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Withered Hand interview…

The following article was posted as part of my work for the Scotsman.com site Under the Radar…
In our profile article last June, we predicted Dan Willson’s Withered Hand was set for big things. Sure enough, the last ten months have completely redefined success for the Edinburgh-based father of two.

Good News, his debut album, was released on SL Records to considerable acclaim, leading to a whirlwind of activity; even Willson describes himself as “almost too busy”.

He has only just returned from an exhausting 15-stop European tour supporting Icelandic marvel Benni Hemm Hemm, and while his travels took Withered Hand to new audiences across the continent, it also resulted in some oddly humbling moments.

“Apart from being generally very well received, I was totally amazed to meet a handful of people at the shows who already had my records and knew the words to my songs,” Willson says.

Ever loyal to his Fence Collective friends, he describes Homegame as the “highlight of every year, surely”.

Depending on the availability of his musical friends, Withered Hand can be a solo act or a large band ensemble. The turn of the year saw a sold-out UK solo tour, supplemented by an invitation from King Creosote to play at one of his London shows.

As for new material, Willson is approching it at his own pace: “I have more songs that nobody has heard but I need time and space to finish them and then time to decide how they exist in relation to the band set-up. And I don’t have lots of time and space right now.”

Looking forward, there are even more enticing events in store, as Willson plays his “biggest solo show to date” as the special guest of Canada’s mesmerising Woodpigeon at London’s Union Chapel this Thursday (6 May).

Summer dates include Tigerfest in Dunfermline (21 May) and the Wickerman festival (23 & 24 July), as well as an appearance at the World Ceilidh in Knockengorrach at the end of this month.

First things first though… Willson has an entire European tour’s worth of sleep to catch up on.

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My top 10 albums of 2009 – No. 10-6

Yes folks, after finally getting some time off from my various jobs, I too have cracked and felt the need to produce a list of my top albums of the last year. 2009 was the year I took my first tentative yet clumsy steps into the world of music journalism, writing for the Scotsman newspaper’s Under the Radar blog, covering unsigned and under-represented bands in Scotland.

Those just missing out on the top 10 include Blue Roses, Monsters of Folk, Bowerbirds and my pal from Glasgow going by the name Beerjacket (Although I doubt I make it into his top 10 either).

Here then, in descending order, are my top ten albums of 2009:

10) Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – White Lunar

This superb 2 CD selection of work from Cave and his partner in crime is comprised mainly of selections from film soundtracks, most notably The Assassination of Jesse James and this year’s Cormac McCarthy adaptation The Road. It is a soothing, classically influenced listen and couldn’t be much more different from their previous work on the ear-drum punishing Grinderman.  Cave also released another darkly hysterical book this year, entitled The Death of Bunny Munro and his performance at the Picturehouse in Edinburgh was far and away my gig of the year.  Proof indeed that no matter the genre, Nick Cave is capable of utter genius.

9) Bombay Bicycle Club – I had the blues but I shook them loose

Summer festival favourites Bombay Bicycle Club produced a really fun album that, whilst it is certainly the most mainstream choice in my ten, does not deserve to suffer simply because it became popular.  Far too often people in my line of work turn their backs on a band once everyone else catches on, which seems peculiarly self-defeating if the purpose is to bring bands to a wider audience.  2009 was certainly a great year for these guys and their album managed to be both intelligent and popular.  They deserve credit for both.

8 ) Richmond Fontaine – We used to think the freeway sounded like a river

An excess of Kerouac and Burrows in my 2009 reading list fuelled an interest in US west coast alt. country bands; a genre which is still going strong despite the dominance of New York acts on the international scene.  Portland band Richmond Fontaine’s 9th record sounds as spare as the pacific coast highways but has moments of homage to the Seattle scene which so flourished in the 90s.  It is a classic road album, rich in imagery and full of the kind of storytelling you would expect from lead singer and accomplished novelist Willy Vlautin.  Their best album to date, this is an involving and rewarding experience.

