Withered Hand

Withered Hand: The Sad Songs of an Ex-Jehovah’s Witness

Simon Price

By Simon Price

on 03.31.14 in Features

File under: DIY Scottish indie pop
For fans of: Elliott Smith, Bright Eyes, the Flaming Lips, the Fence Collective
From: Edinburgh, Scotland
Personae: Dan Willson (vocals, guitar)

Raised as a strict Jehovah’s Witness, Dan Willson is a former comic-book illustrator who has been recording under the name Withered Hand since 2009.

The singer-songwriter’s wavering, vulnerable voice has earned him comparisons to Neil Young, and his exquisite eye for detail and fondness for extended metaphors has seen him described as “the UK’s best lyricist” by King Creosote, the Fife folkie who founded the Fence Collective. Withered Hand also counts Jarvis Cocker among his admirers, and his music — an agreeably ramshackle take on Scottish indie pop — has been used on film and TV including in the British teen drama Skins.

His second album, New Gods, features guest appearances from Scottish indie stars including Eugene Kelly of the Vaselines and assorted members of Belle & Sebastian and Frightened Rabbit. Recorded with producer Tony Doogan, known for his work with Mogwai and Teenage Fanclub, it brings Willson’s melodic pop into sharp focus, without losing any of the individualistic, home-made appeal of his debut.

Simon Price spoke with Willson about only coming to music in his 30s, the incestuous Scottish indie scene, and the legacy of his religious upbringing.

On coming to music relatively late in life:

I didn’t know I could write songs. I’d been in local bands, but didn’t think I had it in me to do more than fannying around in the background. Also, I thought being an artist precluded having a family — and I’d fallen on the “family” side of the fence [Willson has two children]. People form a band to conquer shyness or get a girl, and I felt like I’d ticked those boxes off so what was the point? But my wife got me an acoustic guitar for my 30th birthday and I tentatively started writing. I had a terrible fear of failure at the beginning, and of success…

On how the death of a friend shook him into action:

I had a friend who died in tragic circumstances — he was an artist and a real get-up-and-go kind of guy. We were contemporaries as fathers and his death really shook me up. It made me feel I couldn’t put things off any more. When I realized there wasn’t any extra time for him, I thought there might not be extra time for me.

On finding the right outlet for his creativity:

I had all this turmoil in my mind and it was going to come out somehow. I started a few graphic sequential drawings that were broadly autobiographical, but I couldn’t get past the first page. It was the wrong medium. Music was the right medium. Standing in front of people and singing songs is still a complete blindsider, though. I still feel faintly ridiculous.

On how silent films and panto informed his songwriting:

When I’m writing a song and it feels too “cosmic,” I try to ground it in my reality. I didn’t want to write hippy-dippy bullshit. For example, I like a lot of old films, and on the song “Horseshoe,” the metaphor about a horseshoe in a boxing glove came from watching a Charlie Chaplin film. There’s another song called “No Cigarette Break,” which compares being in a relationship to being in a pantomime horse: Only one of you can steer it at any one time.

On his distinctively fragile singing voice:

It’s just what comes out, I didn’t develop it. When I answer the phone, people think I’m not a man! That’s a running joke. I think that because I came to singing as an adult, I missed out on the stage where you’re trying to sound like someone else. I didn’t expect people to be OK with my voice, at first. I thought it was going to totally clear the room. But it was fine, and then I realized I was just making pop songs, not some artistic gesture.

On persuading half the Scottish music scene to play on his album:

In Scotland, if you do something that’s half decent and you do it for a while, you get to meet everyone. It’s a small place. My son is named after Eugene Kelly, who’s a hero of mine. We were at one of his gigs when my partner and I realized we were expecting our second kid, and when he was born, we were like, “Eugene, right?!” He heard we’d named our son after him, and one day I was in the queue at the railway station with my son, and this voice behind me said, “You must be Eugene, then…” And there he was.

On the psychological legacy of his Jehovah’s Witness upbringing:

It has left me with a feeling that everything is temporary. Because it puts a lot of store in the idea of the end of human existence as we understand it. It used to affect me deeply. I felt so sad for the people would perish, and I had recurring nightmares about Armageddon. This feeling of impermanence probably inhibited me as a kid, because I thought, “What’s the point in anything?” I’m fine now, but it does leave a shadow. And the idea that it’s the end-of-times still crops up whenever something goes wrong in the world, and I worry that I won’t be with people that I love.

I’ve kind of left my faith behind now, but I still believe there has to be something more than we know. I wish I had enough faith to be an atheist…

On the impact of his music:

Making that human connection is what makes it magical. If your music becomes meaningful to someone, you’re doing your bit for the world. Sometimes I wonder if there’s something more I could be doing: I could be a teacher or a geriatric nurse, for example. But occasionally, when someone writes and says, “I’m having a lot of problems and your music is helping me stay afloat,” I think maybe it’s not such a waste of time.

Sometimes after shows I’ve seen people crying. Not because their ears are hurting…