Interview – David Masson: Anxiety, dread and a love of soul music

David Masson. Photo (c) Kevin Gaughan

Interviewed by Adam Piotrowski

When I sat down with David, we had a quick hello and he was off to the toilet while I watched his guitar. He had taken the train to Leicester down earlier in the day and had been passing time drinking coffee into the afternoon.

I wanted to speak to him about the inspirations for his gritty noir songs (‘I like guitar sounds that sound like kind of spooky and old fashioned in some ways’), his growing fanbase in Leicester, his home city of Liverpool, his self-produced music videos and his approach to producing music for other artists.

As I sit with him in the warm, cosy surroundings of Firebug, he is smiling, warm and seemingly ready for the chat. However, it’s fair to say that David has faced his share of challenges in recent years.

Not long after separating from a partner of 10 years and leaving work due to mental health issues, David found himself living in a flat on his own when the pandemic set in. Shortly thereafter he went to get his arm checked out after a nurse friend didn’t like the look of a growth, it was found to be cancer. Then, the day one of his musical heroes died, he had the cancer cut out of his arm. Nowadays, David has received the all-clear on his cancer, but it took a while to get there.

I think it is fair to say that one thing that provided him with a sense of purpose during this difficult time was creating; since he released his latest solo effort The Host in 2021, he has written around 6 or 7 songs for a new album, many of which he has recorded and created music videos for. He also produced Amy Dx’s debut solo album Time released in 2022, performing as the guitarist for her band along with myself on drums for the album release show at  The Musician here in Leicester.

The two ‘met’ virtually through commenting on one another’s music videos on YouTube and quickly forged a genuine musical connection. David had produced his own albums before and although he was not actively looking to produce someone else, he offered to add some guitars to one of her songs as a bit of an experiment.

DM: I tried desperately to put it together really quickly to show that I was, you know, a functional and prompt producer. So I did that, sent it back and she liked it…
It was nice to be speaking to someone about music and it not be about, you know, pay me £1000 to get you so many clicks and stuff and with it being lock down there was a lot of that going on, people were losing their jobs and trying to make money from any way they could.

AP: People were getting desperate.

DM: And in some ways, so was I, and I kind of saw someone who did the kind of music I enjoyed and I sort of found a way of putting my own slant on it really, because as I say, I like spooky guitars and reverb and stuff like that. But it was interesting getting into that because once you start producing for someone else, you’ve got to do a lot of compromising then. (When you are self-producing) You’re just compromising with yourself and all of a sudden, you’re compromising with someone else. And Amy is someone who definitely knows what she wants in terms of music. So it just opened me up really, and I started writing more because of that, and we ended up meeting and that’s why I started coming down to Leicester, playing.

AP: Do you play much in Liverpool? I know you’ve had some shows there recently.

DM: Now and again, yeah. I think because people can see me gigging again. I mean, I wasn’t. I’m not really a big gigger. Yeah, I prefer writing and producing and like putting something down for posterity, I suppose.
You know, I saw Amy like really getting the gigging bug and she played a few gigs and met some really nice people up here. It’s really open here (in Leicester). Everyone helps each other out. Everyone’s really supportive. Even the venues are supportive to each other. But it’s in Liverpool it’s so competitive.
I think one of the problems I’ve found with Liverpool is the fact that a lot of the public want to see themselves reflected in the music and I literally want you to talk about Liverpool. If you, if you’re in Liverpool and you do a song about any landmark or anything in Liverpool, you’ll probably do all right, yeah, I’ve never done that, because it always seemed a bit cynical.’

When asked about where his musical inspirations come from he said the following.

DM: Lyrically it’s, you know, there’s personal stuff there. There’s also, you jump off from the personal stuff into more, you know what every human goes through. It’s very much about, you know, the grey areas of being a human, really, I like singing about that kind of thing.
I like a lot of David Lynch stuff and abstract kind of films. And yeah, so I like that eeriness and the difficulty of life really. I suppose there’s that grey area. In a lot of ways because my music’s really personal, I wanted to put more things in that every everyone feels or talks about.
But when you when I started doing that, I didn’t want it to be an easy ride either to write, and I didn’t want it to be an easy ride to listen really, I find the decisions people make at different points in their lives really interesting. And yeah, just the just the difficulties that people have I suppose, psychologically as much as emotionally. I think there’s a lot of that in there.

AP: And I think it’s interesting when you watch, I don’t know, a TV series or a film or read a book where the characters are both good and bad because we are all human.

DM: Right, that’s what I mean. It’s the most difficult part of songwriting. I mean, people think it’s the easiest part, but you get, you know, trying to write something that fulfills your soul as well as other people’s.
And I think with the first album very much, it was like cathartic kind of, I was in my mid to late 20s and I was going through a lot of stuff, so it was like really personal. And then after that I was, because I got, I think, alright at songwriting. And you know, I wanted a bit more of a challenge lyrically.

