A religious upbringing made Dan Willson feel like an outsider, but it did help shape his indie alter ego, Withered Hand
When Dan Willson was a child, he would regularly have nightmares about Armageddon. Brought up a Jehovah’s Witness, he was not permitted to attend school assemblies, birthday parties or Christmas celebrations.
“It does make you feel very different,” he remarks with the benefit of 25 years of hindsight. “It was acutely obvious you’d be sitting out things which everyone else was doing. So it’s a surefire way of instilling some weird outsider mindset. I’ve actually got quite a rosy view of humanity but it does give you some weird Christ complex or something and I guess working through that stuff over the years has informed my songs.”
You can hear all about it on Good News, the lo-fi yet fully formed, wryly funny, touching word-of-mouth gem of a debut album Willson recorded and released a couple of years ago in his guise as talented troubadour Withered Hand, emerging from nowhere with the teenage tribulations of Religious Songs (“my hair’s getting too long for this congregation”), the incorrigible lonesome country lament Cornflake and other droll meditations on sex, the afterlife and everything which are as engaging as any deadpan rumination from Will Oldham or Bill Callahan.
Following those fire-and-brimstone formative years, Willson fell away from the church when adolescence and all its peculiar temptations impinged. “I started volunteering in the local history museum,” he says. “That was as rock’n’roll as it got. That was my escape. When everyone else was going to church, I got into archaeology.”
He filed away his childhood experiences, went to art college in London and ended up moving to Edinburgh for love of a girl (now his wife), where he did odd jobs, played guitar and avoided singing in his friends’ bands, became a dad and generally didn’t give much thought to his religious roots.
He eventually overcame his aversion to singing, fronting his own “shouty” band, Peanut, for a while. Willson recalls that they were “very chaotic and incompatible with my new family at the time. So it kind of felt like my last hurrah. I thought I would sell my guitar before I was 30 because I thought it was all a bit of stupid fun, and it wasn’t for me.” He pauses. “It’s not sounding like a glorious narrative …”
The turnaround came when Willson was given an acoustic guitar, started writing reflective, personal songs at home that wouldn’t disturb his young family (not volume-wise anyway) and began to play shows on his own, using a stage name chosen because he thought it sounded like a heavy metal band. “I was playing shows that were quite wobbly but nobody was laughing or running out and then I got more confident. There was a really good DIY scene in Edinburgh at that time, guerilla gigs and stuff. Without that, I might not have done anything more after the first few shows.”
Drawing strongly on his JW past for his maiden set of self-penned songs, Willson found his voice as a singer (a quavery, plaintive tenor) and a lyricist (sincere, colloquial, wickedly witty).
“I think becoming a parent informed a lot of that stuff,” he says. “Seeing yourself superseded by your own offspring, I was aware of my impermanence and my place in the line of things.”
Refreshingly for an indie rock musician, Willson betrays no hostility or great antipathy to his former faith in his songwriting. If anything, he seems quite tickled by his experiences, using them as fuel for a humorous, anecdotal approach.
“You could really dig a big earnest hole for yourself with that material. But everything about it is quite funny. The tone is quite informal, like my conversation. It’s good when you’re writing, you can say things you can’t say normally or people would think, ‘Oh my god, here comes the sex and God guy, don’t speak to him!’ I generally steer the conversation away from masturbation if it comes round to it, but it’s definitely in the songs, so I can stand up there and say stuff on stage. I sometimes feel that’s the only place people listen to me in my life. So that’s empowering.”
The slow-burn success of the album has kept Willson occupied for the past couple of years, along with his househusband duties and the occasional farcical admin hiccup. Last year, Withered Hand’s debut US tour was jeopardised when Willson was denied a visa on the grounds that he had not proved “extraordinary ability” or “significant recognition” (there must be a sardonic reply song in there somewhere). Following a fan petition and the offer of assistance from his MSP, the visa was granted and the tour went ahead.
To date, Willson has yet to produce a full-length follow-up to Good News, though he has recorded some new songs with Darren Hayman, another cult indie singer-songwriter with a dry sense of humour and a poetic turn of phrase. The resulting rockier four-track EP Heart Heart has just been released on Fence Records, and Withered Hand will play at Fence’s forthcoming festival fandango Eye O’ The Dug. It seems he may have found a new spiritual home … sort of.
These days, he says he likes to keep tabs on fellow former Witnesses of a rock’n’roll persuasion. So far he has come up with Patti Smith and Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine. “Good company,” he notes.
If pressed, Willson would now describe himself as agnostic. “I do believe that there is something more but I don’t know what it is. Which is why I’m not really down on faith. I’ve seen the good of it, though I guess that’s outweighed by the wars and genocide …
“My favourite place is at home with my family,” he shrugs by way of explaining the laidback approach. “My career is really raising my children. I’m still waiting for clarity on the future.”
• The Heart Heart EP is out now on Fence Records. Withered Hand plays the Eye O’ The Dug festival, St Andrews, on 14 April. www.witheredhand.com