Road to recovery: An interview with Dan Wilson, aka Withered Hand
Moments before I’m due to meet musician Dan Wilson on Teams he sends me an email. He’s not used to using the platform and isn’t sure he’s going to be able to log himself in. He’s already provided me with his mobile number just in case, but when I log on there he is, a technological success in a bright Edinburgh studio, surrounded by guitars and other accoutrements of creativity.
Wilson, who performs – sometimes solo, sometimes with a band – as Withered Hand, has a new album out and, when we talk, is coming to the end of a mini-tour to promote it. How to Love, which includes songs with names like Feelings, Crippled Love and Misery & Company, is Wilson’s first album in nine years, the follow-up to New Gods, which itself was the follow-up to his 2009 debut Good News. Wilson is well known on the alternative music scene and Wikipedia tells me that both his earlier albums were acclaimed by at least one critic – the American journalist Robert Christgau. I’ve seen him play twice – once in Bristol and once in St Andrews – and both shows were a hoot, his bumbling self-deprecation and lyrical wit making him an instant hit with the crowds.
We’re not here to talk about any of that, though, but rather the reason for the lengthy hiatus in his creative output.
“Four years ago I went into recovery – I went into recovery fellowship,” he explains. “I thought I’d only be there for a little while – ‘I’m not going to be here with all these chumps’, or whatever – but four years later I’m going to several meetings a week still. It’s not been a straight line but it’s been like a doorway into another life.”
Wilson went into recovery because he was addicted to alcohol and drugs, but the starting point for all of that was his mental ill health, something he now realises was impacting on his life from a very young age. As a child he felt marked out as different because his family were deeply religious Jehovah’s Witnesses, meaning he was kept out of school assemblies and he and his siblings – a younger brother and sister – never had their birthdays acknowledged. As a teenager his parents went through an acrimonious divorce and split from the church that had been so central to their lives, with Wilson and his sister staying with their father while their brother was taken to a new home in a different town by their mother. The two sides of the family lost touch – “I regret that and have done some work to repair that,” Wilson says – but by that time his father’s mental health was so poor that when Wilson started an art degree at Middlesex University he was unable to leave home, instead staying to keep suicide watch over his dad. By the time he moved to Edinburgh as a 22-year-old in 1996, following the girlfriend who is now his wife, he was himself mentally unwell.
Performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2021
But it wasn’t until his friend Scott Hutchison – the singer in Scottish indie band Frightened Rabbit – took his own life in 2018, and his brother died of a drug overdose soon after, that Wilson realised he needed to get help.
“Scott was like a mentor and friend,” Wilson says. “He’d always been quietly supportive of my music – I’d notice him at shows and think ‘what’s he doing here, he’s well-known’. When he was doing his solo stuff in 2014 he invited me to tour with him in California and I always felt like there was a connection underneath everything that was very precious to me. He was a precious mentor for me. I wasn’t super surprised [to learn about Hutchison’s death]. I felt a really sinking feeling like a lot of people who were in his circle – we knew about his demons – but I’d aways had this feeling like I know where you are because I’m behind you on the slide.
“My brother pretty much burnt through all the addictions until he got to opioids. He had been experiencing periods of growth and recovery then he had an accident and was prescribed opioid-based painkillers and that was the last thing he could have possibly needed. Karl, he was really funny, he was great. On one side he was just a bubbly, generous, lovely guy but on the other he was a damaged child, like me.”
Wilson doesn’t think any one thing caused or triggered his mental ill health. He used to think it might have been because of the religious upbringing – “some of it may be that constant fear of obliteration being just around the corner, and damnation; I used to dream of Armageddon all the time as a child” – but is no longer convinced that that’s the case. He has definitely been impacted by the losses in his life – in addition to Scott and Karl, earlier in his life he lost two close friends, Tom and Paul, in tragic circumstances – and the rift with his mother has left a mark. But, looking back, he thinks mental illness was always going to be a part of who he is.
“The signs were there from when I was around 12,” he says. “I was violent at school and sometimes behaved inappropriately – that should have flagged that there’s something wrong with this guy. I was drinking when I was 15 and was taking drugs then too. If I’d have been at school now I would be flagged up as a child with needs. I score high on ACEs [adverse childhood experiences] – I have all the ACEs in my hand – but I didn’t know anything about that until recently.”
We laugh when talking about ACEs. It’s not a laughing matter, of course, but he’s a funny guy, so much so that I really enjoy a conversation in which we spend well over an hour riffing on issues as serious as suicide, loss, addiction and grief. Not so long ago Wilson couldn’t laugh, though, with his mental health so poor he was having suicidal thoughts on a regular basis. When he started attending recovery meetings it took him a year to even raise a smile. When he did, the entire group stood up and applauded him.
