Dan Walsh is a busy man, with the recent Incidents & Accidents having caught our ears and coming after a three year gap, it seemed a good time to catch up and find out how his career is panning out. As well as the new record, the last few years have been filled with some intriguing collaborations, some exciting touring and of course, joining the Urban Folk Quartet as well. We started by taking Dan back to his banjo playing roots and the things that got him started. From there he gives us a fascinating insight into the musician’s life, the making of the record with producer Mark Hutchinson and offers a few tempting morsels from his to-do list.
Can you tell me about what got you started with music and what formed your early tastes?
My parents, though not musical themselves, are very much music fans so I listened to a lot of music in the house from an early age. The most glaring example was Paul Simon whose Graceland album I used to listen to on loop aged 3! My dad had quite a bit of Irish stuff and my mum had some blues and the Rolling Stones so it was a good eclectic beginning. For whatever reason, music just grabbed me from the day I was born and at a very young age I knew I wanted to be a musician. Playing the guitar was my dream!
What made you favour the banjo over the guitar? You’re obviously a gifted player of latter too, are you ever tempted to bring that forward?
It’s funny really, as I say guitar was always the dream and I took it up properly with lessons and everything when I was about 8 or 9. It certainly wasn’t instant but after a few years I really got into it…and then came the banjo. I’d listened to a lot of Irish stuff which I now know to have been played on tenor banjo which is a totally different instrument to what I play, but I didn’t know that at the time. I just quite fancied trying the banjo as I liked the sound and had been thrilled when I saw Barney McKenna do a mega fast set of reels at my local theatre. I never expected it to become the main thing over guitar but within a year or two it was clear that it was. I had a flair for it and it was like I’d found my missing thing in life!
How did you learn and who were the most important teachers and inspirations?
The luckiest thing in my entire musical career was George Davis, my banjo teacher. I don’t know where I’d be without him. My parents went into the local music shop and asked about banjo teachers and his card was there. He lived in Cannock, about 20 minutes from my home in Stafford and he was just brilliant. He is undoubtedly my biggest influence. As for inspirations, it’s difficult to know where to start. Even as a kid I just wanted to hear all the music! But I guess in terms of banjo players, I’d have to mention Barney for giving me the idea in the first place then Ken Perlman has been a big influence in terms of arranging Scottish and Irish stuff for clawhammer. Bela Fleck is a massive influence in terms of just what you can do with the banjo and I’d give a shout out to Gregory Lizt of Crooked Still, Adam Hurt and Michael Miles as well.
What set your musical mind wandering beyond the standard banjo stylings?
I don’t think I ever knew what they were to start with! I think one of the reasons I ended up as quite a unique player was I had never heard bluegrass when I took up the banjo. So I had no idea of what banjos ‘normally’ did, that wasn’t until people started saying deliverance to me… Oh that was fun! I guess this approach meant I was never afraid to try anything on the instrument and my tastes have always been so eclectic that they were all bound to find their way in somewhere. I guess what I’ve tried to do is create a banjo sound very much my own but where you can hear quite a lot of those different influences.
Only Way To Go suggests some tough times, how are things working out now?
Ha-ha, yeah! We’re a self indulgent bunch! I’ve often had a bit of a love/hate relationship with this life. I love performing and that has never wavered and right now I love the musician’s life too but of course it’s not without its drawbacks. That song is about a time when things were a bit less clear, when projects had finished and I wasn’t quite sure what was coming next. It was a bit of a career crossroads and I had to think seriously about what to do because I’d maybe lost a bit of love for it all. But I took the decision to go for it and things have progressed remarkably ever since and my love is well and truly back and better than ever! I guess partly what the song’s about is exactly why we all do it. Coming from a small town where the people have always been so supportive of me has always meant the world to me, but it also creates a bit of pressure because people expect great things of you. Silly as it sounds, you don’t want to feel you’ve disappointed them! But the last two years truly have been amazing, I’m not sure I ever expected to tour the world and have the number of gigs and nice reviews and amazing experiences I’ve had.
