Withered Hand’s debut album, Good News, rightly gained excellent reviews across the board when it was released in September last year. One of many people who’d been blown away by it when I heard it, I got in touch with Dan Willson to meet him face to face for a chat.
When I meet him at Edinburgh’s Southern Cross cafe, Dan comes across as a very warm, friendly guy. Now aged thirty five, he’s been in Edinburgh for thirteen years, living here with his young family. The fact that he’s doing Withered Hand at all is quite some considerable feat. He relaxes during the course of our interview but admits “I wasn’t the one expected to do this. If you’d seen me at school you wouldn’t have thought I’d be doing this.” Dan’s a shy man, and admits that he had to force himself to get on stage.
It’s been an interesting path that’s brought him to Edinburgh and to performing as Withered Hand. Born in the Hertfordshire town of Bishop’s Stortford, he moved to London at Hornsey School Of Art, part of Middlesex University. Not before having experiences that shaped his writing.
One of the points I made when I reviewed Good News was that key song ‘Religious Songs’ has “the sense of someone who has found himself trapped in an evangelical church during a communion service comes across very strongly in this album.” It appears this is very much the case.
“ I was brought up as an evangelical Christian. I used to knock on doors: “Do you want to be part of paradise?” That line [in ‘Religious Songs’] where I sing about “I’m knocking on Kevin’s front door.” That really happened, I remember thinking “I’m going to die at school.” But it was okay, though.”
Of course, teenage years are sometime behind him now, and he agrees with me when I say that this seems to be written very much from the point of view of someone in his thirties. It’s only really in his thirties that he’s started writing songs. When Withered Hand started, he started on his own “going out on a limb. People encouraged me to do it. They offered to play with me and it would help.”
Though Dan is the main person focus of Withered Hand, there are other people who have helped to bring his music into being and reach the public. Sometimes live ‘it’s just me – and if someone else comes then it’s a nice surprise.’ Neil Pennycook from Meursault is “really skilful at recording.” Bart from eagleowl was “really encouraging” and the album was recorded with the help of Pete Harvey (of The Leg and Meursault) and Alun Thomas (The Leg). Alun Thomas’s bedroom proved to be the location for the recording of the album.
Two other people have also helped birth Good News. The album was produced by American producer Kramer, who has worked (amongst others) with Galaxie 500, Low and Luna. “I put demos online and got a message from him. He [Kramer] must sit in doors all day…’ he marvels. “He said that if I had more songs like (album track) ‘Cornflake’ he’d work with me.” And indeed he did. While there is no question that Dan’s work is born of the D-I-Y ethos, he states quite simply ‘I can’t record myself to my satisfaction.’
Another person who is singled out as having helped him along is Ed Pybus, of Edinburgh’s SL Records. Having put out records by Misty’s Big Adventure, Saint Jude’s Infirmary, Dawn Of the Replicants and most famously, Ballboy, Ed Pybus has been running one of Edinburgh’s most successful labels for over thirteen years. Although the first EP ‘Religious Songs’ came out on Bear Scotland, it became an exhausting process putting out his own records. As Dan puts it ‘I got fed up with making trips to the post office.’
The thought being on a major label doesn’t appeal to him much either. ‘Being on a major label…you get chewed up and spat out,’ he shudders. ‘If you get signed to a big label, you lose all of your creative control. I might become a celebrity, but who wants that, truly?’ The D-I-Y ethos seems to be strongly ingrained within him. When I ask him if he feels that even in this day and age there still seems to be a bit of a boy’s club feel to the music industry, he stresses that he ‘feels no need to be part of that mentality.’ He adds: “It’s important that people don’t lose sight of what they’re doing and become what they were in opposition to in the first place.’
Edinburgh’s music scene has really developed over the last few years. I ask him what he thinks has helped create this. It’s not that there hasn’t been a music scene here, but at time’s it’s seemed positively subterranean. ‘There’s more accessible venues. And for me personally, D-I-Y promoters. Emily from Tracer Trails has been very supportive. And Bart [Owl] has been putting shows on in Leith.”
Yet he’s clearly breaking through to a wider audience, and those people who have heard him hold him in high esteem. ‘I’m intrigued by people’s reaction. It’s different now I’ve been produced by Kramer. Between Kramer and Kenny [Anderson, aka King Creosote] I’ve been able to bend people’s ears about what to do. This album has broadened my audience. If I go back to making scratchy stuff…maybe some will stick with it.”
When I ask him what he’s up to for the rest of 2010, it seems what he’s really like is a break. There’s upcoming dates both in England and further afield in Europe. He will also be making a return to Homegame, the Fife Festival in Anstruther, put together by the Fence Collective.
We should not, however, take a second album for granted. The upcoming Withered Hand tour supporting Benny Hemm Hemm in Europe is, he admits, a massive pressure on him. He clearly isn’t relishing the thought of being away from his wife and children for any length of time. Then of course, there’s the matter of actually writing one. “ I write at a glacial pace. I’d rather not write anything than just because someone wants me to write something.” He adds, dreamily, “What I’d really like to do is to write a graphic novel.”
Dan Willson, ladies and gentlemen: treasure him in whatever form you have him.
Withered Hand -‘Religious Songs.’ mp3
Good News and the two EPs ‘You’re Not Alone’ and ‘Religious Songs’ are out now, on SL Records, including from iTunes or direct from SL records.
He is playing live as follows
28 Jan Peacock Visual Arts, Aberdeen; 29 Jan 17:00 rpm records, Newcastle; 29 Jan 2010 20:00 Morden Tower, Newcastle; 25 Feb London Popfest @ Cafe OTO (solo set) w/ Rose Melberg and more; 18 Mar 2010 Mono, Glasgow; 20 Mar Limbo @ Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh w/friends
He is then on tour with Benni Hemm Hemm in Europe as follows:
5 Apr Bibelot, Dordrecht; 7 Apr D:Qliq, Luxembourg; 14 Apr Chelsea, Vienna; 16 Apr E-Werk, Erlangen; 17 Apr Glashaus, Berlin; 18 Apr Hafenklang, Hamburg