Thursday, 5 March 2015

DAN WALSH

Interview

If you don't believe in serendipity then the story of how Dan Walsh started his journey to becoming a world renowned clawhammer, five-string banjo player, who is considered to be the best these isles have produced, may just convince you.

Dan Walsh
Walsh, aged 27, from Baswich, Stafford in the West Midlands began his musical journey as a pre-teen enamoured of the guitar.
"I started playing guitar when I was about nine or ten and that was the dream, the guitar was where it was at, that is what I always wanted to do.
"But then I got into a lot of Irish and Scottish music and heard the banjo and thought I would give it a go, I never really thought it would become the main instrument - just an extra to the guitar, but within a year it was what I was best at."
This was where fate took a hand, along with the fledgling teenage player's lack of understanding about the instrument, and set him on the path to earning the respect of musicians around the world.
"Choosing the five-string banjo was a complete accident," laughs Walsh. "When I was 13, no one in Stafford really knew anything about banjos.
"I just heard it and thought I wanted to play it. I had no idea there were different banjos or different ways of playing them. I just fancied the sound.
"So my parents went to the local music shop and asked if they knew anyone who taught banjo, they were given the name of a guy from Cannock, George Davies. 
"I owe him everything. He was the best teacher I could have ever had. 
"When he mentioned teaching me clawhammer style it meant nothing to me, so I ended up playing five string and it wasn’t until about year later I realised I had ended up playing the wrong instrument. I realised the music and banjo I had been listening to was the tenor, but by then it was a bit late to change. 
"So then I had to find a way to play that kind of music (Irish/Scottish) clawhammer style which became something of a niche for me, so I can’t claim it was planned at all. But I am very glad it happened."
Walsh went on to study folk music at degree level in Newcastle upon Tyne which at the time was one of the few cities which were running such courses. In fact the course had only been running for five years when he earned a place as a student.
Walsh with his banjo
"It was a folk and music degree which was the only course of its kind, I think there was a similar course in Glasgow but that was very much focused on Scottish music.
"There were quite a lot of applicants, so they auditioned everyone to make sure we were all up to a high standard.
"I remember I did my audition to Alistair Anderson who is an absolute legend in English folk music. That was really daunting to start with, but I was totally blown away by the guy's enthusiasm. He was into his sixties by then but he was just so passionate about his music.
"He really liked what I did and I thought, I've got to come here."
"There was a fair bit of everything, certainly you were assessed on two instruments and on the history and context of music."
Walsh stayed in the North East for a couple of years after graduating before coming back to his home town. He may have been armed with a new knowledge of the music he was playing but his previous lack of understanding about the banjo has also been crucial in his development and enthusiasm for the keeping things fresh and experimental.
"I never really had a specific idea of what the banjo did when I took it up. I had never heard of bluegrass so I never really had the firm idea of what it could do, and I think that’s probably never really left me.
"It became a never-ending experiment and I felt there was so much that hadn’t been done with it that I could take it in new directions.
"I remember meeting some Indian musicians in London and the music just blew my mind. It just immediately struck a chord with me and I really wanted to study the music, and I play the banjo, so it never occurred to me not to do it on the banjo."
This has also spurred something of a crusade in the musician to bring more banjo music to the masses although he did have a wake up call to the fact not everyone is as enthusiastic about the stringed skin as he is, and to many it is still considered something of a joke.
"In some circles it does have a bad reputation, it has improved of late, but yes it’s still seen as a novelty. 
"I wasn’t aware in the slightest about this when I picked up the banjo, but to be brutally honest I was never really interested in what people liked or in what was cool, I like what I liked.
"I only became aware of it when I was playing in pubs when I was about sixteen and there were howls of derision; people talking about deliverance, it was at that point I became aware.
One of the outfits Walsh plays with
"One of the things I liked about gigs in pubs was to try and win people over, and to show the banjo could be used play a lot of things. Because it has always been associated with bluegrass that doesn’t mean it can’t be used for other styles.
"I enjoy introducing the banjo to people who probably would never have dreamed of going near it. It gives me a real buzz to introduce people to it and I still really enjoy that. It’s a big part of what I do, to bring people round to the whole banjo thing.
"I guess I am on a bit of a crusade, I never really thought of it like that because I want people to enjoy the music.
" I don’t go out thinking this is banjo music and YOU ARE going to enjoy it, but I do like to win people round."
So after his rather inauspicious start to banjo playing how does he feel about being lauded by some of the top musicians as probably the best clawhammer banjo player this country has produced?
“I am not going to lie, it does my ego no harm at all," he laughs with obvious embarrassment in his voice. "It’s always nice to get any kind of praise and if people think what you do is good then that’s always nice particularly if it’s from people you have always respected.
"At the same time I don’t let it go to my head too much, I don’t see it as a competitive thing because music is music.
"It’s very nice that people think of me like that but I don’t think am I better than other people, you just do what you do; learn all you can from all the different musicians you listen to and meet.
"I certainly don’t think 'oh well that’s good, I don’t need to improve any more', because you always can there’s always more stuff to learn."
His new album Incidents & Accidents is due out on March 16, and if you are a Paul Simon fan you can probably figure out where the title comes from. The album is very much a stripped back version of Walsh and his music so is he more comfortable playing solo or as part of a band or duo?
Walsh's new album
"I enjoy them both, but I have always had a fondness for playing solo, because when I first started gigging it was in pubs solo and I really enjoy the freedom that brings.
"If I feel the energy needs to go up or I want to slip in a solo I love the freedom to be able to do that and just have complete control over how you react with the audience.
"I play with Urban Folk Quartet and I love that too, I love bouncing ideas off the other members and you really get a buzz you can only get from playing with a band. So I would find it really hard to give up one or the other.
"With the album I am very pleased with being able to present a more stripped-back collection. I have been song writing a bit more and I have more life experience than my previous two albums so I have a lot more to write about, I have enjoyed that aspect of it as well as the banjo side."
"The songs tell a bit of a story of my life as it stands."

Walsh is playing two gigs in the Midlands this month one of which is in his home town so does it have a special feel for him?
"I don’t claim Stafford is the most beautiful or the most interesting place on earth but to me it’s always going to be special because it’s where I grew up; there are so many people here who I think the world of and have been very good to me. 
"Because I live the life I lead, which is quite a nomadic existence, I think it’s great to come back here to somewhere so familiar with such great people.
"I think when I gig at the gatehouse it just sums that up; it’s not often you get to play for so many people you know, it’s great gig and a great atmosphere and I always feel very honoured when I play in Stafford.
"That little venue, The Met, feels like a theatre but it also feels like your front room. It has a lovely atmosphere.
"It can be quite intimidating too, I don’t really suffer with stage fright, I do get a little bit nervous before I go on but I find before I play Stafford I get butterflies because I don’t want to get anything wrong, I want it to be special, so I do feel that pressure a little bit."

Dan Walsh performs at The Woodman Folk Club, Kingswinford on March 13. Entry is £6 for members and £1 extra for non-members and the show starts around 8.30pm. He then plays The Met at Gatehouse, Stafford. Tickets are £10 right across the board on March 17 and the show starts at 8pm. His new album Incidents & Accidents is released on March 16.