Ray Wilson on Genesis, going solo and covering Pink Floyd

muted portrait shot of Ray Wilson sitting on a velvet armchair
(Image credit: Kevin Nixon)

Dumfries-born Ray Wilson has had one of the most extraordinary up-and-down careers in music. In 1994, with the help of a high-profile Levi’s ad, he had a No.1 single, Inside, with post-grunge band Stiltskin. While they turned out to be one-hit wonders, after a series of auditions, Wilson landed the job of Genesis vocalist, filling a Phil Collins-shaped hole. He sang on ’97’s …Calling All Stations… and toured extensively with Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford. Things went well in Europe but America wasn’t keen on the new line-up, and a hiatus was called. Wilson then gradually forged a solo career. He guested on Steve Hackett’s Genesis Revisited tour and moved to Poland eight years ago. He has two albums out this year: Makes Me Think Of Home is out in October, while the acoustic Song For A Friend is out now.

So you’re living in Poland now?

“Yes, in Poznan. It’s a nice place to be. It has the most beautiful women in the world. I fell in love and packed my bags. Gave my house, car and half my money to my ex-wife and just left. I’m right in the centre – don’t need a car. I have two buses, for the touring and business, but I go around on my bicycle. That’s my life and I enjoy it. I tour every single weekend, pretty much. I play 80 shows a year in Germany alone. Then there’s Poland, Switzerland, Austria, Holland, Belgium, Russia… People say, ‘Why don’t you come and play in the UK?’ Well, I’m just so busy!”

There’s no hankering to play some shows back in the old homeland?

“I get countless emails about this, but what’s the point? I’d lose a bunch of money bringing my band and all the production here to play to a small audience. Maybe lose a couple of thousand bucks. Why would I do that? It’s not as if I haven’t played all over the UK. I don’t need to do that again to be happy. I’m glad to guest with Steve Hackett at the Albert Hall, things like that, but when I started building my solo career after Stiltskin and Genesis, my main goal was to keep control of my destiny. I’d had the roller-coaster rides, the success… I didn’t need to be No.1, because I had been. I’d sung with one of the biggest bands in the world. I felt I had nothing to prove, to achieve, in that regard. I’d had the dream – it had been reality for me. I took risks. I run everything through my own money now, and now I can enjoy what I do. I don’t want a Ferrari. I have everything I need to do my job, and that’s it.”

So the first of your two albums this year is the acoustic-based Song For A Friend. It’s about the death of someone you were close to. Did his passing motivate you?

“That kind of happened halfway through the process. I write a lot with the German guitarist Uwe Metzler, and we started writing a rock album again. Yet after a few songs I wasn’t really feeling it. I wanted to say something… of more substance, perhaps. So I asked Uwe if he could create some acoustic ideas, which he did. And I was writing about life, this and that, when my friend James died. I wasn’t able to go to his funeral because I was working, but when I got home I felt the need to write something for him, trying to imagine how he’d felt.”

Can you tell us the tale of his misfortune?

“He had an accident. He was on holiday with friends in Marbella and was on a trampoline, jumping into the swimming pool. They were having a bit of fun, a few beers. Anyway, he missed the pool and broke his neck. He went from an energetic life-and-soul guy to someone who was trapped in his own skin. He survived, but after a long period of hospitalisation, he went back to the fishing town where he was born, not far from Edinburgh, with his helper. There, I’m told by a friend, he showed her where he grew up, played as a kid… which all comes into my lyrics, my imagining of his thoughts. Then he said he was cold and asked her to get a jumper from the car. And he pushed his wheelchair off the edge of the port into the sea, dying soon after. As if he’d said: ‘To hell with it, I’ve had enough.’ That was his decision.

“So it’s obviously a horrific story, but in some ways, quite a rock’n’roll way to end your life. I can just imagine him doing it. I’d met him at 18 when I moved from Dumfries to Edinburgh trying… to become a pop star, really, as ridiculous as that sounds. I had no money, no work, and James helped me out a lot, gave me a room and food. But the thing was, when I had some success with Stiltskin, he was genuinely delighted. Of course the British and Scottish way is usually, ‘Ah, ya bastard!’ Resentment. But he had a genuine joy about him. Again, when I joined Genesis, he was over the moon. He played a significant role in my life and I’ll always remember him fondly. And he went from one extreme to the other, with this accident. I can’t begin to imagine how that must have felt, but I’ve tried on some of these songs.”

Not Long Till Springtime was written for your girlfriend, a dancer, after she got injured…

“Yes. I’ve come to know and admire a lot of dancers since my eight years in Poland. They’re so committed to their art, and all the imagery and cinematography that goes into what they do. They do it for very little money; just love. You don’t see that in society so much any more. Two days before a big performance, nine months into preparation, she got an injury. She was crying: the world had come to an end for her, y’know? I thought I had to write a song for her before she went to bed. I just wanted to lift her spirits. I think it carries a positive message.”

Talking of hope, the album concludes with a cover of Pink Floyd’s High Hopes. But then you already have experience of filling big shoes…

“It felt kind of relevant. I’d never imagined myself singing a David Gilmour song, but that lyric about getting a band together at school, becoming the mighty Pink Floyd… yes, there’s a parallel to be drawn, though not on that level of course. Even if you don’t like me, you can’t fault a great song!”

Makes Me Think Of Home is out on October 7. Song For A Friend is out now on Jaggy D. See Ray Wilson’s website for more information.

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Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.