Boundary-pushing British prog rock pioneer Steven Wilson says there's one part of being a musician that is both the most challenging and the most rewarding for him at the same time: confronting his audience.
Because change is never easy, Wilson says he believes upsetting an audience is a valuable sign that an artist is doing something different, something worth doing. Now over 30 years and literally hundreds of albums into his career (including credits as a songwriter, collaborator, producer, engineer, etc.), disappointing hardcore fans is something Wilson says he's prepared to do with each new release.
Wilson's latest album under his own name, 2017's To the Bone, generated no shortage of pushback from fans due to its overall positive sentiment. The album's upbeat character comes in contrast to the more brooding, morose sound that has attracted so many to Wilson's music over the years.
“Part of the deal of being an artist is that you confront the expectations of the audience," Wilson tells Q104.3 FM New York's "Out of the Box" with Jonathan Clarke. "You don’t simply cater for them; you constantly confront them. I expect to lose fans with every album. And that’s part of the deal.”
Wilson says he welcomed the blowback surrounding To the Bone from those among his audience unprepared for him to make another creative leap. Much of the controversy came on the heels of the album's first single, "Permanating," a piano-driven anthem, which Wilson says is an unabashed, joyful pop song.
“I was so proud of this song and I couldn’t wait to release it to the world, partly because I knew it was going to upset some of my hardcore fans," Wilson tells the show.
But fans shouldn't have been all that surprised. Part of the reason Wilson's work is so well appreciated in the progressive rock world is because of his willingness to experiment with new sounds and new creative approaches. As he likes to say: if you call yourself a progressive artist, "you probably aren't one."
When he's writing and recording, Wilson says he follows his muse wherever it takes him. Pop music has always been part of his musical DNA, he says, recalling growing up hearing his parents' albums by the Bee Gees and ABBA. So to write a great, pure pop song was a real creative accomplishment. For his fans to react to the song was incredibly validating, even when that reaction was negative.
One fan traveled from Spain to London to tell Wilson to his face how much he hated To the Bone. Awkward as the encounter was, Wilson says it was also "kind of flattering because he obviously cared deeply. He cared enough about me and my catalog to want to fly all the way to tell me I'd done something wrong in his view."
And while "Permanating" might be pop, that doesn't mean it's shallow. Wilson says audience reactions during his live shows have proven the song has all the depth of any ballad from his earlier solo albums or from his lengthy discography with Porcupine Tree.
"Every single night when I play that song, that gets the most incredible reaction of the whole night," Wilson says. "It’s amazing to see these guys with the Pink Floyd and the King Crimson T-shirts sort of sitting there looking grumpy when I’m talking, ‘Okay, we’re gonna do ‘Permanating' now’ — by the end of the song they’re all up dancing.”
Watch the full interview with Wilson above.
Get all his tour dates here.
Check out the official music video for Steven Wilson's "Permanating" from his new album To the Bone:
Here's the video for "Nowhere Now":