Interview: Dan Whitehouse

Megan Fereday 7 November 2016

Birmingham-based Dan Whitehouse is going places, that's for sure. His self-made 'Black-Country soul' material has set him apart from his peers within the folk-soul genre throughout his career – yet, amazingly, he's maintained the time to use his craft to help disadvantaged young people as well, through his work as a community musician. I was able to catch up with him during his UK tour supporting fellow friend and songwriter Boo Hewerdine, to talk about the origins and production of his newly released EP 'That's Where I Belong' (now available on Spotify), and how his philanthropy has shaped his work up to now.

How’s the tour going so far?

DW: We’ve done almost half the shows, maybe twenty or so. It’s such a pleasure to tour with Boo Hewerdine. I’m pleased to say that many of the gigs have sold out!

How did you meet Boo?

DW: Last summer I was signed to Reveal Records; he’s been on Reveal for about 10 years. It was suggested that we might want to write some songs together, so I went down to Cambridge to his studio and on the first day we wrote three songs, two of which made it onto my record! 

What’s it been like to work with a bigger band?

DW: This new album is probably the most musically ambitious and expansive album to date. I had an eight-piece band playing live in the studio, the majority of which were members of a band from London called Danny and the Champions of the World. They’re a country-soul band. We worked on the songs together – we were keen to capture the feel of live performances, rather than using the modern method of building tracks up and doing lots of post-production processing. We just wanted to capture good vibes and good moments.

So how’s this new sound grown out of your previous, more stripped-back material?

DW: Well, playing music is always an emotional experience for me. I’ve tried to remove the magnifying glass from the process and just communicate the message of each song to my audience, whether that’s the listener at home or the audience in the theatre. In the four albums I’ve done in the last ten years, I’ve gradually got closer to refining my own art making process, if you like, to the point where I now know how I want to do things.

Is your collaboration with the band going to continue into the long-term, do you think?

DW: It works for me to have parallel things going on. Despite the record having this full, expansive sound, I’m playing solo most of the time! As a songwriter, that’s my barometer: I give each song that test to see if can stand up on its own without any musical accompaniment. It’s a test of the strength of a song, if it can do that.

In between your tours you work as a community musician; what’s that like?

DW: I use music in a therapeutic way to help vulnerable groups of people. I do songwriting workshops – we set up in an arts centre weekly and do shows and recordings. Right now I’m working with a band of teenagers with learning difficulties – they write their own songs, and I record and produce them. I also work with a group of foster children, who’ve called themselves The Bad Habits! It goes without saying that a lot of these children have, in such a short time, had very dramatic experiences, and have quite a lot to write about. Songwriting can be really cathartic for them.

How long have you been involved with it?

DW: I was lucky – I was introduced to this work in 2002 by a teacher at university who was part of it already, when I was doing my thesis on music in education. She set me up in a primary school in North London. We did songwriting workshops with these little kids, and we’d give them themes – my favourite was when we went to London Zoo and did a show for the animals, the animals were the audience!

Has it informed your songwriting in any way?

DW: Yes. Through that work I’ve met some remarkable and very inspiring people, and I’ve also heard some tragic stories and it really puts things into perspective for you. You realise how lucky you are, and it makes you realise the importance of compassion within society – the role that music can play. It’s really important to stop and listen to one another. A lot of people need to express what they’ve been through and need their problems acknowledged. Those experiences and that work have shaped who I’ve become.