Innerviews, music without borders

David Sylvian
Leaping Into the Unknown
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2003 Anil Prasad.

David Sylvian

David Sylvian’s musical journey is characterized by soul-searching and constant change. The British singer-songwriter’s career began in 1974 with the group Japan. Comprised of Sylvian, his brother Steve Jansen on drums, keyboardist Richard Barbieri, and bassist Mick Karn, the band’s sound was initially inspired by glam-rock icons such as David Bowie and the New York Dolls. The band eventually took on iconic status itself with 1981’s Tin Drum, its fifth and final studio album. The record marked the completion of the group’s transformation into a synth-based, adventurous pop act full of world music influences and vivid textures. But just as the group achieved its full potential, it collapsed under the weight of increasing animosity and ego clashes.

Sylvian wasted no time establishing a solo career after Japan’s demise in 1982. The next year saw the release of his debut album, Brilliant Trees. The disc occupied a middle ground between pop sensibilities and a desire to head into more cerebral territory. It also showcased the larger-than-life vocals of his Japan years evolving into the deep, aural charcoal that is his natural range. Several impressive records followed, including 1985’s Gone to Earth and 1987’s Secrets of the Beehive. It proved to be a fruitful era with the albums offering a delicate combination of flickering atmospheres, subtle orchestration and intricate imagery. Sylvian’s choice of extraordinary sidemen, including trumpeter Jon Hassell, guitarists Bill Nelson and David Torn, keyboardist Ryuichi Sakamoto, and bassist Danny Thompson, also helped ensure each record possessed a distinct identity.

In 1989, Sylvian found himself again working alongside Jansen, Barbieri and Karn under the band name Rain Tree Crow. The group believed the passage of time, the emergence of individual musical personas and deepened maturity could lend itself to new and innovative musical possibilities. It was an accurate thesis, as its self-titled album full of dark and desolate soundscapes hardly bore any resemblance to Japan. But the reunion was short-lived as many of the same forces that conspired to dissolve Japan resurfaced. Once again, the four went their separate ways.

Several collaborative projects followed with the likes of composer Holger Czukay, guitarist Robert Fripp and visual artist Russell Mills. But Sylvian’s next solo album wouldn’t emerge until 1999’s Dead Bees on a Cake. Sylvian favored simplicity in its arrangements that found him exploring soothing pop and R&B-influenced territory. Five years in the making, the album offered a glimpse into Sylvian’s spiritual pilgrimage into the worlds of Hinduism and Buddhism. It also continued Sylvian’s tradition of calling upon upper-echelon musicians for input, such as guitarists Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot, tabla player Talvin Singh, and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler.

Released in 2003, his next studio album, Blemish, was without question his most challenging. The improvisation-based, D.I.Y. effort was recorded at his home studio in New Hampshire and released on his own independent label Samadhi Sound. Half of the record features entirely solo performances, with Sylvian taking on all of the vocals, guitar work and electronic treatments. Experimental guitarists Derek Bailey and Christian Fennesz contribute to the disc’s other tracks. The album’s sound lives up to its title. Its songs are as evocative and fragile as any of Sylvian’s prior work, but housed in fractured structures that include disquieting buzzes, hums and clicks designed to provoke the audience to go beyond complacent listening. Blemish also features Sylvian’s most stark, intense and emotionally distressed songs to date. Its lyrics hint at the personal turmoil that shaped the album’s bent, but as with all his material, Sylvian prefers listeners to draw their own conclusions.

How important is it for you to have listeners grasp the context within which your music is created?

I’m not interested in the listener coming to the work and viewing it as a snippet of autobiography. What’s important to me is that people open up to it so it can become relevant to their lives in some way. There’s a substance to the work, but people needn’t know the background of the work in terms of my motivation and the main themes running throughout. They can work those out for themselves in whatever way they choose to approach it. To describe the work or pin it down in any way is only to take a stab at it. Ultimately, the essence of the work goes beyond my understanding of it. A piece of work has an inner life and that goes beyond the creator’s experience of the work in that I’m very much aware that the music comes through me and not from me. I give the work form and maybe dress it up in something of an autobiographical nature because that’s how I respond to the emotional content of the work. That’s how I approach things, but nevertheless, there’s something much greater than that at the essence of the work should you desire to delve into it that far.

