Let me ask you a question, reader. Do you like Bob Dylan’s voice? Compared to, say, Barry White’s? Peter O’Toole’s? Tom Waits’? Morgan Freeman’s? Would you sit down and be a friend to him? Just to hear him speak?
I’m asking you this because, as an artist, Bob Dylan is surely one of the most famous soloists of our times: an artist who would typically turn up at a show armed only with an acoustic guitar and that sawdust voice. So what’s more important about Dylan – what he was saying, or how he said it?
Local folk musician Dan Southward is all about what he is saying, as I quickly found out during our discussion at Moor Newcastle East. I can’t help but feel like there are good things on the horizon for Dan’s understated talents, and I’m sure you’ll feel the same once you find out more about him.
How is working at The Lass? Good, good. I get to see so many bands come through.
I can't think of any other places to play for that variety of music. I've spoken to a lot of the artists coming through, and they all don't necessarily want to play where the best sound gear is – it's more important to play where the audience is, where the people are.
Definitely. The difference is in [The Lass’s gig organiser] Milli's work I think. She's so good.
I had a coffee with [local musician] Adam Miller recently. I was pretty downhearted about the whole situation, playing for nothing, getting nowhere. He looked at me and said it's taken him over 10 years to get signed. Success isn't what you get or how many people want to listen to you, or any of those things; success is when you're happy and set with your craft. When you're happy with what you're producing, and it's the best you can possibly do, that's when you've become successful. Connecting your head to what you put out.
I sat back and soaked that in for a few moments and thought how I'm nowhere near any of that. A lot of artists these days are all focusing on the return. Going off how many plays they get, whether they were the feature album of the week, how many people are at their gigs or whatever. Those things do indicate some scale of success, but I feel the stop work once they've 'made it'. Running with the trend until people stop coming to their shows.
It's more business. Exactly. Any of the great artists that I listen to never stop working. They're never working on just a project, they're always scribbling, writing down bits and pieces. They might go through and completely write 15 songs, just to get to one that they're happy with the direction of.
It's not uncommon for painters to have studios full of work. Some half-done, some not. That's one of the traps I fell into when I was younger; I thought once you started a song you had to finish it. It's not always the case. If all getting halfway through a draft does is inspire you to finish another song, or start a brand new idea, then it's served its purpose. I think a lot of songs are manipulated by the fact that the writer thinks they need to finish it in the one sitting. It's hard to have that control, the foresight to say that something isn't working right now, but it may one day. It's a never-ending battle.
I personally write the best when I'm sad, only because I don't feel like doing anything else. I end up spending a lot of my time sitting in my room.
Different mindset. Definitely. I find there's more conviction there. Whereas if things are going well, you're out having dinner, doing other stuff – living. I sometimes feel like I'm not pursuing anything because I'm enjoying myself. I feel like I'm elsewhere if I'm doing well. I'd rather socialise, go and see other bands and stuff like that. It's really when I'm in a lower spot, when I'm lonely and I've got time on my hands, that's when I write the best.
I feel like that's what other people connect to as well. I find there's two sides of conviction – you can have the lyrical side, as well as the melodic side. The tone in which you sing or play can really draw out feelings. That shiver when you go and see a big band and you've got a personal connection to their music. They play in the same voice the whole set, but that one song completely rocks you. That's where the conviction comes into it for me.
When I'm writing lyrically, I don't try and write anything too directly. If people aren't in that exact same situation, they can enjoy the music, but it won't hit them as hard. If you can create music in a vague way, however, that conveys a general message; losing someone, whether physical, in death, or in a relationship – it's that much more powerful to the listener.
I get so many people saying to me that they'd wish I would write happy songs, that I only write sad songs. But for me, I can only write what I feel strongly about when I'm melancholy, from a position of reflection.
It saddens me that the acoustic guitar and vocals isn't enough anymore though. Folk music, not necessarily these massive bands with five banjos and whatever. A genuine solo artist with space to move around in is as far as it goes for conviction for me. One mic, one guitar, telling stories, love songs, travelling songs and all these people sitting around drinking wine... That's the true artistry. My father introduced me to his taste in music, CSNY, The Band, it's all so raw.
And that's what you're chasing - the way you treat the music. Yeah definitely. Taking inspiration from something so small, and turning it into a work. I'm finding inspiration pretty consistently. As far as guitar goes, a lot of things sound like something that's been done before. There isn't a lot of room to move. So all the creativity is built on that, and that's difficult. Normally, the melodies and the words will come in around an idea on a guitar, for me anyway. To run in and belt out a vocal line and discover the guitar around that is tricky.
Would you say it's more about the melody or the lyrics? What comes first? For me personally, it's about melody. The notes that you sing and the notes that you play.