7) Withered Hand – Good News

Dan Willson, the man behind Edinburgh act Withered Hand, has been charming Scottish audiences all year with his shy demeanour and wry, quasi-religious pop songs.  In September he released the highly anticipated ‘Good News’, to an excitable local scene.  He is the classic example of the whole being worth so much more than the individual parts; his voice isn’t great and neither is his guitar playing (Neil from Meursault had to tune his guitar for him at one gig!). However, through a combination of self-effacing charm and lyrics which should be made into a book, Dan has produced a blinding album, aided by the production talents of Kramer, who has previously worked with the likes of Daniel Johnson, Low and Galaxie 500.

What will 2010 bring for Dan Willson?  I think he should write a book of children’s stories.  Very, very dark ones…

6) Small Town Boredom – Notes from the Infirmary

Paisley’s Small Town Boredom are not in the least the type of band you’d let you would play at a gathering of friends and are not the kind of band you’d feel comfortable passing on to a depressed friend, but whilst their music is what some would unfairly dismiss as depressing, I prefer to think of it as contemplative.  The duo have clearly been through some rough times, but ‘Notes from the Infirmary’ finds beauty in adversity and hints towards optimistic times ahead.  The tone is predominantly low key but builds to some pretty extreme crescendos, not least on the album’s standout track ‘World’s Most Unwanted’.  Never likely to break into the mainstream, Small Town Boredom’s aversion to playing life is also unlikely to endear them to potential new fans.  They deserve an audience though and anyone prepared to give ‘Notes from the Infirmary’ a few listens will be richly rewarded.

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My Band of 2009…

As part of my work for the Under the Radar blog on the Scotsman website, I was asked to submit an article selecting my band of the year…

When the dark, mysterious powers behind UtR first suggested that each of us hacks pick a band of the year, I decided to let my iTunes play count decide it for me. So, Withered Hand it is then. Except, as phenomenal as Dan Willson is, it seemed too obvious.

So I looked to see who was second and found Meursault. Dear Lord, I am such an Edinburgh cliché. So I scrapped the preposterous iTunes notion and went back to searching around the disused back rooms of my mind.

After a mentally and sometimes physically painful deliberation, I decided the band who have given me the most enjoyment this year has been Glasgow’s How to Swim.

One key reason for this is that I hate being late to the party. I sometimes get there so late that the place is scattered with empty bottles and everyone has either gone home or crashed out.

With How to Swim, I was fairly punctual in my arrival at the metaphorical party. Not early exactly (the band have been playing in various forms since 2000), but early enough to make small talk in the hall about my job whilst glancing nervously towards the door to see if anyone else was going to turn up. How to Swim turned up and their live act is certainly something to treasure.

My affinity for the band is partly because I regard the 2005 It Stings When I EP as one of my finest ever random purchases. Then I lost my copy. But 2009 was the year a copy re-emerged to gift me joy in the form of Gregor Barclay’s haunting voice and the sinister imagery he creates. ‘There’s a Building There’ has to be my all time favourite stalker song.

The new material has also lived up to previous acclaim. Perhaps with the release of the album Retina, iTunes may well be able to pick my band of 2010. So, thanks to a combination of discovery and rediscovery, How to Swim have made me happier than any other band this year.

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In the spotlight – Small Town Boredom

Whilst not in the least way recommended as something to kick-start a party, Paisley based Small Town Boredom create the kind of music you immerse yourself in completely and experience on your own, preferably with a glass of whisky in your hand, possibly nursing a broken heart. Interruptions are not welcome. Sign on the door: Do Not Disturb.

Originally formed in 2001 by Fraser McGowan and Colin Morrison, their 2007 vinyl only release ‘Autumn Might Have Hope’ was an album so delicate in sound you find yourself taking extra care when placing it on the turntable, for fear it may fracture and all will be lost. Whilst barely rising above a whisper at any point, the impact is all the more profound for it. The overall feel is involving and introspective. As the band themselves put it, “Honest, if a touch depressing”.

One of Small Town Boredom's rare live performances

One of Small Town Boredom's rare live performances

What followed ‘Autumn Might Have Hope’ was a tour with the likes of Adrian Crawley and Eagleowl. The tour ended in burnout and proved to be the culmination of the sort of unfortunate personal demons that make such artists all the more compelling.

Thankfully, after a period of rest and reflection, STB have produced a new album. As with previous work, ‘Notes from the Infirmary’ has been lovingly made in a Paisley attic, “using computers, 8 tracks and Dictaphones”, with help from Richard Kengen on bass and Gordon Bartholomew on electric guitar.

