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From Blues Boy To Next Big Thing: The Making of Dan Owen

Thursday, 23 August 2018 Written by Simon Ramsay

It’s easy to question the authenticity of any young musician who stirs up a super-sized buzz. Are they merely a record company’s latest marionette? Yet another superficial media darling destined for 15 minutes of fame? Dan Owen certainly generated significant plaudits before his debut album, ‘Stay Awake With Me’, had even been released, but the finished product revealed a special singer-songwriter who, after years of grafting for his shot at the big time, is being lauded for all the right reasons.

It may sound like a contradiction, but Owen’s something of a modern-day throwback thanks to a career trajectory that’s been shaped by a combination of old school values and contemporary technology. On one hand, he’s a dyed-in-the-wool gigging musician who started playing regularly in pubs, backing his sister on guitar, at the age of 13. After she left for university he stepped up to the microphone himself and, armed with a soulful, weathered voice, made it his mission to play across the length and breadth of the UK.

Although paying his dues like a vintage troubadour, when the youngster’s big break came it was, ironically, courtesy of two present-day mediums by the name of YouTube and Reddit. An audience member filmed and uploaded a video of the singer, who was still a teenager at the time, covering Bob Dylan’s Ballad of Hollis Brown.

That incendiary performance went viral and triggered a dizzying series of events that soon saw Owen rubbing shoulders with some of the greats, recording in Nashville and being mentored by a certain drumming legend. Owen cemented his artistic credentials by refusing to hastily cash in on that early success. Instead, he took the time to find and develop his creative voice.

Expanding on some early self-released EPs, ‘Stay Awake With Me’ boasts some exquisitely crafted cuts that, through a combination of pop, rock, ballads and blues, tackle subjects such as drug abuse, domestic violence, death and heartache with class and confidence. We spoke to Owen about his colourful journey, where he sees his career heading after such a strong opening statement and what it was like to be at the best birthday bash ever.

When did you discover your voice?

It just kind of happened and it wasn’t as controlled as it is now. I started singing in the pubs and everyone seemed to really like it. I sang at my first pub, which was the Star Inn down in St Just in Cornwall, because I was on holiday and nobody knew me. We were playing there anyway, I was backing my sister, and was persuaded to have a go at singing. Prior to that I’d just been singing a couple of songs in my bedroom.

The reaction to your performance must have been something of a revelation, because many of us sing in our bedrooms and that’s definitely where it should stay.

That’s why I was unsure about it because I didn’t know. I was so young. I was only 15 or 16 when I started doing that, so was the youngest in the pub, but everyone was really supportive.  I went back to my tent, because we were on holiday, and I literally couldn’t sleep because I was so excited. I’d drive around with my family to find other open mic nights to play after that and it never stopped from there.

What did the pub circuit teach you, in terms of things like craft and values?

I started doing 150 to 200 gigs a year from when I was 16, 17. When you’ve played in pubs and everyone’s really drunk and falling over, knocking the PA speakers over, fighting and jumping on tables, which some of them were, you get to know [how to handle it]. I like it when people are, not talking, but are really lively and are shouting stuff out. It just makes the gig. If you make mistakes on stage it teaches you how to deal with them. I make a load of mistakes but if you snap a string, just make it a part of the whole thing. When people ask me ‘How do I become a musician?’ I always say go to the pubs and play as much as you can.

Tell me about the circumstances surrounding your breakthrough.

When I used to go gigging my name was ‘Blues Boy Dan’ and I played loads of blues clubs, pubs with blues nights, boats doing blues cruises and the new blues awards. Everything was blues. Then someone filmed me playing the Ballad of Hollis Brown and put it on YouTube. It sat there for a month or two, got 700 views, and then I woke up and it had got 25,000, and then 50,000.

By the time I went to the gym and back it was 70 to 80,000, then 120,000 by lunch time. It was crazy. I never recorded at home or did videos, I was never that sort of musician. I was always just a working pub musician so didn’t really know what was happening. I remember sitting with one of my mates and we were trying to work out what had gone wrong with YouTube.

