Richard Dawson’s ‘wonky’ pop quartet are influenced by Billie Eilish, cats and 12th-century composer Hildegard von Bingen
It is about halfway through our video chat that Trouble turns up. While Hen Ogledd officially comprise Dawn Bothwell, Rhodri Davies, Richard Dawson and Sally Pilkington, today it also includes the latter couple’s excellently named cat. Trouble, “with a capital T”, as the wildly catchy chorus of their recent single goes, is as playfully unwieldy as the group. Although we are here to chat about new album Free Humans – a joyous constellation of “wonky” pop, free improvisation and sci-fi musing – it’s hard to stay focused. “Sorry,” says Dawson at one point, “I’m a bit distracted by the cat arsehole in my face!”
Dawson formed Hen Ogledd with Davies as a cathartically noisy improvisation duo in 2012, around the time that his own solo work was starting to reach a rapidly growing audience, leading to a string of acclaimed albums including last year’s opus, 2020. Meanwhile, Hen Ogledd expanded to include Bothwell for 2016’s Bronze, before Pilkington cemented the current lineup with 2018’s Mogic, their first on Domino Records.
The group have managed to balance a freeform approach to music-making with an increasing range of pop melodies and song structures, but make it clear that their vision of the genre is “multifarious”. “There is a definite level of wonkiness,” says Pilkington, “and fun is a big factor in the kind of pop that I like to make.” Influences on the album range from Abba and Billie Eilish to 12th-century composer Hildegard von Bingen, while the lyrics keep pace with such weirdness. As Bothwell jokes: “We decided to pick the most popular themes, typical stuff like sewers and the surfaces of other planets.” Something about the spirit and shared connection of the band give the whirling parts a gloriously odd cohesion.
This is art shorn of artifice, pop against populism, and it just so happens to be one of the defining statements of our times.
Richard Dawson’s new album is called 2020. Knowing what we do about the way Dawson’s unique songwriting brain works, it’s tempting to surmise that it’s going to be a near-future concept album about an England almost identical to our own, but with the weirdness and woe condensed in that forthright Dawsonian manner we’ve come to expect. And in a way this is true. The songs on 2020 describe the inner lives of normal individuals in a country on the cusp of something vaguely unpleasant, something black and looming that has just appeared over the horizon. Dawson’s songs alchemise widespread political and social anxieties into pinpoint vignettes; ostensibly mundane concerns are conjured into startling focus. Continue reading →
The ‘token’ jazz, folk and avant garde nominees for the UK’s most prestigious music prize are the ones who stand to gain the most from it – but they are being ignored
The question posed most often, and most crabbily, in the history of the Mercury prize is: what’s the point of the “token” acts on the shortlist? Jazz, folk and classical nominees are only ever there to make the judges of the UK’s most prestigious music award look clever; they certainly never win.Talk to the acts themselves, however, and a different story emerges. “I don’t care if we’re called a token jazz act if we sell 3,000 more records,” says Shabaka Hutchings, whose jazz group, Sons of Kemet, are among the favourites to win. “And it might be a coincidence, but I’ve noticed things happening since we were nominated this year.” Their gigs are selling out more consistently and the band are getting better stages at events. They’re getting support they don’t get from the Mobos, Hutchings argues, as he has before, and don’t start him on the Brits. “That side of the industry doesn’t care. But this is like a little stamp: you are given a level of validation that reverberates. And if it sells more albums or tickets, it helps subsidise our music and push our scene as far as it can go.”