Withered Hand: Beginning to flourish

It may take a village to raise a child, but the capital city's community is raising a whole new class of urban folk musicians. Jason Morton sits down with Withered Hand to hear the benefits of keeping your peers close

Feature by Jason Morton | 03 Mar 2009

As Dan Willson waits for this tardy interviewer in an Edinburgh city centre arts café, he leafs through a handmade zine on display near the front door. The timing of the interview, while coincidental, is fitting. An ongoing event, called Don’t DIY Alone, is spread across three days and several venues, bustling noisily throughout the room. So in order that I can hear the soft-spoken Willson pontificate on ‘doing it himself’— performing and recording under the moniker Withered Hand — we seek refuge in an adjoining stairwell.

Willson considers this DIY ethic a common thread amongst his Edinburgh-based peers — Meursault, Les Enfant Bastard, Eagleowl and Rob St John in particular. “I wouldn’t say it’s a stylistic ‘thing’. Maybe a belief in people who do it themselves: get a PA, put on a gig somewhere.”

Though Willson had already played in several local bands, it was exposure to New York’s anti-folk scene that pushed him to strike out on his own. “That was the defining thing: I went to a Jeffrey Lewis gig in Glasgow, and Kimya Dawson was playing, and I was like, ‘Hey, I can’t sing… but I can play a few chords, and I’ve got something to say’.” After this revelation, the heart and soul of Withered Hand set about crafting semi-autobiographical and self-described ‘urban folk’ ditties — replete with wry and self-deprecating lyrics — until another folk-informed local musician caught wind. “Bart from Eagleowl put on this day of music at a café in Leith. He knew I’d been writing songs but I’d been too scared to perform them. He persuaded me, in the end, to come down and play.”

Willson’s self-effacing nature fits in well with the anti-folk feel, but he felt this push was a positive thing. “From there, it wasn’t so terrible," he says. "I know I’ve got a high voice but when I got used to it, people didn’t really care. When I first heard Neil Young, I thought he was a woman.” The strained voice of Withered Hand, coupled with Willson’s subdued but charming stage presence, goes a long way in creating an endearing experience for listeners. His songs, and the topics explored in them, remain simple and accessible. “You stole my heart/and I stole your underwear,” he admits on Religious Songs, while the layered I Am Nothing reminds us that “we’ve all got things that make us evil.”

Willson also tries to keep things simple in other areas, which extends to his recording and performance. A dedicated self-recorder, he concedes that the process "can be a total pain in the ass", though in recording his debut LP for local stalwarts SL Records he has learned to be less meticulous in order to push the process forward. To that end he was recently funded by the Scottish Arts Council to work with Mark Kramer, who has produced artists as varied as Galaxie 500, Daniel Johnston and White Zombie.

This intimate approach factors into Willson’s live gigs as well where, after playing both large venues and house parties, he says: “It’s obvious which is the plum gig, which one is more fun and makes more of a connection with people.” In the world of Withered Hand, music is not just a performance, but a way to communicate with friends as well as a crowd.

Withered Hand plays The Blue Lamp, Aberdeen on  15 Mar and The Bowery, Edinburgh on 25 Mar.