Scottish singer/songwriter Dan Willson talks about his US debut, SXSW, young love and growing old
With the release of his new LP, Good News, Scottish folk singer/songwriter Dan Willson (a.k.a. Withered Hand), makes his U.S. debut in New York this weekend with shows at both the Cake Shop and Littlefield in Brooklyn. Recently, Willson and I chatted via Skype about his single, “New Dawn,” overcoming his extreme shyness on stage, and writing songs while riding his bicycle.
You worked with American producer Kramer (Low, Galaxie 500) on your new, first full-length album Good News, which was also funded by the Scottish Arts Council (they funded Belle & Sebastian and Snow Patrol as well). How did this all come about and where was the album recorded?
I had a collection of songs I’d been playing and I put a few home-recorded demos on the internet. Kramer must have been coming to Scotland to do some work on an album and he’d come across the demos that I’d put online. He contacted me and told me that if I had any other songs like the ones I had on my MySpace page that he would be interested in working with me. I thought it was spam!
Then I wrote to the Arts Council to see if I could get help putting it all together and they gave me some money. The Arts Council is really good. They aren’t fusty and old. They support all different types of music being played here, not just accordion music.
I really love your new single, “New Dawn.” It seems to be about a teenage relationship perhaps. The bands you mention in it (Pavement and Silver Jews) really reflect this. How would you describe this song?
I feel like it’s about teenage love and about getting old. And maybe I’m looking back fifteen years to where my head was when you used to write bands’ names that you liked on your school bags. But now I’m 36 and have kids. But the irony of that song is that it’s the most energetic one that I play. And it’s about getting old, but I can only just play it at full speed. I break a sweat playing that one. It’s about love as well. Sometimes when you get hurt by something, it’s the time when you feel most here because you’re feeling something, instead of just the numbness that we all have.
Your new album has some religious themes to it. How has religion played a part in your life?
I grew up in an evangelical Christian house. When you’re reading Bible stories all the time, it’s on your mind a lot. I’m not really obsessed with it, sometimes it just bubbles up in the songs. It was really not a conscious thing when I write songs, to dredge all that stuff up.
I’m kind of envious of religious people and I have a lot of respect for them. I know religion gets a really bad rap because of fundamentalist groups. But people forget that for the majority of people who are religious, that it’s a very positive thing in their lives. So, I wouldn’t want people to misinterpret “Religious Songs.”
You only started pursuing music independently as a full-time career in the last few years. How did music play a part in your life previous to that?
It was a constant hobby. I used to play the guitar in different bands. I didn’t always like the music, but I liked facing down my shyness. Even getting up on stage and standing at the back with a guitar was a big deal for me. I used to like forcing myself to do it. Mostly I used to do drawings though. My main occupation for most of my 20’s was this kind of crazy idea that I could be an artist. I used to do printmaking to make the drawing seem more legitimate.
And do you still make time for visual art these days?
Yeah, I do, but not very much, especially now with the music. Sometimes I find that I can achieve more with songs than I ever could with drawing.
Some of your lyrics are really great. Did you used to write poetry? What is your approach to writing the lyrics of songs?
I’m not a poet or anything. I did write poetry when I was 17, like everyone does. No one wants to read them or hear those though. I did try to go to creative writing classes in my early 20s, but that was very short-lived. But what I’ve found is that when I started to feel a little more confident about singing, that I could just play something on the guitar and open my mouth and say exactly what I felt and lyrics just came out. I just wander around with my guitar. I did write a few of those songs on my bicycle though, too. There must be something about moving your legs around and the fresh air and just feeling good about being out.
I found a series of YouTube videos of you playing a few songs from Good News at a house party from back in early 2008. A few of the songs were a bit unfinished at the time. How have the songs changed since then? Do you feel closer to them or more distant and reflective of them?
That party was for a girl who promoted all of my early shows, even when I was terrible and really struggling. She helped me a lot, so to pay her back, I agreed to play at her birthday party. I think she was 18 or 19. So I took the small band that I’m still occasionally working with and we played in her lounge with all those people around. It was a very special thing for me because I was giving her something back. I look back and think that some of the versions aren’t too shabby. I’m really pleased that they’re up there on YouTube.
So you’re about to make your U.S. debut with two shows here in New York. What are you looking forward to most about your visit? What kind of preconceptions do you have about playing in the U.S. verses in Scotland?
I really don’t have any idea of what to expect. I’ve never been to the States before. I’ve met lots of nice American people in my life, but I never even thought I’d go to the States. People tell me New York is amazing and that I’ll feel like I’m in a film. When I was a kid, I loved Woody Allen films and so I have a romanticized idea about what New York’s going to be like.
After your two shows here in New York, you’re heading down to Austin to play SXSW. What are you looking forward to most about the festival?
I’m looking forward to seeing other people playing music. I still get excited about that. I’d love to see Emmylou Harris. I hear she’s going to be playing there.
What are some of your plans for the next year?
I’d like to make a new EP. I have a bunch of songs that I’ve been playing live that I haven’t got a version recorded for that I’m happy with. I just started a label myself and I’m going to put the EP out on that label. It’s called “Brother and Dad” because I’m borrowing money off my brother and my dad to start it.
What can people expect to see at your two shows here in New York? Will you be playing with your usual bandmates?
I’m playing on my own, actually. It’s more intense for me, playing on my own. But because it’s more intense, it’s more rewarding. It can be really lonely, but when it goes well, it’s more rewarding because you feel like you’re wrestling with something inside yourself just to do it. It’s really fun playing with the band because you can look around and pretend that the other person’s made a mistake. Everyone has a good laugh and you can bug out to some of the songs. But I find it very rewarding playing on my own and very intense. You get all the credit and all the rotten tomatoes.
But at the show in New York, I’ll be playing the bulk off of Good News and maybe I’ll throw in one of my new songs, which has the best words from any song ever written.
You’ll have to come to the show and see!