Ray Wilson is a sublime rock vocalist with a rich Scottish edge. He is the long-time front man of the post-grunge band Stiltskin, who topped the UK charts in 1994 with their hit Inside. In the last year Ray has written twenty songs that are personally meaningful to him and express the range of his vocal and melodic skills. He has worked closely with musicians in his band to create two really accomplished albums, Song For A Friend and Makes Me Think of Home.
Song For A Friend is sweetly acoustic and deeply moving. In this interview with Shirley Ann Williams, Ray talks about writing personal songs, the joy of making music with his band and the fire that burns within him.
You have written two albums in the last year that are very different from each other, the first of these to be released is Song For A Friend, can you explain what inspired you to write it?
Fundamentally it’s quite a personal album. So I guess it’s very much about my life. I write about my feelings, my experiences and so it’s very personal in that respect. And even with the last song, a Pink Floyd song, the message of High Hopes in itself is very much relevant because that is how I feel about the future. I want to continue on, building and developing and making something of my life. So there is a point to that even though the story of that song is about their career. But I talk about the emotions, passions, jealousy, anger, hurt, all of the key elements of life, if you like. They’re all in there. And peace of course.
Is it correct that you were originally going to release them as a double album?
I’ve decided not to do it because I felt that the acoustic album would be over-looked if I did that. And I didn’t want it to be because when I finished it I really felt that I’d created something quite special in the fact that it’s got this kind of minimalist production and there are story lines in the songs that are very personal.
I didn’t want that to be over-shadowed by writing songs as if we were trying to have a hit single. I just didn’t want that. And it doesn’t matter to me.
The songs have contrasting chords and melodies. They are very distinctive. Yet the album feels whole. How did you achieve this?
I didn’t write all the music on this album, it was written by Uwe Metzler. He plays guitar on it. So there is a continuity with every song. It’s always him. It’s always his way of doing things and when it comes to the lyrics and melody that was my part. That’s what I do. There’s nothing that breaks that continuity either from a musical point of view or a lyrical point of view. It’s not like I did one song that somebody else wrote, or as if someone else played guitar on that song or whatever. It’s always him and it’s always me. On the next album it isn’t, but on this one it is.
Did you deliberately create a different identity for this album?
Yes I did. And it’s another reason why I wanted to separate the two albums. Because it was almost like I wanted to write a short book. I had the CD printed like an old Ladybird book. And it’s quite a retro’ printing process but I went to a printer who could do that. And the paper that’s used smells like the old Ladybird books.
And of course I dedicated the album to a friend of mine who passed away. I wanted it to be a testament to his life, to be special and I separated the albums out for that reason as well.
That is what the title track Song For A Friend is about isn’t it?
It’s absolutely the story of the last day of his life. That’s what it’s about and his recollections of his youth, of his life thereafter and of what I hope is the peace that he now has, in the next world or wherever it is that we go.
I cried while singing it. And I never recorded it again. I sang it one time and there were tears running down my face as I was singing it and I kept it like that. Even though, if you actually soloed out the vocal you would hear it. But I really wanted to keep the magic of it. I wrote the song in a matter of minutes, twenty minutes. It just came out.
It feels as if you’re pulling out memories of things that he said. Is that true?
Well, when he died he went to his home village, which is called Port Seaton, just outside Edinburgh. And he went there with the girl who helped him, because he had an electric wheelchair. I mean he was totally disabled. And he went there and I don’t know the events of what happened. But in my story, in my mind, he went there to look back on his life; to look at the school he went to, to look where he had lived, to imagine his youth. Then he asked her to go to her car and get a jumper for him because he was cold. And when she did he took his wheelchair into the harbour and he killed himself.
He was totally paralysed from the neck down. He had an accident on a trampoline beside a swimming pool in Marbella. He missed the swimming pool and broke his neck. Horrific. And he was one of these guys who had the most active mind. He always had a million ideas. He was the loudest person in the room. All the girls loved him. At night he was crazy, a really loud character. To go from that to being unable to move. I can’t imagine how that must feel.
I almost felt like it was written through me. And it did feel like that. It came just as if I didn’t even have to think about it. I just wrote and it just happened. You never know, maybe these things do happen. It certainly felt that way to me.
The track Not Long ‘Til Springtime is about your partner?
My partner is a contemporary dancer and she tours around the world doing her thing, her dancing. And she was performing for nine months with a project last year. After a couple of months she injured her leg and wasn’t able to dance. It wasn’t anything serious but she was so devastated by this, because the choreographers were really great and she wanted to do her best for them. And I thought OK I’ve got to write a song for her to lift her spirits and help her stay positive. Even when something goes wrong in life, invariably something good can come from it. It can lead to something that perhaps it wouldn’t otherwise have led to.
