TEACH YOUR CHILDREN WELL Withered Hand

Scottish songsmith Dan
Willson tries to spread some good news.

 

BY NICK ZAINO

 

Withered Hand’s Good
News
is one of the best albums of the year, and should remain so when the
critics start to put their lists together in December. Dan Willson, the
singer/songwriter/guitarist at the heart of the Scottish outfit, writes
tortured, hilarious, profane, and beautiful songs that are hard to peg to a
specific genre. Indie folk is the nearest fit.

 

The album was released in the US in March to some critical
praise, and Willson followed that with an appearance at SXSW and a few dates in
New York, LA, and San Francisco. What happens now will be interesting to watch.
Good News has been out in the U.K.
since 2009, where it also garnered critical acclaim. Willson has some songs to
start recording a follow-up, but he would like to build a following in the
States first. That’s if he can get back here. He nearly missed SXSW with visa
problems. 

 

Willson has momentum, great songs, a unique voice, and a bit
of buzz. He’s already overcome a lot just to step up to a microphone in public.
BLURT spoke with him by phone to see how he got to this point, and where he’s
going. (Go here to read our review of the album.)

 

***

 

BLURT: How was South
By Southwest?

DAN WILSON: It was amazing. Yeah. It was really interesting.
I had never been to the US before, so it was all new to me.

 

How was the music
received?

Pretty well. I mean, I stayed with a family, an Austin
family, and they told me sometimes there’s no one at the shows, especially if
you’re off the beaten track, away from 6th Street or whatever it
was. But my shows were really busy considering that. I was really happy with the
response, really. It was worth it to go play these shows in the US from the
response of the people who were there.

 

Are you trying to lay
the groundwork for coming back for a larger tour?

Yeah, I am. But I haven’t got a booking agent in place for
that. So it’s kind of dipping my toe in the ocean, kind of. I’m hoping to do
that later on. I’d be happy to. That was one of the things I was hoping to get
out of South By Southwest that didn’t materialize.

 

A booking agent would
help with credentials and things. I know you had difficulty, you almost didn’t
make it.

Yeah, I did. That was amazing. Aww. Horrible. I had a dely.
You know what happened with the visa, right?

 

Somewhat. I read
online that they denied the visa and you had to get temporary credentials. I
don’t know what they denied it for.

Yeah. They jut delayed it. They didn’t deny it, they delayed
it. But it happened to quite a few people, I think, all at once this year. And
there were people who didn’t actually go because of this. The more people were
getting kind of outraged about it, the more I felt like I really wanted to go. [laughs]

 

That kind of anger
and outrage attracts you?

Yeah, it kind of motivated me to not just think, “Oh, damn,
it’s not happening.” And then thinking, “Wow, people really feel like I should
be going to this thing.” Then I started to get more and more motivated ‘til I
was riding this big wave of online help, really. People were trying to help me
to do it. Crazy level of people, like members of the Scottish Parliament writing
to me. It was a weird week. I hope it will never be repeated. Yeah. Completely
surreal.

        That’s all in
the past now. I would like to come back and play. I’d really like to support
the record, because this is the first proper release it’s had, really. When it
was [released] here it was on a really, tiny, tiny label even as indie label
sizes go. It just sneaked out here and it’s really been [by] word of mouth that
I’ve been able to keep doing it.

 

It was critically
acclaimed in the UK
– was it critically acclaimed and not as popular in terms of sales?

It was more that it was released on a budget. We got it made
up and then we just sent a bunch of press releases to the Scottish press. And
this is really the extent of what we did. And then, it was critically
acclaimed, when those people decided to write about it. But then the bigger
magazines like Mojo didn’t actually review
until nine months later when they started to hear about it, if you know what I
mean. It’s kind of like been a very slow burner.

 

Is it just now
starting to catch on there more, as well?

Yeah, yeah. The shows are getting busier and busier and I’m
still – I’m not playing all the same songs that I’ve always played, but I’m
playing still a lot of the songs that are on the album. So it’s kind of weird.
I never had anyone championing me, you know? Apart from other songwriters. I
know what’s helped me in the States, you know that band Frightened Rabbit?
They’re a rock band from here. They have been really helpful for just dropping
my name into things.

 

 

You’re in an
interesting position, because you hear a lot musicians say they’re sick of an
album, playing the songs live by the time it comes out because they’ve been
working on them and they’ve got another batch of them ready to go. You’ve had
this out since 2009, and you’ve delayed working on a second album, I believe,
because of the release in the States. Is that true?

Yeah, it’s partly true. It’s mostly true. It’s definitely affected
my work rate. I’m not hugely prolific anyway. I’m at kind of a strange time in
my life to be doing this. It feels like it to me, a strange time to be doing
this. But yeah, I’ve been playing those songs for a long time. I don’t really
ever get sick of it. I guess some of the people that play with me might, but I
don’t. They’re very autobiographic, you know, so I just feel like I’m saying
what I say, over and over again.

