(Photo by Ryo Mitamura)
British guitarist and songwriter Gareth Dickson has spent the last several years touring with folk icon, Vashti Bunyan, and quietly amassing his own body of delicate, ethereal and downright beautiful songs. Dickson connected via email to talk about his time with Bunyan, his influences and his unique live album, "Invisible String".
Your new album, “Invisible String”, is a very stunning collection of songs. The choice to record the songs in a live setting really gives them a “lived-in” and intimate feel. What inspired them and this unique choice of recording?
These songs were actually already recorded and released elsewhere on my three previous “proper” albums, the live album is an addition to these albums but is not the first way I chose to record the songs. While touring Europe in 2012 Taylor Deupree, who runs the label 12k which I release with, suggested making as many recordings of the shows as possible. That’s what I did. The majority of the tracks on the album were recorded in the stairwell of an apartment in Caen, France after the planned venue became unavailable at the last minute. This turned out to be a huge stroke of luck as the stairwell had an amazing natural reverb. The stairs made a pretty cool bank of seats for the audience too! As for what inspired them, musically there are various influences which will be answered in the following questions. Other than this I guess it’s what inspires all art, an attempt to communicate personal insights about the world, people, relationships, being human etc. More often than not they are about a loss of some kind, or a problem, but they are hopeful songs at the same time usually- I think. I guess they are confessional in a sense but I don’t normally think of them like this, it’s just my way of getting out whatever I’m working through when I write them. Lyrically they are often influenced by poetry… TS Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, William Blake etc.
You’ve had the distinct honor of performing with Vashti Bunyan on and off since 2006 – what was that experience like? Did it inform you as a songwriter or performer?
That’s been one of the real highlights of my life, as a musician and as a person. We met at the end of 2005 after Vashti emailed to ask if I’d be interested in playing guitar with her for some shows she had planned. We rehearsed pretty intensely for the next few weeks before playing our first concert together at The Barbican concert hall in London. We were both pretty nervous about it as neither of us had played in such a large venue, and this was the first show. Thankfully it went well and from there we ended up touring all over the world over the next few years. We are now touring again as Vashti has just released a new album. Playing music together, especially at rehearsals when it’s usually just the two of us with no audience or band, is for me as real a musical connection with someone as I have ever had or am likely to have. I think my songwriting style was already formed to some extent before we started working together, I don’t think either of us has had a direct influence over the other in this area. However as a musician in general I feel like I have gained a lot simply by playing with someone who listens so intently while playing, and is so focused and in touch with the music she plays. As a performer I have definitely learned a lot and gained a lot of experience, we both have. When we started out we were both fairly inexperienced in this area but I think we’ve learned a lot over the past few years.
Your work is very meticulous. What is your songwriting process like?
The process for most of my songs is the same. I tend not to sit down with the intention of writing a song or know that I am about to write one. However if I’m playing guitar daily the law of averages means it is likely I'll find something I like. It also means I am in good shape musically if I do happen upon an idea, whereas if I haven't played for a couple of weeks it is very unlikely that I will pick up the guitar and write something I will use. I can't force a song into being, but I can create the conditions by playing a lot. I never have an idea for a melody or lyrics in my head beforehand; I just improvise with the guitar daily until I hear something that I like and then try to build on it. I nearly always use altered tunings on the guitar which means when I put my fingers somewhere I don’t normally know how it will sound, much less the names of the notes. I do have some knowledge of physical classical guitar technique, and I think my playing is very much based on this, but I have almost no knowledge of theory. I kind of feel around until something stands out that I like and then build slowly from there. Once I have a melody written on the guitar it will often suggest a vocal melody and lyrics. Usually both the guitar part and the lyrics are the result of whatever I'm thinking about at the time so hopefully for that reason they are related. The advantage of this approach is that when something does come along it feels like it has come from somewhere other than your own boring conscious mind, but the drawback is that you can go for a long time and not be able to write something, which can be frustrating. Some songs, such as “Two Trains” and “As You Lie” were written entirely in one night, with nothing in them which I had even played with before. For others I will have had a guitar part for a long time and then lyrics will come along much later for it, as with “Get Together”. The more recent songs take longer in general as I’m experimenting more with extended forms and structures than I used to (Get Together, Jonah etc).
I can hear a lot of Bert Jansch and some shades of more recent Mark Kozelek in your guitar playing – who or what else inspires the way you play?
I love both of those artists - I listened to Bert Jansch a lot when I was younger but Mark Kozelek I only discovered fairly recently so there is no direct connection there. There are a lot of guitar players who I’ve tried to learn from - Nick Drake, Robert Johnson, Davy Graham, Bert Jansch. Sonically I always think of this as being one side of my music, the other side comes from the ambient music of Brian Eno and Aphex Twin, among others. These are in some ways the two main distinct styles I have tried to incorporate in to my actual sound world. Melodically and stylistically however I have taken a lot of influence from classical piano music, particularly the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould who is one of my real musical idols. He’s probably most famous for playing Bach but he also plays a lot of Beethoven who is another of my musical heroes. My sister played classical piano and introduced me to this world which I may never have had the opportunity to explore otherwise. I also love Schubert and Wagner. I’ve been doing a lot of driving recently while touring, in the car I’m more likely to be listening to MF Doom or whatever hip hop my cousin has put on a CD for me.
What are some of your musical touchstones, those things that you heard and loved and go back to?
All of the above really, but as well as this there are many others who haven’t played such a direct part in shaping my sound but who I love and go back to. Captain Beefheart, Syd Barrett, old delta blues guitarists, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen.
I imagine your songs are like children – it’s tough to choose one above the others. But let’s say you are asked to make a “Sophie’s Choice”; is there one that you are particular proud to have written or one that is particularly special to you?
Ha ha! It’s funny that you have to begin this way, head the musician off at the pass before they start with that “they’re all like children” thing. It definitely is tough to choose though, because each has something that I like that the others don’t, there are a few which I would put in the running. In the top few would be “Jonah”, “As You Lie”, “Like a Clock”, “Two Trains”, “This is the Kiss”, “The Dance”. I think if I had to choose one it would probably be “Technology” though, partly because of the way I recorded it. It was never meant to be released on an album, I was simply recording it immediately after I had written it so I wouldn’t forget any of it. Then when I listened back I realised that I wouldn’t be able to play it any better so I kept it as it was and released it. This means that I was entirely at ease when recording, no effort whatsoever to get it right. I also think of this song as being the turning point from my old, more ambient, style in to something more rhythmic and my own.
What’s on tap for you next?
Next up is some rehearsals with Vashti this week before going to Europe for a few gigs in November together. Then hopefully a solo tour of my own in Portugal before the end of the year but this isn’t confirmed yet. Really I’m hoping that next year I can take a little time out from all of the touring and the organising that goes with it and be at home for a bit to write and record. I have a few tracks towards another album as a follow up to “Quite A Way Away”, which is the last album of new material I released, but I’m still a long way from releasing another. I have some ideas though which is a good start, I just need to be at home for an extended period of time to really get in to it properly.