Steven Wilson: New Tales From the Prog Master
British producer and multi-instrumentalist Steven Wilson on writing in a female voice for his new album ‘Hand. Cannot. Erase’ and why he loves psychedelic music
Steven Wilson might be the versatile mind behind some of the best progressive rock albums with his band, Porcupine Tree, but he says creating solo albums has been much more collaborative than his band work. It’s no surprise that the lineup for Wilson’s fourth solo album, Hand. Cannot. Erase., features British jazz guitarist Guthrie Govan, German drummer Marco Minneman and American jazz keyboardist Adam Holzman, who has previously worked with Miles Davis. Says Wilson over the phone from his London home, “The funny thing is that on my solo records, I play a lot less than I do on Porcupine Tree records. As a solo artist, you’re able to do anything you really want. You can’t do that in a band ”“ you can’t decide, ”˜You know what, I don’t want the bass player in my band’. But you can do that in a solo album ”“ you can bring in whichever collaborator you want to. I can be more of a producer, a director and a writer of the record.”
In addition to sharing studio space with top musicians, Wilson has also challenged himself by writing a concept album based on a woman named Joyce Carol Vincent, a well-adjusted, sociable Londoner who died in 2003, but her corpse was only discovered in 2006. Says Wilson, “I think there’s something about the concept that reflects living in the 21st Century. Living in the city, being isolated, being lonely, being out of direct contact thanks to modern technology”“ I think those are interesting to anyone”“ male, female, young or old.” Inspired by a documentary on Vincent’s life called Dreams of a Life and sonically through British singer Kate Bush’s 1982 album The Dreaming, Wilson’s new album is a step up from his 2013 album, The Raven That Refused To Sing, which has now become one of his most commercially successful albums. Wilson opens up about the effects of success from his last album, Hand. Cannot. Erase. and the possibility of a show in India.
How did The Raven That Refused To Sing become such a big hit?
That’s a good question. I’m not sure, because it wasn’t only my most successful solo album, but it was my most successful album ever. It sold more than any of the records I made with any of my bands. I think it’s extraordinary to be able to say that, when I’m even 20 albums into my career. It’s interesting because The Raven was one of the least commercially obvious records I’ve ever made. It wasn’t an easy record, and it certainly wasn’t commercial.
All I can say is that there are a lot of people out there that are still looking for an alternative to commercial, mainstream music. For whatever reason, The Raven seemed to be what people wanted, from an artist like me. It’s got a lot to do with timing and the kind of way it makes you feel at the moment about pop music and rock music. I guess the record I made seemed to be what people were wanting to listen to at that time of their lives.
What drew you to use the feminine voice? How difficult was it writing music for a woman?
It’s hard in the sense of writing the lyrics. That is quite the challenge, and it definitely put me outside my comfort zone. Like every writer, there are certain characteristics that are identifiable with me ”” certain lyrical topics or chord patterns, but it’s very easy to fall back on, and one of the important things about having a concept for a record is sometimes they force you to think of other ways. When the record is out, obviously a lot of women are going to listen to it and that’s when I’ll find out how convincing I have been, in using the female voice.
And now you’re taking the album live. What can fans expect in terms of live production?
All I’ll say is that it’s going to be a little bit of a step up from previous tours, in terms of visuals and the quality of the visuals and quality of sound. And obviously the new show will be based mainly around the new album, so there’ll be a lot of visual accompaniments to the music. There’ll be a lot of films, videos and a whole new look to the way we present it.
You’re playing fairly big venues now”” has that affected the way you write music?
To be honest, nothing external”¦ let’s just say nothing within the industry really affects the way I write music. Nothing to do with the expectations of fans affects my music. And that makes me slightly unpopular with some fans [laughs]. The difficult part for me is thinking about stuff like what would be good for my career or what would get me more plays on the radio, or what kind of band or project would the fans like me to be part of. I just can’t do that. I’ve never been like that, I’ve never been able to think like that. I only have one major concern, which is that you have to do something that interests you. It has to be a fun thing. I think, though, now that my music is reaching out to quite a large audience, but that’s not through design. I also have a lot of people like managers and record labels who work very hard to get my music heard ”” but me, myself, I can’t think of those things. I think I’mvery fortunate having to not think about those things. At the same time, I’m going to make the shows as spectacular as I possibly can. I mean, there’s no point putting a band in the middle of stage and there’s no production, nothing spectacular. I obviously think about that, but I don’t think about that until all the music is written.
You recently played a one-off experimental gig in Netherlands with [German multimedia artist] Thomas KÃ¶ner ”“ what was the aim behind creating music you will only play once?
It’s interesting; it’s so much like the philosophy of making a painting. One of the things with being a musician and creating an album is that you’re almost expected to paint the same picture every night. When you’re on tour, you’re technically repainting that first picture over and over again for different audiences. That’s something that’s quite peculiar to the music industry. You don’t have that with literature or art or film. Once a filmmaker finishes a film or a novelist finishes a novel or a painter finishes
a painting, they never recreate it again. Being a musician, you have to recreate that music every night, but I also love the idea of creating something just once. That’s fun because we literally got together a week before the show and we created the music over five or six days and played it once at the end of the week for a one-off performance. Of course, we did record it, so there will probably be some kind of document of that.
What is the allure of psychedelic music for you?
At the end of the day, what I really love is sound. Let me explain what I mean by that. I know how great it is to work with incredible musicians and all that stuff, and it has been amazing ”” but at the end of the day, what I really love is just textures of sound and the possibility of creating an atmosphere, creating a feeling through music. A lot of that is what people call psychedelic music. I have other projects that are based just on musical texture.
You’ve been down to India once with Porcupine Tree. Last year, you were contacted to play at Bangalore Open Air as well. Any chance there’s an India gig in the works?
If we haven’t played in India this year, I will be very disappointed. All things aside, I loved playing there last time. It was a great experience; it was chaos, but fantastic chaos. I know that I have a lot of fans in India ”“ I would love to come and play there. I know it’s being discussed all the time with my management and various promoters, so I would be very surprised and disappointed if we haven’t been to India by the end of this year. That’s all I’ll say.
This article appeared in the February 2015 issue of ROLLING STONE India.