Monday, July 07, 2008

Interview - Withered Hand

Words: Chris Hynd
Photo: Dan Willson by Jen Owens

Dan Willson, a.k.a. Withered Hand, hails from Edinburgh and creates this fragile yet beautiful and lyrical, woozy folk sound. Conducted via email and answered while his wife puts the kids to bed, Dan took time out from his drawing to reply to these questions.

For those who don't know, can you give a brief history of Withered Hand, how it came together and whether you originally saw it as a solo venture or a group/collaborative effort?

Well, Withered Hand was born around summer 2006 as an outlet for my songs and a general pseudonym for my creative output. I was disillusioned with a lot of contemporary music and I guess I had been frustrated since disbanding my previous band (Peanut) the year before and was picking up my acoustic guitar and these songs were coming out that were a lot more direct and personal. At the time, I saw Withered Hand very much as striking out on my own but I hadn't expected to get over the fear of singing that had always blighted me through my time in Peanut. Encouragement from Bart in Eagleowl led to a few gigs, mostly shakey but well received and then a chance encounter with Cammy Watt (Les Enfant Bastard) was the start of a brilliant and eventful friendship through which we hastily created a short-lived antifolk frenzy that was The Love Gestures (including Neil Pennycook from Meursault), after a while I found it difficult to maintain my position in the band and returned to performing solo as Withered Hand.

So I'd say I eventually realised songwriting for me is a cathartic process that can't be easily compromised, its a way of charting the course of my life, but sure once the songs are done and written, let's have a party and bring your ukelele! So, I've been playing better and better gigs as Withered Hand since and have been lucky to recruit some fine friends on a regular basis to put flesh on some of my songs.

How big a role does the art aspect of your life to what you do, i.e. do you see yourself as an artist playing music or a musician who happens to be an artist? Or would you rather be both?

I've always had a hard job seeing myself as a musician, I mean I never write "musician'" on forms or anything. I always thought my voice was too high and that people would just laugh at me and also I don't read music, I just learned some chords and scales as a kid but if you have vision and you learn your own way of using your instrument or voice that's right for you, I think then that's the way. I have good people around me who can help if I need to know something but usually you just have to trust your ears.

Art plays an enormous role in what I do, and how I see things. In that sense, I was an an artist first. I think the distinction between artists and musicians is a little spurious though, surely music and words are just another medium for an artist to use. One thing I realised is that I was disenchanted with the limitations of the "artworld" and the bizarre systems of patronage that exist. For me, it's easier to get an audience for what I have to say using music these days, easier for people to get it, it's more immediate. Also, importantly, my circumstances (living in a small flat with my wife, our children and the cat) dictate that at this time my guitar is easier to use than a dedicated "artspace", it's my studio.

You've put out an EP ("Religious Songs"), judging by what you say on your Myspace site about how it was put together it seems to be very much your baby, how happy are you with the record? You mention it was produced by Neil Pennycook of Meursault, what did he bring to the recordings and how did he help in shaping the songs?

Well, it was my baby in that it cost nothing to make and they are my first purposefully recorded songs. Neil was a huge help though, it was knocked together, with Neil on banjo and accordion and help from Alun Thomas (of The Leg) and Hannah Shepherd playing cello. My feelings about the record are complex I guess. First, it was a rush job. It was prompted by being asked to play Homegame in Anstruther and having no recordings of any of those songs. I'm glad I finally pulled my finger out and recorded them and I think it stands up well but I probably don't consider these to be the "definitive" versions of those songs.

As for Neil's involvement, he did bring a certain sensibility ("Neil, that's too much reverb") to the recordings and also an awful lot of know-how! Mostly it was him and me in somebody's kitchen or lounge with his laptop trying to get a track down late at night while folk held their breath for three minutes. He has been a very positive influence on me and I suppose we have a lot of common ground musically which helps. I know we have a lot of respect for each other and I hope he carries on playing with me for shows etc. But he obviously has Meursault, who I expect to go on to greater things. Usually I wouldn't involve anybody else until a song is pretty much cooked as I'm too easily discouraged. I need to be sure that it's Withered Hand. It's like a merry go round, if I had my way all of my friends would be playing something on my songs. I'd like to work with Cammy again sometime. I can't do it by myself, I mean I record a few things at home so I don't forget them. Literally I know what it should sound like but I don't know what buttons to press to get there. It's a whole world of pain.

Following on from that, is it the plan to do more recordings with a view to doing an album? If so, would the people who have been involved before be involved again?

