The deity Steven Wilson hits NYC behind "Hand. Cannot. Erase."
I talked to songwriter/musician/producer/engineer/visionary Steven Wilson last week, which was an excellent if intimidating opportunity because he’s, ah, Steven Freakin’ Wilson.
On tour behind his latest masterpiece, a concept album called Hand.Cannot. Erase., the e’er kind and friendly Wilson was doing requisite media support chores. To me, spending 15 minutes on the phone with Wilson is the equivalent opportunity once famously enjoyed by British journalist Alistair Cooke, who, for purposes of a book he was writing, went on a day-long train trip with philosopher/mathematician/Nobel literary-laureate Bertrand Russell.
Well, sorta. Journalism-wise, I’m closer to Luther Heggs – Don Knotts’ would-be reporter in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken – than Alistair Cooke. That’s certainly not Wilson’s fault, though, and he graciously and eloquently answered my questions about his remarkable new album.
How remarkable, you ask?
Well, Hand. Cannot. Erase. came out in March, meaning at the time there were still nine more months left in 2015. No matter. I shut down my own year-end Best Of poll because it’s virtually impossible anyone will release a record better than this. Maybe for 2016, too.
If that sounds odd, you’re not listening – to Wilson, that is. Simply expressed, no one in the world of the arts – and certainly not music – is operating at such a sustained level of excellence across so many platforms as Steven Wilson.
(Shut up, Kanye.)
Admittedly, SW is not a globally-recognizable "Units-Moved" force in the context of Taylor Swift or the Black Keys or Lady Gaga or Rihanna or Florida Georgia Line or – yes – Kanye. But I suspect Wilson’s okay with that. Because, in certain circles – the fields of prog, dark pop, ambient and metal, through work with his bands No-Man, Porcupine Tree, Blackfield, Bass Communion and, over the last several years, as a solo artist – Wilson is a true god.
Plus, he has the comfort of knowing his fans typically invest more time and energy in the experience of listening to music than folks who typically engineer their iPod playlists based on what contestants on The Voice perform each week.
Hand. Cannot. Erase. is a triumph on so many levels that, even by Wilson’s ludicrously high standards, it’s sort of intimidating. (Here is a link to the album's first video.) Hand. Cannot. Erase. is Wilson’s first full-on concept album – an immersive, eleven-song sonic cocoon that nuances ethereal chamber pop, driving and propellant rock, angels-weep balladry and elegaic nocturnes. In terms of story, the album musically explores both the tender and caustic themes suggested by the true-life bio of a British woman named Joyce Carol Vincent, whose death went unnoticed for two years before her body was discovered in her apartment. Bag lady? Nope. Elderly spinster with no surviving relatives? Nope.
Somehow, Vincent, a young and attractive single woman, quit her job and slowly began to socially withdraw from friends, co-workers and family – becoming anonymous to the point where none of her family or acquaintances noticed her missing for over 24 months.
Wilson saw a documentary about Vincent, Dreams of a Life, and was mesmerized by not just the unique sadness of the situation but also what it said about self-absorption of modern society in the big city. And, coming off an uber-triumphant solo album called The Raven Who Refused to Sing and its subsequent world tour, Wilson was looking for inspiration and anxious about how to possibly compete with his own work.
Though Hand. Cannot. Erase. is not a conscious re-telling of Vincent’s life, the circumstances and social contexts were certainly major factors in creating a main character and narrative. He wrote from the perspective of a woman for the first time, utilized female singers and voice artists as well as a school choir, and enjoyed contributions from principal members of his now-iconic solo band: guitarist Guthrie Govan, drummer Marco Minnemann, keyboardist Adam Holzman and bassist/Chapman Stick artist Nick Beggs.
Here are excerpts from my conversation with Wilson – and remember, there are still seats available Friday and Saturday for the Hand. Cannot. Erase. tour performances in Manhattan’s Best Buy Theater.
Q: We’ve met and talked a few times and you seem genuinely friendly and void of attitude or ego. But tell me the truth. In secret, when you finished the mastering on Hand. Cannot. Erase. and you beheld the true greatness therein, did you excuse yourself, walk into the bathroom, look in the mirror, and said, “Take that, you bastard!”?
Wilson (laughs): “It’s very nice of you to say that about the album. I think, in all my favorite artists and creators, there is a terror and fear of a blank page – to have to go back and fill that blank page and continue to evolve as an artist. Each time out, I have the fear that I can’t top what I’ve just done, but somehow I’ve always been able to top it. Obviously, I’m proud of all of the albums, but I always have similar fears of going back to the drawing board after each of them. Perhaps there needs to be that panic.”
Q: Obviously, the Vincent documentary haunted you on many levels and you marinated a while in the idea that this could be your first full-blown concept album. Once you committed to explore that, did you write a narrative or libretto and then sit down and compose the tunes in chorological order? Or did you just let the Muse take you because you trusted that somehow you could make it all fit?
Wilson: “A bit of both, actually. There is always an element when trying to tell this type of a story that filmmakers and novelists always face, and which is different than what I usually encounter in making records. Normally, I don’t tell a story from A to B because there’s a friction and tension between what makes musical sense and what makes sense in the story. I might think a piece of music would be ideal to start the album – only to find out it didn’t make sense in the narrative. This time out, I had so much music that ended up cut, like scenes a director couldn’t fit into a movie. There’s some really good stuff but it just wouldn’t work for the overall project. It wasn’t easy at all. I wrote songs around the general idea, and the job at the end was to link it all together. And then the unexpected happened and I ended up then having to write extra music because it was suddenly needed in a way I hadn’t seen before.”
Q: Do you then remember the precise moment when you picked up a guitar or sat at the piano or started singing in the shower – and what would become the album’s first song morphed into being?
