“I’d love for one of my songs to become huge. I believe I’ve written stuff that could easily cross over. But the industry isn’t set up for someone like me to do that”: Steven Wilson once wanted to be a rock star, but became a musician instead

Steven Wilson
(Image credit: Future)

Steven Wilson’s 2015 album Hand. Cannot. Erase. had the potential to elevate him to mainstream fame. Delving into the details of the man behind the music, Prog offered insight into the figurehead for modern prog to tie in with the release.

December 2003: It is a few days before Christmas. In her North London bedsit, Joyce Carol Vincent has just returned from a shopping trip in Wood Green. She turns the heating up to banish the bitter December chill and flicks on the television for some company before contemplating the wrapped presents laid out before her.

The past few years have been somewhat tumultuous for the attractive young woman of Grenadine descent. She resigned from her job working in the treasury department of well-known financiers Ernst & Young in 2001 and had sought help following domestic abuse, spending some time in a shelter in Haringey and later finding work in a small hotel.

For reasons only known to herself, she had slowly retreated from contact with her four older sisters. Her mother had died when she was 11; her father, with whom she had a fractious relationship, would die in 2004, although an indication of the turmoil surrounding Vincent at the time led her to claim he’d died in 2001.

Quite why Vincent chose to cut herself off from her family we’ll never know. Was it shame from the alleged domestic abuse? Was it from her fall from grace from a well-paid city job and a life that had brought the young Londoner into contact with the likes of Nelson Mandela and Gil-Scott Heron, as well as having dined with Stevie Wonder, to working in a budget hotel? Perhaps she was even still suffering at the hands of her then-fiancé? None of this we will ever know.

What we do know, however, from the Christmas gifts wrapped and ready to be delivered that sat around her, is that there appears to have been a move to rebuild bridges with her sisters. Some of those gifts were addressed to members of a family she had not seen for almost two years. It seems that Joyce Vincent was on the verge of hauling her life out of the doldrums of the past two years – wherein she’d suffered the aforementioned domestic abuse and more recently had been treated for a peptic ulcer at hospital – and was on the path to sorting out the loose threads.

Joyce Vincent never delivered those Christmas presents. She would never see any member of her family again, despite her sisters hiring a private detective, who indeed found Joyce’s bedsit in Wood Green, but got no reply, despite the sound of the television emanating from inside the flat. Nor did the letters her sisters would then write receive a response, leaving them resigned to the idea that their once bright and bubbly sibling had severed all familial ties.

Joyce Vincent’s body was discovered on January 25, 2006, lying amongst those undelivered gifts. The television was still on, as was the central heating. Half of her rent had been paid monthly to the Metropolitan Housing Trust by various benefits agencies. No neighbour had raised any concern about the missing tenant, the rank smell coming from the bedsit, or the constant hum of the television.

It was only when rent arrears built up to some £2,400 that the bailiffs were sent in. The front door remained double-locked, there was no sign of a break-in, the police report ruled death by natural causes, but the skeletal body was too badly decomposed to conduct a full post mortem.

It seemed that Joyce Carol Vincent had died while the world turned away, apparently oblivious, and resumed going about its business...

December 2014: It is a few days before Christmas when Steven Wilson, wrapped up against the winter chill, meets Prog at his nearby station and we make our way down along the canal to his home, near his own family in south west Hertfordshire. The current Wilson abode is impressive, with tasteful décor. It would appear that his recording career, that began seriously in the early 1990s with No-Man, has paid dividends.

We’re met by his partner and their small, playful canine companion. As one would expect, it’s shoes off inside. And as any fan worth their salt would want to know, it’s a barefoot Steven Wilson who leads us to a pleasant conservatory on the far side of the house that overlooks the sizable garden. We’re brought tea and some rather tasty scones and jam to snack on while we get down to the matter in hand. Who the hell is Steven Wilson, and what is his new album, Hand. Cannot. Erase., all about?

“I saw this documentary, Dreams Of A Life, about this woman who seemed to have everything going for her in her life, and yet when she’d died, she remained undiscovered for something like three years. It really stayed with me,” he begins, by way of explanation of the central theme behind the new record.

