withered hand

“Travelling & Hollering”: An Interview with Musician & Artist Dan Willson aka Withered Hand

After a bit of a break, I’m delighted to crank the Clear-Minded Creative Types series of interviews back into action with one of my favourite songwriters, Dan Willson aka Withered Hand, who is also an artist and DIY gig promoter – not to mention husband and father.

He also happens to be an Edinburgh resident and I’ve seen him at various venues in town, from the small and dingy to the vast and expansive with his recent Queen’s Hall show. He even appeared my telly box in a recent BBC documentary about the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas (Dan became a trending topic on Twitter in the UK due to the US authorities initially refusing his visa).

Please can you tell us who you are and what you are up to at the moment?

My name is Dan Willson. I write songs and perform them under the moniker Withered Hand. I suppose I have been doing this on and off for about 5 years. Before that I used to play guitar in bands and draw a lot. I certainly never expected to be a songwriter, much less a singer, but I mostly like what I get to do right now.

Did you always know what you wanted to do (creatively) or has it been a process of trial and error to get to the point you’re at now? If it’s the latter, how did you decide what to focus on?

As a kid I wanted to be an artist. I guess my parents didn’t realise I needed dissuading. I have always had a clear short term idea of what I want to do creatively, but stagger along with no real plan and right now I’m getting it out there via songwriting and performing songs, I hope it carries on being something I do but maybe in a few years I’ll be doing something else which involves less travelling and hollering.

Extract from Dan’s comic strip ‘A Fake’s Progress’


Mule guitar

Journalist, Podcaster and “Philosopher” Steven Kearney

Ok, so to get back into the swing of things with the interviews, here’s one with Mr Steven Kearney, a writer for The Scotsman’s music website Radar, who I first met because we both did a radio show at Edinburgh’s student radio station Fresh Air.

Alas, Stevie has killed off the truly excellent ‘Dylan and the Mule’ podcasts which I shamefully only started listening to around the time he stopped doing them. And I miss them now. Sob.

I’m told though that he has plenty more web projects up his sleeve for the future. For the time being he’s busy enough with a certain charity challenge – read on for more info.

I wanted to interview Stevie in particular for his perspective as someone who has recently trained to be a journalist and who has intimate knowledge of the current (difficult) situation for that profession. He’s also kindly given me permission to make his dissertation Could the Professional Music Journalist Vanish available for free download – see the end of the post for more details.

Hi Stevie! Please can you describe who you are and what you are up to at the moment?

We all know the scene – you are sitting in a bar with friends and you are introduced to someone new. They ask “what do you do then?” I always struggle with this particular question. If I’m feeling playful, I tend to answer “philosopher”, although this is in no way the truth. It has led to some of my most wonderful lies though.

My university studies were in Corporate Communications and then Journalism, so I tend to be very communication centred. By day I run a wine and whisky shop, which I enjoy immensely. In terms of the creative side of things, I have been writing for the Scotsman’s Radar blog for around two years, I have been Fresh Air Radio’s Best Male Presenter on two occasions, I previously ran the Dylan and the Mule new music podcast and I’m currently in the planning stage of organising an all day charity music festival in Aberdeen during July (possibly entitled Aural Pleasure, if I can get away with it).

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I’m working with my friend Colin Austin to put on a series of acts in two venues, somewhere around Belmont Street to raise money for youth projects in the creative arts sector. There’s still a hell of a lot of work to be done to get things moving though! We also have plans afoot to start up a new Aberdeen-based new music website in the next few months, with regular reviews, interviews and podcasts featuring session tracks by local musicians.

I have previously tried my hand at music, but lack any modicum of talent. I have written a lot of short stories and am currently battling my way through writing my first novel – which is about an alcoholic television news journalist who commits a terrible act of violence late one night, then arrives at work the next morning to find out that he is covering the story. It is, I stress, not an autobiography!

Did you always know what you wanted to do (creatively) or has it been a process of trial and error to get to the point you’re at now? If it’s the latter, how did you decide what to focus on?

I still lack focus to be honest. This time last year I was moving to Manchester to be a kick-ass news journalist. That was what I’d studied for and that was what I was going to be. I did well at university and had no doubt I would be successful. Five months later I had quit, having absolutely hated my job. I had to source and write 25 articles a day and I couldn’t keep up. It was a sobering time. Two months after that I was moving back home to Aberdeen and working back in the wine trade. However, you can’t put a price on looking forward to going to work in the morning rather than dreading it. So yeah, plans change. Mine change regularly.

In terms of creativity, I am still unsure if I am a properly creative person myself – I see my role more as a facilitator for creativity in others. In terms of music writing, I am the guy who arranges the quotes in a certain order and adds a bit of background detail. The creative people are the ones making the wonderful music. With the festival we are planning for the summer, we are giving a platform to others.

I guess in many ways it has taken me a long time to find a role for myself within the music scene, which effectively makes me a frustrated musician doesn’t it? I still have to try very hard not to behave like a total gimp when I’m around people whose music I love. Every time I see Dan Willson from Withered Hand I manage to speak absolute shit to him because I think the guy is phenomenal. I reckon he thinks I’m a proper mental case, but he’s much too polite to say anything.

Looking forwards, I want to keep the music writing as a hobby as that allows me to pick and choose my projects more carefully. Journalism is not half the fun it is cracked up to be and you need to be really focused on one particular goal, otherwise you’ll end up doing what I did, which was sitting in a tower block in Manchester at 8am every morning writing about property investment in the Middle East. And that is a pile of shit.

