Sunday, 15 September 2013

Dan Whitehouse: old craft, new songs, growing audiences.

How a song develops, from raw demo to the finished article: hear both in this post. 

I first heard Dan Whitehouse when scheduling Rhubarb Radio’s output in 2011, in the dying days of its second incarnation. I used just local material, mixing the best of West Midlands music makers into one audio stream. 

It was great. I got to listen to lots of music in different combinations, which is always interesting. And I saw how unusual and new songs bedded in on air with consistent and repeated play, the way they are delivered on mainstream radio..

Dan’s songs worked brilliantly. The more they came round, the better they sounded. That may well be because of how he crafts his songs. They wear well; they stick in the memory. 

It seems to be working for him. On Sunday 29th September, Dan put together a particularly lavish hometown launch gig for his second album, Reaching For A State Of Mind. Unsurprisingly, the gig sold out.  

You played the beer tent at Moseley Folk in the middle of the day. Not the easiest of gigs: people rock up for beer - they don’t necessarily come to see you - but you’ve got to grab them when they arrive. Good gig?
Dan Whitehouse at Moseley; Harriet Harkcom at right
Fantastic. Really pleased at how many people came at the allotted time. I was really surprised by that. A warm feeling. It was a 30 minute set. It’s quite tough to really cook up the atmosphere and make some sort of emotional landscape within that time frame, but that’s the challenge.  
You pulled off that risky move of getting everybody to come closer. It worked a treat - but when it doesn’t, it’s instant death for the gig. There’s new band members, too. Who have you got lined up for the Crescent show? 
Chip Bailey on percussion; he’s also on the record. Simon Smith on upright bass, and June Mori on keys. There’s Michael Clarke, who produced the record, on banjo, guitar, and backing vocals. John Large will be back on kit, allowing Chip a freer rein. Anja McCloskey will be playing accordion, and Thomas Bounford on violin.. Then there are wonderful harmony vocals from Harriet Harkcom. She’s done several shows with me now. 
Harriet Harkcom sounded just great at Moseley. How did she start working with you?
Through the Songwriting Circle at Mac. She’s a singer-songwriter herself; her stuff is really promising. She came down to a one-day event I did in the summer of 2012. Her voice is incredible. She’s got perfect pitch, a natural force of nature type voice. I was assembling a choir for two songs for two songs for the album, and she was part of that.
That’s a great way for talent to come your way…
I get inspired every week by everybody’s new song ideas. It runs in twelve week blocks, so there’s waves of like-minded folks coming my way. It’s a privilege. 
So you’re painting a very different picture. Your songs can be very very stripped down, very intimate and personal. And yet this time you’re going to use a lush environment.
It’ll be 50/50 There’ll be a large part of the set that I’ll play solo or duo. There’ll be a landscape to the set. It won’t be the full-on band instrumentation all night. 
A lot of effort into one show. How can you keep a band like this together?
I can’t keep a band like this together for any amount of time. The band line ups are floating in the air above my head, and I have to reach out and grab ‘em, as I can. This is all about the show – a bespoke band line-up for the show. The other shows will be in solo, duo or trio formats. 

Let’s talk about this past year. In my view you’ve acquitted yourself extremely well at the gigs I’ve seen you play. How do you feel it’s gone? 

Let me try to get some perspective.... In a lot of ways, with all the relentless gigging I’ve been doing, it’s been like mining underground. You can’t always measure what you’ve been doing. But there are little moments… like at Moseley: a group of really kind, warm-hearted people came out to see me and formed my audience in the middle of the afternoon. That didn’t happen two years ago. A couple of years ago, I used to play at the Yardbird, and two people would come.
Very elegantly, you’ve just said it’s difficult to measure your progress. But there have been straws in the wind?
Yes. The sell-out show at the Conservatoire was one. This upcoming show, with Duke Special, at the Crescent is well over 70% sold now, with a few weeks to go. So just the fact that I’ve managed to find an audience is significant for me.
But think about that headline at last year’s Oxjam. You were playing to a reasonable crowd in the bar area at Symphony Hall, ahead of the Ray Davies gig. His audience didn’t know you from Adam, but they really liked you. That must be gratifying.

