One of Scotland’s most talented musical voices has been absent from the scene for almost a decade. Happily, Edinburgh-based singer/songwriter/bandleader Dan Willson, better known as Withered Hand, has returned with a new album which is more than worth the wait. How to Love is a musically assured and richly arranged collection of what Willson rightly refers to as “indie gospel” songs, bare, beseeching laments uplifted with strings, brass and a DIY WH Salvation Choir.
As his solo, acoustic Scotsman Session version of the title track attests, Willson’s songwriting stands up in the most intimate setting – in this case, filmed using a borrowed guitar at his friend Cameron Fraser’s home in Goldenacre. “I wanted to give it a bit of the spotlight,” he says of his stripped-back take on How to Love.
Willson is now in his late forties and was a relatively late bloomer as a songwriter. Despite growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness, music seeped through the strict lifestyle restrictions and provided a passive outlet. Willson left the church in his teens to pitch up at art college in London and then followed his girlfriend, now wife, to Edinburgh in 1996 where he joined a succession of noisy indie outfits.
However, it was the personal, confessional rawness of his own songs as Withered Hand which struck a stronger chord. Debut album Good News arrived fully formed in 2009, followed five years later by New Gods. Willson would be the first to admit he is not a prolific writer but he was furthered blocked by struggles with mental health, bereavement and addiction issues. In some respects, lockdown was his liberation.
“I did myself a favour and limited my exposure to the news and used the rest of the lockdown period like an unanticipated creative retreat,” he says. “Lockdowns obviously had an extraordinarily negative impact on a whole generation’s mental well-being but I was already in mental health recovery when it all kicked off so I just doubled down on that, attending meetings regularly thanks to Zoom. I tried to get into nature as often as I was able.”
Like other artists, Willson discovered the lifeline of the Patreon community, linking directly with this fans online, broadcasting Instagram gigs from his lounge, “just chatting and playing songs for whoever showed up, keeping the spirits up and hopefully passing some hopefulness along.”
A new body of songs began to emerge and How to Love started to take shape. The sound of the album is on a grander scale than its troubadour roots might suggest, and features guest appearances by King Creosote and Kathryn Williams, the former a mentor-like figure over the years and the latter a catalyst in getting him back in the saddle when she contacted him to ask if he wanted to co-write some songs. The results of their collaboration will be recorded soon for release next year. Before then there are plans for an EP and October dates in Stirling, Galashiels, Glasgow and Aberdeen.
How to Love is out now on Reveal Records, see www.witheredhand.bandcamp.com