He’s been described as a visionary musician and a master of performance. His music has captured millions and his desire to create has barely stopped to pause.
Along with his various side projects and creative dalliances with other musicians, STEVE WILSON is a powerhouse of his genre. In 2015, he released his latest solo work Hand. Cannot. Erase – a concept album that follows the sad story of a young woman, Joyce Carol Vincent, whose complete isolation led to a tragic end. It’s a story that pulls on the heartstrings and brings to light our growing over-dependence on technology and the often negative effects it can pose.
Returning to Australia in October this year, Steve Wilson sat down with Reverb Magazine’s LILEN PAUTASSO to talk about his latest release and what inspires him to create musical stories in a growingly disjointed world.
As with most of your releases, Hand. Cannot. Erase. is a concept album that follows the sad story of Joyce Carol Vincent. What drew you to tell Joyce’s story on this album?
I first heard the story about 10 years ago when it was in the news. It was a story about a woman that died alone in her apartment and, that in itself was quite shocking, but it wasn’t necessarily something I thought too much about at the time. But then a few years ago there was a documentary that was made about Joyce Carol Vincent called Dreams of a Life. It was fascinating to me seeing that documentary because I realised there were things that I hadn’t really appreciated when I first heard the story on the news – that this wasn’t, as I had assumed, some lonely little old lady that had died, but rather she was a young, attractive, popular girl. That made the story, I think, 10 times more shocking and 10 times more difficult in a way to kind of absorb. And, for me, it got me thinking about many things to do with living in the city, with urban isolation, about loneliness, about loss…and about how technology, rather than bringing us closer together, has the effect of pushing us further apart. So there’s that kind of contradiction to do with things like social networking actually being quite anti-social. I think all of these ideas kind of grew out of the story of Joyce Carol Vincent and it became like a gift to talk about a lot of the current, 21st Century malaise – loneliness, isolation, over-population, over-reliance on technology. All of these things grew out of this for me. It became a gift to write music around the idea of this woman gradually disappearing from view whilst living in the heart of a massive metropolis. That to me was such a beautiful, tragic but fascinating idea and the whole album just started to pour out of me at that point.
It’s interesting you say that because, when looking at previous albums that you’ve done – notably Fear of a Blank Planet – you’ve touched on that same concept of technology alienating us as a society. Are you finding that this ‘theme’ is becoming more prevalent and is therefore evident in more of your storytelling?
Absolutely. Let’s just say that things aren’t getting better, are they? They’re getting worse. I wrote my first song about the internet in 1996 on an album called Signify – there was a track on there called ‘Every Home is Wired’. So I’ve been writing songs about this idea for the best part of 20 years. Actually, if you think about it, one of the major obsessions for people, like me, who write these conceptual albums is the way that technology tends to affect the human race in not necessarily the most positive way. So if you go back to say Tommy by The Who or The Wall by Pink Floyd or OK Computer by Radiohead – in a sense all of these albums are all about the way technology alienates humans from other members of the human race. And I think that’s a continuing fascination for people like myself who do write music, or write books and movies etc. The way the human race almost doesn’t stop to think about the way that “progress” actually doesn’t always work, it doesn’t always benefit the human race in the way that we think it will and I think the computer and internet age is a great example of that. It’s almost like two steps forward and two steps back. I look around the world and I see, I think for the very first time in history, the human race in a state of devolution, going backwards, getting more stupid and I wonder if technology can’t be blamed for why that is the case. I think something about being a writer helps you focus about the world we live in and your place in it and whenever I think about that, about computers, about social networking, about games, cellphones and reality TV, I find myself coming to the same conclusion that really none of these have been good for the human race. And that’s a very strange thing to acknowledge for yourself but that is what I believe, unfortunately.
The song ‘Perfect Life’ circulates around female narration. Why did you decide to focus on narration, rather than singing the parts yourself or have someone else sing them for you?
There are a few reasons. The main reason is that because the album was from a female perspective and is inspired by Joyce Carol Vincent, it was always a female character in my mind, so, when I started to write from a female perspective I realised I really needed to have some kind of female voice on the album to legitimise that female perspective. One of the things I did to achieve that was to have a female singer, but I also wanted to have, literally, a female voice on the record. At the same time I was also working on this diary/blog that would reflect the inner thoughts of this character because, obviously when you start writing about a character that has had very little communication with other human beings, you think “how can I tell the story and how can I get the story across when she doesn’t communicate with other people?”. The obvious answer was ‘she has a diary’ or really, the modern equivalent of a diary which is a blog. So I started to work on this diary/blog and there was one particular story I wrote in that blog which is the story you hear on ‘Perfect Life’ and I just wanted to hear someone read that and I wanted to set it to music and I wanted to have that voice on the record. It worked so beautifully.
