Some of the most compelling and modern music of the moment is made by a small, largely tight-knit group of artists based in Scotland who – amongst other things – have reinterpreted the folk song. They inhabit a universe light years away from the vocoded banality, slow-witted lyrics and meretricious pop tarts of commercial radio. Alongside the likes of Frightened Rabbit, The Phantom Band, King Creosote, Aidan Moffat, Idlewild and The Twilight Sad, Withered Hand – the project of Edinburgh-based singer songwriter Dan Willson – is creating work that is astonishing in its honesty, humour and hooks.
Dan Willson: I’m still sort of finding my way really. I didn’t have any “music career” ideals. I have sort of learnt on the job. Looking back, making that first album and the word of mouth response to it beyond the local scene in the years since was a wonderful surprise to me.
And what are the stories about, this time around?
“Love” for the most part. There’s a bit of travel inspired stuff, but it’s mostly an album of slightly unorthodox love songs and meditations on transience. A few people have left my life since the last record. My kids are older. I am older. None the wiser. I guess that all leaves its mark on my writing. I still think there is a universal aspect to the new songs, even though they are rooted in my lived experiences.
You’ve been in Edinburgh since 1996. Do you feel… Scottish?
I feel more Scottish now than I feel anything else. But then I didn’t feel particularly English. I hope the Union exists long enough to see another progressive left wing government.
I also thought the world was about to end, very, very soon, and dreamt about it often. I felt much of the way the world worked was morally questionable but felt compassion towards people
What makes Edinburgh home for you?
I love Edinburgh. I have lived here almost continually since 1996. I spend a lot of time at home, or with my young family. I never get tired of it and I love returning to it. I love the sunsets from our bedroom window, overlooking the railway, an old brewery and rows of typical Edinburgh tenements. It’s very beautiful cycling along the Union Canal into town, and through the Meadows. Edinburgh is a small city – it’s easy to start seeing the same faces in the street or a café once you settle here. We have lived in different parts over the years. Our first home was on Easter Road, which explains my fair-weather fondness for Hibernian FC. We spent a lot of time living near the sea, in Newhaven, where our kids were born. I still like revisiting those areas.
Much of the music scene in Scotland is based in Glasgow rather than Edinburgh. How do you think the two cities compare?
I think both cities are great places but for different reasons. Glasgow is more of a metropolis. It is bigger and brasher and I find it a harder city to use, especially with young kids. I lived in Glasgow’s East End briefly and there was a good artistic community. Edinburgh is an easy city.
You lived in Athens, and some of that is captured in “Love in the Time of Ecstasy”. There’s that wonderful line: “Why did Nirvana ever bother to play here?” It paints a very grim picture of the city. Could you tell us a little more about that time of your life?
I lived in Athens for three months in the mid 1990s. It was a crisis time for me. I was adrift. I travelled there with a good friend who I am still in touch with. He was adrift too. I suspect we were both actually depressed. We were drinking a lot. We went to study at the art school there and we never actually went in. Nobody seemed to notice we were supposed to be there. I wandered around Athens for days on end, drew some pictures, got a bus into the mountains for a week or so, wrote a lot of letters and came home. In the song, I flit between Athens and the small market town I grew up in. The “crack in the handle of a coronation cup” I mention refers to a keepsake we had kicking about the house for a while. I always feel disturbed when I chip or break a cup or plate that has meaning attached to it. It’s like an erosion.
Some of your work is laugh-out-loud funny while being really poignant at the same time – “How does he really expect to be happy, when he listens to death metal bands?” Are there other writers who you think do this really well?
Thank you. That’s good of you to say. There is a wry sense of humour running through many of my songs. I am never sure if everyone always gets it and I am often just taking the piss out of myself. I liked Raymond Carver and Bukowski in my late teens. Now I have a shorter attention span I like graphic novels, stuff by Seth and Joe Matt and Chris Ware, Julie Doucet, Ron Rege Jnr, Robert Crumb etc. I think all these artists do it really well. I found the example of NYC anti-folk musicians – people like The Moldy Peaches, Jeffrey Lewis, Toby Goodshank, Kimya Dawson – very inspirational when I began writing songs, finding my own voice. They engage with humour a lot. I admire their playfulness, that iconoclastic, do-it-yourself type energy. Their influence liberated me to do something rather different, artistically.
One of the hallmarks of your work is an infectious pop hook. We’ve been playing the new song “Horseshoe” on a loop. It’s one of those songs you can’t wait to finish listening to, so you can start it again. How do the mechanics of these things work?
That’s still often a mystery to me. Most of my songs gestate as I walk around my flat with my guitar running over chords and sequences of words – streams of consciousness I suppose – and the lyrics are honed on cycle rides or very late at night, scribbled on a bedside jotter. I am sure if I had more formal musical knowledge I would understand better how it actually works and how to replicate them but it has something to do with chord “tricks” – a simple run of chords that makes sense to the ear and then finding the register my voice works in over them and subsequently finding a melody that feels natural to me.
