If you’re a fan of rootsy, folky, americana-esque music, then Dan Hartland is someone you really need to know. He’s just released his second album, the superb “Great Novels” and is about to embark on the first of three tours this year. GIGsoup caught up with him at a charming hostelry, somewhere in the West Midlands…
Tell us Dan, have you always been a windswept and interesting, acoustic troubadour?
(Laughs) Not really! I started off on the B Flat euphonium, which is sort of a small tuba. The problem was that I’m also really interested in words. I’ve always been an avid reader and writer and it’s really difficult to write songs for the euphonium and then perform them. I realised that trying to get words out with a mouth piece stuck to my lips just wasn’t going to work, so that’s when the guitar came along. I picked it up at about 15 or 16 years of age, so that became my main instrument. I didn’t abandon the euphonium, though. It’s been on every single one of my previous recordings except for this one as we set out for this album to be very disciplined and we cut back the superfluous sounds. It just stayed in its case this time around, I’m afraid.
So, when did this rock and roll epiphany take place?
This was britpop time. All the good stuff had already gone before I got interested – I was just left with Menswear and Ocean Colour Scene! I was listening to “Definitely Maybe” “Park Life” and “Modern Life is Rubbish”, that kind of stuff. I did get into Ocean Colour Scene’s first two albums which were a real inspiration to me because they were a local band and they were doing pretty well. Through Ocean Colour Scene, I got into all the Mod stuff, like Small Faces and Paul Weller and then I found Ryan Adams which just opened up this whole new world to me. Another crucial factor was Simon Fowler from OCS, mentioning in an interview that he’d been listening to the Harry Smith Folk Anthology, which is the big, six disc set from the Smithsonian. It’s really serious. I thought it sounded like something from Lord of The Rings! I investigated that and it was kind of a gateway drug for americana, jazz, and ragtime
Do we have Ryan Adams to thank for you sounding like you do?
Gillian Welsh is probably more of an influence on my music than Ryan Adams. He’s got quite a rocky side to his music and as much as I love “Demolition” or “29”, I sound nothing like that, whereas Gillian Welch has always kept it very rootsy. She’s just endlessly exciting to me. But it’s the songwriting which is really elusive and often literary and historical which is right up my street as well. She’s up there with all the classic songwriters like Hank Williams and Willie Nelson. There’s a guy called Willie Watson who I like at the moment. He was in Old Crow Medicine Show and he’s a fantastic folk singer.
Did getting into country at the tail end of britpop make you feel out of step, back then?
Very much so – but I’m out of step with everyone all the time! When I got to university, I co-founded something called the “Indie Music Society” because I wanted a gang to be part of. The indie stuff that most of the members were into was not the indie stuff I was into, though. I was the country guy, listening to the Jayhawks. There was always an element of me being off to one side and sometimes I felt a bit odd. Now, americana’s had such a moment and is flowering and there’s an even an americana chart. it’s very visible in a way that it wasn’t a few years ago. Back in 2000, it really had no head of steam at all.
With artists like Blitzen Trapper and Bon Iver overhauling their sound, do you feel that the “Pitchfolk” ship has sailed?
There is a flowering of creativity and then, these exciting or interesting things like Fleet Foxes arrive. Then, the money men arrive and just deck anyone out in a denim jacket. There are a lot of those kinds of bands happening – people with hats on for no other reason than it sells. When I was first attracted to this music, it wasn’t mainstream, but there’s something about it which makes it perennial. It’s endlessly refreshed in various subtle and often quite gradual ways.
It’s been four years between this album and your first – “Young Man’s Game”. How is this one different?
I just threw everything at my first album – there’s the euphonium, trumpets, backing vocalists, banjo, piano – there’s a lot happening. Some of the musicians who worked on it said, “my bit got lost” when they heard it. I began to feel that the songs got a bit lost, too. For the second album, the watchword was space. I didn’t want the album to be straight country or americana either. The last one had lots of that on it and although this one is still basically in that pocket, I’ve curled the edges a bit. Instead of using a lap steel I’ve used a synth. Instead of using a Mandolin, I’ve put a viola on there.
It’s called “Great Novels”. Is that you showing off?
I’m no good at album titles, so I always just pick a song title and make it work. I read a lot of fiction and the thing that strikes me about novels is that you can go back again and again, because they’re very rich. I think a song is a miniature novel – an attempt to tell a story as well as evoke a feeling
What was the recording process like?
I agonized a lot about it because I’ve recorded all three of the previous records (the album “Young Man’s Game” and two EP’s – “Walk the Floor” and “On Someone”) at place called Blue Whale studios in the Custard Factory in Birmingham, and I’ve developed a great relationship with the producer there. He was in the process of moving premises when I wanted to make this record so I had to use somewhere else and I just didn’t know what to do. The relationship between the artist and producer is really important and going to a random producer didn’t feel right to me. I was doing a mini tour with Chris Tye, a singer songwriter I’ve known for years and he said “You should come to me – let’s do a tune. If you like it, we’ll do some more”. He has a little studio at home and it was perfect for what I wanted to do.
