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Ahead of his gigs in Norwich and Halesworth Tony Bell had a chat with banjo player Dan Walsh about his new album ‘Verging on the Perpendicular’ and the background to some of the tracks on it.
It has been a while since we last spoke -what have you been up to in the last two years?
A lot of driving, a lot of playing the banjo, a lot of sleeping in hotel rooms. I have been with the Urban Folk Quartet as well as my solo stuff so we have been touring pretty extensively. UFQ released an album at the back end of last year called ‘Live 3’ which is a live album, obviously – so we have been touring that and I am releasing an album this year called ‘Verging on the Perpendicular’.
And I have been enjoying the album in the car on my travels. It is a very relaxed album, is that what you set out to do?
I don’t know whether I particularly set out for relaxed. One thing I found was that ‘Incidents and Accidents’, my previous album, there were quite a lot of songs on that album because I’d been writing quite a lot about various things and the material ended up towards the Americana side of things – a bit more than the Scottish and Irish side. But after touring that album I was really getting back into playing jigs and reels, that was the original reason I took up the banjo. Irish folk music was my first love really.
There are a few trad sounding tracks on there and there is a traditional song that I first heard when I was four, that I have been wanting to do a version of all my career and for some reason the moment never arrived until now. It is a track called ‘The Suilin’ – which is a little stream in Ireland that nobody has ever heard of!
Like I say I didn’t particularly set out to write a relaxed album but I did set out to write an album that re-visited those roots a bit more. And I suppose the fact that the album is so solo-ee, it is that much more stripped back I suppose.
On ‘Funky Haystack’ you seem to be having an awful lot of fun with that banjo.
(Laughs) Yes, it is a little bit of a Dan trademark that sort of funky banjo thing. It is something I have dome quite a bit of off and on.
For those of us not gifted with an ability with any instrument, is that a difficult tune to play?
It is not the easiest tune to play, trying to keep up the funky percussion – I hit the banjo an awful lot of that track. Trying to keep that constant drum effect going as well as the tune is always a little bit of a challenge. The minute you take some of the percussion out I think you do lose that effect. It was difficult from that point of view, but I think it is one of those things that because I wrote it in the style that I play, it doesn’t necessarily fell that difficult. There are an awful lot of banjo tunes that I would struggle to play because I didn’t write them and they are not naturally the kind of think I would play.
Can you explain to be the background to ‘What You Don’t Have’?
I guess its about the whole thing of being a musician. It is a very strange thing where I have quite a lot of conversations with people when they tell me how lucky I am to be doing what I am doing and how much they wish they were doing that kind of thing. I often replay that, yes, it is, sometimes but at the same time I never have any idea whether I’m going to have a enough work or not. Whether I’m going to have enough money or not. I am constantly presenting something that is very personal and there is a pressure from that as well. And I am never at home which I don’t regard as good thing – I actually quite like to be at home a bit more than I am. We often have these conversations where the grass is always greener if you like – yes I’d like to have a fixed salary at the end of every month but in reality if I had I’d be bored!
Looking at your tour dates you seem to be constantly on the road – do you ever get tired of gigging?
To be honest I don’t think I have ever tired of performing and of being on a stage. I think I always loved that and I get the same buzz off that now as when I first did it. I immensely tire of travelling – if I could click my fingers and be in the city I am performing in than click my fingers again at the end of the show and be home again then yes I would love it all. There are exceptions – when I am abroad I enjoy the travelling more – for example in New Zealand because it is fun discovering new places. Being stuck on British motorways doesn’t excite me in quite the same way!
Was ‘Going to the USA’ really that bad?
I have never really written a comic song before. When that whole visa saga happened, which as I am sure you have worked out from the lyrics, it was back in 2015, my first trip to the USA. Their visa system is unbelievably complicated, and this was all pre-Trump! It was genuinely one of the most stressful weeks of my life. I was having to re-arrange gigs which, as a musician, you never want to do – you always feel that you will get there somehow, but I couldn’t go without a visa so I had to re-book flights, staying in London in case my passport turned up. So having gone through all this I felt there had to be a song in this – something good has to come out of this! When I wrote it I though it would just be a live thing – a story to tell at a gig. I wasn’t sure it would be an album thing. When I was playing material to Mark the producer of this album, we were choosing which songs would be on the album and he absolutely loved it. But it was six verses long so we have condensed it!
The place where it went down best was Canada – they thought it was hilarious. I am going to the US in May this year – I have got a visa, it is all sorted. But I am less likely to play that song!
I am reading all sorts of things into the penultimate track on the album ‘Out of Here’ – but lets hear it from you, what is the background.
The long and the short of it is I went to Canada in June last year. I had a really great time and during the trip I walked into a couple of pubs and things and I found that people were so friendly. Not in an overbearing sort of way, they were just very relaxed about the fact that I was clearly not local and they didn’t know me was no kind of issue at all. I found sometimes in other places where people regard a stranger, someone from outside their bubble, as a scary thing. They are instantly suspicious – especially when I stay in places I normally have an instrument with me and people stop and stare as if I’ve walked in carrying a dead dog or something.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to us Dan.