Does it come from a theme like heartbreak or loss? It's split down the middle. I'd either do a story song, where the melody doesn't necessarily change too much, four or five verses, and it walks you through something. It gives you a message. The other type is [one where] there's a melody that I play around with. Most of the time for me it's about love. It always seems to come out. A personal relationship, friends relationship, whatever.
I've been working with this new process recently that Justin Vernon would do. He would walk in to a studio with any instrument and just start something and start adding layers. He wouldn't know what it was going to sound like. They put everything together and whatever it sounds like, he'll sing over the top of. If you read the lyrics to any of his songs, none of them make any sense at all. His way is all about creating an atmosphere. It's so easy to identify his voice and sound because of the emotion he's putting into those instruments.
I've tried to write moving music, just on an acoustic guitar like that. It works, sometimes, depending on the audience and the venue. From what I see, people just aren't interested in that type of music anymore. The trend has shifted again.
So how are your gigs going? I'm finding a lot of the time it's the older generation that's the most interested in what I'm doing. I'll play in front of a whole crowd at The Lass, everyone is talking. But if I'm doing a dinner, covers, in the corner somewhere, I'll get cards and money thrown at me. They want me to come and play at their 50th. I'm wishing younger people would value it in the same way. There are guys running around town now that are amazing, so much better than me. You look at them and you have to ask – why are we all still here, playing to nobody? I feel like I've worked on something, and I'd like to share it with people.
What is on for the future? Currently Milli is putting together a tour for me, which is good. That'll probably happen around October. Looking to put a few of us local acoustic guys on the bill, [like] Nick Connors. Trying to get Jason Lowe, who I have to say is by far the best local musician going. He plays the most beautiful slide guitar you will hear. He sounds a lot like Ben Howard. The first time I ever saw him I was on the same bill at The Lass; we went down early and had a few drinks before. It was the first time in a long time that I've actually thought about pulling the pin on something. He had 40 people glued to him. He said he had five minutes left to play, and I was freaking out. I came up to him straight after and introduced myself. He played it down. Then I had to get up there. I was rocked.
So how did you get started? I knew you from around school, but you were playing drums back then. I started out as any kid does I guess, getting lessons on piano at the age of five. Mum was a piano teacher, so myself and my two brothers were roped into learning it, which I'm really grateful for. From there I grew up in the youth church, and I remember sitting there each week watching the drums. I remember I wasn't really there for God, because I was only six or seven at the time [laughs]. So I started getting drum lessons from there.
My grandfather was heavily involved in the Jazz scene back then. He was in Harry Tabernackle's big band. I can still go to The Dungeon or The Underground and Paul Isaacs or any other big jazz players will come through and ask about Mum. From there, Ben, my brother, was playing sax, Christian was playing bass, I was playing drums, Mum was playing piano and my grandfather would play everything – clarinet, flute, all kinds of things. I learnt how to sit in with a band from a very young age. I think that’s one of the most musical things I have to offer.
I do see you around filling in for different groups. Well, church was amazing for that. Every Sunday you'd be playing with a group of different people. Quite often they were train wrecks, and you've got to try to pull yourself out of that for the sake of the congregation. From there you meet other musicians around – they're playing in their own things. It's good because you meet them in church, but then you've got outside life too. I've kept a lot of friendships from there, but I got to a stage with the church... I had to move. There's a real narrow-mindedness that comes with it. Not with faith, but with religion. I struggled with that. I still have a great respect for what it is, but I moved out.
So around this time I was heading to TAFE, and then uni at the conservatorium, studying music and music business.
So where are you looking at going? I still feel like I'm underprepared. I feel like I should have 12 new songs with my new sound in it before I can get really started. My voice has changed a lot in the last few years. I've gone from singing these little folky love songs to a much bigger-sounding voice. My voice has dropped – I can actually grab people's attention with it. There's one song that I use as a curveball just to get people's attention: John the Revelator. It's an old, old biblical song. You play that, and anyone who wasn't listening to you before is now. It's all in your voice – it's not the guitar at all. It's that conviction, that declaring.
You can manipulate gigs however you want. You need to be able to read the crowd. You need to tailor the sound and lights to where you're playing, who you're playing to. You can throw out tester songs. If someone really good was on before you, you can pretty much walk right in and drive a truck straight through the gap that they've left. You can play something completely raw and emotive, and people will pay attention, because the silence was already there. Otherwise you have to hit them and grab their attention from them. It's a skill in itself.
I'm nowhere near where I want to be right now. Obviously victory loves preparation, so the more time I spend here doing what I want to do, the further I can get along that path.
For a taste of what Dan’s music is all about, follow his Facebook page (facebook.com/DanSouthward) or, better yet, get down to The Winter Warmer for one of our gigs. Your ears will thank you for it – promise.