On ‘To The Bone,’ Steven Wilson crafts accessible songs that transcend time

“If you make the songs about the human aspects of things, you’ve got a much better chance of having the music transcend the times.”

Where do you go after you’ve reached the pinnacle of your aspirations as a musician? If you’re post-prog progenitor Steven Wilson, you always zig, especially if people expect you to zag.

Following the heady sonics of his mind-blowing 2015 solo release Hand. Cannot. Erase., Wilson hit the reset button to emerge with the deeply layered To the Bone, out today in various formats via Caroline International. Working with a new producer, Paul Stacey (Oasis, The Kooks), Wilson tapped even further into the poppier, more melodic aspects of his songwriting that have, frankly, always been at the core of his music.

People have to redefine what they think about what kind of musician I am, or what they might have decided I am. But I welcome that.

“I think what’s different here is the emphasis on melodic songwriting and the pop sensibility in my music,” Wilson admitted to Digital Trends. “There was never a question for me that I wouldn’t follow my instincts. People have to redefine what they think about what kind of musician I am, or what they might have decided I am. But I welcome that. I think that’s a very healthy thing.”

Make no mistake, however — while the piano-melody hook that drives Permanating could have landed Wilson on Top of the Pops circa 1986, the viciously aggressive People Who Eat Darkness and the quite seductive/percussive Song of I highlight the thrust of the man’s always forward-thinking sonic palette.

“It’s something I’ve recognized in the careers of those people who have been inspiring to me over the years — Neil Young, Kate Bush, David Bowie, Frank Zappa, and Prince,” Wilson continued. “These are all people who constantly redefined themselves, and had to deal with the difficulty of trying to take their audience with them when they did that.”

If anyone’s earned a comparable level of respect, it’s the man who continues to set the bar for hi-res recording and aural experimentation. To that end, Digital Trends called Wilson across the Pond to discuss the songwriting techniques he deployed on To the Bone, the secrets of post-modern sound construction, and how to make music feel timeless in today’s polarizing sociopolitical arena.

Digital Trends: Hand. Cannot. Erase. (2015) was the zenith of what you were doing in that musical form. You took it as far as you could go, so you had to open some new doors with the sound and subject matter of To the Bone.

Steven Wilson: Well, I think so. I do understand that some people have only discovered my music from my last two records [the aforementioned H.C.E., and 2013’s The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories)], and they’ve defined their concept of me based on only hearing those two records.

Of course, there are other people who have been listening to me for many years and remember there were the Blackfield albums, the No-Man albums, and some of the Porcupine Tree albums like Stupid Dream (1999) and Lightbulb Sun (2000), which were very much based on songwriting and pop sensibility.

I don’t want to understate this — I think it’s a very small minority of people who might not like this record. There will be those people who listen to it in the context of their own home, and I think they’re really going to enjoy it. They’re just going to see it as the next step, really, in the evolution of my sound. It’s not like a complete reinvention.

Exactly. Songs like Pariah and The Same Asylum as Before are a continuation of what you’ve already done.

Yes. They feel like the continuation of what you heard on Hand. Cannot. Erase. Think of a song like Perfect Life on that album — at the end of the day, everyone can appreciate a strong melody and a good song.

If anything, I think To the Bone enables people who have never heard of what you’ve done before to come to you through different avenues of listening.

This particular record works in any context, like if it’s streaming on Spotify — if that’s not too radical for me to say that! (both laugh) I think it sounds good! Permanating sounds good coming out of a transistor radio — but it also sounds amazing if you listen to it in surround sound on a multichannel system. It sounds very cinematic, and very layered.

In a way, those are my career aspirations, in a nutshell. As you know, I’ve never set out to make or been interested in making “difficult” music that’s hard to enjoy. In fact, it’s quite the contrary — I’ve always set out to make music that I felt, in several ways, was very accessible, but without any sense of having to dull it down or to compromise.

What becomes really interesting is the sound universe you create for these songs to exist in.

I think there still is a place for that kind of music. The very diversification we’re seeing by the very straight pop world on one side and experimental underground music on the other — it’s unfortunate, in a way, because some of the greatest records ever made have been records that have occupied the middle ground. You can go right back to albums like [The Beach Boys’] Pet Sounds (1966), and others that were very easy to enjoy and were very accessible records. That’s the kind of album I like to think of To the Bone as.

If there’s one thing I can say I might be guilty about on the previous records — and I’m proud of all of them, don’t get me wrong — is the conceptual element took over from the songwriting element and the melodic element.

