Interview with Richard Henshall about new solo album, ‘The Cocoon’

Richard Henshall is one of prog’s most recognized musicians, as the incredibly talented and inventive lead guitarist for Haken, as well as one of the primary collaborators for the intense prog fusion group Nova Collective. Henshall has been featured on a number of albums as guest soloist, and was one of the guitarists on the Shattered Fortress tour with Mike Portnoy. His brilliant playing and songwriting has helped Haken become one of the most acclaimed and important progressive acts of the decade.

Henshall released his first solo album, The Cocoon, in August of this year, and it has been met with wide acclaim for its experimental style and adventurous songwriting. I had a great interview with Richard about how these songs came about, why he selected the band and the guest musicians that he did, and who he would love to work with, among many other things.

How did The Cocoon come about? Why did you choose the name and theme?

After Haken’s The Mountain we decided to push the music in a new direction by making things a lot more collaborative with the writing. Up until that point I’d generally been the primary composer, so this new approach naturally freed up a lot of time. It was around this time that I started sowing the initial seeds for The Cocoon, but very quickly got side tracked with a new project with Between the Buried and Me’s Dan Briggs called Nova Collective. After we’d written and recorded our album The Further Side a couple of years ago, I returned to my solo stuff and have been working on it ever since.

The album follows a protagonist who’s trying to break out of a metaphorical cocoon. As the album progresses he moves ever closer to breaking free, until he is finally liberated from the shackles of the cocoon in the album finale “Afterglow”. Each song deals with individual ideas that are somehow connected to this over arching theme. “Limbo” talks about the idea of being stuck between two worlds on a trajectory that you have no control over. “Silken Chains” deals with the subject of sleep paralysis, which is something I’ve have a fair amount of experience of in my youth.

Tell us about working with Conner Green and Matthew Lynch. How were they involved in the compositional process?

Conner and Matt are two of the best musicians I’ve had the pleasure of playing with over the years. I play in Nova Collective with Matt and have never come across a musician with his level of focus and dedication to their craft. During the writing process of The Further Side, he programmed a bunch of ridiculously insane parts that I thought weren’t humanly possible to play, but when I went over to North Carolina for the recording sessions he somehow blitz through it all in two days! I’ve been in constant state of fear of him ever since!

Conner is no less astounding. Ever since he joined Haken around 5 years ago, I’ve been in love with his super clean and precise approach to playing the bass, which I feel really compliments the music on the album. I couldn’t be happier to have them involved in this project. In terms of the writing, I programmed a bunch of stuff for them whilst I was writing the music, which they followed pretty closely for the most part. There were a bunch of sections where they expanded upon these initial ideas and added the own unique flavour to the mix, which is ultimately why I got them involved.

This album features numerous guest artists, such as Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater) your bandmate Ross Jennings (Haken), Marco Sfogli, David Maxim Micic, Adam Carrillo, as well as 3 members of Bent Knee (Chris Baum, Jessica Kion, and Ben Levin). Tell us how those collaborations came about and are featured on the album.

I’m extremely lucky to have met and played with a huge amount of talented musicians so far in my career. Ever since hearing ‘Scenes from a Memory’ Jordan has been a huge inspiration for me, so to have him on a track I’ve written is pretty unbelievable. He really nailed his part and elevated that section with his trademark style. David Maxim Micic is another guy I have huge admiration for. I first became aware of David’s work after hearing his mind blowing Bilo 3 album. I’ve since recorded on a couple of his releases, so it was great to finally have him on something I’ve written. I’m also massively grateful to have Chris, Ross, Adam, Ben, Jessica and Marco on the album too. They each brought their own flavour to the music, which helped it grow into something beyond anything I could’ve ever hoped for!

One track, “Lunar Room”, features writing credits from Ben Levin. Tell us about how that song came to be!

On Haken’s last Europe tour we had the amazing Bent Knee with us. Unfortunately, they were unable to make four of the shows due to prior arrangements, so the equally amazing Ben Levin Group stepped in and played those shows. I’d never really heard Ben’s solo stuff by that point and therefore wasn’t ready for the genius that unfolded on the stage. It was a seriously great experience! Around the same time, I was trying to pen down some lyrics for ‘Lunar Room’, but nothing was really hitting the spot, so I asked him whether he’d be up for laying down some of his edgy rapping over it. Thankfully, he was up for it. He went home after the tour and spent two week writing and recording his parts. He somehow seemed to make the angular, atypical rhythms in the verses flow naturally and ended up transforming the whole song into something entirely fresh to my ears. Like I said before, he’s a genius! His wife and band-mate Jessica Kion very kindly sang some beautiful backing vocals in the chorus and outro. They make a great team!

