Baker's Dozen

Artists discuss the 13 records that shaped their lives

Dawn To Dusk: Richard Dawson’s Favourite Albums

Tales of the oddest record shop on Tyneside and much more as Richard Dawson guides Jennifer Lucy Allan through an unsurprisingly diverse selection of records in this week's Baker's Dozen

Richard Dawson loves talking about music, so long as it’s not his own, and his cat Trouble knows it – she has learned to mute or hang up the phone by putting her paws on the screen. “The writing is so precise,” he explains, “and I really believe in the power of words, but I’m quite a clumsy talker and not a fast thinker,” and so in interviews, he feels he can “fuck everything up with one sentence”.

Where the characters who inhabited 2017 Quietus Album of the Year Peasant were coated in mud and twigs, those on new album 2020 are mired in brands and stuff: Nandos, Premier Inn, Bags For Life, vapes, Zoopla, Aldi, the Red Cross – it is a litany. “They’re some of the most interesting words, just from a sound point of view,” he says. “But it’s more about what our experience is when we step out the front door… If you’re going to paint a picture of the world actually as people see it, then rather than describing the shape of the landscape, our landscape is products and big bright words; plastic things. Our whole lives are geared around the acquisition of these things.”

Despite this comment, which could be described as political, Dawson says that 2020 “isn’t political – it’s personal. It’s linked to Peasant – maybe it’s the same record, and maybe the next one will be the same again.”

This is a clue, I think.

Peasant he describes as “quite a pungent record” whereas 2020 is “much more like concrete, a bit more grey, and that informed the language,” he explains. “I kept writing a nice sentence, something that was pleasing, but I’d end up scaling it back because it just felt like it wasn’t how this person would talk or think. People don’t think in ‘pretty’ words, it’s a little bit mushy, so plainer language felt appropriate. You can still make lots of amazing images, but in terms of the poetry it had to be stripped back.” While Dawson says the new album isn’t political, I’m not convinced. The lives of those in 2020 are affected by political decisions in very real ways, and in the present moment, even describing an individual’s circumstances seems to become political. But asking Dawson about his authorship or the aims of these stories appears to be posing the question wrong.

What has its seedlings in the archival stories contained in The Glass Trunk, evolved into world-building on Peasant and has morphed into a stark documentary form in 2020 is Dawson’s songwriting not as author and ego, but as the conduit for a cast of characters that speak their own minds. When I push him to understand his position, he describes inhabiting these characters when he writes, trying to speak as them as honestly as possible. This way of working seems more closely affiliated to folk traditions than the mould of the rock & roll auteur, and this distinction might be at the root of misinterpretations, as he says his songs are often heard as at least partly autobiographical. “I was quite startled as [after ‘Jogging’ was released] people were trying to find out where to send me sponsorship money for the London Marathon – I don’t jog,” he says. He’s also surprised that people tend to assume his characters are men, explaining that he’s been careful to write lyrics that don’t often gender the characters. "At least half the time the person singing is a woman,” he says. “But in all of the reviews people assume generally that it’s a bloke – ‘Two Halves’ it’s assumed as a son and ‘Jogging’, a man." 

Musically 2020 is the next link in the chain from Peasant, with lush song structures and thickets of guitar, bold dropouts like bright clearings, within the lyrics there is a starkness, bitterness, and violence. Within the first few minutes of ‘Civil Servant’ he sings: “I dream of bashing his skull into a brainy pulp with the Sellotape dispenser”. Delivered in his soaring falsetto makes it a more difficult listen than it already is. Dawson has said elsewhere of feeling overwhelmed by the process of writing and recording it. It reflects back a picture already in front of us – the shitstream of bad news; lives made miserable by others; inescapable poverty; people crushed by state and corporation; loneliness and divorce; people having affairs. For me, it is a lyrical cacophony of everything I am ignoring to get by. As such, I can’t say I really like it – that’s like asking if you enjoy watching Panorama special reports on the effects of austerity.

There are cathartic moments – the civil servant screaming “I refuse, I refuse, I refuse”, and profundity in lines like the refrain of “how little we are” in ‘The Queens Head’, but they are small comfort. “I realised I needed to make a record that sounded a bit more like a conventional rock record,” he explains. “My natural inclination was to shy away from that, but the thought of making something deliberately odd is repugnant, and I always thought 2020 should be very awkward, and they should sounds like these glorious choruses, and the people in these songs would be in opposition to that.”

I ask if he worries about locking something so tightly to the present moment – by next year, we might not still be using Zoopla to fantasy hunt for houses; Carling might have stopped sponsoring venues, Cash Converters might have gone under; emojis may have been superseded. “On the one hand, we tend to shy away from these things around us because we don’t see any poetry in them,” he says. “The other thing was when I think that this work so concerned with time, and our perceptions of our selves in time, that it’s not a danger to use these things. I think the things that would date this period are more likely to be production techniques or artwork.”

While 2020 has stripped the language back, chatting with Dawson about other people’s music brings out the opposite. He talks effusively and descriptively about eureka moments where “everything changed”; about discoveries working in Newcastle’s record shops, where it sounds like he encountered some West Side Story-like rivalries between those on the jazz racks and those on rock & roll; about the emotional fortitude of Diana Ross’s delivery on The Supremes’ album Reflections (a list entry that was regretfully cut at the last minute). Throughout our conversation about his list of 13 records, new ones come up – by the end of the interview I have a list of my own: ethnomusicologist Laura Boulton’s sound recordings of Eskimo communities in the Hudson Bay; a Sun Ra interview record, and the second solo album by Circle guitarist Janne Westerlund. While 2020 might be a difficult listen, Dawson’s Baker’s Dozen offers uncomplicated joy.

Richard Dawson’s 2020 is out now via Weird World / Domino Records, please click the image of Richard below to begin reading his selections

First Record

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