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Nine Songs
Richard Dawson

The Domino-signed singer/songwriter talks about the songs that inspire his writing.

09 June 2017, 11:00 | Words by Ed Nash

Richard Dawson’s love of music began as a child, when he first saw a record at a friends’ house. “It was a coloured Fisher Price record, I remember feeling it, the texture of it was… ‘Wow.’”

After that eureka moment, the first songs he remembers hearing were the ones his Dad played in the car, "the likes 'Hey Jude' and Aram Khachaturian’s 'The Sabre Dance.'" Dawson then discovered heavy metal via his sisters’ record collection: that began a love of the genre that’s endured to the present day. “It’s not so different from the music I make, I think there’s a lot of metal in the melodies sometimes. The aim is to be straight with people and that’s why I really like Iron Maiden, it’s very honest music.”

Dawson’s selections celebrate his love of sound and songwriting, with several clocking over the supposedly magical three-minute time limit of the perfect pop song.

“We’re so geared towards the song form but there’s so much else besides that. It’s so strange, like if you only liked one type of food, you’d miss out on a whole range of flavours. I guess it just takes practice, but we’re not really practiced at listening, there’s a lot of noise in the world.”

“Phantom of the Opera” by Iron Maiden

“I initially chose 'Prowler' because it was the first one I heard and it was the first track on the first album. It’s incredible, but I looked at the lyrics and they’re inane and horrible, so I couldn’t choose that. 'Phantom of the Opera' goes from section to section with these unbelievable riffs, it’s just the movement of it.

“I first heard it when I was 12, I remember taping it off my Sister’s vinyl. I couldn’t believe it, it was so much more aggressive than anything I’d heard, but it’s got very sweet moments as well. It’s an amazing arrangement, there’s a lot going on beyond the music they’re playing and it’s a fantastic sounding record, it still stands up now.

“Although I prefer 'Where Eagles Dare' nowadays - it’s got three of the best riffs of all time in one song - listening to “Phantom of the Opera” as a 12-year-old was absolutely mind-blowing. Previously the songs I heard were verse, chorus, middle-eight, chorus, whereas this has a start section, it slows down and then it rises. It was the first time I’d heard that in very direct music that had ambition and scope. The early Iron Maiden stuff is unfairly derided; people don’t take it seriously and they should. It’s great, heartfelt, technically astonishing and sound-wise the recordings are brilliant.”

“Bipp” by SOPHIE

“This gave me the same feeling as hearing Iron Maiden for the first time. When you get a little older it’s harder to find absolute newness, but to completely not understand a thing about what I was hearing with “Bipp” was a good feeling. The first time I heard it everything was kind of off and wrong, but by the third listen I was “Wow.” The whole way its presented is like a very particular take on a futuristic thing, but with this latexy, elastic quality to the music. He’s got a complete vision and mixes it in with the fashion and the sound.

“It’s a dance track, but it’s very unusual, it doesn’t really have a beat, it feels like it’s about to kick in but it never does, it’s just got this lilting, forward quality to it. It’s a great song but the production is so astonishing. I don’t know what programme he’s using, it’s like the PC music Hannah Diamond does, almost like computer game music, but really garish. There’s nothing else like it, it’s really new and the best thing I’ve heard in a long time, a different approach to sounds.

“Every now and again something jumps out and that just leapt out of the screen. It’s fabulous, it’s like it’s happening in the brain. I was pinned to the sofa listening to this, I rang my housemate and said ‘You’ve got to listen to this, come home now!’”

“All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix

“It’s one of those ones that crept in, a bit like 'Layla', everyone knows it, but this is so exceptional. I’ve listened to it hundreds of times and it keeps revealing new things every time. The sound of it is absolutely amazing, there’s so many things flying at you from all over. There’s three chords in it but there’s so much to it if you focus on one part - the drumming is so incredible with little chunks of guitar superimposed on the top.

“There’s a moment at the start when the drums kick in, something happens with the timing, there’s an extra beat in there, it gets stretched out and it just puts you in the zone. I don’t want to be over the top, but if you have to pick ‘a moment’, to me, that’s the great record. With that particular moment, I still can’t fathom it, it’s like a gateway. Sometimes I feel music can open up and maybe for a split second you can have access into the next layer, and that part is really wild. It does that for me, but I guess most people just hear a missed beat and think ‘this is weird’, but its magic. It’s a moment that stretches time and it still gets better and better.

“I’d like it played at my funeral, because it’s so celebratory, the spirit of it is so joyous, ‘There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.’ It’s great when Hendrix sings it.”

“Smooth Criminal” by Michael Jackson

“The only album I’d been into before Iron Maiden was Michael Jackson’s Bad, it was the very first album I became obsessed by. I was on holiday in Crete when I was nine or ten and I was re-enacting the dance moves to this track in front of my parents and some friends they'd made in, the lobby of the hotel where we were staying. When I tried to do the Michael Jackson spin I fell and cracked my head on the marble floor.

“It has an amazing riff and an incredibly weird, punchy sound. It’s like soulful computer game music, it’s very exciting.”