For those who follow your music in Nova Collective and Haken, how is this solo album different and how is it similar?

The last two Haken albums are a collective vision and are a result of a fully collaborative writing process. What you hear is a culmination of all of our tastes and influences. Nova Collective is an instrumental project that essentially started out with Dan Briggs and I bouncing ideas off of each other. Matt Lynch and Pete Jones also got involved with the writing towards the latter stages of the writing process, so once again there’s a piece of all of us on The Further Side. However, The Cocoon is very much a singular vision and is most certainly the clearest reflection of my musical influences. It’s also  a very personal album that touches upon various experiences I’ve had in life. There will undoubtedly be shades of Haken and Nova Collective in my solo music, but I just hope there are enough differences to make it stand on its own merit.

You mentioned that this album pushed you as a composer and a musician. Can you expound on that?

Due to the various other pies I have my fingers in, the album took quite a while for me to complete. I’ve been working on most of the ideas for around four years in the small pockets of free time between all the touring I’ve been doing, and have recently found the inclination and drive to bring it all to fruition over the last year or so. It was important to me that I made the wiring process as free as possible and that I fully embrace the broad range of influences that have shaped me as a musician. Naturally, this resulted in a fairly eclectic bunch of ideas to work with. One of the biggest challenges was trying to glue all these ideas into a cohesive flowing piece of music.

Also, not working to any specific deadline and having no one to bounce the ideas off of was also a little challenging at times. It was a double-edged sword. On one hand, it allowed me to fully engross myself in the music and get lost in my own musical world, but on the other hand, it was often difficult to know when a song was finished! Ultimately, I found the whole process extremely liberating and enlightening. When it comes to music, there’s nothing I love more than composing, so I feel extremely lucky and grateful to be in a position to be doing it on a daily basis.

Your vocals on this album turned out great! You mentioned that it was daunting to take that on, but that it was ultimately rewarding. Could you go more in depth about how you feel that you grew as a vocalist?

Thanks a lot! I’m extremely glad and relieved that the vocals have come across well. I’ve never really seen myself as a vocalist; so diving headfirst into something like this pushed me completely out of my comfort zone. I’ve sung backing vocals live for Haken over the last few years, but recording lead vocals for a full album was an entirely different ball game. One of the biggest challenges was the physical process of recording myself in my home studio. There was a lot of running back and forth from my laptop to the makeshift vocal booth I made from bookcases and duvets! I think my pitching and tone has naturally improved due to the constant singing over the last few months. Maybe my neighbours would disagree though! I’ve definitely developed a clearer idea of what keys and tonalities work best with my voice. I’m sure this will make for a smoother process when moving forward!  

What gear did you use on this record?

I used my trusty Strandberg guitars for pretty much all the guitar parts. They’re extremely versatile and allow me to create any kind of sound I please. The slightly odd looking EndurNeck profile provides a more restful grip, which in turns allows me to play for extended times without getting any kind of strain. This is pretty essential when I doing long recording session! I also used a Epiphone hollow body jazz guitar for the bebop section in ‘Twisted Shadows’, and a Fender Telecaster for a handful of clean parts. For the most part, used Kontakt libraries and the Arturia bundle for the keyboard parts and sound design. I generally use Logic Audio for writing and recording all of my music. I’ve been using it for years now so I can navigate around the program pretty well by this point. This allows me to be fairly fluent at articulating the ideas in my head, which is the ultimate goal for me when it comes to writing.

Will you be doing any solo performances of The Cocoon?

I would really love to at some point but don’t have any immediate plans as of yet. I feel like the music would realy shine in a live context. I guess I’ll see how ‘The Cocoon’ does and gauge whether there’s enough demand for it. I do have plans for ‘The Cocoon’ saga to continue, so I’ll see where that takes me. Hopefully after the second album is released I’ll be at a point where I can take this music to the stage.

Bonus question (answer if you feel like it): 

If you could do some cyborg body modification to be better at your instruments, what would you do?

I would like some kind of Neuralink brain chip that allows me to instantly master jazz. My ultimate goal would be to be able to play in every key simultaneously.

Do you still have some bucket list collaborators?

Tigran Hamasyan would be at the top of the list. I’m sure he has no clue who I am though! I would also love to trade some licks with Robert Fripp. Once again, he most certainly has no clue who I am…

Check out Richard Henshall’s new album The Cocoon here, and buy it through his Bandcamp page or through Burning Shed. Thanks, Richard, for an enlightening interview and an awesome album!

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