Tell me about the touring, what are the best gigs you’ve done and the most exciting places to travel to?
Ah touring… It stresses me out but god I’ve had some fun! I actually really enjoy touring solo believe it or not. I think I like the freedom of exploring places and doing it my way and when I meet the many new people I do it’s sort of nice to do that as just yourself rather than feeling part of a unit. Having said that, touring with Urban Folk Quartet is just fantastic as we all get on so well and have so much fun. The most amazing place I’ve been to would be New Zealand I think. It’s such a special place with a magic all its own – wonderful people, truly stunning scenery and a unique and wonderful atmosphere. It was also 10 times more successful than I ever dreamt it could be! India was pretty astonishing too and Prince Edward Island in Canada really spoke to me. My favourite gigs is a tough one – I always love playing back in Stafford, I had some amazing gigs in New Zealand including a wild place called the Mussel Inn in the middle of nowhere where I ended up crowd surfing and playing for about three and a half hours! Some of the festivals we did with UFQ last year were pretty special – Green Man is amazing.
Tell me about the collaborations, who have you worked with and how have they come about?
I always feel very honoured to play with Alistair Anderson. He’s an inspiration to us all and has done so much as an ambassador for the music and the way he has created education for young folk musicians. He’s still got such passion and such talent. Playing with Suhail Yusuf Khan from India was incredible as well and we’ve more on the way I hope. He’s an unbelievable talent and such a great man too. We met in India when we were both invited there for a collaboration gig and decided to tour as a duo over here. As a massive Indian music fan, it was a dream for me to really get into that stuff with someone so amazing at it! I had a great time touring with Meaghan Blanchard from Canada too, she’s such a talent and a lovely person. I also played on a Levellers single which was great given I’d listened to them as a kid and they were great fun to guest with live as well. The Seth Lakeman experience was good too – I was hanging about at a festival where I’d played and he and his band were just about to go on stage when he said ‘Dan, why don’t you jam on a couple of songs tonight’. It was something of a surprise – I learnt them off YouTube videos on my phone while he was on stage! Then he changed the key! But that was great and I also have to mention Leo from the Saw Doctors. They were very much the family band, we used to listen to them on family holidays when I was growing up so to guest with him on stage really was surreal! What a great guy too.
Incidents & Accidents sounds like a deliberate title is it descriptive of the contents?
In a funny way I suppose it is but the title actually came from a friend of mine, Craig. It’s a song lyric from a Paul Simon song I’ve been known to play from time to time…
How did you approach this record, what was the trigger and what shaped the approach?
I had a lot of material that I felt really good about. I’d written more songs and I guess they were more about my life and stories I’d heard and I had loads of instrumentals there as well. When it came to another album, I felt that after two albums where I’d essentially recorded as a Dan Walsh band this was a good time to record one that was much more stripped back and like people hear live. So the guests are very minimal though they are all brilliant! To get a bit of light and shade in there, Mark has added some percussion and harmonies in various places and Meaghan Blanchard sang a couple of harmonies too. Then Patsy Reid and Nic Zuppardi added fiddle and mandolin respectively on a couple but that’s about it. Otherwise it’s banjo, guitar and voice from me.
How do you approach songwriting generally, is it an ongoing process with you, or do you focus on a record?
I find that ideas constantly come to me and run round my head for months on end then I often write in a big burst around Christmas time when I’m usually at my folks’ place and no one is expecting me to do any emails or anything! It can vary though – I sometimes have little riffs or chord progressions that I want some words for and then I’ll have lyrical ideas too and I guess sometimes they make a convenient match. Other times not. Some songs come out quite quickly and others can take a very long time before I’m close to being happy. I have a big scrapheap of songs! I find tunes are easier to write when I need to write one. I can knock out tunes every day if I needed to whereas songs can be harder to come by.
