Beginning his career with overnight success of ‘Inside’ with chart-toppers Stiltskin, Ray Wilson is perhaps best known as the singer who took up the somewhat poisoned chalice of replacing the iconic Phil Collins in Genesis in the late-1990s’. Going on to record one album and touring the world with the multi-million selling act, Ray has since gone solo. As well as making periodic returns to the act where he first made his name, he’s also recently hooked with another Genesis alumnus; in guitarist Steve Hackett. Having just released his latest solo album – the introspective ‘Songs For A Friend’ - we caught up with Ray to talk about the new album and his incredible career.
Hi Ray, How are you today?
I’m very well, yeah. Normally when I’m in London I can’t wait to leave. I lived here for a while with Stiltskin and again with Genesis, and I’ve never really enjoyed the city very much, but I’m kind of enjoying it, I have to say. I mean, it’s got ‘life’, it really has.
You’re here to talk about ‘Songs For A friend’. It’s an incredibly personal album, isn’t it?
Yes, it is, yeah. I got quite personal with it which is why, I think, I wanted to put the acoustic narrative on it so you could really hear it. That was the intention.
The album is dedicated to your friend James Lewis.
It started out not as that, but half way through the process my friend died. I couldn’t make his funeral because I was living in Europe, so I decided that I really wanted to write something for him, just as a kind of testament to his life. I wrote a song called ‘How Long Is Too Long?’ first of all for him, but it didn’t really say what I wanted to say. It wasn’t until one or two weeks later that the song ‘Song For A Friend’ came out of me, and I really managed to say what I wanted to say that time. So in the end I dedicated the album to him because he was a great guy. He helped me when I was starting out as a musician, and he was a big help to me.
How did James influence your life?
I was born in Dumfries, South West Scotland, and I moved to Edinburgh when I was eighteen. I had very little money and I rented a room from James in his apartment, and he basically became just a good friend. When I had my first bit of commercial success with Stiltskin it was about seven years later, and James was genuinely delighted for me - there was never any resentment or jealousy. He was just one of these guys that was genuinely happy about everything when it went well; he had loads of energy, and was always chatting up the women.
His life took a dramatic turn, didn’t it?
He went on holiday with his friends in the south of Spain, and they had a trampoline beside the swimming pool, and they were jumping in off it, a bit drunk, a few beers, and he missed the pool and broke his neck. It completely destroyed, and obviously changed his life. He was totally paralysed, and he lived with it for about three years, and then last year he took his own life; he’d had enough. He had an electric wheelchair, and he actually went back to the fishing village where he was born with his helper. He asked her to go and get a jumper from the car, and when she went there, he drove his wheelchair off the harbour wall. It actually didn’t kill him, but it put him back into a coma, and he died soon after that. That was how he took his life, and a totally rock ‘n’ roll way to do it. It’s what I can imagine him doing – he was that kind of guy.
Was it a difficult album to record, or did you find it a cathartic experience?
To be honest, the whole concept I found quite easy to do. It wasn’t like I was struggling to write something, so the process was actually quite easy but of course - and especially when I was writing that song for James - that was an incredibly emotional experience. I don’t think I’ve ever stood in front of a microphone, tears running down my face as I was singing. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that before, and that was how it came out. I only sang the song one time, and I didn’t try and change it, I didn’t try and make it better. For the other songs on the album it wasn’t like that, but certainly for the song I wrote for James, it was very emotional.
You entered the limelight with Stiltskin’s huge release ‘Inside’. What was it like being thrust into the public eye like that?
It was fabulous. I mean, I was working for years and years in pubs and bars and shitholes, trying to be a ‘rock star’ effectively, and all of I sudden I join this band and it just comes out of nowhere. It was an absolutely fantastic experience which, you know, I guess it would have been nice if it happened for years and years, but looking back it’s probably good that it didn’t – I’m still alive to tell the story thankfully, but it was great fun!
Were you prepared for that sudden fame? Did you take advantage of it?
I totally took advantage of it! I never did drugs thankfully - I was never into that, so I didn’t go down that road, but certainly with the women and the alcohol, absolutely, for sure I went for them, and enjoyed it to the full. Guilty! Although I have to say, with Genesis, that wasn’t the case – it was a different experience.
Tell me how you came to join Genesis?
Well Phil had decided to quit because his life was becoming unbearable with the press attention and all the rest of it, and they were looking for a replacement and they went to their record company Virgin Records, and said; "do you have any ideas"? So they basically sent them every artist they had on their books, effectively, and Stiltskin were one. Mike [Rutherford, founder, guitarist] and Tony [Banks, founder, keyboardist] were just listening to endless CDs or tapes of singers; everyone from Bryan Ferry, believe it or not, to more obscure artists like me. They listened to my voice and they heard a bit of that [original Genesis front man] Peter Gabriel thing, so they invited me down. I think there was a couple of other guys they invited; the singer from It Bites [presumably, Francis Dunnery], and the singer from Cutting Crew [Nick Van Eede]. There was also another guy who was a school teacher; he wasn't a rock star or anything - he just sounded like Phil.
That’s very ‘Genesis’, isn’t it?!
It is a bit, yeah, definitely! My understanding of it is they only invited three of us. I went there and sang half a dozen songs from the Genesis collection – some of the old stuff and some of the new stuff. The first song I sang was ‘No Son Of Mine’, and Tony Banks later said that when he heard me singing that he thought; “yeah, that’s the guy”. So he kind of made up his mind quite quickly, although it took them time before they told me. So that was how it came about; it was just an audition, which to be honest was the same reason I joined Stiltskin; I auditioned for it. I’ve had good success in auditions. *laughs*
How did you feel when you got the news? Do you remember where you were?
