Richard Dawson: “The illusion of stability has been stripped back”

Richard Dawson’s outstanding new LP '2020' tells stories from this age of anxiety

Richard Dawson’s new LP, ‘2020’, is pop music as social realism. A series of songs whose depictions of everyday life in modern Britain builds into a worrying picture, a state of the nation study of a divided country – ‘2020’ might just be the sound of 2019.

Each song is a character study. And each character is relatable and real. Dawson’s sixth LP is perhaps his finest to date.

“These people are real. To me, at least. So they require the highest level of respect,” says Dawson of his fictional creations.

“They were in my spirit and in my blood. And they would lead the songs themselves. It was a case of following what the people in the songs were trying to say – the biggest challenge was putting my own stuff out of the way, my own need to be a flashy writer.

“The last record [2017’s ‘Peasant’] had a lot of room for really exotic words and intricate wordplay. Whereas with this record it was important to scale back any wordy stuff, anything more poetic. It is not a blank canvas. It is set in a place that is very recognisable. We are all there – so no one is going to take any of this wordsmith guff, you know?

“It was daunting because you realise that the songs are more naked. It doesn’t have strange clothes on, it doesn’t have a jaunty hat.”

I know through chatting to people at my gigs what they are struggling with… all those conversations are in this record

The first song Dawson worked on, the one that lay the foundations for the LP was ‘Jogging’ – an account of someone turning to exercise to ease their anxiety. It captures an underlying, wide-ranging existential angst felt by so many in the age of austerity and on the eve of Brexit.

“I wanted to write about mental health issues. It was too horrendous to begin with. It was lurid, what I was writing. The very worst-case scenarios,” says Dawson.

“When I came back to it, after a lot of editing, it became more like the situation a lot of people might find themselves in.

“I have felt quite overwhelmed. And I know through chatting to people at my gigs what they are struggling with. So you have a certain responsibility to those people to do them justice. Everything that goes in your ears comes out somehow – and all those conversations are in this record.”

A lot of people are feeling a baseline anxiety

The precision of the playing pushed him, he says, to the edge of his musical ability, while the title imposed a tight deadline. But the resulting LP is a coherent, captivating map of an uncertain age.

“That’s good to hear. I haven’t had any feedback on the record yet,” says Dawson.

“You do feel a collective sense of anxiety when you are out on the street. You see it evident in the way homelessness has shot through the roof. Everybody is feeling the squeeze. A lot of people are feeling a baseline anxiety.

“Everything is always uncertain – but here we have a very stark and lurid uncertainty which is in people’s thoughts all the time. I suppose the illusion of there being stability has been stripped back.”

And, as Dawson explains, some communities are suffering more than others.

“People have different opinions on the political arguments. But if you are in a marginalised community, everyday stuff must be a great challenge,” he says. “Especially if you are geared a certain way, to worry, and maybe don’t feel so confident in your own skin.

“Obviously not all the [Brexit] votes were won on hateful sentiment. And it is not so bad here as it is in lots of places, Newcastle is still a very tolerant city.

“But there is a good portion of the vote that was sold on a lot of hateful stuff – and that opens the floodgate for a lot more openly abusive behaviour.”

DID YOU KNOW…

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Unlike some of his contemporaries, Dawson is, he says, keen not to present too many specific readings of his songs before people hear them.

But themes of austerity, anxiety, Brexit, insecure employment, identity are threaded throughout the character studies on the album as the lyrics mention everything from flood defences to bags for life, Lionel Messi, Zoopla and Cash Converters – not exactly the usual stuff of poetry.

“Some of them are such pungent words and quite difficult to sing and deliver right,” says Dawson.

“There is nothing on this album that is intentionally funny, but you are aware it is kind of ridiculous. And ridiculous is probably an appropriate mood for the moment.

The attack on benefits… has caused a lot of horror to happen

“The person in each song is quite fixed in my mind,” he continues, as his cat, Trouble, tries to join the conversation.

“But every listener will connect to them in their own way.

“I really admire Sleaford Mods. They are one of the best bands of our time. I feel like their stuff is extra-political – it is not didactic, but it is morally strong. For me, it is important to speak to as many people as possible. I am not really one for black and white. I think blurriness is more true.

“One aspect I do spell out which is in there quite prevalently is the attack on benefits. That is something I think has gone under the radar because of Brexit – but has caused a lot of horror to happen. The benefit cuts and the disability benefit restructuring to me encompasses the very worst of what has been enacted on people…”

2020 by Richard Dawson is out now on Domino Records

Image: Sally Pilkington