Interview with former Stiltskin and Genesis front man Ray Wilson

They say ‘write what you know’ and with his latest album, Song for a Friend, former Stiltskin and Genesis front man Ray Wilson has certainly taken that advice to heart. This is the Scotsman’s fifth solo studio album and has been warmly received with some critics citing that the mostly acoustic songs it includes are examples of good old fashioned song writing and composition at its best.

The album, dedicated to Wilson’s late friend James Lewis, is a collection of musical short stories that take the listener on an emotional journey that encapsulates life’s many triumphs and victories. Above all though, it is a master class in song writing, vocals and musicianship that is – on many levels – difficult to better. Song for a Friend also has a distinctly relaxed, almost “fireside” feel to it. Yet the lyrics are deeply personal.

“Finding the balance between the personal and the open wasn’t really that difficult and I have to say that writing the album came really quite easily,” Ray explained on one of the only four brilliantly hot days England has enjoyed this summer, which finds the singer ensconced in a London hotel room, graciously answering a phone call from a random stranger sitting in a Liverpool park.

“Uwe Metzler, my guitarist, was responsible for the music as far as the guitar work was concerned. We produced it together and I was responsible for lyrics and melodies, so it was effectively down to me to tell the stories I wanted to tell. I guess the overall feeling I wanted to get was that of the listener feeling as though they were sitting down and reading a book, which is something I like to think we’ve achieved.”

The opening track of the album, ironically or not, recounts the tale of a guy sitting alone in an Amsterdam bar reflecting on his life, when he spots an Old Book on a Shelf. On opening the novel, he then discovers that the book contains the story of his own life thus far. It is that sense of reflection and evaluation that shines through the album as a whole, without it ever becoming morose or self-indulgent. Ray Wilson, let’s be fair, has gone through a fair few career ups and downs along the way, so should know a thing or two about reflection and self-evaluation.

“That song, Old Book on a Shelf, came from my own experience. When I reached 30 years old, just after my time with Genesis and Stiltskin, I found myself really questioning my life and what I did for a living. The one question I really had was whether to continue or just give in. At the time I was reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo, which gave me so much that it actually changed my approach to life”.

“The album is written to hopefully inspire those who feel like giving in to keep striving. But that song in particular shows people who get to that point of giving in, like I did and so many others do, that they do have a future. If you can dig deep and find that strength, there is always something better around the corner. You just need the strength and energy to get there.”

The mixture of Metzler’s electric and acoustic guitar and Wilson’s slightly gravelly vocalisations gives Song for a Friend a real depth and a sense of its being recorded almost like a jam session, such is its closeness. This is particularly true on the track Tried & Failed, with the atmospheric tenor sax of Marcin Kajper adding yet more layers.

“That sound was added almost as an afterthought. In fact, we’d completed the recording of the album and I and got to thinking something was missing from the track but couldn’t quite get what it was. I actually thought harmonica might work for a while. When I asked Marcin to play tenor sax, someone who I’ve known and worked with for a long time now, well I just thought it sounded like a song Sting might have written, with that Englishman In New York vibe going on. Let’s be honest here. If the sound is good enough for Sting, it is good enough for me,” Ray laughed.

Ray Wilson is a big admirer of Sting and has supported the former Policeman at a festival in, of all places, Auschwitz. “When you work with someone like that and you watch them up close, you come to realise that they are effectively doing the same thing as you. As much as they have achieved a great deal and written great songs, at the end of the day they are just out there standing in front of an audience and trying to entertain them.

“What sets them apart, though, is the songs themselves and the depth of truly great material they have to choose from. That makes a world of difference and Sting and Supertramp’s Roger Hodgson who I have also supported on tour, obviously have that wealth of material. In my shows, I like to think that over the years we also have a few great songs to choose from, not least of which being from my time with Genesis, but really we all do the same thing but with varying degrees of success I guess.”

Song for a Friend closes on a high … literally … with a cover of Pink Floyd’s High Hopes, which some might consider to be something of a gamble. Not least Ray Wilson himself. “It was a bit of coincidence really and more than a bit risky,” Ray laughed again. In fact, Ray laughs quite a lot and it’s genuinely nice to hear that he is so upbeat.

“Uwe had already recorded a version of the song and phoned me up to ask what I thought about singing it for the album. My initial reaction was ‘Jesus, this is Pink Floyd. You don’t mess with Pink Floyd’ in much the same way you don’t mess with Bohemian Rhapsody. Just ask Kanye West. You just don’t go there, you know? Anyway, time went on and I came to realise that High Hopes has the right kind of story to fit the album so I thought, what the hell, let’s try it. I just sang it and Uwe did a really nice solo on the acoustic guitar and it just seemed to work.”

As with all musicians and artists, there is always a catalyst – a starting point – when they’ve thought: ‘My God, I would love to do that for a living’. In Ray Wilson’s case, given that he is 48 this year and from primarily a rock background, you might be forgiven for thinking it might be song from the more heavy side of the street. Wrong.

“If I told you that the first song that actually moved me, you’d never believe it really was Benny Hill’s Ernie and He Drove the Fastest Milkcart in the West would you, but it’s actually true.

“It is a quality song and just so funny. It also has the three elements that I really like about any music. One is melancholy, one is aggression and the last one is humour. You cannot beat those qualities in music and Ernie has them all. It was such a fantastic, funny story that I learned word-for-word as a little boy of around 4 years old and was also the first record I ever bought.

“On a more serious note, I guess, the first cassette I bought – remember those? – was David Bowie’s album with London Boys and The Laughing Gnome on. That was the first album I really loved and kept playing and playing. It must have driven my family crackers, but I guess even when I was young I was kind of drawn to this kind of storytelling humour in music.

“As I became a teenager and started listening to thinks like Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory, my musical tastes sort of developed from there through to bands like Pink Floyd and Rush and AC/DC and Motorhead, who all hold elements of humour, melancholy and aggression in their work.”

So having played the unlikely gig venue of Auschwitz, what has been the stand out gig at which Ray has performed? “I’d have to say when I was at the Rock am Ring festival in Germany with Genesis in 1998. That was pretty big. I remember looking down and on the stage and written acrossthis piece of white tape were the words: ‘Bob Dylan’signifying where his mic stand had been just before we’d come on. I remember thinking: ‘God Almighty, Bob Dylan has just supported us’. Yeah that was pretty special, even though sadly I never got to meet him and nearly got chucked out of the backstage area for filming his performance, even before we went on as the headliners.”

Ray and his band are much in demand in Europe and he has a pretty full diary with regards to upcoming gigs across the coming months, promoting Song for a Friend. Unfortunately, dates in the UK are yet to be finalised. “It’s the million dollar question, really, quite simply because we don’t get that many offers to play in the UK. I’m going to try with this album to get across sometime next year and it would be really, really nice to be back in Liverpool – I played the Lomax there with Stiltskin some years back, which was great night I recall – and a host of other cities I’ve not visited for ages would be nice to return to. Watch this space, as they say.”

Chris High for PlanetMosh.


Ray Wilson’s Song for a Friend is available now. To see the Planet Mosh review of the album:

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