Interview with Steve Wilson
Breakfast in Amsterdam
On the 21st of January of this year Steven Wilson held a press day in the Vondel hotel in the Dutch capital. About ten minutes before 10 am Steven came downstairs in order to have some breakfast before the interview. Of course, all preparations for the interview had to be in place and that would include the interviewee having had his breakfast. Not until that was secured the interview could start. So around 10 o’clock, we came to Steven Wilson’s temporary home in Amsterdam, a fine apartment in the Vondel hotel.
Steven: The documentary is based on a real life incident. Obviously, the album is inspired by this real life story. It’s about Joyce Carol Vincent who was discovered dead in her flat in London. And she had been there for more than 2 years, undiscovered and the tv was still on. That story in itself is extraordinary but what makes it even more extraordinary is that she was not, as I think most people would assume, a lonely little old lady. She was very young, popular, an attractive young woman. The additional facts make it almost unbelievable. Except that when I thought about it, I could actually believe it. Because for me there was something symbolic or symptomatic of that. About what it means to be living in the City in the 21st century. And in fact, living in the City, is, or can be, for many people, a very isolating experience. I do really feel like if you want to completely disappear, the place you would go is the heart of the metropolis. I can speak from some experience as I have lived in London for almost 20 years. I never knew the names of my neighbours, never knew what they did for a living. They neither knew my name or what I did for a living. 4 years ago I moved out of the City, only 20 miles or so and within 2 or 3 days I knew all my neighbours, everyone in my street. I knew the name of my postman, I knew the name of my local police officer. So it seemed to be something very specific, to me, to do with city life. There is a kind of paranoia and confusion and an insular quality that living in a big city like London can engender in someone. Particularly in a sense that persons can choose to be alone, choose to withdraw, chose to isolate themselves, it then began to make sense to me, allbeit in a macabre way. I carried this around with me, having watched the documentary, having researched Joyce Carol Vincent. I kind of carried her around with me for months afterwards.
Marcel: How did that turn out or affect you in your everyday life?
Steven: I wouldn’t say it affected my everyday life but it was something I couldn’t get out of my head. Whenever I saw friends I would ask if they knew of the story, which to me was incredible. So when I came to write the new record, well, I wouldn’t be pretentious enough to say that the subject chose me, but I found I was very naturally starting to write about a character, not Joyce Carol Vincent, but a character based on my idea of Joyce Carol Vincent. I never knew anything about Joyce Vincent’s family life. No one does really. So it became a fictional construct, but it became a character following her life from childhood to adolescence, moving to the City and then choosing to effectively isolate herself in her apartment. So I used the character as a kind of vessel to talk about lots of things I was interested in, life in the city, 21st century technology, isolation, regret and relationships. In fact all the things this character allowed me to spiral off into. She became this kind of conduit for thinking and examining life in the 21 st century, modern life from my perspective, but also from a female perspective which was a challenge for me.
Marcel: You did not write from a female perspective before then?
Steven: I don’t think so. I have written quite a few albums so I had to go back through all of them. I don’t think I have ever written from a female perspective.
Marcel: You mentioned life in the City as as one of the main issues. In what way might individualism play a part?
Steven: Well, she chose to erase herself, she chose to disappear, she chose to be anonymous. And I that is an important qualification to the story. This is not somebody who became isolated because nobody wanted to be her friend. This is somebody who became isolated because she didn’t feel she wanted to be a part of the modern world. She preferred her isolation, preferred her own company. And I think that is something I recognize, certainly in myself, and I think there are more people who can recognize in themselves that kind of inclination to say: “You know what? The world is such a crazy, fucked up place. I could go to a show, I could go to a bar, I could go to a party, I could go out for dinner with my friends. But you know what? I think I’m just going to sit here and watch tv.” And I think everyone has that kind of impulse sometimes and with all the shit going on, terrorism and wars, chaos and confusion, I think everyone in a sense can recognize that impulse to just curl up into a cocoon and not venture out into the mad, bad outside world.
Marcel: Well, even smaller cities than London can have you feel that way indeed. On a trip to Rotterdam I had quite a similar feeling of getting totally overwhelmed by the huge buildings and the mass of people on the streets. And that was just Rotterdam.
Steven: Absolutely. And Rotterdam indeed isn’t as big a city. Think of London with its 12 million people where it’s so easy to be overlooked and to overlook. Not just easy. I think it’s THE place to go if you want to disappear or erase yourself as she kind of did. I mean, obviously one of the great ironies about Joyce Carol Vincent is that she was completely anonymous in life and now quite famous in death. Because of the story, she has a movie made about her, she has her own Wikipedia page, so there’s a kind of irony there which also appeals to my perverse mind.
Marcel: Perhaps we’ll get further into that a bit later. Did you contact the family in any way?
Steven: The family are not even in the documentary. They are not interested in talking about Joyce. They are not in the documentary. So there is this added mystery about her background. There is some speculation about, that she was abused by her father but it is speculation. We don’t really know much about her. And I have to emphasize again that my character is not Joyce Carol Vincent.
