Storytelling: an interview with Ray Wilson

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Possessing one of the most expressive voices in rock brought Scotsman Ray Wilson to prominence in the 1990s with Stiltskin and Genesis, and with the ability to turn virtually any song into an engaging tale of emotions. Throughout his subsequent solo career Wilson's aim has been to make every song a story, and his newest album Song For A Friend is probably the most fully realised expression of that aim so far.

A deeply personal album, containing songs which are either about Ray, or people he knows, it's been written in such a way as to lay bare the emotions involved in the stories the songs tell as starkly as possible, set to minimal acoustic instrumentation courtesy of Stiltskin guitarist Uwe Metzler. The lyrics are both personal, but also accessible to the listener, relating the tale without making any of it too obscure. All part of the plan, the album comes in a book format with the CD in a pocket in the back, and is entirely designed to present short stories directly from the artist to the listener, something Wilson feels is a rare thing which not many artists would try to achieve in such a revealing way.

"It's a very personal, real and true to life album, and not everybody can deal with that literal heart-on-a-sleeve approach to things, but that's the way I am. It's a little bit autobiographical in a way, I do tend to write that way. I'm not really someone who reads a book and then writes a song about it. I write about life, about emotions, spiritual feelings, stuff like that. Not really religious, but spirituality. I tend to use a lot of that terminology when I write. I think for most people it's very difficult, I have to say. It is difficult to expose yourself in that respect. For me, I didn't over-analyse what I was writing, I just kinda let it come out, and then read over it at the end. I don't write all the time, I set aside periods of time where I write, when my soul is full of things to say. On this album I worked with Uwe Metzler, who wrote all the music, so I had these beautiful pieces of music to write to, it was a dream. I found that I was inspired by the music, by the guitar playing and the way the songs were crafted, so that coupled with being full of things to say, and just basically locking myself in a room and doing it, and it just came flooding out."

The key song on the album is the title track, written for a friend who committed suicide after becoming completely disabled following an accident. The album is dedicated to him, as is the song, but it was actually Wilson's second attempt at writing a song for his departed friend. "[It] happened actually half way through the process of writing this album, and when he had his funeral I couldn't go, I live in Poland and I was working, so couldn't go there, and I remember that day of his funeral I really felt all day like I was carrying this weight, it was on my mind all the time, so I decided to sit down and write a song for him, that's what I do, and I wrote a song called How Long Is Too Long, but it didn't seem like I'd said everything I wanted to say, so a couple of weeks later I wrote this song Song For A Friend, and it all came flooding out. In the end, when the album was finished I thought it would be a nice thing to do just to do dedicate it to him. "

“ I carried a lot of anger and hate and hurt inside me ”
- Ray Wilson

While the meanings of several of the other songs on the album are less obvious: "The first song is Old Book On The Shelf, which I suppose is kind of appropriate as the album is designed like a book, you can smell the paper, it's printed exactly the same way as the old Ladybird books were printed when I was a child – and I did that on purpose – but that first song is in some ways fictional, but has a parallel to reality in that when I reached the age of 30, it was when my time with Genesis had finished, effectively the end of a ten year period of commercial success with Stiltskin and Genesis, and I ended up really kind of lost, like I didn't really know what to do now, and I had a two-year period of searching my soul to see what I was going to do. I was reading a book by Paulo Coelho, a very famous book called 'The Alchemist', and that book changed my life. I went from a person who was wanting success and wanting everything bigger and better and faster, to someone who almost detached myself from that way of thinking, and started being more focused on the simple things in life, like friendships and not hating anybody. That seems like a bizarre thing, but I carried a lot of anger and hate and hurt inside me, and I had to fight not carrying that emotion anymore. Old Book On The Shelf is a fictional story of someone who goes into a bar in Amsterdam, and he's looking around thinking about life, and sees there's a bookshelf with one book, and he decides to go and read it. When he reads it, it's the story of his life, and by reading the story of his life he begins to understand his life, and understand himself better. And subsequently through understanding himself, goes on to live a more peaceful life. And that's effectively a parallel to what I experienced with the Paulo Coelho book.

"Over My Dead Body is a good one. It's that idea that some people wonder who's going to turn up at your funeral, which people from the past are going to be there, and so on. That's a song which really asks that question of myself. The next time I see you will be when I'm dead and you're looking down and I'm in a hole. I'm sure we’ve all got relationships from the past where you think "I will never see this person again, but maybe when I'm dead and buried he'll be telling everyone how he was my best friend." Not Long Till Springtime; my girlfriend is a contemporary dancer, she lives in Poland, and she does different projects around the world, and she called me a couple of months into a project, and she had injured herself. Anyone who lives with a dancer knows that this is the end of the world. She was so devastated by this, and I was writing at the time for this album and I thought I'll write a song for her before she goes to bed and send it by email, and try and lift her spirits. It was winter time when this happened, and it was a song of like "it gets better, it's gonna be OK, dig down deep, stay patient, stay focused, it comes good again." That's effectively the story, but it was written specifically for her, and in the video for that song, that's her dancing in it."