Dreams Of A Life is a 2011 film that will certainly stay with you. Directed by Carol Morley – younger sister of the writer Paul – it’s a docu-drama that tells the story of Joyce Vincent. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshawcwrote that “nothing at the London Film Festival has lingered in my mind like this,” while BBC’s Film 2011 made it their film of the week. Even today, on the production’s website, someone has tweeted: “Nothing and no one has made me cry quite like Dreams Of A Life.”

“I should,” Wilson stresses, “point out that the album isn’t about Joyce Vincent per se, in as much as it’s not a concept work that centres on the actual character as the central focal point. What it does do is use her as the main theme behind what I was writing about.

“The really interesting thing here is that you hear her story and you think, ‘OK, she was a druggie,’ or perhaps a bit of a mad old bag lady, the kind of person you’ve seen around who operates on the fringes of society, or rather someone who society has almost become separated from.

In the city people do seem to concentrate solely on going about their life without even time to think about anything else, whereas out towards the countryside things do seem a little bit more relaxed

“But she wasn’t. She’d had an interesting life. She’d had a loving family, a good job, lived in a nice flat and met fascinating people. And yet something had happened that saw her retreat from a lot of that, to the point where she ended up on her own; and when she died, it seemed to impact on no one. None of her friends or colleagues were tempted to find out where she was or what might have happened to her. It’s frightening that in the Facebook age someone can end up so isolated and alone.”

It is an intriguing concept, but then this is Steven Wilson we’re talking about, so it’s hardly a surprise that something like this has grabbed his attention. In the past we’ve seen Wilson rail against such advances in technology as the iPod, but Hand. Cannot. Erase. isn’t his big anti-social media discourse. It’s something far more personal than that.

Prog muses over the fact that, having lived in London for the best part of 25 years, we can count on one hand the neighbours we’ve gotten to know in that time. The ones we’ve struck up anything more than a nodding acquaintanceship with. It’s a far cry from when we were younger, growing up in Sydney and then Hertfordshire, just a few miles down the road from where Wilson himself grew up and began the musical path that brings us to Hand. Cannot. Erase. today. Is it, we wonder, merely a tragically selfish facet of modern day society?

“Yes, I agree,” nods Wilson. “With the likes of Facebook, on the face of it, it might appear that it had made their world a more open place where we all have windows into other people’s lives. But do we really? Is it not just snapshots of a life they want you to see? And are there parallels here with Joyce Vincent in as much as how she controlled the life she let people into?

“I lived in London for a pretty long time before returning back here where I grew up, and it is different. In the city people do seem to concentrate solely on going about their life without even time to think about anything else, whereas out towards the countryside things do seem a little bit more relaxed. More open. More friendly.”

To highlight this – and in typical Wilson style with his frightening attention to detail, there is a companion website to the album. It creates the back-story of the life of a young woman that unravels under tragic circumstances. Such detail can be compared to the way Porcupine Tree sprang into life, originally as an idea existing in Wilson’s head.

“If you get the deluxe edition, there’s even more in terms of creating a life of someone for people to discover. Open that window onto something tangible, and it makes the idea that it all ends up the way it does more difficult to grasp in this day and age,” he says.

Hand. Cannot. Erase. is easily the strongest album to date from Wilson, with a concept that is easy to both grasp and to become involved with on a deeper, cerebral level. The tone of the material is maybe as dark as one might expect from a man known in the past for his love of trains, planes and serial killers – “There is one train journey in this one,” he admits, smiling almost sheepishly – but musically Hand. Cannot. Erase. is a striking shift onwards from the solo albums he’s made thus far.

When I was recording The Raven I was also in the middle of a lot of the remix work with Crimson and Yes and Caravan. That’s bound to have some kind of effect

For starters, even with the sombre tone of the subject matter, the overall feel of the music contained inside seems lighter in tone than the dark Victorian ghost story recollections of 2013’s The Raven That Refused To Sing...