Tell me about your spiritual background and how you progressed towards your current path.

There wasn’t a heavy religious influence in my upbringing. I was brought up in a Christian environment and I mean that in the loosest terms possible. In England, during the period I was brought up in, we’d be singing Christian hymns in the schools. We’d be doing our scripture lessons in which we’d study the Bible. It wasn’t a Christian school per se. It was part of the national curriculum. It was thrown out of the curriculum some years later after I left school. So, I was brought up with that kind of imagery and we’re all indoctrinated with that to some degree. It was something we had to go through regardless of our own religious space and beliefs.

There came a point relatively late in life between '81 and '83 in which I began to question just about every aspect of my life. My beliefs, such as they were, came in for closer scrutiny. I had a great sense of doubt in the kind of religious upbringing I had been given and the sort of childlike faith I had. The pull of Buddhism appealed to me because of the clarity of it— particularly Zen Buddhism. What ultimately appealed to me is that it is a discipline where belief isn’t necessary. You follow a systematic set of rules in a sense. It had a clarity that allowed me to embrace a discipline without necessarily embracing a doctrine per se. Later on in life, I was able to come to Hinduism and embrace aspects of that culture because I had been through a period of Buddhist studies that freed me up from the dogma of Christianity that I had grown up with. I was able to come back to a more devotional approach to my spiritual disciplines that didn’t have that implied dogma. That was liberating because it wasn’t in my background.

David Sylvian

Why are you still sometimes drawn to Christian imagery such as Heaven and Hell in some of your lyrics?

It’s entirely to do with upbringing. And often I haven’t been aware of it until after the composition is complete. I know there were greater references to Heaven and Hell and devils and angels on Secrets of the Beehive than on later work. I found that quite peculiar, but I think it’s to do with my background and it surfaced in the work quite naturally. I think it is less apparent now than it was. But they are metaphors that can be used and aren’t redundant in any way, regardless of the disciplines that inform my life currently.

During your solo career, you’ve worked with many renowned musicians. Describe the mindset with which you typically enter into those collaborations.

With the majority of people I collaborate with, there is a mutual respect of some kind established. There is very rarely a problem involved with the creating of music. When I’m arranging a piece of music, it’s the composition or arrangement itself that is crying out for a certain voice. So, it’s a matter of inviting a musician in to see if they can make that link. More often than not, there is a need for a dialogue of some kind to establish the common ground. The common ground already exists in my mind and I’m hoping that the musician coming in to work with me can recognize that. I have to say that nine times out of 10 it works extremely well.

I tend to have more problems with contributions that aren’t as significant as the major collaborations I’ve had that people often point to. It tends to be on a much smaller level—dealing with performance on one level or another such as the timing of a drummer’s performance, the pattern played on a bass guitar and other very minor details. That’s why I tend to butt heads with some of the musicians I work with, but never to the degree that there is a major difficulty. If I recognize that I’m pushing a musician into working in a way he feels uncomfortable with, I just call an end to the session and there is no animosity in that. Sometimes, there’s a certain amount of discomfort when they recognize that I’m unhappy with the work. Ultimately, it’s better that it ends that way, rather than taking it a step further and pushing them into performing a piece in a way that they feel is uncomfortable and unnatural to them, and where I’m not really getting the performance I need.

After Japan dissolved, how did you try to instill similar levels of commitment from the musicians you brought to your solo work?

