Interview: Withered Hand

This article originally appeared in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on December 22 2011, under the heading HAVING FAITH IN HIS VERY OWN BRAND OF MUSIC.

Alt-rock bard Withered Hand, aka Dan Willson, can trace his career path from Foodstock to Rolling Stone.

The Edinburgh-based singer-songwriter, who recalls a homespun Neil Young and counts Jarvis Cocker among his fans, played his first solo gig in a Leith delicatessen, as part of Eagleowl’s 2006 ethical pop fest Foodstock. His rise to the ranks of indie saviour has been suitably organic since.

Withered Hand’s low-key 2009 debut album, Good News (SL Records) illustrates Willson’s slow-burning promise. Rock magazine Mojo raved about the LP eight months after its release, while a US release (via Absolutely Kosher) this summer prompted eminent rock critic Robert Christgau to champion WH’s “quavering, wordy tunes that make Belle and Sebastian sound like the Beach Boys”. US music bible Rolling Stone touted him as “One to Watch”.

Europe is next on Willson’s horizon – he’s preparing to set sail for Belgium when we meet in Edinburgh. “We’ve got a couple of dates over there, and we’re going on one of those boats with a live disco,” he enthuses. He has lost count of how many times he has performed this year. “I have to keep playing,” he says. “I can’t afford not to”.

Recent standout dates have included a headline show at Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall, a packed gig at London’s legendary Borderline, and a US tour around Texas industry showcase South by South West. The latter saw Withered Hand become the subject of a national grassroots and media campaign to corroborate his “exceptional talent” after he was refused a US Visa. He eventually secured the paperwork and went on to steal the show in a BBC TV documentary about Scottish artists at SXSW.

Despite his endless touring schedule, Willson recently contributed to the Fruit Tree Foundation’s New Branch initiative, and recorded his first new material in two years: it will herald the flagship release from Fence Records’ Chart Ruse vinyl-only series. The songs – Heart Heart, My Struggle and Gethsemane – variously recall the pop-spunk of the B52s, the punk-folk of Patrik Fitzgerald and a gorgeous backwoods balladeer. They were recorded at the home of indie luminary Darren Hayman (Hefner), and afterwards Hayman remarked that Willson “records like Billy Childish and mixes like The Blue Nile.”

The Willson-Hayman sessions also produced the dreamy festive aria, Real Snow, and it’s likely that said wintertime ode will star in tonight’s Shelter charity shindig with Withered Hand, polyphonic pop troupe the Second Hand Marching Band and folk-pop enchanters The Last Battle.

Despite Real Snow’s seasonal romanticism, Christmas is an ambivalent time for Willson, who was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness in Hertfordshire. “As kids we’d be excluded from any festivities,” he says. “Now I’m a parent, I struggle with the idea of lying to my children at Christmas time. I’ve warmed to the magical aspect of the Christmas myth though – I love creeping about on Christmas Eve and seeing the kids’ faces light up. But I also see so much of the potential good of Christmas subverted into anxiety and loneliness by advertising. It’s quite a conflicted time for me.”

Such ideological tussles often underpin Willson’s terrific song-writing. His skewed rock odes and brambly existential anthems deal in love, sex, humour, self-deprecation and (lapsed) faith – as evinced by rousing Good News hymns like Religious Songs (“How can he really expect to be happy when he listens to death metal bands?”), Love in the Time of Ecstasy (“Lord, won’t you listen to me, your unfaithful servant’s filthy f***ing language”) and Cornflake (“Won’t you wear your sacrilegious undergarments?”)

“The first Withered Hand song I wrote was Cornflake, and I wanted to set it out almost like a manifesto,” he says of the closest Seventh Day Adventism will ever come to rock‘n’roll. Perhaps the main revelation behind Good News, however, was not borne of heavenly conviction but rather of an unplugged axe. After a decade as a visual artist and a member of art-noise outfits (surf-punk reprobates The Squits and their inharmonious offspring Peanut), Willson was given an acoustic guitar. It changed everything.

“It was a massive moment,” Willson recalls. “It stripped away lots of baggage. I realised that music might be the way, and that simplicity was the Holy Grail. That’s when I started what I would call singing. I hadn’t really sung since I got chucked out of the school choir.”

Despite their aesthetic divergences, Willson perceives a common thread between Peanut and Withered Hand. “With that shouty thing, it was pushing me into an uncomfortable place as quite a shy person,” he says. “And I saw the song-writing as pushing myself into a different place.” This resolve goaded him to play a few songs at the behest of Eagleowl’s Bart Owl for Foodstock. Gigs with local promoters Tracer Trails and a place in the heart of Edinburgh’s DIY scene ensued.

Willson began to promote his own shows, and set up a label. “I did all the posters, and the artwork,” he says. “I became influenced by this independent scene in New York that revolved around Olive Juice – people making music on their own terms like Major Matt Mason and Jeffrey Lewis.

But it’s with King Creosote’s Fife-based DIY enterprise, Fence, that Withered Hand has found his spiritual home. “That thing I saw across the pond with Olive Juice, I realised it was being mirrored just across the river with Fence, and I love it. It’s happening right here,” he smiles in quiet revelation. “That’s kind of amazing.”

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