We go on to discuss his favourite musical artists; David sites Mark Lannegan and the Screaming Trees as influences, and he admits that he tried consciously not to sound like them. Grunge music comes up and instead of favouring Pearl Jam or Nirvana, who everyone liked, he chose the Afghan Whigs. This makes sense – I can hear the distorted guitar sound of grunge echoing through his music, so I am surprised when he goes onto the confess his love of soul music.

DM: But I liked all those bands, but definitely the Screaming Trees, because I’m a big fan of soul music as well. Like massive fan of soul music. I listen to it more than I listen to anything else and especially Curtis Mayfield.
Curtis Mayfield was very socially conscious and his style and honesty again, it’s just second to none.
I’m more of a fan of old soul music and it’s the fact that they can take a really simple lyric and put so much into it. They can turn a dark lyric into a happy song or a happy lyric into a dark song.

AP: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Sometimes there’s a catchy hook, yeah. And then you listen to the words and your heart’s broken.

DM: Yeah, exactly. And so the Screaming Trees in the Afghan Whigs. Both were especially the Afghan Whigs were massive soul fans. So I don’t know whether I’ve got into soul music because I knew they were into it and I like their music, or whether it comes from earlier on, I’m not really sure. But yeah, it’s that kind of melting pot I suppose.
David goes onto talk about how he was crushed when American baritone singer and Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan died at the age of 57 in his adopted town of Killarney Ireland. Lanegan struggled with alcoholism and heroine addiction over the course of two decades, but had been clean for a number of years before struggling with and recovering from COVID. A cause of death was not revealed.
Somehow the stars aligned in a backwards kind of way.

DM: So sadly, I found out he died on the same day I had the cancer cut off my arm. And I’m kind of still dealing with how it felt, but it was a Melanoma and it was huge and it was on the arm. And I’d let it go and go and go not knowing what it was.
And yeah, I’ve recently separated from my partner for 10 years and I was living in a flat on my own, I was just getting used to single life and all that and then I was like I better go and get this checked out after a nurse friend of mine Chris basically said I don’t like the look of that.
So I had like loads in my arms skin taken off and sewn together and I’d never had an operation before. I think maybe because I deal with depression and anxiety on a daily basis, I think in terms of mortality. I didn’t want to die, definitely didn’t want to. But I never thought (about it). I just got my head down and got on with it. I don’t think I ever really thought, oh this is going to kill me. Maybe you don’t think that until it actually happens.

It was a two-year journey. Lots of hospital time, lots and lots, yeah. But then when I had my last immunotherapy treatment, I didn’t feel any difference at all. But then when I got my last scan results, I felt really happy. I wasn’t thinking I’m going to feel happy or relieved or anything. I mean, there was very little thought in the entire process, and I think because I was getting my head down and doing music, like I made (produced) Amy’s album, I was making my own and I was doing all that, you know, I was out of work at the time anyway, so it’s really now I think that things are starting like I’ve started work again.
It was something that happened and one day it’ll either hit me or it won’t.

AP: Sounds like you just were quite task focused.
DM: I didn’t really think about the scary parts of it. I wanted something visual to go along with the music, I think mainly because I just had ideas in my head. I’ve never been interested in making a film or written scripts or any of that. I just like the fact that in, you know, 3 to 5 minutes you can come up with something that you know is unusual or yeah, makes people think about the song in a different way maybe. And then I just bought a video camera and started learning how to edit. And I use very little special effects and stuff, I suppose it’s just it’s trying to use your instinct as much as passion. I think producing music, making videos, writing music, it’s all about trying to use your instincts. It comes from this special place. And because I think that’s the way a lot of musicians think that this person only is touched, you know what I mean? So it comes from this special little bubble, little cloud or God or whatever. And it’s it’s really instinct. It’s instinct in emotion, which is what drives all humans. So I think anyone can do it.

He goes onto to speak about his working progress on album number 4.

DM: it’s almost like a cross between my last album and the first album in some ways. I mean, there’s lots of finger-picking and stuff like that, but mainly electrics. There’s not an awful lot of acoustic. But the way it’s coming about, it’s I think, while I was going through the cancer stuff, I was writing a lot about the experience and not just about the experience. I was talking cleaner about things that had happened to me in the past and reflecting on that kind of thing. It wasn’t like I wasn’t writing about mortality because as I said, I wasn’t really dealing with that.

But, it’s as honest as it as I’ve been. It’s not finished yet. I’ve got about six or seven songs, so I don’t know whether the end might have moments of hope in it, because when I was writing it there was like, I was quite down and going through a lot of stuff.

But musically, there’s beats, there’s industrial sound and stuff, there’s guitars… I’ve tried to make the singing lead it and the words, lead it as much as possible and then try to create an atmosphere in the background whatever way I can.

As usual, the man will keep plugging away, feeling things out, going to work, coming home, working some more and of course creating. Keeping his head down, and delivering to us, darkness by the slice.

Full Transparency: Adam Piotrowski plays drums in Amy Dx’s live band

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