Ray Wilson: "My goal was always to control my own destiny – and now I do"

Ray Wilson: music industry survivor
Ray Wilson: music industry survivor (Image credit: Kevin Nixon)

They say there’s no place like home, but Ray Wilson isn’t so sure. He’s moved on. Having now lived in Poland for the best part of a decade, and recalibrated a career that’s redefined the cliché ‘roller coaster’, he isn’t one for pining for his Scottish roots. Partly because he’s very happy in Poznan, and partly because after his stints with Stiltskin and Genesis, his life became “pretty grey, to be honest”. He realised that the way forward for him was to reboot, both creatively and geographically. It was, he recalls, “as if someone had turned a light on”.

Makes Me Think Of Home, his second album this year (the acoustic Song For A Friend emerged in the spring) is a solid, brooding beast, with “elements of rock, pop, and progressive music”. Beautifully sung, it bears lyrical twists too. The centrepiece and standout title track “might suggest you’re looking forward to getting home”, he muses, “but in actual fact it’s the opposite. It’s almost like thinking of home as a prison. Home being the place you’ve moved away from…”

Chatting today in a London hotel, Wilson is a talkative yet thoughtful presence. He’s clearly a man who has found inner calm after experiencing one-hit-wonder status with Stiltskin (their 1994 debut single Inside was a No.1 across Europe, aided by a Levi’s jeans ad campaign), then spending almost three years (1996-’99) as Genesis’ vocalist, facing the daunting challenge of replacing Phil Collins.

Since then he’s dabbled at times with the material of both those bands, but his solo career is comfortably established. He focuses on consistent touring in Poland, Germany and Holland (and Eastern Europe) rather than revisiting what used to be home. He says there are maybe just three weeks in a year when he’s not working.

Wilson on a rare trip back to his native UK

Wilson on a rare trip back to his native UK (Image credit: Kevin Nixon)

“I lived in Edinburgh for 38 years and obviously I’ve travelled a lot. I realised before I left there – I was going through a divorce and stuff – that Britain, or Scotland if you like, didn’t really have much to offer me as an artist,” he reflects. “There never seemed to be the right opportunities. That hadn’t been the case when I was starting out in pubs and clubs in my late teens, but then after I’d had the Stiltskin and Genesis things, I felt all I ever did at home was wait for five o’clock, then open a bottle of wine. Then open another one. And another one. So spiritually, I wasn’t very happy there.

“When I moved to Poland and fell in love, things didn’t stand still, didn’t stay the same. I’d gone from Edinburgh, which is a city where everyone ignores everyone, to an environment with a big family spirit. I didn’t speak the language, but it didn’t seem to matter because you still felt it.”

Meeting his girlfriend, a dancer, helped, so themes of happy displacement run through the record – for example, on They Never Should Have Sent You Roses, a parable about the Scottish referendum. “I’m against isolationism, against going backwards – it’s divisive. Okay, people have differences, but respect that and we’ll all get along fine.”

In a new place now in so many ways, Wilson may feel he didn’t get the respect he merited during his Genesis days. Despite the fact that, commercially, the line-up was fairly successful outside America, he took a bucketload of flak simply for not being Gabriel or Collins. He could be forgiven for having been turned off progressive rock, but he’s being the bigger man.

It’s slightly surreal to hear the chap who found himself fronting Genesis recall his patchy familiarity with them prior to joining. He confesses that he never really saw himself as a prog fan in his youth, though he was switched on to Rush (“You can’t question the ability of those guys – phenomenal”) and Pink Floyd. And yes, he owned some Genesis albums. “I had A Trick Of The Tail, Selling England…, I think, and… the Mama one: what was it called? Genesis? Right. Of course I knew their pop songs from the late 80s because they were on the radio all the time due to Phil’s huge success. But that was it, before I joined the band. I wasn’t, like, an ardent fan.”

He chuckles wryly. “I didn’t know the early material in the same way as many of the fans who came to gigs, although in more recent years I’ve worked with Steve Hackett.”

