Even after more than a decade as a recording artist with Mush and now Warp Records, West Midlander Stephen Wilkinson crafts sounds that remain distinct and recognisable, placing guitar pedal tricks among field recordings with varying degrees of crinkle in production. He aligns the natural and artificial by combining found sounds and pastoral finger-picking with funky wah-wah, spiralling keys, fuller synths and chirpy sax. His forthcoming LP, A Mineral Love, contains elements of all the above. In part due to his reluctance to perform his music live, it’s rare to connect with Wilkinson, so this opportunity was a happy surprise.

Why do you make music?

That’s actually not an easy question to answer without stating the obvious – I enjoy making music. But it’s way deeper than that. I have an inquisitive mind, I’m curious about certain things and have been from an early age, but I suppose I’m consistently drawn towards playing with media that stimulates me in some way, emotionally. Music is mysterious. There’s no real understanding why certain combinations of frequencies can stimulate such vivid emotions. I love that mystery aspect of it. If there’s any such thing as magic, then music is magic. It’s like possessing a power by training your mind and fingers. The fact that other people enjoy my music too is a great feeling, but I do it for myself first. If I wasn’t making music for a living, I’d still be making music. If I had an ordinary day job, making music would still be the thing I live for.

What would you like to accomplish through music that you haven’t already?

I’d like to learn to improvise over key changes, like in jazz. I love jazz. I also took up drums a year ago and I look forward to getting more fluent with that and using it in my recording more. It’s exciting to take on new things, to have to spend time at things to get better. I’m impatient with many things in life but I have a lot of patience with learning instruments and learning how to make and record music.

Do you have any favourite locations for field recordings?

Ynyslas beach in Wales is a nice place to record skylarks and gentle breezes through marram grass. I also like quiet forests, away from noise pollution, and in particular the sound of wind blowing through pines. I also like the sounds inside large buildings, but they can be trickier to record in due to paranoid people thinking you’re doing something suspicious. I went to the Notre Dame du Haut many years ago and was blown away by the length and quality of the reverb in there. I remember there was a little girl making short, high-pitched vocal noises because she was intrigued by the reverb. She was effectively playing with the room. Any child would do the same. I still have that childlike curiosity myself. I don’t see why it should stop when you become an adult. I’d like to go back to that chapel and record sounds in there, just experiment with instruments and recordings in there and see what happens.

Of those recordings, how many do you consider to be usable as or with music? How do you decide to craft a song from any given sound?

The vast majority of my field recordings aren’t used for anything, and the vast majority aren’t even listened to, just like how I take tons of photos and only a small minority stand out, but the process of doing it is enjoyable and meditative because you’re focussing your attention on sounds around you. I don’t know how I decide what to use. It’s just a feeling. Sometimes I’ll go through a tape or my digital recorder and find a sound that has a kind of picturesque quality to it, which will inspire me to put music to it. Other times I’m working on a track and feel that it would benefit from some kind of textured background, either to enhance an image I have in my head when listening to the music or to put the music in an imaginary place, rather than it being in an abstract space.

I’ve seen in a past interview that you’ve mentioned you’d like to establish a live band. Is this any closer to fruition? Were your Silver Wilkinson sessions a taster of what that might look like?

I feel I said that in the past because it was expected of me, that forming a band was a logical step to make. In honesty, it’s not something I want to do. I have very little interest in doing that now. I want to make and record music. I don’t really want to perform it live. I’m not really into the whole stage/audience presentation of music, and the darkened room with flashing lights has been done to death. It’s like an automatic thing to do, rather than thinking about how music can be presented to an audience.

The session videos are a way to offer an alternative version to the album tracks and also strip the music down, which can reveal the essence of the songs or show off the songwriting foundation of the music. I was pleased with the results of those sessions and there’s more to come, but not on a stage in front of an audience. That’s just not me. The link between being a musician and being a performer is so strong for a lot of people that they can’t see how you could not want to do it.

Are your album covers ever reflective of the album itself?

All of my album covers reflect the title, as opposed to the style of music. I think the artwork works with the style of music too though. A Mineral Love has definite 70s vibes in parts, but I didn’t want a 70s pastiche album cover. I love 70s music but I’m not so into 70s design. Some of it is cool, but I don’t want to have to use 70s style imagery for the sake of it. Also, the album has 80s and even 90s sounding moments. I wanted something more neutral for the cover, something that reflected a concept rather than a genre.

Are there any films you’d like to write a soundtrack for?

I have imaginary films in my head all the time. I often think in scenes and sequences. I’d love to write music for a really creative and beautifully shot love story, one that deals with teenage love and heartbreak. I reckon I could nail that as I’ve been through it.

I once had a 17-year-old fan from America message me to tell me about a heartbreak experience he had and how one of my tracks had a kind of hypnotic healing effect on him. I had the exact same experience he described when I was 17 with an Orbital ambient track. Reading things like that mean a lot to me, that people can detect and extract hidden meaning or feelings in my music. So to deliberately make music for something like that for a film would be amazing. I’d like to make a soundtrack that makes people bawl their eyes out but also feel some kind of hope.

Is there any musician, from any time in history, you’d like to interview or just have a chat with?

There are many. Too many to pick a favourite. Maybe Bach, although I’d be insanely intimidated by his greatness. But he’s like the grandfather of music in general for me. He’s like the Isaac Newton of music. He covers more musical emotions in a few bars than most musicians could achieve in an album or a lifetime. He can express some sort of infinity or language of the universe within single lines of notes. I’d love to sit with him behind a keyboard and let him explain stuff to me, and just watch him improvise and create.

warp.net/artists/bibio

Ian Pennington