Over a glass of mango lassi in London's cheap but extremely cheerful Ravi Shankar restaurant, Richard Dawson – who has been described variously as a folk musician, avant garde guitarist and stand up comedian – is recalling a less sober afternoon a decade previously. "It was the night before the release of my debut album [Richard Dawson Sings Songs and Plays Guitar, 2007] and I was due to play this music venue in Byker called The Tyne Bar.
"The trouble was I bumped into a pal in town during the day and ended up drinking so much that by the evening I couldn't play the guitar or sing in tune. And then I fell asleep on stage during the gig. When I woke up, there was a woman up there with me singing a Robbie Williams song."
He sighs: "Never again…"
The Newcastle born musician doesn't drink when he plays live now, but it's not out of fear of finding himself singing "Let Me Entertain You" while savagely out of key and half-unconscious.
Over the last decade, with the tunnel vision of an autodidact who has had a true epiphany, he has become not only one of the greatest songwriters this country has produced in recent years, but also one of our best live performers. Gigs by the 35-year-old usually vibrate with a level of vigour and total immersion that would make him an outlier in any musical field, let alone contemporary folk. His guitar style naturally combines such seemingly incompatible tones as the free improvisation of Derek Bailey, the wild primitivist attack of Harry Pussy, the sweet chime of Bert Jansch and the hypnotic trance of the Master Musicians of Jajouka. When he sings, it is often not just a capella but a capella off microphone, using the strength of his voice alone to fill large rooms. He delivers new compositions and centuries-old folk standards alike with the kind of gut level punch and attention to detail which has more in common with hearing an exhilarating grime freestyle than a performance by some folk pop whopper who has their CD racked by the cash till in Starbucks.
But this level of energy comes at a price, and part of that price is, apparently, having a few ales.
He says: "I stopped drinking when I play live at the start of the year. Performing was burning my voice out every time. So I met a theatrical voice coach and it turned out there were simple lessons to learn; hydration being chief among them."
He says he now drinks as much water as he can all the time and that his new routine has taken things up by "four or five levels". He said at first his voice felt like a "shiny new instrument" but admitted that his flow and rapport with the audience initially stuttered slightly: "Do you know that thing when you're in the pint zone? The bit of time when you've had one pint down the pub? When I was in that zone I used to feel like I was just…"
He whistles through his teeth and chops his hand down through the air in front of him as if it were a machete. The hour of power? I ask him.
He laughs: "Exactly. So to be in that zone for a gig is really good, but I've come to realise it's an illusion. You feel like that because you're a bit more comfortable with yourself, but there are other ways of becoming comfortable with yourself."
Recently when he played at the Sea Change festival in Totnes, the song that brought the house down – as it often is – was "Poor Old Horse", which culminated with everyone in the venue singing along at full pelt. Which is only odd as it's about three men trying a variety of means to put the titular animal out of its misery. As the attempts to kill the nag get more and more brutal and desperate, the song gets more distressing, but somehow funnier as well.
In 2011 he was invited to take a look at the Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums and "respond to the material" in any way he liked. The result was The Glass Trunk, a stunning meditation on violence full of new compositions based on his research into real stories from the 18th and 19th centuries. One of his chief sources of inspiration was a scrapbook of yellowing cuttings started in 1791, where he found a harsh eight-line poem entitled "Poor Awd Horse".
Talking about the reaction the song receives live he says: "It's odd, isn't it? It's like slapstick… almost… The fact that it concerns an animal's suffering makes it horrendous, but it is ridiculous and over the top as well."
I mention how I always feel acute guilt when laughing at the song, causing him to shrug: "There's probably something inherently funny about seeing a short, odd looking bloke absolutely bawling at the top of his lungs."
But this is where I have to outright contradict him. A whisker short of the national height average he may be, but something comes over him occasionally when he's singing these songs. "Possession" is too strong a term, but only really by a few degrees… During "Poor Old Horse", especially, his face contorts, he hunches over, his eyes sink into his skull. He becomes bestial looking, like a totally different person, or thing, even. Sometimes he makes me think of Linda Blair as Regan in The Exorcist, sometimes that hulking grizzly bear from The Revenant. At that very moment he towers over the stage.
When I say the word "transformation" he replies: "The best moments I have playing live are when the song is just going through me. It doesn't always happen, but when it does muscle memory must take over because I'm not there at all. When I'm in the moment time slows down, I can see into the smaller detail of things, into the grain of some wood, or the vibration of a string. So instead of my little mouse voice saying, 'Oh dear, what I just said was shit!' I am just focused on what's happening, alert to the room, my own body, the sounds and the heat and the vibration of the hidden things."
When I tell him that watching him play live guitar instrumentals often makes me think of the power of heavy metal – even though the show is just one person and an acoustic guitar – he calls heavy metal "honourable" and reveals that one of his great musical epiphanies was when his sister played him Iron Maiden's debut album for the first time: "It was the start of everything." He adds: "Sometimes I catch myself doing a ridiculous Iron Maiden move with my guitar, but then I remember: there are no ridiculous Iron Maiden moves."
He turned up on a very good underground British metal album as an extra guitarist earlier this year. Failures by KHUUNT, out on Riot Season, straddles the dividing lines between blown out noise rock, doom metal and psychedelic sludge. He is at pains to point out he's only a guest musician on an album made by his friends, but eulogises one particular recording session: "It was just the greatest thing. Sam [Grant, guitars] had this huge self-modified Fender twin amp and he warned me that it was 'pretty loud'. I asked if I could turn it up to max and he shouted, 'Don't! Don't!' So I turned it up to max anyway, and do you know when you turn an amp up full and you'll hear some hiss or some buzzing? There was absolutely no noise at all, so I just stroked the guitar and then my eyeballs just went into my skull and my face went like this…"
He starts pummelling his own face with his fists: "Johnny [Hedley, bass] crumpled to the floor. Everyone had to have a little lie down on the floor. Fucking hell, it was beyond awful. It was so loud you couldn't even hear the noise it made. It was like being hit by some sonic weapon."
His latest album album couldn't be much more different if it tried. Hen Ogledd – the name for the Old North, an area covering what is now the North of England and the southern Scottish Lowlands – is a leftfield group that was also formed out of friendship with long-term collaborator and revered experimental harpist Rhodri Davies. Their new LP Bronze (out on Alt.Vinyl) has seen them expand to a three piece with the inclusion of Pentecostal Party's Dawn Bothwell on synthesisers.
Trying to explain the starkly experimental but always thrilling style of music they play, he asks: "Do you know the Gaia Probe? It's a telescope being used to photograph the Milky Way and it sits in the Lagrange zone between the Sun and the Earth. This is the exact point where the gravities cancel each other out. So I think Hen Ogledd exist in the space between improvisation and composition. It's a flat space where it's not one or the other – it's both. There's always a tug of war going on."
The two words that underpin his approach to both his life and music are "responsibility" and "contradiction". He says these words flash on in his head like the neon sign saying "Dirk Diggler" in Boogie Nights. The contradiction is obvious: the serious artist who makes everyone laugh. The avant garde musician who wants to be an entertainer. But what about responsibility?
He concludes: "It's a fascinating idea and boils down to asking, 'How do you spend your time?' We've got such a small amount of it. I wasted such a lot of my time when I was younger, and drinking was part of that. But it also means being responsible for the moment – in life and in music. You shouldn't taint the moment with worries about what's going to happen in the future or regrets about what has happened in the past. Let go of the ego so you can just be present… a little bit flatter, a little bit calmer and ready to receive."
Bronze is out now via Alt.Vinyl and The Glass Trunk was reissued recently by Weird World/Domino