Apart from occasional songs on past albums, Wilson and Metzler have never collaborated on a non-Stiltskin album before, primarily because Metzler's music has always been rooted in heavy rock, which Wilson's solo music rarely incorporates, as he has Stiltskin as an outlet for that style. This time was different, and Wilson specifically asked the guitarist not to write rock music for him; "We've mostly done rock songs in the past, because when he's sent me songs it's always been electric guitar based, and grungier alternative or classic rock, it was always those types of ideas that he came with, and I asked him specifically not to do that this time. I wanted something a bit more simplistic, and acoustic. I didn't want to fill the album up with production, I wanted something that allowed the space for me to tell a story, and for people to actually hear what I'm saying. I have a lot of fans on the continent, and ironically I find that people whose first language is not English pay more attention to what's being written lyrically than people whose first language is English. Maybe just because it's fascination, I don't know, but I do tend to find that fans are very intrigued by what's being said and what it means. So because I wanted these songs to be like short stories, I wanted the production to be more minimalist, to let the song breathe, if you like."

Collaboration has been Wilson's primary source of inspiration in recent years, preferring to construct his songs from the musical ideas of his collaborators. Wilson turns to the musicians he would like to work with before making any decisions about the songs for an album. "I start with the people. We talk, and they send me stuff, and listen to what I've been doing, sometimes I write on the guitar, sometimes I write on the keyboard, but in more recent years I tend to work with people who create the musical ideas, and I’ve been more producing or arranging it from that point on, and then writing melody and lyrics to it. And I really like working like that, it's really inspiring when a piece of music is given to me and I don't know what the chords are before I start, and I'm not thinking about it at all, I'm just listening. Normally the way I work is I listen to a musical piece maybe once, and if I like it and decide to write to it, I put the headphones on loud, play the music, and just sing whatever comes to mind, and I'll maybe three or four takes, then listen back to it. There are normally one or two moments where I think "oh that's cool, that works," and the rest perhaps doesn’t, so I'll take that one moment and develop a song from there. It's similar to the way Genesis wrote songs. They'd jam together for hours, then listen back to the tapes and every now and again they'd hear a moment that worked and they'd take it out and start to develop it and build a song from it."

“ sometimes the song develops live ”
- Ray Wilson

Almost of those songs tend to be built from scratch with each album, rather than revisiting old, unused ideas from previous sessions, usually because each new album is intended to have a particular new sound, so requires new music etc. Occasionally though, one or two ideas get dusted off if they didn't find a place on a previous record. "I don't really store stuff. I mean there is stuff I worked on for these two albums, songs that are not on the albums, and they're still there, there's quite a few of them I guess, I don't actually know how many because I don't pay too much attention to them if I don't think they're good enough, but quite often I'll listen back to something and go "oh, that wasn't as a bad as I thought, there's something in that," maybe it has a good hook or a good verse. So there's a bit of that going on, but most of the time I put them to one side and never listen to them again. Actually, there's a song called They Never Should Have Sent You Roses, that was around when I wrote the last album I did, and it didn't go on it for that very same reason, it didn't fit. But I listened to it later and thought "that's really good, it's not quite right yet, but there's a lot of good stuff there." It made me think a bit of Psychedelic Furs, in the way I was singing the song, bits of U2, a bit of Bowie, and I thought "yeah, there's something in this," so I went back to it and started again, and it's actually the first song on the next album."

Once songs have been completed and released though, Wilson is a big fan of revisiting them later in his career to give them some different treatment. In recent years many of his past songs have been reworked into orchestral arrangements, or acoustic arrangements for special shows or tours, while others have had a lot of extra instrumentation added to them in a live setting versus the original, more straight-forward versions released on studio albums. These new songs are no different, and will very likely be revisited in years to come. "Actually sometimes the song develops live. We have a song called Propaganda Man from 2008, and the live version that we do of that is much better than the studio recording of it, it just grew into this whole other thing, and now it's one of those songs where fans say I really wish you'd record that version of the song. That happens, not always of course, but from time to time, and it's nice that these things occur and the song takes on a new life when the band are in a live environment. The thing about writing an acoustic song is you can turn it into whatever the hell you want. You could do a punk version of it, you could do a metal version of it, whatever you want. We'll play a few of these songs live and some will work better than others, as is always the case with these things, and it may be that one of these songs works really well live and we end up doing a different version of it, because in my band I have violin, saxophone, flute, clarinet, guitar, bass, drums, so there’s quite a lot of elements and it can go in a number of ways. But at the moment I'll try to keep it very true to how it is."

Having all of these different styles and arrangements in his music can segment his audience at times ("It's as much about where I play as well. Because I do a lot of theatres, where you attract a certain type of listener, and then if you're in a rock club it's a certain other type of listener"). His oldest fans will be rock fans or progressive rock fans from the early Stiltskin and Genesis days, who maybe aren't so interested in the acoustic or orchestral stuff, while his newer fans, especially on the Polish and German circuit which he tours constantly, might prefer the more gentle side of his catalogue. His is a catalogue though which really does have something for everyone. Nearly. And there are still areas he'd like to explore. "The orchestral thing was kind of fun, but it's behind me now. It would be nice maybe to delve into electronic. That's one area that I haven't really worked with. Or a producer who's good with electronic music and can use my voice within it. Because primarily I'm a singer, that's what I do first and foremost, so it's nice to hear the voice in different musical styles. Apart from that, it would be nice to go back and do a punk band again. I was in a band called Cheap Dialogue when I was at school, which was a line from a Sex Pistols song on the Never Mind The Bollocks album, so something more manic like metal or punk or something might be quite nice to go back to."

In the mean time though, he will be touring both Song For A Friend, and his forthcoming electric album Makes Me Think of Home ("kind of pop, rock, and a little bit of progressive rock"), which is due for release in October 2016, with the possibility of UK shows (finally) in 2017.

Written by Andy Lye
More: Interviews,

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