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Steven Wilson: Intuitive Indulgences and Pop Proclivities

John Kelman By

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I've always admired the great pop art form. It's not what I do best probably, but now and then something will pop out and I'll say, 'You know what? That's pop and I'm proud of it and it's completely me.'
The trajectory of Steven Wilson's career, since stepping away from his longtime band Porcupine Tree to go solo, has been nothing short of remarkable. Since interviewing him in 2012 for the release of Get All You Deserve (Kscope, 2012)—an audio and video document of his world tour in support of Grace for Drowning (Kscope, 2011), his second solo album following 2009's Insurgentes (Kscope)— Wilson has released a third studio recording, 2013's The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) (Kscope). Following yet another world tour, he released the EP Drive Home (Kscope, 2014), a collection of single edits, alternate versions and live tracks. All this, in addition to continuing his work as a surround and stereo remixer of not just classic prog now, but also pop groups like XTC, Tears for Fears, Simple Minds and Roxy Music.

But it's not the volume of his accomplishments that is remarkable; if anything, Wilson has simplified his life in recent years by focusing on just these two things (as if that's not enough). What's most extraordinary has been the continued, increasing success of his solo career. That The Raven has become not just the biggest selling album since he's gone solo but the biggest selling album of his entire career is almost paradoxical to its old school, hardcore progressive rock nature.

"I was as surprised as anyone that The Raven did as well as it did. That was a willfully uncommercial move. It had absolutely nothing on it that was even remotely acceptable to the mainstream, and yet it's become the most successful album of my whole career; it's the best-selling record I've ever done. It's extraordinary. And what that tells me is: the more self-indulgent and willful I am, the more likely the album is to appeal," says Wilson, chuckling. "It almost gives me license to keep doing my thing. Not that I'm capable of anything else, but it's still nice that it can have some appeal beyond just the hardcore fans.

"I could never have contrived or predicted that this would be the case," Wilson continues. "And remarkably, it's still selling. It's the only album I've ever done in my whole career that has not tailed off. Usually, you make record, you sell well in the first couple of weeks and then sales nosedive. This is the one exception, so far, in my career. This record has kept on selling. I know there's the word-of-mouth thing which, of course, helps keep it going...and the live shows."

As successful as The Raven has been, there's every reason to believe that his new studio album, Hand. Cannot. Erase. (Kscope, 2015), will do even better. "This is my first full-blown narrative conceptual album," Wilson explains. "I've always had themes to my records, but this is the first that I've done which tells a story from point A to point B—a much more complex thing to do. The music and the lyrics have to have this very symbiotic relationship and they have to be satisfactory within themselves, but they also have to tell a story in the right order. So it's been quite difficult to put it together, but I'm very proud of the the way it's come out.

"The inspiration started from a news story which I remember hearing about 10 years ago, in the mid-part of the last decade, of this lady called Joyce Carol Vincent," Wilson continues. "She'd been found dead in her flat in North London and she'd been there for three years undiscovered—which is already extraordinary. But then I discovered, when I watched the documentary Dreams of a Life—which came out two or three years ago and was a lot more about her—that things were even more extraordinary. I think, when you hear a story like this, your first assumption is usually a little, lonely old lady—and, of course, I also jumped to the same conclusion. But what the documentary explained is that it was actually quite the opposite: this was a young, attractive and popular young woman, which makes the story even more shocking and even more extraordinary.

"And so, you try to understand and decode how something like this could have happened," Wilson concludes. "How could someone disappear so completely whilst living in the middle of one of the biggest cities in the world—someone that is apparently popular and has friends and family? So the album began from the point of view that I wanted to write a story about a character very loosely based on Joyce Carol Vincent," Wilson continues. "A character that basically grows up, moves to the city and begins this process of making herself invisible—withdrawing and isolating herself from the 20th century and from the rest of the human race. So the whole concept is really this inner dialogue that this young lady has with herself as she kind of observes the 20th/21st century from her vantage point. Really, that was a gift to explore all sorts of my obsessions that people have probably observed from my earlier albums."

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