“Well, my father had just passed away when I wrote The Raven,” he states, “so it stands to reason I was in a much darker place then. Obviously we’re now two years down the line from that and my head’s in a much different place. We all move on...”

Musically lighter in tone than The Raven..., but no less complex, deep and challenging in places, there’s no denying that Hand. Cannot. Erase. is a modern-day progressive album. With the likes of 3 Years Older, Routine and the epic Ancestral (the latter featuring a quite stunning guitar solo from Guthrie Govan that will take your breath away) all clocking in at around the 10 minute mark, there’s plenty for progressive purists to sink their teeth into sonically.

Initial musical reference points that Prog first picked up on seemed to be Rush, The Who and Marillion. “I’m glad you said The Who,” Wilson smiles. “Look, all that stuff is in my musical DNA. It’s what I grew up with; it’s what I’ve always enjoyed listening to. I’m not saying that I actively go out of my way to try and sound like someone else. Of course I don’t do that. But equally I’m not so far up my own arse that I don’t realise that your musical reference points are going to come to the fore in some way.”

If you have four different sets of musical ideas, then what you end up putting on the record is derived from a much smaller musical area because it’s the compromise between the four of you

The Raven was imbued with a jazzy sound and very much highlighted its protagonist’s love of classic, progressive music of the 70s. Hand. Cannot. Erase. has a more contemporary feel to it. This should not, according to Wilson, come as much of a surprise.

“For starters, there’s less from Theo Travis on this record, so that’s why it has a lot less of a jazzy feel to it,” he states. “And also, when I was recording The Raven I was also in the middle of a lot of the remix work with Crimson and Yes and Caravan. That’s bound to have some kind of effect on what you create yourself. More recently I’ve been working with bands like XTC, Tears For Fears, Simple Minds, even Roxy Music. That’s going to have an effect on what you do.”

Travis may feature less on the new record, but the band who recorded and toured The Raven are all present and correct on Hand. Cannot. Erase. This, according to Wilson, is a major factor in explaining the difference when Prog enquires as to  the difference between a Steven Wilson solo album and a Porcupine Tree album.

“Largely the musicians I’m working with,” he explains. “I’m not certain I could have made any of the albums, certainly not the last two, with the Porcupine Tree guys. That’s not to belittle them in any way. What you had with Porcupine Tree was a band made up of four equal members. OK, even if it did have a de facto leader as such, it was still four individual band members all bringing something to the table.

“So if you have four different sets of musical ideas, then what you end up putting on the record is derived from a much smaller musical area because it’s the compromise between the four of you.

“With my solo stuff, I write it, and I present it to the guys I’m paying to play it. It’s as simple as that really. As a solo artist I feel sometimes like I’m more of a composer and these great musicians that I work with continue to create amazing things with the material that I’ve written.”

I’m in the very fortunate position of having each solo album sell more than the previous one. In this day and age I have to say I’m more than happy with that

Hand. Cannot. Erase. is clearly the most melodic musical creation Wilson has conjured up as a solo artist. Even if the aforementioned epics twist and turn provocatively, and the middle couplet of Home Invasion and Regret explode in a miasma of some of the most overtly proggy sounds that Steven Wilson has created thus far in his career, there is still some strikingly contemporary fare here.

The Manics-like title track, Perfect Life and Happy Returns all hint at the kind of catchy, more easily digestible side of Wilson’s songwriting that have thus far given us the likes of Drive Home, Shallow and Lazarus. Add in a gentler vocal approach from Wilson himself and a bigger PR company working the new album than previously, and one wonders if there are people in the Wilson set-up who are pushing for mainstream acceptance for the once-bedroom studio musician. Will the geeks finally inherit the earth?

“Well I certainly don’t think a huge mainstream hit is beyond me,” he says, matter-of-factly. “But I don’t go out of my way to write anything that deliberate. When Porcupine Tree had just signed to Lava around the time of In Absentia (2002) there may have been pressure from the label to come up with some kind of single-orientated material. But I don’t look back on that particularly fondly. I write what I write and it has to fit the overall concept of what I’m doing.