Have you organised your life in a certain way/made sacrifices in order to continue to be creative?

I’ve not made huge sacrifices, because I am doing what I want to do. I work on projects which interest me and have a job I enjoy which is flexible enough to allow me to do other things outside of work time. I don’t make much money, but I am not in a place where that bothers me right now. It bothers my bank, but I’m fine with that. I’m waiting for my government bail out.

How do you define success?

Success for me has to be measured by a yardstick of my own making. If you look around at others too much you create two problems. Firstly, any success you identify will only be comparative success, compared to your peers, which is fairly hollow. Secondly, there will always be someone doing better than you, so you’ll never be satisfied. Success is getting up each day and looking forward to whatever shit might be thrown at you, safe in the knowledge that none of it really matters at all.

What in your opinion are the positives and negatives of technology when it comes to both creating and promoting your work?

Stevie interviews Comedian Marcus Brigstocke

The positive side for any writer is that the barriers to entry have been steamrollered by the internet – and the rise of blogging in particular. My university thesis was on this very subject – looking at how technology has changed the role of the music writer. The general outcome was that it is wonderful that anyone can now write a blog and have their work accessible to such a global audience, but it makes it much harder to make a living from music writing.

With my journalist’s hat on, the biggest problem is that so many journalism graduates are being pumped out each year into an industry in terminal decline as technology replaces people, perpetuated by a recession where advertising revenues are at an all time low. There are no paid positions to take up. Subsequently, talented young journalists are working for free, even for some of the big publications. In some cases recently, people are paying to do work placements.

Thus, the publications see no need to pay anyone, because there is a massive queue of people willing to work for nothing. It is a vicious cycle for music writers just now and it isn’t going to get any better. Incidentally, when I left my job as a news journalist, I was apparently replace by an endless stream of two-week unpaid work placement students, all giving up their time in the hope of landing a paid position which didn’t actually exist.

While we discuss the upside and downside of technology, it is useful to consider that blogging does present another problem. Too many people think their opinion matters when it comes to music. I am a music journalist because I research bands, I interview them and I report what I learn. I am trained to ask the right questions and get the required information to create an informative and entertaining article. I don’t judge music and I am certainly not a music critic.

My opinion on a band is no more valid than that of any other person at the gig I’m attending. I am careful to keep my opinion of the music out of what I do because, essentially, I have no basis on which to be a taste-maker. Blogging causes a din of unqualified opinion and I personally try to keep out of this. With my podcasts, it is a bit different, because it is obvious that I will play things I like because it is my podcast. When writing for a site like Radar though, it carries more weight, so I’ll stick to the facts. It would be nice to know that people realise that starting a blog doesn’t make you a music critic.

Stevie with Neil from the super awesome Edinburgh band Meursault

Working with others certainly leads to a much better creative process. With the music festival we are plotting, it only really came to life when I sat in the Brew Dog pub in Aberdeen with Colin one night and we threw ideas around for about 3 hours. John – who runs The Kiosque – joined us and helped take some of the rough edges off our more elaborate plans. We had two dreamers and one guy thinking practically. It was so much more productive than being sat at home, trying to figure it out on my own.

In contrast, my fiction writing is a resolutely solitary process, where I have to switch off the internet, block out the world and find a quiet room, where I will sit for at least 3 hours at a time without budging. Occasionally it gets to a stage where I am prepared to send it to a select few people who are my trusted proof-readers. Even then, I find it brutal having someone pore over your work looking for ways to improve it. It undoubtedly helps to have a good community of writers who can help each other out, but I still find it much too difficult to let go.

I’ve always found consistency difficult in terms of learning a craft and then practicing it regularly – is this something you’ve mastered and do you have any advice on how to maintain this?

When your creative outlets happen outside of your work hours, it is hard to be disciplined enough to achieve consistency. This is certainly something I struggle with. Also, I was afraid to say no to anything for a long time, because I hoped to make a career out of journalism. It is so incredibly tough to find a decent job that I felt compelled to agree to everything to keep my CV looking good, but in the end I spread myself too thin and did a half-arsed job on everything.

In terms of advice, I’d say pick one or two things and do them really well, rather than trying to do everything and thus doing it all badly. I have a much better balance now than this time last year, but I still take on far too much.

Incidentally, I have also decided to take on a bit of an insane challenge to raise money for a very worthwhile project in Tanzania, so when I’m not working or writing, I’m out on my bike or in the gym, preparing to cycle 270km over mountains, while stopping off to run up Ben Nevis and Ben Lomond along the way – all in just 4 days. I have actually lost the plot, so feel free to sponsor this madness at http://www.justgiving.com/Stevie-Kearney.

Cheers Stevie! So do you agree or disagree with his outspoken opinions on blogging, or demand that Stevie start podcasting again right away? Let him know in the comments.

That free dissertation – the full details.

Given that Mr Kearney is also giving away his entire dissertation to readers of this blog, why not  say thanks by sponsoring the man and helping charity at the same time? I’m off to do it now.

The dissertation looks at how things like blogging have affected music journalism and  out of the people he interviewed there are quite a few different opinions on the topic.  I was delighted to be asked to contribute, along with the following Scottish music scene movers and shakers:

Vic Galloway, Jim Gellatly, Matthew Young, Jason Cranwell, Nick Mitchell, Billy Hamilton, Peter Kelly and Dan Willson.

Download Could the Professional Music Journalist Vanish by Steven A Kearney