by Robert Leeming
“I wouldn’t wish shyness upon anyone” says David Sylvian, before going on to quote the American author Joyce Carol Oates “My nature is orderly and observant and scrupulous and deeply introverted, so life wherever I attempt it turns out to be claustral.” However claustral Sylvian perceives his life to be, his effect on the music industry has been felt consistently for well over three decades. From his days as the dashing and effortlessly elegant lead singer of Japan to his experimental and heart-rending recent albums Blemish and Manafon, Sylvian has walked a path that few commercially successful artists travel, from mainstream celebrity to art house icon, from the centre of the New Romantic scene to a periphery of creativity and spirituality. Never afraid to pin his heart on his sleeve, using the collapse of his marriage to inspire the revolutionary sound heard on Blemish, David has just released a new compilation of work engendered from collaborations, a set of songs which jump from the audibly jarring to the sweetly melodic. Never failing to surprise nor offer concessions to his audience, Sylvian remains an artist of considerable note, as R.S Thomas the late Welsh poet and Anglican clergyman of a parish called Manafon once said “My chief aim is to make a poem. You make it for yourself firstly and then if other people want to join in then there we are.”
Was Dead Bees on a Cake (the album preceding Blemish) a turning point for you? Your solo work since then has been in a completely different vein, it is almost as if you have put the idea of the pop song to bed and moved on to higher pastures.
Dead bees was something like a summation of all the solo material that went before it. I knew when I’d finished it I wouldn’t be returning to quite the same waters again but I had no idea what that meant at the time in terms of direction.Blemish was the turning point as it gave me an entirely new process with which to work, which is something of a gift at this stage in life. It’s a mistake to look at the last two solo albums and believe that this is the only kind of material the process is capable of producing as it can potentially produce a wide range of results. Having said that I have returned to more traditional forms of songwriting of late because it felt fresh for me to do so. I won’t discard one process for the sake of another. I like having the luxury of choice in that respect. I do love the notion of the pop song, the limitations and challenges it imposes, but this is generally the territory of the young or, increasingly, the craftsman, the professional songwriters and producers. Older generations of artists should clear the path, get out of the way and create new territories for themselves, stop attempting to repeat previous career highs. It would, in my opinion, make for a more inventive and varied contribution to the world of song. Then again, Money for All, Wonderful World, to name but two, are pop songs written within the last five years or so, there are really very few parameters that define what a pop song can and can’t be, after all songs such as Ghosts and Oh Superman were top five material and, in essence, the pop song is a seductive proposition, no wonder people return to these forms again and again.
Your complete artistic revolution on Blemish was also twinned with the breakdown of your marriage, as a particularly private person was it difficult to delve so deep into your emotional state and then put those songs up for public consumption? Did you feel overexposed? I would imagine that as an artist, the only way through a situation like that would be self-expression, but was there a part of you which wanted to keep the results of that self-expression private?
When I was working on the material I wasn’t thinking about the public’s reception of it or the degree to which I might be exposing intimate aspects of my life. Despite the themes that drive the material, I found myself excited by what I was hearing at the end of any given day, in that it sounded unlike anything I’d produced until that time, unlike anything I had heard before. As far as the content goes; I was in an emotionally fragile state due to the breakdown of my marriage, I used the emotions that I experienced at the time to push further into the darker recesses of my own mind to see how far I could go, to see what I’d find there and if and how I could give it voice. They weren’t safe places to explore in ‘life’ but in the work I was able to experience them without any negative repercussions for myself and those around me. To make it clear, while the emotions that surrounded the breakdown of the marriage were obviously the impetus for the work, I went a lot further internally with those when writing. It remains a portrait of someone in crisis but I didn’t feel I was exposing anyone but myself in the work. Did I feel overexposed? Yes, most certainly, but if I worried about such things or tried to second guess myself in that regard I could not do what it is I do. I’d undercut any potential value the songs might have.