“Yes, I would love for one of my songs to become huge, and I believe that in the past I’ve written stuff that could easily cross over. But the industry, for what it actually is these days, isn’t really set up for someone like me to do that. And in reality, does anyone really break through on the scale anymore? Of course I harboured dreams of being a rock star when I was a kid. But these days I see myself as a musician. It’s different.

“I’m in the very fortunate position of having each solo album sell more than the previous one. Porcupine Tree had a similar sales trajectory. In this day and age I have to say I’m more than happy with that state of affairs. I’m not certain I would even enjoy the attention and accompanied baggage a huge hit might bring.”

I’ve always given an honest answer to a question when asked for my opinion on something. And I guess some people take that for arrogance

This is true. While we all know Wilson the musician, few know Wilson the man. This writer has known Steven for the best part of 20 years. He remains a charming, affable and intriguing character, but one who has kept his private life exactly that. We know he enjoys a drink on occasion, but you’re unlikely to see him clutching a glass of fizz at the latest celebrity bash.

If drugs have ever reared their head, it’s not something anyone knows about. As for women – well, let’s just say that at two years younger than your correspondent, he annoyingly looks a good decade more youthful and just leave it there... “I am a private person,” he says. “And that’s the way I like to keep it. As I said, I’m a musician, not a celebrity. That’s not why I do what I do and it allows me a life to enjoy.”

How does he feel about being seen pretty much as the figurehead for modern progressive music? As one might expect, he is rather self-effacing in his response. “Maybe along with Opeth, Anathema and perhaps The Pineapple Thief, all of whom I feel a great empathy with, we are doing something at a different level and doing it sufficiently differently. Is that something to be a figurehead of, and if so, am I really that guy?”

Equally, there are those, as Prog is only too aware, who find the ubiquity of Wilson, given his prolific work rate, a stick with which to beat the man. It’s not uncommon for him not to have featured in our pages for several months, only for some wag to comment, when we announce a new issue, “I suppose it’s that Steven Wilson again...”

“I guess that goes with the figurehead thing,” he muses. “It’s not something I can really let trouble me. I guess that I’ve always given an honest answer to a question when asked for my opinion on something. And I guess some people take that for arrogance, especially if it’s a viewpoint they don’t agree with. It’s not, I hasten to add, but people can choose to see it that way.”

As we walk back along the canal to the station, I mention the seemingly upbeat ending to Hand. Cannot. Erase. How, unlike Joyce Carol Vincent’s sad life, the album seemingly ends on a note of hope with Happy Returns and its line ‘...bet you thought I was dead, but I’m still here...’ “I think that was important,” he says, “not least because it makes the whole thing not about her and takes it off in a potentially different direction.”

Wilson takes his leave with the words “I’m off to visit my mum,” who lives round the corner from him and who, along with his brother and family, he’ll be spending Christmas day with. It somehow all seems fitting.

The sound of Hand. Cannot. Erase. fills my journey back into the metropolis of London. So too does the memory of Joyce Carol Vincent. Alighting the train at Euston and heading into the masses of commuters all lost in their own little worlds and making their own way home, the idea that one can simply drift away from society is a strikingly cold thought.

Then, out of nowhere, I bump into a friend, making their own way back home. We greet each other with a hearty hug and depart with season’s greetings ringing in our ears. I’m off to catch up with friends for a final blowout before Christmas. I am, I ponder, one of the lucky ones.

With Hand. Cannot. Erase., there is no denying that Steven Wilson has made one of his strongest statements yet. Its message will stay with you long after the music has faded away...

Jerry Ewing

Writer and broadcaster Jerry Ewing is the Editor of Prog Magazine which he founded for Future Publishing in 2009. He grew up in Sydney and began his writing career in London for Metal Forces magazine in 1989. He has since written for Metal Hammer, Maxim, Vox, Stuff and Bizarre magazines, among others. He created and edited Classic Rock Magazine for Dennis Publishing in 1998 and is the author of a variety of books on both music and sport, including Wonderous Stories; A Journey Through The Landscape Of Progressive Rock.