This time, there was more intent about keeping the focus on the song, and not necessarily having all these dazzling guest musicians come in and “stake their claim.” For example, a lot of the guitar solos on this record are me! And the way I approach the solos on my songs is very much an extension of the vocals and the songwriting. Because I am the songwriter and the singer, it’s a very different approach.

Was there one track at the beginning of recording that encapsulated that idea right out of the box?

No — to be honest, when I walked into the session, I already had all the songs written, and it was already the direction I was going. During the writing process, there were obviously crossroads — moments where I could have gone in a more conceptual direction — but I found myself favoring the songs which I felt were more direct, and in some ways, more simple. But that’s somewhat misleading, because there’s lots of complexity in a lot of the writing, the arrangements, and the production.

Songs like Pariah, People Who Eat Darkness — which is a rockier one — and Refuge are the earlier songs I wrote, and these, to me, were the songs that got me the most excited. Songs that had a sense of “been there, done that” got put aside, because I thought, “Let’s do something different.”

The title track for To the Bone especially sets the table for what’s to come. It’s a song that reveals more to you each time you listen to it.

The way I feel about these songs is relatively straightforward. I can sit down and play all of them on the acoustic guitar and the piano, and that’s the difference between this album and the previous album [Hand. Cannot. Erase.]. I couldn’t really have done that with those songs.

What then becomes really interesting is the sound universe you create for these songs to exist in. And that’s where it becomes a lot of fun. It’s trying to create this incredibly big, cinematic sound that’s completely in service to the song, but at the same time has got all these layers in it.

To the Bone, the song you mentioned, is a great example of that, and so is Refuge — very simple on paper, but it’s all about the way it builds and the dynamics, the layering, stripping down, and stripping back again. And I love that. it’s pure production, in a way — taking a song that’s very simple on paper and painting it with sound, colors, and layers.

I love that description. Andy Partridge of XTC is credited with writing the song To the Bone. How did you two collaborate on that one?

He wrote the lyrics based on me “la-la-la”ing the melody and bouncing words off him. It’s a song I knew had to be elliptical because it’s a song about truth.

Or post-truth, at this point…

(laughs) Post-truth, yeah yeah — that idea of fake news, and twisting the truth to your agenda. I’ve never felt particularly comfortable writing about politics. It’s not really me, so it seemed like a really obvious one for Andy to have a crack at. He wrote the words based on my nonsense lyrics, as it were — which is not an easy thing to do.

If anybody’s going to be able to turn nonsense into character study, it’s Andy. Tell me more about the song’s spoken word intro that goes, “Once we’ve made sense of our world, we want to go and fuck up everybody else’s.” Who came up with that?

That’s actually a really good friend of mine who’s a black schoolteacher in Texas, Jasmine Walkes. Basically, what I said to her was, “I want you to talk about truth, and the idea of truth as perspective — and I want you to improvise it.” And she came back with something that was very impromptu and very natural, and not scripted — and it was perfect! It was the perfect line to start the record, and I couldn’t have written it any better if I had scripted it myself.

It’s the perfect lead-in to “2017 truthiness,” to borrow a word.

Exactly! It sounds completely ad-libbed and completely natural because it wasn’t scripted, and I love that about it.

The way the world’s news cycle is spinning on its own axis, these songs resonate in the moment we’re living in, right now. Do you feel that yourself, listening to these songs you’ve written only just a short while ago?

Ultimately, these emotions and these feelings have no relation to time, race, gender, politics, or religion. They are universal.

I do, but the world is changing so rapidly. Even in the 2½ years since I did Hand. Cannot. Erase. — which was an album also very much about modern life and what it’s like living in the 21st century — the world has completely changed. It’s a completely different landscape.

And while I feel there’s certainly a sense of continuity with some of the things I’m writing about, there’s also something different about songs written in 2016 and 2017 than if I’d written them ten years ago — or even five years ago. Although the themes are very universal and, in many ways, timeless, there’s also something very specifically now about these lyrics.

And that’s a hard line to walk — to be able to make something seem both of the moment and not of the moment.

I think it’s very hard to second guess the way the future is going to go. Sometimes you have to be of the mind to be reflective of the times you live in, and you can’t really predict if those topics are going to become universal.

The one thing I do believe is, if you make the songs about the human aspects of things, you’ve got a much better chance of having the music transcend the times. If you make them very political and very topical, it’s going to date very quickly. If you make them, like my songs are, about characters that are living through these things, you’ve got a better chance of still resonating with people in 10, 20, 50, or even 100 years’ time.

Ultimately, these emotions and these feelings have no relation to time, race, gender, politics, or religion. They are universal.