On the topic of female vocals, how did you choose the right female vocalist to tell the story?
Well the simple answer is, and it’s kind of a boring answer, but I went to a voice agency and I listened to…many different samples of voice-over artists. I chose the one that I thought sounded most close to the voice I heard in my head. And even then it wasn’t quite the voice I had in my head, but it would’ve been impossible for me to find exactly that voice. The actress that read it in the end obviously had her own interpretation in her head and she made it her own, so now I couldn’t imagine anyone else reading that story now.
Of course, the way I see it, it’s almost like when you’re casting an actor for a movie that’s based on a book. You’ll always have a concept for that character in your head so trying to find the right person is challenging because it has to be true to what you’ve interpreted.
Absolutely. And I also have that problem when I give songs I’ve written to other people to sing, you know, it’s very hard to hear your words coming out of someone else’s mouth. It’s always slightly uncomfortable but it can also be very inspiring as well because you can hear a different perspective on what you wrote. And I think that’s definitely what Katherine [Begley, voice artist] did on the ‘Perfect Life’ story. It was different to what I imagined but I grew to love it and I realise now that that’s inevitable that you always have to get used to something not necessarily being exactly as you imagined it in your head.
Going back to what you were saying about that dystopic view of technology and its impact on us, we all live in times of shorter attention spans and a love of bite-sized information. With this in mind, do you believe that the concept album still has an important place in music?
I think certainly, yes. Put it this way, you wouldn’t say to a film director or a novelist “do you think writing a book or making a movie still has relevance?” – of course it does. I think the idea of telling stories through art – whether it be a feature length film, a full length novel or a full length album – I think those kind of art forms are as legitimate and relevant as ever before.
Now the one caveat to that is, as you pointed out, people don’t necessarily have the attention span to sit down and listen to a whole album from beginning to end as a narrative piece. That’s something I fight against in a way with my music and, let’s just say this, I think there are still enough people out there that do care about the album as a continuum, as a storytelling device…to make it absolutely still valid, and I would say that I’m actually reaching more people all the time. There’s also this whole question that as world becomes more distracted and, arguably, more dumb there is also this kind of pendulum swing in the opposite direction where there are a lot of people now questioning those things and saying “well there must be more to life, there must be more to music, there must be more to whatever it is than me just staring at my computer and cellphone all day”, so I think there is a swing in the other direction. And from my own point of view my fan-base is growing and my record sales are going up and my ticket sales are going up and I’m encouraged by that and I’m encouraged by the fact that I think a lot of young people are discovering, as you call it, the ‘concept album’ or the idea that the album can be much more than just a bunch of pop songs thrown together in a random order. It can be more substantial than that, it can be almost like a feature film or a novel…a long answer to your question but I think the simple answer is, yes absolutely it’s still valid and if anything it’s growing again.
You’ll be returning to Australia later this year to promote the album. What is your best memory from the last tour and what are you looking forward to when you finally arrive here?
I’ve only been a couple of times and both have been very quick visits and I was in a daze the whole time because it’s obviously very tough to fly from the UK to Australia and not feel that jet lag hanging over you the whole time. But even with all that…I remember having the most amazing time in Australia and one day I mean to get some quality time and have a few days before and a few days after…I really really want to build into my visit having a week off to travel around because I haven’t really done that. What I’ve loved are the audiences which are amazing, so passionate, so warm and inviting that I’m really looking forward to that again.
Finally, Steve, with your shows you don’t normally have a support act travel with you, why is that?
Partly because the show is quite long and it’s quite complicated because of all the visuals and the films and the quadraphonic sound. But also partly because it’s very important to me, personally, that the whole experience from the moment the audience walk into the venue to the moment the audience leave the venue at the end of the evening, it’s very important to me that I’m in a way directing that whole experience. So everything from the music that’s playing when they walk in through to the key visuals that are going on when they walk in that’s something I want under my control. So it’s not really the kind of show where an opening act would be appropriate – it’s not a rock and roll concert, it’s a show. Everything that goes along with a show – the visuals, the quadraphonic sound, the music you hear before and after the show – all of those things are an extension of my musical personality so for me it’s really important to have that under my control.
Steven Wilson performs at the Powerstation, Auckland on Wednesday October 26; 170 Russell, Melbourne on Friday October 28; Metro Theatre, Sydney on Saturday October 29; Eatons Hotel, Brisbane on Sunday October 30, 2016.