After a bit of a break, I’m delighted to crank the Clear-Minded Creative Types series of interviews back into action with one of my favourite songwriters, Dan Willson aka Withered Hand, who is also an artist and DIY gig promoter – not to mention husband and father.
He also happens to be an Edinburgh resident and I’ve seen him at various venues in town, from the small and dingy to the vast and expansive with his recent Queen’s Hall show. He even appeared my telly box in a recent BBC documentary about the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas (Dan became a trending topic on Twitter in the UK due to the US authorities initially refusing his visa).
Please can you tell us who you are and what you are up to at the moment?
My name is Dan Willson. I write songs and perform them under the moniker Withered Hand. I suppose I have been doing this on and off for about 5 years. Before that I used to play guitar in bands and draw a lot. I certainly never expected to be a songwriter, much less a singer, but I mostly like what I get to do right now.
Did you always know what you wanted to do (creatively) or has it been a process of trial and error to get to the point you’re at now? If it’s the latter, how did you decide what to focus on?
As a kid I wanted to be an artist. I guess my parents didn’t realise I needed dissuading. I have always had a clear short term idea of what I want to do creatively, but stagger along with no real plan and right now I’m getting it out there via songwriting and performing songs, I hope it carries on being something I do but maybe in a few years I’ll be doing something else which involves less travelling and hollering.
Extract from Dan’s comic strip ‘A Fake’s Progress’
Have you organised your life in a certain way/made sacrifices in order to continue to be creative?
Firstly I have never expected to make money from art. As soon as I realised this horrible truth, in my early twenties I think, I lowered my expectations in life considerably, in order to try and be more realistic. which is sad, I think, but probably pretty normal. luckily my wife and kids have always known I was on this path, so I’m lucky they don’t view me as a total loser.
This mindset has also caused me problems adjusting to situations now where I am making my money from my art. I’ve had to learn to adjust and see it as a temporary state of grace.
In the past, I tended to take the kind of jobs where i could work and yet still keep a part of my mind active on my own ideas. for a long time I worked very early morning shifts so I could have some daytime free for drawing, reading and such. personally, as a musician now, I’m still struggling to find the balance, working effectively at home is difficult. I have a tiny flat, a wife, two kids and a cat. My guitar is pretty much my ‘studio’.
Also when I’m on tour or away I miss my wife and kids. It’s not all throwing TVs out of hotel windows etc.
Religious Songs performed live on an Edinburgh rooftop. Great tune.
How do you define success? (and does this deviate from the conventional idea that ‘success = money’)
Success does not equal money unless it’s money you crave above all else. I quickly realised that every person I met who was trying to live a creative fulfilled life was not really motivated by money. I define success in life as being able to love. I know that sounds a bit hippy-dippy but I gave it quite a bit of thought. It’s easy to get wrapped up in it all, especially if things are going well.
Someone once said to me that there is nothing more important than art. I don’t believe that. People who make any art or music at grass roots level are doing it against the prevailing cultural conditions, I’d argue. especially now.
What in your opinion are the positives and negatives of technology when it comes to both creating and promoting your work?
Hmm. tough one. I owe technology a lot in terms of people becoming interested in my work, early on. I wish I didn’t have to use it myself constantly, working in the way I do (without management, agents etc – I get a lot of emails to wade through), but yeah I do owe it a lot.
I think the internet has been a mixed blessing. It’s seductive but also very de-humanising. I wasn’t part of the mp3 generation so I still prefer to have a physical medium when it comes to music.
As far as creating work, I tend to use other people’s knowledge of recording, so I don’t get too bogged down personally with that technology. I know how seductive it is. you can get lost in process. I just know what I want things to sound like, I don’t know what button to press, and I’m fine with that for now.
Do you collaborate with others or prefer to work alone, and why?
I collaborate often. From fellow musicians I perform with, to engineers on recordings, to video makers etc. I personally feel I have been lucky so far in usually working with people I love or respect. Even people who believed in what I was doing right at the start, when I wasn’t even sure I could do it.
I would always recommend trying to do that. Never be in awe of a collaborator. Avoid that. Choose people you can communicate with easily, that’s common sense. And try and keep it light and fun. When it stops being fun, have a look at why and change it up.
Is community important to you – either local or online – and if so, why?
Community is massively important to me. Anyone who overlooks that is missing the point. When I came to Edinburgh 15 years ago, I didn’t really know anyone here so I know what it is like to be working in a vacuum.There’s only so long anyone can do that.
I think, for me as a musician, husband and a parent, I don’t get to circulate in even my small music community these days as much as I’d ideally like. But I try and do my bit, still putting on DIY shows when I can and sharing advice, lending help to my peers where I can.
I’ve always found consistency difficult in terms of learning a craft and then practicing it regularly – do you have any advice for me and anyone else with this problem?
I don’t know. It comes and goes. It’s the same for all of us I think. Don’t expect anything in return. Do it for the doing’s sake and because you love it. Don’t give up. There’s only learning, not failing. Don’t listen to the haters. And try to learn to recognise your own particular limitations and turn them into strengths if you can.
So there you have it, great advice from the hairy dude dontcha think? Give him a thumbs up in the comments if you do!
I genuinely believe that Dan is one of the best lyricists currently recording anywhere so please check out his album Good News. It’s available on Absolutely Kosher in the US (that link will also take you to a brilliant synopsis of Dan’s life and work so far).
Absolutely Kosher have sadly announced they are to scale back operations recently – however there are still copies of the album available over there so make sure you get hold of them quick.
Some additional info about upcoming gigs:
Dan is promoting a gig by US singer/songwriter Dan Dondero on 20th October at the Scottish Storytelling Centre. Dondero has inspired the likes of Bright Eyes and has been compared to Woody Guthrie.
Withered Hand Gigs:
30 September – Solo set. EASTERN PROMISE festival, Platform Glasgow
More info/tickets here!
11 Oct – Band show supporting Jeff Lewis, St Andrews Uni. Details to follow.
13 October – Headline Band show. The Borderline, London
More info/tickets here!
14 October – Headline Band show. Hobgoblin, Brighton.
More info/tickets here!
15 October – Headline Band show. Alington House, Durham.
Alington House (Room 3)
4 North Bailey DH1 3ET, Doors 8pm
More info here!
Tickets are only £6 on the door/ £5 pound on the guestlist and places are likely to fill up fast so email firstname.lastname@example.org with the name of the show!
2 November – Headline Band Show – Captain’s Rest, Glasgow
More info/tickets here!
5 November – Fence’s Flamin’ Hott Loggz, Anstruther/Cellardyke, Fife. More info here!
Phew! The chap sure is busy.