There was frustration in moving from working within a band to becoming a solo artist. When you’re working in a group, you have 100 percent commitment if you’re lucky from all the musicians involved to produce the best quality work. It’s because everybody’s integrity rides on the work. Everybody’s interest, love and passion is involved from the word go. When I moved away from the security of that environment, I was worried I wouldn’t get the same degree of commitment from the musicians I was working with. I had heard stories about certain session musicians who come in and really give you what you’re looking for, but in a superficial way that lacks the emotional intensity that would give the work some kind of justification or profundity. The way I overcame that was to recognize the connections between a given composition and a body of music by a particular artist. For instance, I was hearing the sound of Jon Hassell’s trumpet as I was arranging Brilliant Trees. It was like a light going on inside my head and I thought “Wow, that would be incredible.” Then I’d ask the musician to become part and parcel of the work. I’d wonder if he would make the same connection I’ve made with his body of work and the particular composition I asked him to perform on. That was a bit of a leap of faith for me, but it’s worked out incredibly well. The musician typically offers an intuitive response to my own work and often if he is willing to participate in the recording session, he does find the link and ultimately gives something of himself to the work. He commits to it on a level that you possibly wouldn’t get from a session musician when that same consideration wasn’t applied. So, that’s where my approach grew from and it’s been my guiding principle since.

Tell me about the creative approach you adopted when making Blemish.

It was about being open to the act of improvisation in the studio and going with it. The whole musical element had to reflect the emotional element, which was pretty raw and on edge. It’s a very vulnerable position to take as a writer and vocalist. I wanted the musical support to mirror and reflect the same intensity and upfront honesty. It seemed detrimental to the work to go back and correct or remove the sonic blemishes to try and give the work a polish it really didn’t need, particularly given the context in which it was created. Each track was borne out of guitar improvisation from either myself or Derek Bailey. Once I set up a sound on guitar, I just started attacking it and that was it. The performance was the first take. There would be no second take. The performance would serve as the basis for the vocal response. I sat down immediately with the guitar recording and responded lyrically to it. I jotted down words and phrases and culled ideas from notebooks. I then immediately responded melodically to the track with a set of lyrics. So it was all done very quickly. I didn’t allow time for reflection. I didn’t say “Is that phrase correct? Why should it be there? Is it the strongest idea I can come up with in the context?” Rather, I just went with whatever surfaced. That was the discipline. I found the process very liberating.

The other thing I should mention is that I had been working on several retrospective projects for Virgin. At the time, I went into the studio to write new material and really felt somewhat creatively dead. I had been stifled for so long while working on these projects and while building my home studio that I didn’t know what was inside or what needed to be expressed. I had been carrying the general outline for Blemish around for almost a year, but I never knew what would happen when I sat down to write the material. When it surfaced in the immediate way that it did, I felt there was an integrity, honesty, truthfulness, and vulnerability in the work. I hadn’t heard anything quite like it before. In a sense, that justified the work for me.

That sounds worlds apart from your typical process that relies heavily on questioning and reflection.

That’s true. With this outing, I was more interested in the intensity of the emotional commitment to the work. If I had paused to think about what I was writing about, maybe I wouldn’t have felt comfortable. Perhaps I would have had second thoughts about this approach. Maybe that degree of vulnerability would have been too out there for me. There’s a vulnerability in my work generally, but Blemish was taking it a step further than that. Also, I was experiencing a rush of creativity. So, although I’m dealing with rather negative and profoundly moving emotions of loss and disillusionment, there was also an excitement there. I was allowing myself to delve very, very deeply into personal feelings that were almost impossible for me to tap into in the day-to-day living of my real life. So, I closed the studio door and allowed myself in the safety of that environment to really penetrate deeply into these emotions and see where they would take me. I’m not sure why it felt safe to do that, but it did. It certainly was cathartic and liberating. By the time I’d finished the album, I felt like I’d risen above much of what the album was dealing with. It helped me through the experience by opening up to it 100 percent and allowing myself to feel the depth of those feelings.

Did you seek to work with Derek Bailey as a way of challenging your previous music-making conventions?