It sounds like you enjoy working with a producer
I am quite a collaborative person, musically and I just don’t think I have all the answers. On that basis, I love having a producer because there’s someone with you all the time, with whom you’re collaborating.
As you haven’t got a fixed, permanent band, do you draw from a pool of musicians?
Dan Todd, the cello player, has appeared on every single record I‘ve ever done. He lives in Bristol and I was recording in Coventry, so I wasn’t sure if he’d be able to make it to the sessions. I was really pleased when he could. When you work with someone for so long, they understand how you write songs and they can come in and do really beautiful things, which he did. I’ve got a double bass player, Marko Miletic who plays live with me a lot these days. He was obviously on speed dial for this as he’d already performed with me and written parts for a lot of the songs. Chris asked a viola player called Gary Doidge to play on “In the Ranks”. I wasn’t even at the session. Chris just pointed a microphone at Gary and said “OK, play E flat, B flat and C” and the guy clocked in this amazing solo and just lifted the song. I love that kind of thing.
Did you have a specific sound in mind when you were recording?
Nick Drake was mentioned during the recording, as was John Martyn, as was Fleet Foxes. Their first album has so much space on it. I wouldn’t say that what we’ve done is designed to be like them, but it was definitely inspired by them. The stuff I like from John is “May You Never” or “Solid Air” which are just, obviously classic. It’s clichéd to mention them really, but what makes them so special, other than the fact that John Martyn’s a genius, is that he was never afraid and sometimes overproduction is a sign of fear.
Who makes up a typical Dan Hartland audience?
I write songs because I just have to, so in that sense, my audience is me. The audience that I think would like my music are the people who are already listening to acoustic music and they may not even know it. Ed Sheeran plays acoustic music. but people don’t think that, because he’s so “cool” and well marketed. Now, there is no reason why someone who likes Ed Sheeran wouldn’t like some of what I’m doing. I imagine my audience to be people who like songwriting, that like acoustic music and aren’t too precious. Americana fans will like it. Folk fans who aren’t too rigid will like it and I think Indie fans who aren’t too worried about coolness will like it, because one of the things that I distrust is coolness. Brian Eno said that the problem with coolness is that it suggests a certain detachment. I’d like to think my music is at the centre of a Venn diagram, at the crossing of several genres. It does open up a lot of different gigging opportunities for me, so I can play indie bars and folk clubs. I worry sometimes that I don’t go as deep into folk or roots music as a people expect me to. I’m a bit more populist.
Everyone from Neil Young to Juliana Hatfield is writing politically oriented music at the moment, it seems. “Great Novels” seems to sidestep that. Was that a conscious thing?
I’m quite a political person and it sometimes bothers me that I don’t write political songs, but I never have. And I can’t. It’s easy to write a rant, but I’m not interested in that. It seems to me that if you pick a side it’s easier and I’m terrible at picking a gang. What I would say is that everything is political, so politics still finds its way into my writing. The album opens with a song called “Leaving Sodom”. It’s not a political song in the sense that I wrote it about personal relationships, but that’s what politics is. People have heard that song and drawn parallels with the situation in the US and the whole Brexit thing in the UK. The times are such that, it’s quite hard to be on the sidelines even if you want to be, so I guess it is a political record in places.
With the album all done and dusted, what’s happening for the rest of the year?
I’m doing a few launch gigs in March and I’m touring in April. I’m looking forward to playing these songs in front of people as there are a few that I’ve never played live before. April is going to be another solo tour and then, around summertime, I’ll be doing a little trio tour with a drummer and a bass player. In late Autumn, I’ll be looking to do another tour which I might do as a double header with someone – I can’t mention them yet! So, there’s three different tours, potentially and they’ll all be different.
The striking things about Dan Hartland are the depth of his love and knowledge of the music he holds dear and his desire to listen to and absorb everything else. Folk music isn’t really noted for its innovation – brows are still occasionally furrowed when drums and electric guitars are played amongst the fiddles and accordions, but Hartland has the good sense to remove the blinkers and embrace the 21st century. He hasn’t collaborated with Autechre yet, but you can’t rule it out…
Great Novels” is available now via www.danhartland.com
18/03/18 Cheltenham, The Cotswold Inn
07/04/18 Worcester, Paradiddles Cafe Bar
11/04/18 Cheltenham, The Bayshill
18/04/18 Edinburgh, Henry’s Cellar Bar
20/04/18 Stourbridge, Claptrap
22/04/18 Shrewsbury, The Wightman Theatre
04/05/18 Coventry, The Big Comfy Bookshop
13/05/18 Birmingham, The Wellington
22/05/18 Leicester, The Musician
23/05/18 London, The Harrison