One of the things that first struck us about your work was your voice. “Fragile” sounds like an insulting term, but it’s what makes it so appealing and quite transporting. Were you always sure that Withered Hand was going to work out, particularly live?
I don’t mind “fragile”. My voice is not trained, it is kind of high-pitched and it’s not terrifically loud. When I first started performing live I was obviously very conscious of all that, plus it was all wobbly from nerves. I think for the most part it has been okay, but I am still aware of my own limitations when it comes to singing. I’m no Mariah Carey. In fact, I sort of dislike singing in public, outside of Withered Hand. Most mornings I wake up and feel about as far from “a singer” as a person could feel. The proximity to the audience and performing overtly candid and personal material is sometimes the most revelatory experience.
You studied art at college. Did the visual work you created have the same thematic concerns as your music – religion, sex, a sense of self and mortality?
Yes, it was a rather less successful amalgam of the above concerns. I still draw (for the children’s amusement, mostly) but I do less visual art now than ever. I am still very involved in the artwork for my musical outpourings – the album covers and my T-shirts and stuff. I get pretty involved in how things look.
Is everything you write autobiographical, or are you developing fiction(s) too?
My songs to date are broadly autobiographical but I don’t there is as much difference as people might think between fiction and autobiography. Some of the names still get changed. I try and root my songs in my lived experience.
You grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness. Most people will comprehend the meaning of being a lapsed Catholic, but what does being a lapsed Jehovah’s Witness entail?
The birth of my children prompted a lot of thinking about the past and I had a close friend around my age who died at that time and those dual events galvanised a sense of purpose in terms of being courageous and making songs
It’s probably fairly similar. My experience in terms of growing up in religion set me apart from my peers as a child, for better or for worse. At school I was obviously unable to participate in things like Christmas or birthday celebrations. I also thought the world was about to end, very, very soon, and dreamt about it often. I felt much of the way the world worked was morally questionable but felt compassion towards people. I worried I was not able to generate faith like the rest of the congregation. I found many of the answers I was being given unsatisfactory. It had a big impression on me. I left it behind at about age 13, when I began volunteering at a local history museum instead of going to bible meetings. I suppose it will always inform my life, so it will somehow inform my creative work but the first record was riddled with religion as I was writing songs in a very reflective place in my mind. The birth of my children prompted a lot of thinking about the past and I had a close friend around my age who died at that time and those dual events galvanised a sense of purpose in terms of being courageous and making songs.
Do you see yourself as a very urban artist? These aren’t, after all, hillwalking songs about myth and traditions that you’re writing.
I feel as an artist that I have little in common with traditional folk music as I understand it exists today. I think I am writing my own personal take on pop music, just trying to imbue it with my own artistic voice. It just happens that trying to keep things simple and honest makes it sound like folk music sometimes. On the other hand, I think if I did enough hillwalking and lived in the countryside I would be woodcarving or crafting or something, I probably wouldn’t write songs at all.
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So would you say you’re part of a movement of modern folk music? It’s easy to sneer at Mumford & Sons when they sell a billion records, but it’s really encouraging to see Frightened Rabbit do well, and Kenny Anderson too.
I am not sure if I’m part of a “movement”. Probably not. I think I write original and quite personal pop songs. People can always turn the radio off. I do. I think people are very willing to listen to more challenging material, but the business of music has become less about that. I have only heard two Mumford & Sons songs so I can’t comment, sneer or otherwise. Frightened Rabbit and Kenny Anderson I cannot fault. It’s excellent, uncompromising songwriting.
In terms of the Fence Collective, Frightened Rabbit et al, a lot of people have an idea that the Scottish music scene is really tight. Is there a sense of Scottish solidarity, a common way of working and thinking – or is it just a case of the scene being a small pond with big fish, so you can’t help but get to know each other?
I think it’s a mixture of those things. It’s a great place to live and create, so maybe, yes, it is quite tight-knit. You don’t have to look far for great stuff happening either. There is a sense of solidarity, in my experience. People root for each other. Being far from a real sense of a career-oriented music business as it exists somewhere like London probably helps.
Do you keep a comprehensive diary or visual diary when you travel? Does travel inspire you?
I do take some inspiration from travel. I have travelled to play shows in Europe and USA in the last few years, as well as around the UK. I often end up in places I never dreamed of going to. I never had a wanderlust when I was younger, really, so it always feels like a challenge to me to get up and go to places and leave my family at home. I get time to reflect when I am alone and away. It gives you a new angle on things and I think it broadens understanding of how much as humans we have in common. I enjoy meeting new people on the road and learning about their lives. I tend to write on scraps of paper – I use whatever is at hand. I used to keep sketchbooks, rather than diaries, but at the moment I don’t even keep sketchbooks, I keep receipts. C