of each character and where they’re coming from and what their physical situation is, but it was much more blurry. It’s a much more blurry album. The experience of the characters is much more blurry, a hard one to pin down. And I would anticipate that, I mean, we already have that. We already did and things are increasing. I’m thinking of our online identities versus our at home identities. Our identities at work. Our performance identities. We’re gonna have increasingly more and more identities as we live in different kinds of realms, be them digital or otherwise. It sort of dovetailed quite nicely with this in Peasant  which was so rigidly careful about that particular element of language. I think I’ve probably been about as clear as mud there. 

[Richard’s cat, Trouble, jumps up on his neck and rests there]

Oh, Trouble… that’s my cat.

AD: Your cat’s name is Trouble? Where’d that come from? 

Richard Dawson: We got her from a lady, a friend of a friend, who was moving to a smaller flat, and she couldn’t keep both of her cats, so we got her when she was eight. She was called Trouble already. I asked the lady why, and she said, “Oh, I’d always wanted a little black cat called Trouble,” and I didn’t quite believe it. Then we discovered that there were other reasons why she was surely called Trouble. She’s a very amazing cat, but she’s very demanding and pretty intense. 

AD: We also have a very demanding and intense but wonderful black cat named Ripley from the film Alien.

Richard Dawson: Fantastic!

AD: Before I end, this is a lovely conversation, but I did want to ask you about Bulbils. I’ve been following Bulbils ever since you started doing it in the midst of the beginning of the pandemic. It’s really great. It reminds me a lot of Jim O’Rourke’s Steamrooms series. 

Richard Dawson: Thank you. That’s high praise. 

AD: Yeah, I really love how every other week or whenever they come out, it’s like, “Oh, there’s a new Bulbils album. Fantastic.” It’s always great. How much of making those albums has fed into your other work? 

Richard Dawson: I didn’t think it was really, it was done in such a different way, and I’m sort of slow and careful about my solo work. This is very the opposite of that. There was some quality control but not very much. It was mainly just how we played it. Pretty rough. Keep the mistakes. Sometimes we’ll cut out little bits and join it together, and you can usually hear those joins. So I think the context of it was important to that, to what it was. A couple making fast music most days in the house just to get by, really. Just to make some kind of structure.

So I didn’t really see that it was bleeding in at all, but then it did in a really direct way. It’s one track we did on Distant Memories. We just worked out some chords and a nice melody and then did it. It took probably half an hour, but I really liked this chorus and ended up using that as the chorus for “Museum” off this new album. 

AD: I think “Museum” might be my favorite track on the album.

Richard Dawson: Thank you.

AD: I’m glad that it has that… I don’t know that song is a very melancholy song, but it also feels there’s something a little bit optimistic about the idea of some other form of life existing post humans who are looking back at a museum of humanity. I really love that song. When it starts building and then the drums come in, it’s wonderful. This is such a wonderful album, and I think you should be incredibly proud of it. I feel like it’s gonna reach a lot of people, and I think it’s going to affect a lot of people. 

Richard Dawson: Well, let’s see. I think I was sort of steeling myself for the opposite. I feel quite pleased with how it came out, but then I started to feel like, “Oh gosh, this is it. It’s coming out soon.” Maybe I was bracing myself- I am bracing myself a little bit for maybe some bad reactions. With 2020 as well, I thought maybe that wouldn’t be received well. I kind of felt Peasant would be, to be honest. But again with 2020 and Nothing Important before it, I thought it would just kill any sort of idea of a career stone dead. It seemed to go okay, so who knows? It’s not important really, but it’s important that it exists. 

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