Both permanent band members work full time as engineers and record in their spare time. “Personally I find making music very therapeutic, I can lose myself for hours each night in recording and mixing, that’s the stuff I enjoy”, says Fraser.

The inevitable fallout from the last tour is an unwillingness to delve too deeply into the music business. As Fraser is keen to point out, “Playing live and promoting what we do I hate, so we don’t do it that much. I think we will keep making music as long as we enjoy the process, if that ever goes I don’t think I would do it anymore”.

Perhaps strangely, for a West coast band, they are much more excited about the music scene in Edinburgh than Glasgow. “There is a lot of great stuff going on in Edinburgh just now. Bands such as Eagleowl, The Kays Lavelle, Withered Hand and The Leg for example, their music has affected me massively”, says Fraser. “I’m really not a big fan of the music scene in Glasgow; I think it’s completely overrated and most of the bands getting hype or press just now bore me”.

The new album continues where ‘Autumn Might Have Hope’ left off, with ‘Void Lighting’ a standout carefully crafted song of love and loss which immediately draws you in to their world with an understated intensity rarely heard since the Nine Inch Nails released ‘Hurt’. ‘World’s Most Unwanted’ dares to raise the tempo, building the vocals to a stunning finale.

Small Town Boredom have created something majestic with ‘Notes from the Infirmary’; a hushed masterpiece. They may not be too keen on promoting themselves, but Scotland has a band to shout about and their music deserves an audience. If this is the result of boredom, then it is time very well spent indeed.

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In the spotlight – Withered Hand

“A triumph of invention over ability” said a review of Dan Willson’s early work with former band Peanut.

Well, no more, as his current incarnation, Withered Hand, starts to grow in stature. After his recent set on BBC 6Music, Withered Hand is hot property.

Now working as a solo singer/songwriter, with a little help from various friends for his live act (including members of Meursault, St. Jude’s Infirmary and eagleowl), Withered Hand has a new EP readied, entitled ‘You’re Not Alone’.

Dan Willson aka Withered Hand

Dan Willson aka Withered Hand

The record has been produced by Kenny Anderson of King Creosote fame and was recorded in a hall in the Fence folk hotbed of Anstruther. “For me, that is one of the biggest rewards of doing this, playing alongside friends and hearing my songs in a new light,” Willson says. The much anticipated debut album, aided by legendary American producer Kramer, is out in September.

At times painfully honest and introspective, Willson’s folk pop style marks him as an artist with a lot to say, and someone who manages to speak with a refreshing intelligence, placing him at the pinnacle of Edinburgh’s live music scene as a true must-see act.

Typically reclusive, fame now seems to be seeking Willson out, whether he wishes it or not. Sometimes talent wins out. Sighted last weekend in an impromptu performance alongside Meursault at the Meadows Festival, affectionately described by the aforementioned band’s lead singer Neil Pennycook as “ramshackle”, few would have realised the recent clamour surrounding the shy looking lad clutching a bag full of Gregg’s pasties, but Dan Willson is not your typical fame-seeking star.

2008’s Religious Songs EP gained Withered Hand wide ranging acclaim, but it was his early DIY records posted on the internet which led to him performing on the same bills as the likes of Frightened Rabbit, James Yorkston and Malcolm Middleton.

Based in Edinburgh for the last 13 years, Willson is quick to proclaim his love for the city, but admits to initially being “terrified of microphones”. Asked why he makes music, he states simply: “Because I can’t really stop. I have tried. It is my way of making sense of being here. I used to draw a lot more and now I write songs. I have to have some kind of creative outlet otherwise I’m hell to be around”.

Willson says that his songs are “really just the sound of somebody who never thought they could ever do this, playing within their limitations. I would describe my songs as just a collection of my thoughts, with melodies that probably occurred to me in the grocery store or cycling home, sung as best I can over a bunch of chords”.

With typical modesty, Willson describes his sound as something which comes from within: “Apart from that it’s all the same twelve notes over and over again, like everything else”.

But it’s really not just like anything else. It is the culmination of one of Scotland’s brightest singer/songwriter’s talents; thoughtful, refreshing and full of insight. The new album promises to be something well worth the wait. You may have problems avoiding Withered Hand in the near future. And quite rightly so.

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