The lyrics on Wilson’s first album are shot through with humour. There’s the entreaty that the person he’s addressing in Cornflake wear their “sacrilegious undergarments” and the musing about what communion wine is for – “if it was Jesus’ blood wouldn’t there be more?” – in Religious Songs. By the second album they’d become darker, with Wilson singing in Heart Heart that when he listens to his own heart all he can hear is his “body dying” while in Life of Doubt he says he doesn’t want a mirror held up to him because “I know that state that I am in”. The irony in that final line is that Wilson didn’t really realise the state that he was in – he was too busy self-medicating with alcohol and drugs to notice. Other people did, though, and what Wilson was saying in the songs was helping some of them even if he wasn’t at that time capable of getting help for himself.
“What I noticed when I started to get more audience was that I’d be asked sometimes to play at mental health events,” he says. “At one event in Glasgow a few years ago, before I came out of denial, the chair was Richard Holloway [the former Bishop of Edinburgh]. After that event I was walking around my neighbourhood and I saw him. Because of that event we recognised each other and I said hello. He looked in my eyes and put his hand on my shoulder and said ‘own your compulsions’; he said, ‘you might be okay because you’ve got music’.
“I was walking home going ‘what just happened’. It’s funny because that does speak to something about how people have noticed that some of these endeavours, some of these ways of using your time and energy, can really be nourishing and be a positive connection to your own life and the life of the community you are in.
“One other thing that happened and one of the things that really helped signpost me to get help with my mental ill health, is I noticed in my fan base people would reach out to me and say things like ‘I tried to kill myself but your songs helped me’. One particular guy said that just before I got help. He said he could hear it in the songs. He’d survived a lot of tragic circumstances and was in long-term recovery. After a second suicide attempt he’d had a big turnaround in his life.”
When he got to the point of seeking help Wilson chose not to go to the NHS. When his children, now aged 18 and 21, were small he’d gone to the doctor because he felt depressed but, given that he was already medicating himself liberally with a range of substances, was put off when all that seemed to be on offer was more medication.
“The doctor was helpful but I said ‘what do they do, these medicines?’ and he said ‘instead of making you feel like you’re driving around in a Mini, they make you feel like you’re driving around in a Rolls-Royce’,” Wilson says, pausing so we can exchange a brief grimace-laugh. “I was using drugs and alcohol already so I thought I’d just leave it. My experience of the NHS is amazing. In terms of physical health it has been amazing. Mental health, I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s the way we are in the West, like chin up, badger on, but if we have perfectly physically healthy people killing themselves, what’s the point?”
Instead of going back to the health service this time round, Wilson started his recovery by Googling for local groups and asked the fan who said his music had helped him if he would take him to the gym. “I went from not doing anything about exercise to very gently going to the gym,” he says. “It was so scary to ask him but now I’m a regular runner. I can’t believe that. It’s impossible for me 10 years ago to recognise this.”
Activity, music, community – it all helps, Wilson says, but preventing people ever reaching a mental health crisis is the most important thing of all. He has raised money for Tiny Changes, the charity set up by Scott Hutchison’s family to help young people get a handle on their mental health, and sometimes attends men’s groups – sometimes with his teenage son – to try to understand why so many men end up taking their own lives and to see if he can help prevent that legacy repeating.
My experience of the NHS is amazing. In terms of physical health it has been amazing. Mental health, I don’t know
“Some of that is about making the transition from boyhood into maturity,” he says. “When I was young that meant getting absolutely smashed or maybe going to a strip bar or something. That gives an indication of where we are as a culture if that’s what we do when we celebrate a young man reaching maturity – ‘here’s the care package we’ve prepared for you’.
“I did a weekend that was sold as a mentoring weekend where we would learn to help the young men in our lives. I went with these other men thinking we were going to play frisbee in the park, which we did for a bit, but when we got to the actual process that they led, the floor by the end of the weekend was flooded in tears. There’s so much stuff that hasn’t been reckoned with or even understood. It really blew my mind, the amount of armour that we wear is unbelievable.”
When the Teams call is over Wilson emails me again. He’s just met his wife for lunch and she’s reminded him that he actually has five ACEs, not the three he’d thought. She knows about these things because she works in the education system, specialising in additional support for learning and child protection. Earlier, Wilson had said that one thing he’s taken from all his recovery meetings is that it is “easier to help a child than to try to fix a broken adult”; in the email he writes, “I mention the ACEs because nowadays hopefully children are getting more access to support based on these realisations, eh!”. I hope so too.