 

Is it to the point
where you feel like you’re working on this album and you’ve got other things
you want to say and other songs you want to be pushing? Or you’d rather be
working on a second album?

It doesn’t feel like that to me. I still feel like the songs
are very relevant to me, as a person, where I’m at right now. So I don’t feel
like I’m standing up and playing old, old songs. They kind of are, I guess, but
it doesn’t make me feel like that. And there’s a smattering of new material,
but I’m a kind of accidental singer/songwriter, in a way. Songs do come out
once in a while, but it’s not like I’m the most organized person with this kind
of thing.

 

Is there any kind of
lag where people in the U.K.
are maybe expecting a new album because they’ve been listening to this one
since 2009?

I think that might be true, yeah. I think there’s probably
people wondering what I’m doing. [laughs]
I’m trying to bring up two children and be an effective citizen. I’ve got a few
songs. Whether they’ll kind of come together as an album or not, or an EP, I’m
not too sure. I don’t really have anyone breathing down my neck telling me to
pull my finger out. I’ll just write the songs and try and record them when they
come out.

        In a way, I
guess I am kind of giving the album a little bit of a breathing space now that
it’s been released in the U.S.
And then I’ll turn my thoughts to whatever’s next. The label in the States has
an option for another record. So at some point, I will make another one.

 

Is it hard to please
fans in the U.K. while
trying to make your introductions in the U.S.?

People keep coming to the shows here, probably more than
ever before. And I see the same people. I don’t really know who they are, but I
sometimes think, that guy’s at every show. Surely he’s sick of it. But they
don’t seem to be at the saturation point just yet. I worry about that, but it
doesn’t seem to have happened quite yet. I guess there are tons of people
everywhere who haven’t heard that record yet.

        I play a fair
amount of live shows here, and they’re still busy, so something’s working
right. Even if they’re kind of hankering for new songs. Sometimes if I try to
play a new song people will try to record it on their phones or whatever
because I haven’t been forthcoming with any new, proper recordings for a while.
I do try and slip a few new songs in there for this reason, I guess. It’s
strange, really. I don’t have a clear idea about what the next record is going
to be. I did try and record an EP recently. And I was really unhappy with it,
so I’ve canned it. I’m going back to scratch again with it.

 

You’re not happy with
the songs or just the recording
?

I really love the songs, I just want to do them justice. And
it didn’t, really. And that’s a really hard decision to make, because I kind
of, I stopped working these jobs I really liked because I didn’t have any more
holidays and the guy that I wanted to record with, he kind of had only one window
of opportunity to do it. So we did it, and I was really unhappy with it. So
that’s kind of weird. No EP came out of it. I have the songs, still, which I do
like a lot. But I don’t like the recordings.

 

You said you’re at a
strange time of your life to be doing this. How would you describe where you
are?

I’m pushing on 37. I’ve played music since I was a teenager
in bands and stuff, just messing around. This singing in front of people and
writing songs thing, I’ve really only been doing it for a short time in the
context my whole life. Maybe only six years I’ve been doing this thing. And at
the same time I have now two children, one nine and one six. And my wife works,
as well, so I’m quite integral in domestic things.

        It just feels
like such a strange lifestyle, you know. I’ve done a couple of tours. It’s
really weird. It’s kind of a weird thing. Because you have less energy and you
just think, ooh, I could have stayed up until three when I was 20 doing this
thing. And now you’re playing a show and you’re like, “Hey, guys, I hope you
have a great time, but I just need to go to sleep right now.” That kind of
thing. Particularly when I was in the U.S. I felt like that. I was so
tired after that week of not thinking I was going and lots of transatlantic
phone calls at crazy times at night.

        I’m just
talking about the actually going and playing shows part of the whole thing. I
really didn’t have anything all to say to anyone when I was young. I always
thought I’d be doing music as a little thing in the background while I did my
artwork, as my full-time activity. It’s kind of switched completely the other
way around.

 

Was it that you felt
you finally had something to say, why you finally started writing songs?

Yeah, I guess. And always because I think I’ve always been
frightened of doing it. Frightened of trying to do something. I guess many
people can relate to that. Frightened of trying something, even if you could
maybe even do it well. You’re frightened of actually grappling with something in
case you failed. It was a time in my life when a friend of mine who I always
saw as the embodiment of this “seize the day” kind of guy, he died and I
immediately saw the light. I just thought, aw man, I’m just going to be
tinkering around forever thinking that I’m just going to paint my masterpiece
tomorrow. Then I just started doing it from that exact time, almost.

 

I’d also read that
your voice was somewhat soft and you were hesitant to push that out into the
forefront, as well.