Absolutely. That was definitely a part of the fascination of working with somebody like Derek. I previously tried to enter into the free jazz arena once in my life around 1990. I did a session with the pianist Keith Tippett and I failed to find the foothold. I failed to find a way into the work as a vocalist and lyricist. I had to put it aside, but it was an area of music that fascinated me. It was difficult to enter into the spirit of the work on the same footing as those performers because as a vocalist, I have limitations. I also like to work with lyrics, so there needs to be time for reflection in order to be able to pull satisfying words together and respond to someone else’s work.

When I heard Derek’s album Ballads, I could suddenly see that there was a place I could get a foothold—that there was a possibility there that would allow me to work with this type of material vocally. During the year I carried the vague idea around of what was to become Blemish, I listened to a lot of Derek’s work. I felt there was a sense of dislocation in the way he played that would help reflect the feeling the album was going to contain. I wanted to face the immense challenge of responding to that kind of performance as a vocalist and lyricist. In fact, when I spoke to Derek just before he went ahead and did the session, I said “I’m really looking for a challenge here as a vocalist.” He said “Don’t worry, David, you’ll certainly be challenged.” [laughs] It was a wonderful experience to work with that material.

David Sylvian

You once said you sometimes “have nothing to lose” when you’re working on new material.

As a writer and lyricist, you sometimes want to take a leap into the unknown and find a new vocabulary. You don’t want to speak with the same tongue. So, there’s nothing to lose because I’m not going to repeat myself. I’d rather stop making music than do that. If there’s nothing there, it’s time to move on. You have to dive in the deep end and see what surfaces. Hopefully, a sense of freedom, liberation and open-mindedness occurs towards the new work. It’s only happened a few times in my life. I felt that to some degree when I started writing Tin Drum. I certainly felt it when I was creating Brilliant Trees. It’s about a pivotal moment when you feel an unlocking of potential that’s intangible and a broader view can be applied to the direction of your work. You also get a broader view of yourself as an artist. It’s all to do with intuition. It’s not an intellectual understanding. It’s a sense that anything can happen. It’s a feeling in the air prior to even starting the work. I had a sense of that going into creating Blemish.

How would you compare that approach to the one you took for Dead Bees on a Cake?

In a sense, it’s the antithesis of what I did with Blemish. Dead Bees on a Cake was very considered. The original writing stages were very spontaneous and very quick, generally. I didn’t labor over the material during the writing process, but the recording process was slow and drawn out. I didn’t intend it to be that way, but I couldn’t get the performances I was looking for. There were also a lot of technical problems in creating that record. It was also drawn out over a long period of time because it was a very eventful period in my life and I was getting sidetracked away from the work very often. I returned to it again and again to fine-tune it and look for the spark that I felt was missing in the original performances through editing and through my own interpretation of what was needed from the musicians. It was far more considered and in tune with the work I created prior to it in the sense that it was very controlled work.

Dead Bees on a Cake has some gorgeous pieces of music on it—some of the best I’ve ever created. I felt that I was at my most eloquent as a writer on pieces such as “I Surrender” and “Wanderlust.” There are a couple of pieces that were a struggle in that I felt I didn’t get what I needed from some of the musicians involved. So, some of those pieces didn’t evolve as much as I would have liked them to. Outside of that, it’s still a record that documents an important period in my life and in that sense will always be valuable to me. I also learned so much during the process of making it as a producer and engineer. Also, it’s far more celebratory than any of the other albums I’ve created. It’s one of great optimism and is fueled by love on so many levels. I don’t think my personal impression of it will ever dim.

You and your brother Steve Jansen are a creative unit again. Describe the process of reconciliation that enabled that to happen.