I’ve noticed that most people who buy my CDs are of that age…
How do you feel about that?
Honoured. I speculate that, number one, perhaps people of that age have more of an interest in the compact disc format, and number two, a big part of what I do is lyrics, and it’s all quite reflective stuff. I think the more experience you’ve had, the more weight you can add to each verse when you’re listening back. 
The new album is out; I haven’t squeezed it dry yet - I find that it takes repeated listening and marinating to get to what you’re doing. 
You’re not the first person to say that. 
Again, a lot of deeply personal and intense songs. How easy is it for you to keep pulling bits of yourself out and putting them on public display?
It’s what I do. I don’t know how to do it in a different way. Some of the songwriters that I take a lot from reveal a lot of themselves. To make interesting art, you have to do that. I don’t worry that I expose myself too much – I worry that it won’t be of interest to anyone. I want to develop my craft and technique further. Self-confession in itself is not interesting. Filtered through beautiful craft, it can be. 

Kris Kristofferson wrote a great song, Jesus Was A Capricorn, with a great chorus:

‘Everybody’s got to have somebody to look down on 

Prove they can be better than at any time they choose

Someone doing something dirty decent folks can frown on 

          If you can’t find nobody else, then help yourself to me’ 
He’s offering himself up…
How was it recording the album? Did it come out the way you planned?
You can hear how it evolved from the audio we’ve set up on this blog. It did evolve quite a lot in the studio from my original bedroom demos. I went into it with an open mind, I was working with three others – Simon Smith, Michael Clarke, Chip Bailey - we rocked in the studio with a bunch of demos and started playing and recording together, in it together, live, as a band.
Certain songs just fell off automatically; other ones we got into a groove with and completed. Then Michael and I invited guest musicians in to play counter melody. From bassoon and viola and lead guitar… it became a layered production. An enjoyable process. 
You’ve got PJ Wright on board – how did that come about?
I supported P J Wright twice, when he was playing with the Dylan Project. Love watching the Dylan Project, cos they’re all amazing musicians. I got talking to P J Wright about my acoustic guitar – a Simon and Patrick guitar from Canada. We had a geeky guitar chat. The next day I sent him a rough demo of 'Maybe I Too Was Born To Run' and asked him if he’d kindly play on it. He recorded two takes in his home studio in Banbury and sent them over, and it worked out really well. 
People have been very generous with their time and expertise with me. I’ve managed to find like-minded musicians who have helped make it happen. 
When you compare your originals with the finished versions, how does it feel?
With ‘Maybe I Too Was Born To Run’ – that song was called ‘The Days’. It was a totally different song. I was trying to do something clever but ultimately boring… and I settled for a more instinctive emotional lyric in the end. You can hear that it changed quite a lot. 
Check out the versions -demo and finished article - presented here. In the finished album, reproduced with kind permission, Dan has jettisoned his original introduction. On the demo, he gets into gear at around 1'10"; the finished album version - much modified - drops you straight into the action. 
I just love the whole process of changing a song and developing it – right up to the point where you send it off to the duplicator. That’s what fuels me. I want to keep making stuff, same as someone makes a chair or a table. I love the collaborative process as well. Part of what I like about being a solo musician is that you can work with lots of different musicians. When you’re in a band, you can make a template for your sound, and you force all the songs though that template. And that can be a good thin, because it’s part of the band’s sound. That doesn’t always work long-term and it’s not working for me right now. I love working with different musicians on different songs, and letting the lyrics lead the situation. 

Dan Whitehouse website   
The Songwriting Circle at the Midlands Arts Centre

Full Tour details

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1 comment:

Paul Flower said...

He works very hard and deserves success and acclaim, I hope he gets both!