Wilson: “I sat down one day and started to write ‘Happy Returns.’ (NOTE: "Happy Returns" is the next-to-last tune on the album and takes the form of a letter from the Vincent-inspired protagonist to her brother. She doesn’t know it will be a farewell communication.) It’s the most closely-related song to the film. When Joyce’s body was found, there were half-wrapped Christmas presents around her and it appeared she was finally going to reach out to her family. In a way, that makes the pathos even stronger – to have been isolated so long and then make that decision to get back in touch. And then she died. I unconsciously channeled the letter to her brother. I don’t want to sound pretentious, but I wasn’t making a conscious decision to write a song about that; the subject matter literally chose me to write the song.”
Q: There is a lot of your work that seems preoccupied with nostalgia. Is that a fair assessment, and does that include Hand. Cannot. Erase.? I’m particularly thinking of the incredible one-two punch of “Perfect Life” and “Routine.” They’re just beautiful, sad songs that yet have different but majestic elements to them, and they way they’re layered and sculpted is just astounding.
Wilson: “Well, thank you. Those are two of my personal favorites, too. In general, what’s fascinating to me about nostalgia as an artist is that it’s a mixture of happiness and melancholia. You’re remembering something happy that happened to you – but it’s gone forever. I love that mixture of emotions and I’m always trying to capture that.
“‘Perfect Life’ and ‘Routine’ have those elements. It’s odd because in some ways they’re stylistically very opposite. ‘Perfect Life’ is electronics-based and has an almost industrial feel while the other is almost a sort of epic piano ballad. In ‘Perfect Life’ particularly, it’s a song of childhood nostalgia and I’m writing about my own life through the character in the album. There are precise images of watching barges on the water that are directly lifted from my own life. And it fit with what I was trying to convey. It’s an incredibly sad, tragic story but somehow there’s beauty in the sadness – and understanding and acceptance of the human condition. Sad things bring us together. On the album, which, again, was loosely inspired by Joyce Carol Vincent and not a direct history, my character loses her family in an unspecified way and tries to blank it out – and the music mirrors that. It wasn’t easy to write but I am very happy with how those two songs captured the melancholia.”
Q: Has anyone from Vincent’s family been in touch with you since the album came out?
A: “The answer is no. I’ve been in touch with Carol Morley, the director of the documentary. She also had no cooperation with the family. I suppose in a way what we’re doing is a kind of accusation. If a relative is dead in an apartment for two years and no one knows, it looks a little bad for the family. But that wasn’t the point. In fact, I spoke with Carol and the producer of the film because they were concerned about how I might be approaching the subject. But they came to see the show in London and we’ve become friends.”
Q: Understandably, the bulk of Hand. Cannot. Erase. is presented chronologically in concert with expansive effects, film and lighting. But you’ve also got a loyal fan base comprehensively familiar with your work. Without spoiling the flow of the concerts for folks who haven't seen the tour yet, how hard was it to fill out the set list from all of the available Porcupine Tree or solo albums?
A: “To be honest, it sounds incredibly arrogant, but I don’t think about the audience at all. I can’t think about them while I’m making an album and I can't think about them when putting together a live show because there is an understood need to play my songs. I tend not to think of them as songs from Porcupine Tree or No-Man or the solo albums or whatever. They’re just my songs. So I’ve chosen ones that resonate with the themes of Hand. Cannot. Erase. (laughs) Fortunately, in this case, we’re dealing with themes of alienation, technology and nostalgia and loss and regret and family life – and I have plenty of that material.”
Q: For a while now, you’ve had a sensational backing band. However, after the first European leg of the current tour, because of prior commitments, guitarist Guthrie Govan and drummer Marco Minnemann left the group. Guitarist Dave Kilminster and drummer Craig Blundell have stepped in. Talk about the different dynamics and challenges presented by shifting musicians in mid-tour. Obviously, a lot of the musical parts are pretty intricate and precise, but there’s a lot of freedom, too. What has made you happy about Dave and Craig so far?
A: “It’s always a difficult period of adjustment in these situations because we’re dealing with really excellent musicians with very strong and distinctive identities. And we’ve obviously changed the entire sound of the band, so there are technical and intuitive adjustments across the board. But, we’re several shows in, now, and I’ve recently sensed a new cohesion and chemistry that’s very exciting.
“Dave is more of an old-school player who uses fewer notes but understands a great deal about ‘feel’ – that one note can break your heart. Craig is also very excellent and he understands how to play with a sense of abandon – and he’s lit a great fire under us. The drummer is the conductor of any band; you want the drummer driving us along rather than following. Basically, the delicate balance of a band is not something that’s easy to describe, but they’re both doing a wonderful job and we’re having fun.”
Q: Last question. On Porcupine Tree’s The Incident tour, where you ended the main set with the very melancholy and slow “I Drive the Hearse,” and on the solo Raven That Refused to Sing tour you closed with the heartbreaking title cut. Now, the finale of the Hand. Cannot. Erase. portion of the current tour closes with “Ascendant Here On …,” a celestial and ghostly piece that’s about one-hundred-eighty degrees away from a balls-out “Goodnight New York!” anthem. All three of these gambits were and are brilliant and extremely effective, but do such things ever give you pause in terms of not wanting to disrupt rock-show momentum?
A: “No reservations at all. Maybe that’s the arrogance of the artist. You know: the vision that I want to create works for you if it works for me. But I must say, I see people crying every night out there. Again, we were discussing beauty in melancholy. There’s something uplifting about shared human experience and sadness. I don’t think I could follow those songs with anything else. In fact, I’ll flip your question. If I did do that driving rock closer, it would be like following Apocalypse Now with a cartoon.”
Steven Wilson performs at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday in the Best Buy Theater, 1515 Broadway, New York City; (212) 930-1950, bestbuytheater.com.
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