No matter what you go through with family, you tend to resolve it at one point or another. I always felt that would be the case with Steve. We hadn’t seen one another for quite some time. I think we both changed a lot during that period. There ended up being a great degree of forgiveness. It was that simple. What happened after that was he made a small contribution to Dead Bees on a Cake. At that point, the creative door was open again. He became part of the tours I did for that release. During touring, a strong bonding of love resurfaced, as well as a true appreciation of his talents and abilities. Though we failed to really achieve what we set out to do with Rain Tree Crow in that we couldn’t sustain that relationship, I wondered if it was possible to pick up the pieces as a duo and bring other musicians into the project on occasion and see how it develops. That was the initial idea.

At this point, we’re working as a team, writing, learning new technology and trying to incorporate more electronics into the work. We’re taking our time and trying to ensure this first step we’re taking in this venture is a true step that we’ll want to build on in coming years. I value the solo work and it will always be a priority in my life, but I always missed working within the context of a group and the idea that one evolves from project to project with it. I’m hoping the work with Steve will evolve into an engine that can carry me forward into different areas than my solo work might go.

You’ve joined the ranks of prominent musicians who have chosen to go independent after years spent with major labels. Tell me about that decision.

Usually you can work with someone whether he likes or dislikes the work, but when there’s a wall of indifference as there was at Virgin, it’s really, really hard. There was no way around that wall of indifference and I just wanted out. I wanted my freedom again. I got so tired of walking the hallways of Virgin with a begging bowl forever saying “Please, may I? Please, may I?” and not getting any kind of response. I had an enormous desire to break away from all of that. The feeling was mutual, so I was finally able to leave the company. Having been signed to a major label my entire adult life, there was a sense of euphoria. I am absolutely free to move in any direction I choose without having to justify it to anybody. I didn’t feel the desire to get back into any situation where after completing a work, I would have to persuade someone else that it was interesting work, a good direction to take and a viable investment for the company. I was tired of being a businessman. I felt far more of a businessman dealing with a major label than I did actually creating my own label and working with sympathetic people with a similar outlook. It’s a challenge, but also a very pleasurable process of education.

You’re less than pleased with the direction America has taken lately. What keeps you there given the state of things?

It’s difficult to leave, having set up a base in America. My children were born here and are very happy where they are. Do I uproot everything and just follow my intuition which is to move back to Europe or do I sit it out and try and make a contribution? I have friends who left the country after Bush came to power and since his administration went on its war mongering conquering of the oil states. There’s a temptation to leave because you feel there’s nothing in the administration that represents you. I don’t think I’ve ever had such negative feelings about an administration, be it in the U.K. or here, as I do for the Bush regime because of the level of greed, environmental impact and waste of human life. The motivation is so obvious. You don’t have to be very sensitive or intuitive to have a grasp of what’s going on. To be represented by such a power and to be told these things are being done in your name is something that makes you want to back away from it. But there are reasons for me to stay beyond what the government is doing, so I try to be as vocal as I can about what it’s up to. I’ve avoided doing that in the past because I didn’t want the work to take on any kind of political overtones. The work doesn’t require that and I don’t think it strengthens it. But as of late, I’ve felt a need to speak about these topics.

For many, your music possesses a healing quality that offers an escape from the madness.

That’s the goal. It’s also healing for me to create this work. It’s always a cathartic experience creating the work and a wonderful release because of the way that I work. I tend to have these images, emotions and landscapes in my mind that mirror the emotional states I’m in when creating the work. That gives me a key to where the work is heading. Having created the work, it reflects that landscape back to me. I’m of the belief that if I’m able to perceive that in my own work, someone else has to be able to perceive the same tendency of emotions from it. I think music can potentially give a listener a safe haven to open up to themselves. Music can be a healing place. It’s not a physical space, but music can sometimes envelop listeners and allow them to delve into emotions they don’t feel safe to explore elsewhere. In the embrace of music, they can open up, breathe deeply into these emotions, be they celebratory, sad or melancholy, and just ride with them. I think music has such a potent, healing capacity. Maybe all the arts do, but music particularly does. Absolutely the best response you can get from somebody to your work is that they found a capacity for healing themselves. I think that’s beautiful. That’s what it’s all about.

David Sylvian