There was recently a release of some of the work you wrote and recorded with your former wife Ingrid Chavez, Little Girls With 99 Lives. It’s a very beautiful and fragile collection of work. Would you say there is a different energy, a more productive creative atmosphere when you are recording music with a person you are in love with? Can that be captured in the music, the connection between two people, in the same way that Blemish captures the heartbreak when that connection breaks down?
I think that depends on the individuals in question. Ingrid and I didn’t happen to have a productive working relationship. There’s multiple reasons for this and I’d prefer Ingrid explain rather than I, but it comes down to a chemistry of sorts that might work in some aspects of a shared life but not in others. Ingrid’s really creative under pressure, all-cards-on-the-table, all-hands-on-deck, kind of scenarios which was the inverse of what we had going on.
Who were your first influences when you were a young man setting off with Japan in the early 80’s? I would imagine they were not the same people who were influencing some of the other leading lights of the pop scene then. For example you seemed to have been very influenced by later Dirk Bogarde, thinking of Nightporter of course and you recorded a piece called Steel Cathedrals which is also the name of a poem Dirk wrote. He seemed to have been particularly inspirational to people who were grouped under the New Romantics label, people like Bryan Ferry and Morrissey also name him as a key figure. Would you agree? And do you look back particularly fondly on your 80’s image/persona?!
Least favorite question so far. I have a poor memory for such things to be honest. For example, I wouldn’t have remembered an interest in Bogarde were it not for the fact that his biographer got in touch recently to ask about the obvious references. I was quite taken aback that Steel Cathedrals was a poem by Bogarde, I simply wouldn’t have known that to be the case, but I must’ve read it and it lodged itself in the back of my mind. However, I clearly remember being in a car on the road from Yokohama to Tokyo speeding past all of these factories that were beautifully lit up at night, looking quite otherworldly, like some colonial outpost on a distant planet, and thinking to myself ‘these resemble something like steel cathedrals, inspiring a similar kind of devotion perhaps amongst those that work within their walls, as I happened to be working on both the music and the film at the time, the title stayed with me. How does that work? I read the book in ’78, the composition was made in ’85. No matter how I personally feel about the source of the title I have to believe there’s a debt to be acknowledged there. I become the unreliable narrator of my own story.
Some things I remember clearly, the genesis of an idea, the details of the recording process and so on, but there are whole periods of my life, particularly my mid teens to early twenties, where I have few memories or fragments to pull from. This might be the result of not looking back, taking stock etc. When that period of my life ended, I think it’s fair to say, it was no longer of interest to me. It was shed like a skin and I’ve honestly not dwelt on it since. But I did enjoy Bogarde’s mid to late period. It’s good to be reminded of this. His best films don’t seem to have appeared on DVD even though they were by celebrated directors such as Renais and Fassbinder. I think my take on them would be very different now but it was an interesting and brave career move for Bogarde to choose to make them. The word I would choose to use is ‘necessity’ as that’s how I saw it from my own experience. It was a matter of self respect of allowing the inner self room to breathe. Not to have done so would’ve resulted in self destructive tendencies. When it’s a matter of necessity is it right to call the move a ‘brave’ or ‘courageous’ one? Probably not.
Do I look back fondly? I don’t look back.
Do you see a similarity between Bogarde’s career and yours? From popular success to art house recognition? I suppose the comparison again could also be made with Scott Walker. Did you always intend it to be that way?
It was an evolution, growing up in public I suppose you could call it. By the time I’d come to my senses I’d realised what it was I didn’t want and what it was I was going to have to sacrifice to do differently. I daresay there aren’t that many of us that have taken this particular divergent path away from the spotlight to the periphery but I’m certain that in most cases it’s a matter of personal necessity as described above. Survival wouldn’t be too strong a word to use, certainly in someone like Scott’s case. The spotlight was ill-fitting.