For the next recording I am hoping Dan Mutch (ex-Khaya, ex-Desc, The Leg) will have some hand in the recording. I have always been a fan of his work and I reinterpret one of his songs ("Joy") in my present set. Hopefully it'll give another window onto the songs and its looking promising because he kind of nodded when I asked him. Also, Jo Foster from the Fence Collective will be singing on one of the tracks, and boy she can really sing like a songbird - I'm so made up about that! So at the moment I am planning this other EP and then Kramer (ex-Galaxie 500, Butthole Surfers) is in line to work on mixing for a projected album but I'll need to get some money from some place or something.

For the next EP, yeah I am very happy working with the present live line-up but it's a pretty casual arrangement. It depends on the songs I decide on, I have other friends who can slot in at short notice and they bring a different feeling, for instance at Homegame Chris Bryant (also of Meursault) played a snare and an old bass drum because Alun was touring with Paul Vickers I think. I've also played a few gigs with me and just Hannah on cello. And more recently I played a gig in Stockholm on my own and that was fine too. The solo gigs are always more intense from my point of view. Ultimately I want it to be always possible to play the songs alone, they might not sound as pretty but that's how I write them.

As someone who lives in Edinburgh, do you feel there's a healthy scene developing for the more folky/anti-folk/folktronica (for want of better descriptions!) bands? The city certainly lags behind others when it comes to gigs being put on or venues for bands to play - how important is it for the likes of Tracer Trails or Bear Scotland or other DIY promoters to be putting things on and to show that there is life in this side of the country?

There is like an amazing nu-folkist(?) scene/community here but not too many people know about it. Maybe because the press have been super slow to notice, as usual. In Edinburgh, the lack of cool venues is sometimes a problem but then again Tracer Trails have shown you just get out and find your own venues! As you say there are a few promoters really helping things along in their own way, Trampoline and Bear Scotland both do good things but for me, Tracer Trails is a shining example in terms of DIY integrity. Disused church halls, theatres, art spaces, whatever. It's invariably a lot better than somewhere that's going to shaft you for drinks, put you on a bill where they don't give a shit about the music and then kick everyone out so they can put on a techno night at 11pm.

I can't stress it enough, that DIY spirit is everything. I dont think of music really as entertainment, its art. Unless you're happy with the status quo - then yeah do nothing, but I look around and think it could all be so much better. Thats why the scene is important, it's a support network. Fuck it, we all have day jobs anyway. I'm not in this for the girls anymore. Especially the broader ethos behind some of the music, we are all looking for this sense of community. And we aren't really happy with how things are. And we have a voice. And so we give our voices songs.

You played the Fence Records Homegame in March, how did that go for you? I saw a write-up in The Scotsman that compared you to Daniel Johnston - what did you make of that? A fair comparison or a bit outlandish? Generally, who are your main musical inspirations?

Homegame was really cool. For me, it was a real beautiful moment playing there with those people listening. Also a perfect audience really and I guess not many people there had heard of me before. It was something I'd be keen to do again. I also wish I had said more than "Hi, you were great!" to some of the other performers there, especially King Creosote and James Yorkston. I saw that article in The Scotsman. I was pleased in a way because Daniel Johnston is one of the great songwriters, for sure. I guess its my high whiny voice that did it. At last it's good for something!

Musical inspirations are hard to pin down. I could go on for hours. I used to own 13 AC/DC albums and i had an antifolk epiphany at a Jeff Lewis gig five years ago. Make of that what you will. Right now I'm listening to Neutral Milk Hotel.

You mention on your site that you're a fan of heavy rock music. Me too! Has "listening to death metal bands" for example always been part of who you are? Who are your favourite metal bands?

Hahaha! It is true. It was a part of who I was for all of my formative years, as the song says. I still have a fondness for metal. Of the stuff I used to listen to, I would still listen to Slayer for the weird Kerry King solos and I love Rick Rubin's production and early Sepultura has its moments and maybe that black Metallica album with the snake on it, the later one.

Finally, what are your general ambitions for Withered Hand? Do you hope to become a bit more better known outside Edinburgh?

I would like to keep writing and playing my songs, as long as people want to hear them that's a win/win situation. If I can keep drawing under that name as well, then that's good. I don't see why I can't become better known outside Edinburgh, especially with the internet and, more importantly, if I can record some more of these songs. I'll carry on doing stuff here with the great people that are here, we will be trying to do a monthly acoustic thing ourselves from September so we get to hang out and play new stuff to each other. Regardless of how well known anyone gets, It's so important. In a way its the most important thing. In betweent imes, I'll just keep on trying to find my voice and see what happens.

Withered Hand's debut EP "Religious Songs" is out now. You can pick it up by visiting:


Anonymous said...

interesting post. i'm not from edinburgh but i happened to see this guy play at a tracer trails gig ages ago and his songs were amazing. more interviews like this plz. and keep up the excellent blog!

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