Interview – Richard Dawson & Circle

Richard Dawson and Circle's Janne Westerlund discuss touring, writing and botany

‘I have this theory,’ explains Richard Dawson, while remaining his ever-gentle self. ‘There must be some connection between the North of England and Finland. There’s no basis for this other than what I feel.’ Dawson details further how he believes the folk traditions of Northumbria and Finland are linked. While such a suggestion is based only on instinct, it is not without reason.

In late 2021, Dawson teamed up with Finnish experimental band Circle to create Henki – an album decorated with progressive rock instrumentals and lyrics on the rarely combined themes of mythology and botany. Chatting to Dawson and Circle guitarist Janne Westerlund before their gig at Leeds’ Belgrave Music Hall, the story of this coming together of Finland and Northern England begins to unfurl.

It begins with Westerlund displaying affection for Dawson’s music in a tweet. ‘We were in touch from there to swap records’ Dawson tells me, while admitting he was too afraid to suggest collaborating directly. Rather sweetly, Circle were equally coy to approach Dawson with the idea. ‘I think my dream was to do an album’ laughs Westerlund. ‘I didn’t dare suggest it!’

Once Circle finally approached Dawson with the idea, it was an easy decision for the Newcastle musician, ‘I responded straight away with a big “f***ing hell”.’

Work on the album began soon after and continued remotely, leading to some concerns. ‘I was anxious about the result at certain points because we wanted a coherent piece of work,’ admits Westerlund. ‘I had doubts whether it would be like that.’ As fans swarm the Belgrave Music Hall for a gig showcasing Henki, Westerlund’s past worries were evidently irrational.  

When discussing how the album came together, Janne notes that Circle proceeded as they usually do. ‘We weren’t going towards any sound or idea that we would have known beforehand. That is the way with Circle. We don’t want to have a goal; we just want to start.’

The process began with the exchanging of demos. ‘Jussi’s were these weird electronic things’ remarks Dawson in reference to Jussi Lehtisalo, the bassist and only consistent member of Circle since the band’s inception. As these demos were compiled and combined, the album formed. ‘It was organic and found its own way’ notes Dawson. Likewise, with no deadline, Dawson and Circle adopted the attitude that the album’s creation would be ‘as slow or as fast as it takes.’

This idea was transferred to Dawson’s lyrics, which likewise took time to get right. There’s an adage that good lyrics are written quickly but Dawson is sceptical about this thought. ‘That whole idea? I don’t know, I’m not sure. [For me] it’s long and slow.’ In hindsight, Dawson reflects upon his lyrics with mixed feelings. ‘I’m really pleased with Silphium [but elsewhere] I think there are some lyrics that I could [have written] a little better’ he says jovially.

Dawson’s lyric writing is pertinent considering Westerlund’s detailing of the compositional process. Effectively, one informed the other. ‘[Henki’s botanical themes] came from something Janne suggested, about how the music should form.’ This natural style of allowing the music to grow sparked something in Dawson, particularly when Westerlund likened the writing process to a plant’s growth. ‘Some of the things I was thinking about could be nicely united by that as a theme, [so] I just started reading about plants’ – Dawson’s nonchalant curiosity clearly getting the better of him. What began as a passing interest ultimately guided much of the album’s subject matter; Henki features a song written from the viewpoint of a 32,000-year-old seed and a biographical account of palaeobotanist Isabel Cookson, to list a few examples.

As more lyrics formed, Dawson’s interests broadened. ‘I think I was reading about the meanings of certain plants.’ Dawson recalls how many of these plants have specific meanings in Roman culture, engendering a newfound interest. ‘I didn’t know anything about mythology [but] it was quite interesting to read about these meanings and how they are involved in different stories.’ These remarks are unsurprising given how, for example, the tale of King Midas makes an appearance on the album.

Allowing the project to grow naturally worked for everyone involved, both lyrically and musically. Westerlund sounds almost amazed by the ease with which the album took form. ‘I thought that the whole project was so simple. The songs just happened while we were watching’. He continues by honouring Dawson’s lyrics – Dawson waves away such praise with bashful gratitude – but his conclusion summarises the album’s creation in pithy terms. ‘I feel like we were just shitting around.’

The album’s success has led to the collaboration heading out on tour, something neither Dawson nor Circle were especially considering when creating Henki. ‘I don’t think we thought that much [about it]’ says Dawson to Westerlund. He responds half in jest, ‘We didn’t have rational plans.’ It sounds like a joke, but with the pandemic severely disrupting live music, his comment is understandable.

It is a unique tour for Circle particularly, with a new lead singer in Dawson. However, Westerlund thinks this changes very little. ‘[Touring with Dawson] is not that different. [When touring] you must be relaxed and that’s what happens when we’re together. We share the same sense of humour.’ Dawson agrees, ‘I just feel very comfortable around everyone which is not normal for me.’ He concludes succinctly, in terms that will resonate with fans of the project. ‘It’s just meant to be.’ 

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