She’s dancing (in the video). And it seems fitting to actually have the end of that particular story as the person dancing, fully fit.
All the promotion team said ‘’You have to be in it.’’ And I said ‘’I’m not going to be in it so stop asking. I don’t care if it’s less commercial because of it, that’s not why I’m doing it. It’s because that’s the story.’’ And there are other videos on the album and in the next album where I am in them.
Do you explain your songs in sleeve notes?
No. I thought about it but maybe it’s better for people to just read the lyrics and get it for themselves. When I introduce the songs at concerts I explain what the song is about. It really makes it quite a special experience.
I play about twenty-five songs and I will include a few like Carpet Crawlers and Calling All Stations. But these shows are predominantly my songs. And as time goes by I’ll play more (of the material from these two albums).
There are some Pink Floyd songs on the set-lists at recent shows!
High Hopes I sing. But my guitarist Ali Ferguson, a Scottish guy, he sings Comfortably Numb and Wish You Were Here when we do acoustic shows with Uwe Metzler, and Kool Lyczek. Ali’s a very big fan of David Gilmour and he’s modelled himself on him. He’s just the most wonderful guitarist and people love it. They think it’s great. Great songs.
I haven’t met David Gilmour but ironically the manager of Genesis now also manages Pink Floyd. So, there is a kind of tentative link there somehow. I am a big fan. I love his guitar playing. I love his style.
Do you feel the completed album succeeds in expressing what you meant to say?
I don’t analyse it too much. When I write I try to let it come out. I don’t try and make sense of it. Its like there it is. And then I read over it and there’s maybe a couple of things I could say a little differently. But I just let it flow if the music I’m singing to is inspiring, which with this album it is. The music Uwe Metzler created is great. Beautiful guitar stuff, really nicely played. And I found it really easy to sing to and to create to. I could have easily taken another twenty songs and just kept writing. It was so easy, such an enjoyable experience. And I didn’t analyse it too much. I just wrote what I felt at that time. I went over it at the end and maybe changed a couple of phrases and that was it. And it’s as I wrote them.
When I wrote with Genesis (on Calling All Stations) It was a writing style where we all just basically jammed together and they would take bits that sounded good and build songs. And that’s quite a nice way to do it. But certainly when you come to write a story in the way I have in these albums, jamming and just throwing it all together is perhaps not the right way to do it.
Maybe (I haven’t written) as well (as this before). I mean I’m always quite in touch with my feminine side if you like. I’m happy to talk about my strengths and weaknesses as I see them. I‘m not shy in that respect and I don’t keep everything close to my chest like the guys in Genesis did. I am very open and I say what I feel, which has been to my detriment in some situations in my life. But that’s the way I am and I’m quite comfortable with that.
Surely it makes you a stronger singer, to be so open?
I think it probably does. If you front something and you’re talking to hundreds or thousands of people, then you have to have self confidence and self-belief. And I have that. Whether it’s right or wrong at times, I do have it.
When I was young my family separated, I was often starting a new school and ended up fighting because of it. And my brother, I would fight his battles for him because he was a bit smaller than me. I was angry with everything and confused.
At the age of fifteen I fell in love for the first time and I realised that it wasn’t cool for my girlfriend that I was behaving this way. So I channelled my aggression into the only thing I knew, music and singing from that point on, all the way through over the years. That aggressive streak is not burning so bright now. Thank God. But the passion’s still there.
I practice very hard not to hate anyone, even if they’d harmed me and instead try to send them good emotions. And that’s difficult for anybody to do but when you’re full of fire it’s even harder. But I just realised it’s a counter productive emotion. It’s pointless.
So do you transform all of your fire into the songs?
Exactly. Channelling the fire.
I am sending best wishes to people who had wronged me or who were fighting me, rather than wanting to hurt them in some way or another, or fight back. And I think I am better at what I do with age because of that. You know me through those songs.
If you read what these songs are. You know me.
Ray’s next album Makes Me Think of Home is due for release in October of this year. The title track is poetically and musically brilliant. The album is a display of great rock tracks and some softer, almost pop tracks such as Calvin And Hobbs. Ray is touring in Germany and Poland, where he currently lives. There are no UK dates fixed so far but we hope that some good radio play of tracks from these superb albums will bring him back home.
Interview by Shirley Ann Williams and Portrait Photography by Edyta K.
Edyta has here own website of performance shots and portraits here http://www.edytakphotography.com