Ray Wilson with his fellow Genesis bandmates Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks

Ray Wilson with his fellow Genesis bandmates Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks (Image credit: Mick Hutson/Redferns Getty)

Wilson guested on Hackett’s Genesis Revisited II tour and album. “I never liked music that seemed to be trying too hard – that’s not for me, unfortunately. I do think Radiohead are magical, but growing up I loved Bowie, Thin Lizzy, Motörhead, AC/DC. I guess music for me has to have melancholy, aggression and humour. Those are the elements that matter to me, and I hope this record carries them off.”

Given that Genesis were one of the most English, middle-class bands ever, and that even Phil Collins thought they were a bit posh when he first joined, it’s not easy to imagine Wilson seamlessly fitting in with Messrs Banks and Rutherford…

“Well, Phil was grammar school working-class English, but I was grammar school working-class Scottish, so – even more so! But to be fair, I always found Tony and Mike very pleasant people to talk to. I never looked at them and thought: ‘Oh, you’re posh and rich and I’m not.’ They never made me feel that way at all. And we had the common thread of music: I was writing and singing with them and they needed me to be comfortable, to be good at what I was doing, so I never felt a divide as such. Although they kept things close to their chest, which isn’t a characteristic I have. I’m the opposite – I say what I feel. But you never knew what they were thinking, and while most of the tour went well, that could sometimes make me feel a little uneasy.”

Things deteriorated in a noted prog stronghold. “It was going well until Italy, where they really adore the 70s progressive stuff. And of course we went along there with Calling All Stations. They liked the new stuff, but when we did Invisible Touch as an encore, that wasn’t very popular! To be fair, I was shit at singing it anyway, back then. I’ve got better since. But the call for another encore wasn’t happening and we knew we’d got the setlist wrong for these guys. They wanted In The Cage, not Hold On My Heart.

“I remember after three Italy shows they had this private meeting in the bus, on the way to Switzerland, with their manager and accountant. I felt they were having second thoughts, because it wasn’t quite right and this was their first bad experience with this new project. I remember getting quite angry about that, in a typical Scottish way: ‘Look, just stop the bus, I’ll fuck off now, no problem.’

Ray Wilson live

Ray Wilson live

“This was never something that was going to run perfectly in five minutes,” Wilson adds. “I mean, you’ve taken Phil Collins out of the band. It’s like taking Jagger out of the Stones, or Bono out of U2. You can’t bring someone else in and expect everyone to love it instantly. It’s gonna take time. But the album wasn’t as good as, say, Back In Black was when Brian Johnson joined AC/DC. It had some good songs, but some rubbish ones as well. It was a work in progress and we needed to build from the beginning.

“I said we should either do that or not, but I didn’t want these behind the scenes, close-to-the-chest meetings – forget it. ‘I’m either in or not,’ I said. ‘It’s up to you.’ With the exception of that, I never had any problem with Mike or Tony.”

Overall, looking back, is he glad that his Genesis experience happened?

“Oh yes, of course. For sure. I mean, I sang with Genesis, for God’s sake! Who can say that? Criticism is fine, that’s life. I’m aware I’ve had a roller coaster-ride career, but when I started out, my goal was to control my own destiny. And now I do. Here I am, 15 or 20 years on, and I have five people working for me full-time, I have a big live band and it’s all there. Okay, I’m not pretending I’m bigger than Springsteen or whoever, but I do my albums and everything by myself. I’ve lived the dream, I’ve had that as my reality – there’s nothing to prove or achieve in that regard.

“If I perform a Genesis song now, it’s because it’s one I know my voice can do a good job of. And I know most musicians would give their right arm to control their own career like that. I took risks and now I can enjoy what I do.”

Home, for Ray Wilson, wasn’t built in a day, but he’s evidently found contentment in his adopted country and is making music with polish and prolificacy.

“I’m asked why I don’t come back to the UK more often,” he says. “Well, I’m just so busy! I’m doing really well. People are people, whether they’re Polish, Czech, Russian, whatever – it doesn’t matter to me. An audience is an audience. Where I am is an exciting place to be.”

Makes Me Think Of Home (self-released) is out now. See www.raywilson.net for more information.

Ray Wilson in video for Makes Me Think Of Home

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Ray Wilson - Makes Me Think Of Home album review

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.