Marcel: What can you say about the writing process? Do you start out with the outline of the story, which in this case might be obvious, or do you start with the songs? And, if so, are the lyrics there first or the music?
Steven: Well, kind of all of the above really. I mean, there is no masterplan. I started writing music and I realized I was writing about a character based on Joyce Carol Vincent and then it spiraled off into all sorts of ideas, so there was no masterplan. So I guess the answer to your question is no, I didn’t have the whole story. It developed in tandem with the music and the lyrics developed in tandem with the music. What I don’t like to do is write reams and reams of prose and poetry and lyrics and then shoehorn them into music. That is not what music is about. The words have to be in service of the melodies and music. So I kind of do a little bit of each. I write a few lines and then i find a melody and then I write a little bit more and then I work on the music again, so they are very much developing in sympathy with each other.
Marcel: I read the blog to accompany the album and you really had me in awe and wonder. Here is a woman who writes the blog and who is fascinated with people who have disappeared and who is very reclusive herself. How did you come to write the blog?
Steven: It seemed the logical way to me to tell the story through, we’re talking about representing a whole passage of time in her life. And here we have somebody who has no communication with other human being. At least not verbal. So how to tell her story? So she starts off with a diary and later on a blog, which of course is the modern day equivalent of having a diary. So we have, well, not online, but in the special packaging the diary that she wrote as a thirteen year old girl, which tells you a lot about her as a child, about that time of life. And finally a great part of her life is told in the blog entries. That blog is included in the special edition. But what was interesting to me was that she was to have a life beyond the release of the album. And I’m not quite sure yet what I’m going to do with it. Or what the character is going to do with it. It may continue well beyond the release of the album.
Marcel: Referrals to Felt, This Mortal Coil and Dead Can Dance. In what way is that music that inspired you?
Steven: Well, of course, they are me. This character is me. The best analogy, example that I can give is of the movie Bladerunner. The idea of the film is that the replicants get the memories of real people in order to flesh them out. And in fact that is whay every writer does. And in order to make your characters real, you fill them with memory. You implant memory into your characters. So when I talk about childhood memories, in fact they are mine. And yes, when you ask about these bands. That are the bands that I grew up listening to. At that age I was listening to those kind of bands. So it’s a kind of an implant into an empty vessel to make that memory real.
Marcel: That also goes for Sunset wading, the album by John G. Perry, you refer to?
Steven: Yes, I do love that album. You don’t know the album? It’s a masterpiece.
Marcel: So it’s much more than the cover that the lady blog writer likes?
Steven: That is liked by me, yes.
Marcel: You write about lights in the skies, visitors, giving the blog a sort of David Lynch feel. Would you say that the story is already completed in your head or is it still in development? And well, obviously with the blog continuing beyond the release of the album, there is more to it. What can you say about that?
Steven: I like things that are ambiguous and open ended. I have never been a fan of Hollywood movies where all is wrapped up and rounded off neatly in the end. I like ambiguous film making, ambiguous writing and I like ambiguous stories. Even the title is deliberately unclear as to exactly what it means. I like that. I like the fact that there is a frisson of a sci fi story going but it may just be something that is in her mind. So you’re not quite sure if this is really happening or that it is just a dream or a fantasy or something that she constructed in her mind to deal with reality. I like that ambiguity and I’m not going to explain that. You know, I have my own ideas about what might happen to her. But, I think, if people are expecting a nice resolution, they might be disappointed.
Marcel: Well, perhaps, if the goal is to have people think, ponder on how the story might end, then that is certainly something you succeeded in.
Steven: I hope it’s a fascinating story without really resolving.
Marcel: There is always a dark or somber matter at hand in your albums, either in the music or in the lyrics you write. In what way is that essential to you being the composer you are or would you consider it a realistic chance to ever write music on a lighter note?