Who are the songwriters you most admire?
Jez Lowe, Jez Lowe and Jez Lowe! The man is a genius and criminally underrated. He ticks every box as a songwriter for me – passion, wit, universal yet personal themes and some really interesting musical aspects as well. He’s not the only one of course…Paul Simon is a genius. I think Leo from the Saw Doctors wrote fantastic songs in their early days. Andy Irvine would definitely be up there and some Scouse guys called Lennon and McCartney were quite good too…
Tell me a bit about the recording, how long did it take and how did you work?
I came in with stuff, played it and Mark made it better! Mark’s a great producer and gets the best performance out of me and the best sound. We settled on the material pretty quickly and then I went in and recorded the instrumental parts then added the vocals then other people added other stuff. It worked well. The sound was all Mark really. He went for this very raw approach which I think works well. As for the other players, they are all brilliant! Nic Zuppardi is a great mandolin player and we’ve worked together periodically for years. He’s very versatile and works incredibly hard to get things right. Patsy Reid is phenomenal, a great fiddle player. She is so technically accomplished and has great feel as well. I met her in India of all places! Then Meaghan is a wonderful singer and her stuff is brilliant. We were lucky that her being in the UK meant we could get her in to do a couple of harmonies and she adds so much. She’s a wonderful person too, our tours were so much fun!
Has making records become easier with each one as it must be nice to have the ongoing relationship with Mark?
Yeah poor sod, he must be sick of the sight of me! He’s great to work with and it’s good to have a producer who you trust and who works well with you. I enjoy the studio more when it isn’t my record! I love guesting on other people’s but I suppose there’s a pressure when it’s yours. It’s odd which things go down easily and which don’t, it’s not always what you expect and it sometimes throws up things you didn’t realise weren’t that good!
Are most things pre-determined or are you open to ‘Accidents’?
Nice. I’m very much open to accidents or at least I’m aware I have no choice but to be! I don’t think I’m naturally inclined as a person to be relaxed and unplanned but my job dictates I sort of have to be. I never was a traveller or an ad hoc kind of person as a kid but I’ve enjoyed embracing that side of me. I love what I do and I’m lucky to be doing it. I just always want to build up the number of people who come and see me and buy my records and see what goes from there. It’s pretty proven that people just ‘selling out’ to try and achieve mainstream commercial success usually doesn’t work, and if it does they’re not happy with their music and that’s not a price I’m prepared to pay.
What have you got lined up and are there any more collaborations to look forward to?
Gigs! This year is going to be even more crazy than last year I think, which is of course always good. I’m heading to six other countries this year, three of which I’ve never played in before. I’ll be reuniting with Meaghan in Canada over the summer and there are plans for Suhail and I to play here again too. But my main projects are definitely solo and UFQ.
What about the UFQ?
I love it! It was such a no brainer to join that band. Joe’s fiddle playing had knocked me out when I was younger so to be asked by him to be in a band was surreal but wonderful. They are all fantastic people and astounding musicians and there’s no pretence in that – we really do love what we do. We have loads of gigs this year and a new album out in May too so after nearly three years without an album I’ll have two in the space of three months!
Interview by: Simon Holland
Dan is currently touring so make every effort you can to catch him on one of the dates below:
Incidents & Accidents Tour Dates
27/03 – Hales Club, Market Drayton
28/03 – Falcon Hotel, Bromyard
31/03 – Hoy At Anchor Folk Club, Westcliff-on-Sea
03/04 – Brewtown Folk Club, Burton-on-Trent
04/04 – Maddemarket Theatre, Norwich
07/04 – Green Note, London
11/04 – Kingsdown Wine Vaults, Bristol
12/04 – Nailsea Folk Club, Somerset
15/04 – Byre Theatre, St Andrews
16/04 – University Kings Hall, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1pm)
18/04 – St Boswells Live,Scotland