It was Tony Smith, who manages Genesis and Phil that called me. I was in my kitchen in my apartment in Edinburgh and I was just about to make a cup of tea, and I can actually see where I was standing when the phone rang - I mean it was literally like that. It was the most bizarre phone call to receive. Of course my first reaction was; “okay, this is a joke”, and then when I put the phone down and sat down, I though; “Wow, that was real!”.
‘Calling All Stations’ was the resulting album that you recorded. Would you agree that it’s perhaps an album doesn’t get its dues?
Well obviously it was always going to be up against it because it was coming off the back of Phil Collins being the singer, so you’ve always got that kind of disability before you even start. But I think in hindsight, having looking back now, and talking to fans of Genesis and so on, there’s a lot of people who really loved it, and I think a fair assessment on would be that it was probably two thirds of the album was really, really good. Had we done the next one, which we were supposed to do, I think we could have done something quite special. But it never happened, unfortunately.
It’s coming up on twenty years since the album’s release. Do you have fond memories looking back on that period?
Yeah, I mean it’s bittersweet, I guess. The memories of touring and writing and doing the promotion and everything; it was great fun. It was hard work I have to say, especially touring because the shows were very long and I was singing as Peter, Phil and Me, in the same show. So it was hard work, but a great experience. I’m often asked did I learn anything from it, and I think of course I did. I must have done; certainly writing with the band was good fun, and the way they write was quite interesting; in fact it’s still the way I write now, which is jamming with the guys. It’s very primitive but that’s how they do it and I learned from that. I’ve learned something from everything I’ve done, and I’ve certainly become a better performer because of my time with Genesis, that’s for sure, because I had to be. I had to learn, and you couldn’t be like this cool guy, who stood behind the microphone and didn’t say anything to the audience and just played; you had to actually address he audience because Phil obviously had this huge, larger than life character, and I had to try and kind of incorporate elements of that into my performance. I learned a lot from it for sure.
One thing you mentioned was the second album with Genesis. Was really going to happen?
When I signed my contract to join the band, it was for two albums. So it was always the idea to do the first and then go from there. Mike Rutherford changed his mind; that’s exactly what happened. I think he felt he didn’t have the stamina to do another one, and I suppose they’d had such massive success in the eighties, and then all of a sudden you’re faced with going from like, fifteen million albums [sales] to like, two and a half million – which is still a hell of a lot. I think you know, he couldn’t find it in himself to do the next one, which is a great shame, because I think we could have at least recorded it. Even if it hadn’t been very good, we didn’t need to release it, but we should have at least sat down together and continued the process because I think we really became a band after the tour.
The band had solidified by then?
Exactly; we’d started to get a bit of a feel for each other musically, and even Nir [Zidkyahu] on the drums, and Anthony Drennan on the guitar; everybody was playing an important part in the sound we were creating. It was becoming a bit more rocky, and something was happening. It’s just Mike decided he didn’t want to carry on.
Were you disappointed that your era with the band wasn’t covered in the 2014 BBC documentary ‘Genesis: Together And Apart’?
I suppose I was a little bit. I mean, I wasn’t really surprised because it seems that now that they’re selling back catalogues and doing all that type of thing, they kind of try to brush it under the carpet a little bit. Even though I believe it was the fourth best-selling album of their history, they seem to kind of try and get rid of it. I don’t understand the politics behind it, but I think it really put them in a bad light actually, certainly with the fans because I see many of the fans when I’m touring and doing my own shows, and it put them in a very bad light. I think it was a silly thing to do.
‘Calling All Stations’ was part of the reissue campaign though, wasn’t it?
Well they did reissue it actually, but it wasn’t attached to that documentary. They digitally remastered all the albums including ‘Calling All Stations’, and they did it in surround sound. I remember asking; “could you send me a copy of it?”, and they didn’t! It really is kindergarten stuff, but as I say, it puts them in a bad light because they’re Genesis, for Christ's sake - you don’t behave like that!
Someone else who was unhappy with the documentary was another ex-Genesis member that you ended up working with; Steve Hackett.
Yes, I think Steve was a lot more pissed about it that I was. He did five albums [with the band], and it was the early years that the fans regard as the best time, so I mean, he was really pissed. They invited him along probably because of the success of this ‘Genesis Revisited’ that he’d been doing, which I joined him on for a few shows. They asked him to be involved, and then they edit him out. It’s like; “if you wanted to just edit the guy out, why bother? Why did you ask him?!”
Did you enjoy working with Steve? I’m guessing that you knew those songs.
Well actually I didn’t know a lot of the songs. I knew some of them, but a lot of the stuff from the very early years, I wasn’t really listening to that when I was growing up. I started listening to some of it of course when I joined the band, but most of the focus was on the hits they had in the eighties. So I actually was discovering some new music, which was really quite good fun; listening to some of the songs that I never really focused on before. But working with Steve, it was nice. I know when I sang ‘Carpet Crawlers’ with him for the first time, he turned around and he said; “wow, I’ve never heard that song like that since Peter was singing with the band”. So he was really enjoying the experience of it, and I certainly was as well.
Finally, and back to the present day, will performing ‘Songs For A Friend’ live be difficult, due to its heavy emotional content?
I have performed that song now a few times, and yes, it is difficult to perform live. I’m trying to find a way to introduce the song without going into too much detail. I kind of brush around the edges a little bit in a live situation before I sing the song, because the first time I did it, it was like; “oh my god, I really have to detach myself from the lyrics while I’m singing it, otherwise I’ll end up with tears in my eyes”. So it is a difficult one, but other songs on the album, it’s been really good fun doing it. It makes a nice section of the show, because my shows are normally about two and a half hours, and there’s a whole load of music in there, but we have this section that’s a bit more acoustic, and it’s really quite a nice part of the show.
'Songs For A Friend' is out now. For further information visit Ray Wilson's official website here.