“Where is the Line?” by Björk

“Up until I was about 16 of 17, I was listening to was more and more extremes of metal, just heavier and heavier music. Then my dear friend Sarah played me Björk round her house and it opened up a whole new area of music for me. She played me a bunch of Bjork tracks, 'Pluto', 'You've Been Flirting Again', 'There's More To Life Than This', 'Anchor Song', 'Hyperballad', 'Unravel' and lots more. It was the first time I'd heard electronic music be soulful and organic and it helped me to be able to hear that in other music. From Björk the next steps were Autechre, Aphex Twin, the whole Rephlex catalogue and beyond.

“It's amazing to me that despite Björk being so popular and well-regarded, she seems to remain underrated - compared with her other achievements - as a composer and producer. She's been an incredible ambassador for electronic music and music in general and she’s one of the most important composers of all time.

“I picked 'Where is the Line?', a later song, because it's totally immense and unique, but it could have been any number of her songs, maybe 'Unravel' or 'Pluto' might have been more 'formative' for me, if you know what I mean. Oh well, I find it hard to listen to Björk sometimes, because it makes me miss my pal!”

“I Hope You Know” by Nev Clay

“When I did my first solo gig Nev was playing as well, and that’s when I met him. I must have been dreadful, but he was incredibly positive and supportive, as he is with everyone. I’ve played fifty, sixty times with him subsequently and he’s a very good pal now.

“Nev’s a beautiful man, very gentle, very, very bright and sensitive but as a songwriter his sense of melody is second to none, his turns of phrase are sparkling, crystal-clear and crisp. I picked 'I Hope You Know' because we recorded it together for a joint album. It’s very small but perfectly formed, there’s no fat on it, it’s a very moving song.

“I first heard it when I played with him and I always liked it because it’s like him, quite unassuming but quietly very powerful. This particular choice is more about a pivotal man for me, he’s a big influence, a beautiful guitarist and also as a friend and a support. He’s the most criminally underrated songwriter, he’s not really known outside of Newcastle but everybody in Newcastle knows him and loves him very dearly.”

“Space is the Place” by Sun Ra

“It’s got the greatest bass riff of all time. I worked in a record shop called JG Windows in Newcastle and this was the first thing I heard when I was working there. The shop was really old fashioned, but there was a Jazz and Avant-garde section that had a huge Sun Ra section and I saw that cover, where he’s looking up with the incredible dress on.

“I’d always made tape experiments at home, but I’d never realised that other people were making that music and suddenly there was a whole world out there of like-minded people. I saw an interview where someone asked him ‘You claim to be an Angel; do you really believe that?’ And he said ‘Well, actually no, I’ve recently been promoted to Arc Angel.’

“I’d never heard long-form music like that before. To me, Sun Ra is the cornerstone of all music, certainly in the last sixty years, he’s just so far ahead of the curve on so many scores, his arrangements, the harmonies, the electronic side of it, the improv side. He’s decades ahead and he’s in so much music now, and the music still sounds really crazy. There’s the incredible bass riff and then the singers come in with this polyphony. It keeps going up and up and then it breaks down. It’s completely life-changing when you haven’t heard anything like that.

“The first I time heard it I had to stop it after five or six minutes, it was too much, but I was thinking about it the next day and on the third or fourth listen I reached the end and hit play again.”

“WTF” by Missy Elliott

“This is a recent one. I wasn’t that familiar with her stuff before, I’d heard bits and bobs, but this one is tied up with the video, it’s as much about the video production as the song itself. I thought the song was great but the dancing and the costumes and the whole thing in the video is completely marvellous. There’s a puppet version of Pharrell at one point and it’s very exciting.

“Somebody posted it on Facebook and I couldn’t stop looking at it, I was ‘Wow, it’s a kind of dangerous energy’… and amazing outfits. It’s a very odd presence she’s got as well, she’s not direct, even when it’s in full screen, she’s sort of elusive and quite hidden. It was the first of her songs I’d really paid attention to. I looked at 'Ching-A-Ling' after that and it was really great, she’s dancing in a room with gold dollars.

“I picked this one because we experience songs in a different way now and YouTube is the primary way, the song is great but the visuals lift it up to become spectacular.”

“Mila's Journey Inspired by a Dream” by Éliane Radigue

“This is the most crucial one on the list, maybe we could just have this one! It’s the songs of Milarepa by Éliane Radigue, a drone composer with a huge ARP synthesiser. There’s Tibetan stories, spoken and sung in Tibetan and translated and spoken in English by Robert Ashley. You can hear Ashley chuckling on it, he’s got this lovely lilt to his voice that’s so at odds to the music.

“At the time all I saw was a horrid looking cover, I love it now, but it looked so diabolically bad. It went in the sale at the record shop and I was “What is that?” I put it on and there was ten minutes of humming and I was “OK…” and then suddenly this Tibetan voice came out of nowhere, it was so loud it startled people in the shop. I was so intrigued by it I thought ‘I’ve got to take this home.’ I put it on, laid down and emerged feeling transformed, aware that something had happened.

“It’s one piece of music, but there’s quite a few songs in there. After a while you’re locked in, it’s almost like you’re sitting far above the music, there’s something in it that surrounds you. For fifty minutes, various songs come and go and then the music starts to ramp up with samples of Buddhist chants. It just rises and rises to this thunderous… it’s like a cloud, it just drops away and then you emerge. You need an hour to just lie down and listen to it, it’s a good feeling, it puts you in a different place.”

Peasant is out now on Weird World/Domino
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