Steven: I don’t think so. I’m not a particularly negative, morose, depressed individual. I mean people sometimes would be surprised I’m not because they listen to the music and think I must be a reflection of the music I make. And I suspect that part of the reason I’m not, is because the music and the creative expression has become a kind of exorcism or a cathartic process that has enabled me to get that… I mean I don’t think anyone, any thinking person can look at the world today and be full of joy about it. It is quite depressing what goes on in the world. And there are people that seem to depress me. They seem to set their expectation from the gift of life so low. They have no curiosity. They have no specific interest in making the most of this incredible gift. I’m not religious and I don’t think there is anything after this life so I believe this life is a gift. You know, these 70 or 80 years we have is a gift of nature. And we have to try and make sense of it and the most of it. But a lot of people, it seems to me, don’t do that. And are not curious about the world. That’s depressing. Other people find religion and religious fundamentalism and use it in a very destructive way. So I don’t want to go through the litany of everything that’s wrong with this world. I think it’s hard to be really positive. And well, I actually think that really happy music can be quite depressing, in a kind of ironic way. I prefer music that has some sense of hope. My music does have joy in it too. Now this album is about this whole woman’s life. And I can tell you there is joy in it, there is happiness in it, there is nostalgia in it. The way a person goes back to their childhood is kind of nostaligic. There’s a warm golden glow about things that happened to them in their past. And I have that too. I am a fairly positive person within my own life, in my own environment. But I think part of the duty of being a musician, part of your responsibility as a musician is to hold up a mirror to the audience and say, without preaching, withou saying this is what you should think, holding up a mirror and say: this is the world I see. And do you recognize this? Do you recognize yourself? And what do you think about that? In this album I talk about social networking. I am not a fan. I believe them to be rather anti social. People can hide behind an illusion of themselves, have imaginary friends and to effectively disconnect from real human contact. Of course, some might say you can play games online with friends. Yet, to me, that is not interacting. That is not communicating. Some people love it. So I’m holding up a mirror and saying is it that great? Let’s talk about it. And I think that is all you can do as an artist. Not preach to your audience but just reflect the world with all its flaws and joys. I guess when I feel happy, I wouldn’t be inclined to write music. I am happy sometimes, believe it or not. When I’m happy, I don’t go to my writing room and write music. I go to my writing room when I feel something has annoyed me, has depressed me, has irritated me, made me angry, fascinated me as in the case of Joyce Carol Vincent. That’s when I write. It comes from something that has stimulated me more in negative way rather than in a positive way.
Marcel: As to writing the songs, writing an album, when do you come to the conclusion that a song or rather an album is finished? You said you didn’t work from a masterplan but surely you must have moments that you say this song now is completed.
Steven: Right. That’s a good question. It’s a hard one to answer. It’s not something I am very conscious at doing. It’s kind of an intuitive thing. You know, the song is as long as the song needs to go on. So the story gets to be as long as the story needs to be. I don’t set out, if I can use the analogy of a writer, I don’t set out like a writer, who might say that a book is going to be about 500 pages long. I keep exploring the ideas until they have effectively run out. Or feel like having totally explored or exhausted the subject. Now this album is about 65 minutes long, which is a bit long. I prefer albums to be shorter. But sometimes, like they say the story dictates the length of the work. And this idea did certainly spiral off into other things. The main character enabled me to touch upon diverse subjects, like the internet, like nostalgia, like isolation’s, like family life and relationships. In some ways this was a gift because as a concept it enabled me to incorporate all of these other things. That’s quite a lot to deal with in an album. So there was a moment when I think I felt I had a cycle of songs that had dealt with everything I wanted to deal with and dealt with them in a satisfactory narrative and satisfactory musical arch. You want to tell the story in a satisfying and logical way or well, illogical if that is what you want. Anyway, in a satisfying way. And yes, that goes for the music as well. You have to have a satisfying musical arch too. On making concept albums that can just be the difficulty. Which is why I haven’t done a lot of them, even though I love conceptual rock. But the point is that sometimes the subject of the concept has too much impact on the flow of the music. When you want to tell a linear narrative story and you have got a song here, you could think that the song might work much better on the beginning of the album and then, not being able to place it there, because it wouldn’t make sense. The story then begins to dictate the music and that sometimes can be frustrating. So it is a bit of a juggling act to make the music and the story satisfying. Those things take time. It was a quite painful process.
Marcel: Was this one of the most difficult albums to make then?
Steven: Yes, because of that reason. And I had a lot of other music. I had a lot of stuff taken out already. I was pulling my hair out trying to get the album shorter. I always feel an album should be no more than 60 minutes, 45 if possible, but I have never managed that. But sometimes the music and the story have a life of their own and when I tried to take things out, it just fell apart. So it is as long as it is.
Marcel: I would like to compliment you on the little stories interwoven in the blog. The story of the crane driver, the story of the man that got beaten up. Even though they might be just a few lines in the blog, they do add to the fascination. And that led to the question: might you ever write a book?
Steven: Thanks for the compliment, that is good to know. I don’t know if I’d ever be writing a book. I think I might be more likely to write film scripts than to write a book. Whenever I write music I already have in my head, a movie. Well, I sometimes rather pretentiously describe my albums as movies for the ears. Because to me it’s almost like a frustrated filmmaker, who can’t make films but makes music instead as a kind of substitute. So for me, I think, the blog could very easily be translated into a film script. And I don’t rule that out. It might just happen. I’m more interested in film than in literature.
Marcel: How did you come about having Ninet sing on the album? Steven: Well, the album being taken from a female perspective, it seemed rather obvious to have a female presence on it. Which was new to me as I had never done that before. Backing vocals have been there, but not as a featured vocalist. To have someone else sing your lyrics, is odd. I find it odd. So when you write lyrics with a personal touch and hand them over, it is strange. But I felt it important on this album, from a female point of view, to have both a female actress and a female singer to further enhance the story. And also the choir boys have a feminine element to them. But Ninet was recommended by Aviv who was with me in Blackfield. She is a very famous singer in Israel. She won’t be joining us on this tour as she just had a baby. Maybe later in the year.
Marcel: Well, thank you for your time.
Steven: My pleasure.