Visionary Steven Wilson Conquers Musical Vistas
British artist Steven Wilson has a strong appetite for musical diversity and change. Consequently, he is a multitasker of the first order who is usually involved in a myriad of projects at any given moment. The forty-something singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer has an impressive track record that includes the progressive rock band Porcupine Tree, the ambient experimental No-Man, the electronic-based Bass Communion and a host of other collaborations with world-class artists.
He embarked on a solo career in 2008 that has yielded three critically acclaimed albums on the Kscope label, beginning with the ambient and electronic-flavored Insurgentes, 2011’s cinematic Grace For Drowning and his current release, The Raven That Refused To Sing And Other Stories.
Wilson’s technical acumen goes beyond the role of musician-performer, as he has achieved a dream position of remixing classic releases from the catalog of prog-rock bands Jethro Tull and King Crimson. “I went back to the original album tracks,” said Wilson. “It was a real education going back and learning how a lot of those records from the ’70s were made.”
The voracious Wilson is a sponge for knowledge and a historian when it comes to musical touchstones in his life. Whether he is archiving and embellishing recorded artifacts of the past or conquering musical vistas for the future, he holds on tightly to the cultural signposts that have shaped his creative outlook and persona. “I like to make contemporary records, but I like to reference back to things of the past that are very special to me and part of my DNA,” he said. “Actually, the era that I grew up in was the ’80s. But I went back to the ’70s because I liked the ambition, creativity and curiosity on a lot of the records that were produced back then.”
On The Raven That Refused To Sing And Other Stories, Wilson gathered many of his creative influences, favorite musicians and a pervasive love for the merging of jazz and rock. He bundled it in a dark and intriguing series of supernaturally charged songs engineered by none other than Alan Parsons.
“Alan Parsons is someone I’ve respected for years,” Wilson said. “I wasn’t trying to make a retro album or a nostalgia record. At the same time, I wanted someone with experience from that ’70s era. This is a guy who worked with The Beatles, Pink Floyd and had his own successful projects. I wanted to get back to that beautiful and organic golden feeling of analog recording. Alan came from an era where albums were created as a conceptual or singular experience designed to be listened to as a whole. I want to create my music for people who want to listen.”
For this project, Wilson assembled a superb fusion of jazz and rock musicians with extensive discographies: guitarist Guthrie Govan (Asia, GPS), keyboardist Adam Holzman (Miles Davis, Tom Browne, Wallace Roney, Dennis Chambers), drummer Marco Minnemann (Mike Keneally, Wolfgang Schmid, Eddie Jobson), bassist Nick Beggs (Kajagoogoo, The Pineapple Thief, Art Nouveau) and saxophonist/flutist Theo Travis (Soft Machine Legacy, Gong, Robert Fripp). In addition to providing the lead vocals, Wilson plays guitars and keyboards on the disc.
“There have been many solo artists over the years who relied absolutely on the chemistry of the band,” Wilson said. “Miles Davis and Frank Zappa come to mind. I’ve reached the point where I like being more of a musical director—someone with a trusted group of reliable musicians who can interpret what I want to achieve. I’ve been working with some of these people for a while now, and I feel there is a history and connection with us.”
The Raven begins with the angular and frenetic attack of the poetic piece “Luminol” and takes the listener on a journey through six multi-layered songs dealing with love, loss, regret, reflection and renewal. At various junctures along the way one is treated to stunning solo spotlights, acoustic guitar and piano balladry, symphonic flourishes, divine vocal harmonies and the juxtaposition of funky grooves and brisk swinging sections.
Wilson capped this interview on a grounded and somewhat self-effacing note. “One of the things that’s inherent in the artistic process is that everything is a failure,” he said. “I don’t mean that to sound negative or miserable. What I’m saying is that what you imagine in your mind can never truly be created in the real world. In my case I’ve got a sound in my head that’s fantastic. And the creative process becomes getting as close to that sound as you can. You never really reach it. But on this record I’ve come pretty close!”