Dan Walsh is one of the UK’s finest clawhammer banjo players currently touring his solo album The Same But Different, and as part of the award-winning outfit, Urban Folk Quartet.
What started your interest in banjo; a lot of guys seem to play acoustic or electric guitar first?
I did start on guitar, but for as long as I can remember I wanted to play the banjo. I started when I was about seven, and I got very keen on traditional Irish folk music, and I heard a lot of tenor banjo players; people like Gerry O’Connor, Barney McKenna, and it was seeing Barney McKenna playing that inspired me to take up the instrument. I was lucky because my banjo teacher was a real inspiration, and I think that is so important for young musicians starting out with an instrument. You need a good teacher to get your enthusiasm going.
Was the transition to banjo difficult?
It was quite difficult because I was taught clawhammer banjo which is a different style from acoustic guitar playing, so it was a bit odd for the first few lessons. Once I got the feel of the style, it felt very natural. I think all musicians find their missing voice, and that was mine. Clawhammer banjo is a very different way of playing even to a standard banjo picking technique but, as I said, once I got my head around it, it felt like the right style for me, and I always get a lot of pleasure out of playing.
What model of banjo are you playing?
I play a couple of Deering Sierra banjos which are really excellent instruments; one mahogany, and one walnut. The mahogany works really well for the Irish folk music I play, and for the traditional Indian music that I play. The walnut Deering has a brighter tone, so it fits well with the funky upbeat material. Deering is an excellent company, they have been very supportive of me, and I love their banjos – they have a fabulous rich tone to them.
Do you remember your first gig?
I played when I was 13 in a pub in a Shropshire village where my grandparents lived. It wasn’t a gig really, just that my grandfather persuaded the landlord to let me play for a bit! My first proper gig was at a pub in Stafford called Joxter Brady’s, it’s just changed its name to The Market Vaults; they have a jam night every Thursday and I went along and I got invited to do a Saturday night gig – it’s still my favourite place to play, I love it.
Then you made the decision to turn music into your profession…
Yeah, and it was pretty scary! I moved into being a professional musician after university. When I left the duo I was with, Walsh and Pound, I was wondering what I was going to do, but then I got invited to tour with Seth Lakeman, and I played on a Levellers single, and got a load of solo gigs booked, so I was okay. Musicians need to remind themselves that what they do is absolutely amazing. So many people do a job they are not too crazy about to pay the bills, and I am able to write and play music, and travel and that is my job; it’s also my all-consuming passion.
Where do you get your writing ideas?
If you hope that inspiration will strike, it usually won’t! If you have to write to a deadline, and you try and force out something, what you get will probably be rubbish, but it does get the process going, and what comes after may well be something you can develop. I follow the news a lot – I blog, and write articles – so there are plenty of topics to write about, but the ones that affect me personally are usually my favourites. If you wanted a tune in 10 minutes, I could come up with something that would do the job; as far as songs to record, and play on tour go, I do like to take the time to get them right.
Do you ever get stage fright?
I didn’t think I did until I played some traditional music in India, and it dawned on me that I was playing Indian music, to Indian people, in India – that made me very nervous. Sometimes in a new country it can feel a bit scary because in England I can say things that may make the audience smile, or laugh, but those things don’t always translate to other cultures. I often feel more comfortable on stage than off it.
Do you have a favourite town to play in?
Stafford, definitely. I usually get to play the Gatehouse Theatre there once a year, and a lot of people who have supported me from the beginning will come along, and it is always a fabulous night, so I love coming home and playing in my home town. A close second would be Liverpool, I always have such a laugh when I play there, and there are a lot of very quick-witted people who come to shows there.
What do you listen to when you are not working?
I try to listen to music that is away from my genre. When I first started developing a funk style for clawhammer banjo, which is something I do a lot now, I listened to a lot of hip-hop to get the feel of the rhythms in my head. Even though hip-hop is not something I would really listen to for pleasure, it was fine to get that style in my playing. I do love Indian music which I listen to a lot now, and bluegrass I love, and I enjoy a lot of rock and pop music. I’ve got about 600 of my favourite songs on my iPod which I play in my car. I travel a lot, so it’s like having my own personal radio station that just plays songs I really like. I like music that challenges me, and listening from that perspective, and I also love listening to music that I can just hum and sing along to for the fun of it – that’s always a good way to relax.
What about your free time?
I’m not sure I really have free time as such. It takes quite a bit of time to maintain my blog for my website, and replying to people who are kind enough to write to me – I like to keep in touch with people. Then I am always thinking about new ideas for songs, and practicing, and sometimes that can be quite stressful. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love my job, and I am so lucky to be able to be a professional musician but the stress can be part of the downside you get with any job, but it’s fine – I am happy to deal with it.
Do you plan ahead?
I do, and I am better at it than I used to be. Sometimes, last minute things are good, like touring with Seth Lakeman. We were both hanging around in the green room at a festival, and he suggesting jamming on a couple of songs, which I had never heard and then he invited me to go on tour with him a week later! So, yeah, a bit of forward planning is good, but so is some random instant stuff as well. Next year is pretty much sorted out already, I am off to New Zealand in the new year, so that is really exciting.
Did your appearance at the London Acoustic Guitar Show increase your profile?
It did – it put my name out there a lot more because it is a very high-profile event. I found an audience in a lot of people who wouldn’t have generally sought me out, but they enjoyed my playing, and they have started following me and listening to my music, so it was a great opportunity for some networking.
Do you have a favourite song to play?
That’s a good question. I always finale with ‘Every Day Is A Better Day’ and that segues into my arrangement of a bluegrass tune called ‘Old Joe Clarke’ which gets faster and faster until it is ridiculous, which is always fun. Every musician wants a gig to work, and adopt the less-is-more attitude and not show up and show off, but it’s great to really let loose on ‘Old Joe Clarke’ and I love playing that as a show ending. It’s a bit silly and a bit crazy, but the audience always enjoys that.
Are you working with any other musicians at the moment?
Yes, I am. I have just joined a band called the Urban Folk Quartet, which I am very excited about. We are touring around the UK in April and May 2014, and I have some solo dates in March and April, so I look forward playing and saying hello to anyone who wants to come and see me solo, and with the Urban Folk Quartet. It’s going to be an exciting year!