You have described yourself as “crippling shy” when you were young and still I imagine, would never describe yourself as an extrovert. Shyness has its downsides obviously, but it allows you to accept solitude more easily and it’s only really with some element of solitude that you can learn about yourself, read, discover music, become to whatever degree a “thinker” rather than someone who does not break through the surface levels of their own mind. Has shyness in a way saved you? Had you been extroverted and outgoing in South London in your youth, do you think you would have been eaten up by the city, married early, with kids, chained to a suburban routine? Do you think shyness protected you from that and allowed you to develop more individually, to think more individually? Or do you see it instead as something that has restricted you?
I wouldn’t wish shyness upon anyone. In society at large as well as family, it’s a crippling form of impotency. You’re acquainted with an internal suffering very early on in life and I guess this promotes the building of a healthy or unhealthy inner life that sustains you. Aside from the matter of shyness I was an uncompromising child when it came to the things I valued, and loved, really quite stubborn and sure of myself, and there was nothing about life as it was lived around me that I wished to emulate so I don’t believe the script would’ve been radically re-written had things started out differently. Without the shyness attached I might’ve benefited from a greater clarity of purpose, who’s to say? As it was there was a need to conceal as well as to express. A need for physical isolation too, an escape of sorts, or maybe ‘control’ is a better word. I don’t think it’s possible to produce good work from such a defensive position but first I needed to build the walls of my fortress before I was able to think more clearly. That would’ve been around the time the band came to an end. Money gave me the luxury of choosing how to exist in the world, to afford isolation, this is what I’d worked towards, to be in control as to how much I could take onboard at any one time and the freedom (though not without consequences) to step away when overwhelmed and it was awfully easy for me to be overwhelmed by social situations.
Your latest compilation Sleepwalkers is an album of collaborations. Do you find working with another person easy? Does not having total control over the evolution of a song bother you?
Not if you’ve chosen your collaborators well. With most I do have final say on the direction a piece might ultimately take but there are individuals I’ve been working with for a long time now and with those you tend to know what they’re capable of producing and consequently you’re able to be a little more hands off. Having said that even when working with a long established partner such as Ryuichi Sakamoto, there might be a number of files exchanged, false starts, before we reach common ground. The genesis for a piece such as World Citizen might be something as simple as the loop piano which is the basis for the track and which is what I wrote and recorded the vocals to so, again, the structure becomes determined by the architecture of the vocal melody, its duration for example and Ryuichi then arranges or orchestrates the work around it. But I have, and continue to, produce my own material so there’s no need to want to control the outcome of every collaborative effort. Collaboration, when it’s right is a challenge and a delight, a real conversation, a generous give and take with, by and large, everyone involved collectively satisfied with the outcome.
Many artists seem to be very reluctant to reassess their past work. When it’s done it’s done. Someone like Scott Walker, I’ve read, will record an album and then never listen to it again. You however seem to enjoy remixing and tinkering and returning to your work, the new Sleepwalkers album features a host of remixes and you’ve just announced Manafon is to be radically re-worked with Dai Fujikura. Are you someone who struggles to be satisfied with their work?
Actually, once I’ve personally finished with the work I consider it done, I have no desire to look back, rarely a desire to even perform the work so, in that respect, I share more in common with Scott than maybe apparent. However, where the solo work is concerned it can, very occasionally, be interesting to get someone else’s take on the material. This doesn’t take extensive involvement on my part other than to select the artists involved, give occasional direction and compile the work. I didn’t have plans to rework Manafon, it was Dai that requested if he might have a crack at one or two of the pieces and, as these things have a habit of doing, it’s evolved into something ‘other’. Also, the remix work is generally completed while the original is still in my system. Not a vast amount of time lapses between the completion of the original and starting on interpretations. In fact Dai had already made a start on his interpretations before I’d completed the mixing process of the original. As for the collaborative work, if I’m ever afforded the opportunity to remix the work to my liking, and this might only mean very subtle changes from the original, I tend to take it. I can then leave it behind me knowing I gave it my best.Original article on robertleeming.com