Yeah, very much so. I was the guitar player in the
background who sound guys would be like, “You’re not singing! I can’t make the
mic go up any higher.” I’d be like, “Aw, you know, I’m trying.” At that time,
as a kid, I was playing in friends’ bands usually, just sort of a social thing,
and they would be always furious with me, saying we’d practice these backing
vocals, what to do, and I would never do them when we’re onstage. That’s just
stupid fears of something. Now every time I do it it’s like totally, “Yeah! I
can do it!” And it’s really good.

 

You have to realize
you have your voice before you figure out how to use it, too. I could see that
delaying the writing, because you’re thinking, I don’t have the voice to sing
it anyways.

Absolutely. I think that’s completely true. I had no idea,
really. I don’t come from a musical family. Sometimes I play with people on the
same bill and they’re like, well, you know, my parents were folk musicians and
we used to go to folk camps and all this. I’m like, my dad put in medical gas
in hospitals and my mom works in the supermarket. I didn’t know I could do it!
I took a lot of power, almost, from this vague awareness of punk aesthetic. The
sort of D.I.Y. thing. That, to me, suddenly validated anything I tried. It made
me a lot less scared of facing it down.        

 

You also don’t write
happy little throwaway ditties – there’s a lot to chew on in these songs. That,
I’m assuming, has something to do with you realizing you have something to say.

Probably the genesis of those songs is really wrapped up in becoming
a parent, I think. A lot of this stuff was around the time I was grappling with
all these changes at that particular time that I think a lot of people are
aware of. There’s sort of universal things that happen to most people on the
way to becoming a parent. It’s right in your face. I think a lot of that came
out in those songs. And when I started to revisit places in my childhood, I
guess, looking now as a father revisiting my childhood, almost revisiting me
through the eyes of my father, it started to make me really start to think
about what I carried on with me from my upbringing, which was as an evangelic
Christian. And I’m not anymore. I’m an agnostic, if I had to be put into a box.
All that stuff I guess lends the songs… it makes them more substantial as pop
songs go.

 

There is a lot of
juxtaposition of sex and religion. Is there a particular intersection there you
feel is fruitful for songwriting?

I do. I think for me, when I was carrying these moral codes
with me as a youngster and then into adulthood, sex is the hardest arena to
work out what the hell is going on. Sex was the most confusing, and still is, I
think. I don’t see that as a really clear and easy to grasp topic. It weighs on
my mind a lot and it usually comes into the songs in some way. My primary
relationship is constantly alluded to in my songs, I guess.

 

 

 

Is there a particular
religious attitude toward sex you’re commenting on?

My church was pretty down on sex. I think that’s probably as
near as I can get to where your question is asking. I’d say the influence I was
having from religion was casting sex in a bad light. And then I spent most of
my adult life grappling with this, trying to sort out, is it healthy? Once sex
becomes loaded with feelings of guilt and fear, then it takes a long time to
try and see clearly what is going on when you’re becoming an adult. We had a
really bad attitude to sex before marriage. And sex for fun was always frowned
upon. It was a slightly Puritanical thing. It leads a lot of people to become pretty
obsessed the other way around.

 

Are there specific
incidents that sparked the lyrics
?

In the songs, yeah. There are either specific incidents or a
phase in my life that’s being alluded to. Definitely. What’s weird – well, it’s
really not weird. I guess some people find it a little profane. They don’t want
this in their folk music or whatever. Those kinds of honest moments, they tend
to really communicate… I notice after shows, a lot of people really get it.
They’ve had similar things to grapple with, themselves. That, to me, is the
main thing.

 

I would think singing
lines like, “If I should happen to die tonight in my sleep I’ll have cum and
not blood on my hands” is maybe something people aren’t expecting to hear.

Not at first, yeah. I guess I kind of get out of the habit
of knowing what’s expected and what’s not. I don’t go and see that much music
outside of what I like. Sometimes when I play those and it’s in a place where,
maybe like a rarified atmosphere or something, people are like, “What? What did
he say?” I find pop music much more pornographic than those songs, actually.

 

Ever gotten tossed
out of a place for language?

No. Not yet.

 

But it’s a goal?

It’s a goal? [laughs]
Yeah, it would be interesting. It’s funny. Actually, I did once play at my
daughter’s school, actually now you’ve reminded me. I thought I’d vetted the
set list to omit songs which had anything that was going to be dodgy in it for
children at a family fun day. I got halfway through a song and realized that I
had said “shit” twice. And I just stopped playing that song and went on to the
next one.

 

Which one was that?

It was “I Am Nothing.” It says, “Did they teach you shit at
school?” and then I thought, well, hang on. I just said “shit” and I’m at a
school. I’ve got to pack this song in and go on to the next one.

 

So ironically, you
taught, probably, several children “shit” at school.

[laughs] Exactly.
The hunter has become the hunted. Yeah, I guess so. My wife is a teacher at the
school. That was also awkward.

 

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