Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Withered Hand interview, Caberet Voltaire Thursday, 7th April 2011

It’s a shame that modern day folk music has been commandeered by the likes of faux-pas acts such as Mumford and Sons, Noah and the Whale et al, to such an extent that the border lines have become almost invisible between genuine folk and commercialized, marketable ‘folkLite’. It is refreshing then, to see that some of the genres artists have managed to stay resilient to conformity, and it was exactly this kind of admirable feat that enticed me towards Withered Hand.

What really sets him apart from his wholly nauseating, quasi-folk orientated ilk is his ability to captivate the entire room with his haunting whispered live performances and delicately woven articulations that leave you transfixed.

I spoke to Dan Willson, aka Withered Hand following a beautifully harmonious and personal rendition of his exquisite compositions at the Wide Days festival in Edinburgh.

Photo: Dom Holt

Are you enjoying yourself tonight?

So far… yeah, I am! The gig was great; it was busier than I thought it would be. I’ve played some shows there before but I just thought that tonight… well, someone did some promoting because I didn’t do that much!

Big change from playing in the likes of America, no doubt. You went down a storm at SXSW, was that your first time there and what did it mean to you to be invited?

It was my first time in the US, and so yeah, that would mean it was my first time at SXSW. It was kinda really good timing, because it has coincided with the US release of my first album. So if there was ever a time where I had thought about doing it… and to be honest, I’d never thought about doing it before. I have a family and lots of other things here. It’s not the most natural thing in the world to just go to America on a whim. But there was lots of things going on that meant I should probably go; to support the album release, to play some shows and to cement the relationship with my label in the States. It was a good learning experience, and the shows were busy which I gather is not always the case, so I feel lucky.

I was shocked to hear that you almost didn’t make it because of some dafty yank administrational error, (I like to think I helped in some part in your success as I signed the petition!) could you shed any light on that little farce?

You did, that’s sweet man! Y’know someone started that petition in Lebanon, where they don’t have proper internet access and what have you… at first I was like, “Oh shit, my visas delayed I’m gonna miss it!” and there was always this little voice in the back of my head going,  “Well… come on you didn’t really think you were actually going to go America,” I’ve never played in Lebanon, but I started seeing names on the petition of people from far away that had seen me play, and it was really moving… these things that you might think are transient and forgettable are quite often remembered, and people wanted to do something, anything, just to show some kind of solidarity. I didn’t actually think it would do anything, but it kind of did… I started getting emails from MSPs and MPs and several other people trying to help in a political way, which was crazy! Properly insane. I don’t really wanna be the ‘visa guy’ or anything, but it didn’t do me any harm… well, I lost a week’s sleep…

Photo: Dom Holt
The other thing is it was kind of twisted a little bit when it was reported, whereas they were questioning my artistic merit or something? I know a lot of people who didn’t get out there… and I did so I was kinda lucky. But there seems to be a slight misinterpretation as to what happened. It’s harder to get in (to SXSW) if you’re a solo artist, because you’re judged on a different scale. If you’re a band, you’re not regarded as being in the same criteria. This is kind of dull, visa language; I had to learn all this crap… But it was really terrible timing, scores of people were having their visas delayed a week before the festival, flights were already booked and it cost a lot of money. It was a heavy investment for me but I think in the long run, it will pay off. I played two shows, one in New York and one in San Francisco which were really busy and there were people there who knew the songs, I was like “What?!”

Does being compared to some of the worlds greatest contemporaries such as Neil Young and, of course, the hopelessly endearing Daniel Johnston ever leave you feeling as though there’s an expectancy you’ve got to live up to?

At first it was really weird, and I don’t agree with the people who say that, but I think it’s nice that they even see shades of, say, those two people, even if someone saw a shadow of what they do in my music… I think it’s really precious. I take it as a huge compliment, but it is kind of weird… I think people are just looking for a hook to hang things on. There are much worse things that people could say. I am my own worst critic. I agonise over finishing songs, they come quite quickly sometimes but I’m really hard on myself. I just think you should do what you think is true and let it go in to the world… connect with people…

Some of your lyrics are, shall we say… interesting. Others are really primitive and can leave me in a deeply pensive state for hours. What’s the thought process behind those wonderfully enigmatic songs?

The words just spill out of my mouth. When I’m playing the guitar, they just come out. I occasionally tweak them, but mostly they just come flying out. I write them down on the back of whatever I have to hand, I used to cycle around and carry a little notebook. I think the most important thing is just to be honest. It depends on what you’re trying to do, and I’m trying to say something authentic, right? I know there’s many different types of music and many different reasons for making it, but when I stand up and sing, I don’t think that I’m just entertaining, I’m trying to tell something real.

Mr. Withered Hand will no doubt be returning triumphantly to play some more Scottish dates soon and when he does, I implore you all to embrace the wickedness, and lend him your ears for the evening.

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