Compelling cosmic pop and sci-fi synth folk from a pan-British quartet featuring Richard Dawson
“Iwas thinking about Fun Lovin’ Criminals when I was writing it,” says Richard Dawson. “I thought, ‘This is my big chance to have a pop hit.’” The idea of Dawson aiming for the charts might sound far-fetched to those who know him as the freewheeling Tyneside bard whose shaggy-dog blues made his recent albums
Peasant and Nothing Important so compelling, but as one quarter of Hen Ogledd, all bets are off.
Dawson’s mercurial touch is all over the group’s delightful third album, Mogic, a mind-bending collection of cosmic pop that draws on the ancient sagas of Celtic Britain and homespun dystopian sci-fi for a surreal series of cautionary tales. alongside Dawson, who sings and plays various instruments, Hen Ogledd features the acclaimed welsh harpist Rhodri Davies, who formed the group with Dawson in 2013, as well as scottish synth player and singer Dawn Bothwell, who joined in 2016, and sally Pilkington, the newest recruit, on vocals and keyboards.
what started life as an improvised dalliance between Dawson and Davies has blossomed, via their experimental second album Bronze, into something approaching a conventional band – albeit one that seldom plays together given the distance between Davies in swansea and the others in Newcastle. “we can’t organise regular rehearsals,” says Bothwell. “But I find that exciting because you end up talking about ideas more, and when we do get together it’s intense and fun.”
after years of challenging collaborations, it was Davies who
proposed a new direction for Hen Ogledd. “He wondered what it would sound like if improvisers made a pop album,” says Dawson. “I’m always trying to pull it towards composition, like an argument, so I was pleased he suggested that.” Mogic’s songs swoop sweetly through the uncanny valley, setting a tone of curdled optimism as the group pan for gold in the data dump of 21st-century culture. “sky Burial” muses on the nature of our digital selves – “Guaranteed
immortal/Lifetime, a portal,” sings Pilkington – while “Etheldreda” imagines a robot as the queen of the Old North, the ancient region covering northern England and southern scotland from 500aD–800aD that gives Hen Ogledd their name.
“‘Etheldreda’ was inspired by sophia the aI robot,” says Pilkington. “I spent a lot of time watching videos of sophia and being completely blown away. she has these facial expressions that are meant to be the most realistic ever but make her even more terrifying.”
The notion of “mogic”, too, seems fitting for Hen Ogledd’s fantasy realm: a made-up word for a made-up world. “Mogic is the contradiction at the heart of everything,” says Dawson, who admits he enjoys not being the centre of attention in this act. “It’s thinking about the conflation of time, of robots and witches in spaceships, or a caveman in a futuristic city a million years from now on some distant planet.”
For a record that explores the way technology can alter reality, Mogic’s prevailing message is one of positivity. “we hope it’s a strong but friendly antidote to a lot of the things that are going on in the world at the moment,” adds Dawson. “I’ve always felt we were in a tug of war in Hen Ogledd, but it’s a very friendly tug of war.” piers martin Mogic is released on November 16 by Weird World records
Hen Ogledd: (l-r) Sally Pilkington, Richard Dawson, Dawn Bothwell, Rhodri Davies