On the back of that career changing event a number of great things happened for you. One of which was recording with a top-notch band in Nashville. Why didn’t things work out at that point?

I was 20 when I went out there but, looking back, that was just too soon. I’ve written, it can’t be far off 200 songs, to get the songs on this album and back then I just needed to write more. If I went over now I’d get amazing results.

I have to ask about a particular birthday party you went to during that sojourn.

That was my first ever trip abroad and I had to get a passport quickly because I didn’t have one. I was with Vance Powell, who was producing the songs, he came into the studio and said ‘Do you want the good news or the bad news?’ I said ‘I’ll have the bad news’ and he said ‘I can’t record on Thursday. The good news is because we’re going to Willie Nelson’s birthday and I’m recording it.’

I was in a little room with 60 people and then Willie Nelson came out and started playing. That was surreal because I used to play at the pubs, and on the Andrew Marr show, a song called Roll Me Up and Smoke Me, and it was the first song Willie played. So that was really cool…and then he brought Norah Jones out, Ashley Monroe, Jamey Johnson and Sheryl Crow. I was just sat there thinking ‘What the hell’s going on? Is this what abroad is like?’ And then he got Neil Young to come out and play. It was insane. Jack White was just walking around. It was mad.

Mick Fleetwood has mentored you too. What’s the story there?

That was when the YouTube video started doing really well. He got in touch and, the next thing, I was in the Borderline in London, in the middle of the day, just playing to Mick Fleetwood. The first thing he said was ‘I know you already because I’ve seen some of your videos online.’ I instantly felt really comfortable. He rang me up and I was on the phone to him talking about what I should do with my career. He had an insane amount of stories about early Fleetwood Mac and Peter Green and he was telling me everything to do and not to do, and he’s done everything you shouldn’t do.

With your background in blues, when it came to shaping your own identity as a creative artist, what stages did you go through to develop the sound we hear on the album?

Because I was playing blues all the time everyone that came and watched me would see me as a blues artist. But when I was at home I was listening to a little bit of everything: metal, EDM, pop chart stuff. When I started writing the songs it wasn’t a shock to me that they weren’t straight up blues, but I think everyone else found it a bit like ‘where’s Blues Boy Dan gone now he’s doing this other stuff?’.  

I was always listening and playing the other stuff, I just wasn’t playing it in front of people much. I had to move away from 'Blues Boy Dan’ just to show that I have, not changed as a musician, but kind of have changed now I’m actually writing my own songs and doing my own thing. I still get the odd message from someone who doesn’t like that, but I really like these songs I’m writing now.

What Is A Man kicks off your album with a glorious, uplifting bang. How did that track develop, because I imagine you weren’t playing it with a full band when touring?

That song has been around for four years. I wrote it with a friend who plays the trumpet, so we put in that trumpet line without thinking ‘Hang on, how am I going to do that live?’ I can’t afford to take a massive band out. So now there’s the acoustic version I do live and, when I play with a few others, there’s a louder band version too. I always try and make sure a song can be played on an acoustic guitar, as well as with a full band, and still sound good.

What can you tell me about Hideaway?

I had this accident years ago. I was trying to be a carpenter when I was 16 and a piece of wood hit me in the eye. So, I can’t see properly anymore. After that happened I had post traumatic stress, I was in and out of the hospital every day and then week, and I did kind of hide away. I didn’t do a lot. I was a bit mental I suppose, probably still am. I was trying to stay sane for a few months and just hid myself away. That song was looking back on that time and there are two completely different versions of it. There’s the acoustic picking version and the big rock song.

There are lots of singer-songwriters who rely on the fact they have a strong voice, but when it comes to songwriting they don't delve too far beyond one-dimensional love songs. Did you consciously want to go deeper with your writing?

Yeah, a song like Stay Awake With Me is about losing my grandad at the beginning of the year. When I first wrote it I almost didn’t want to put it on the album because it was just my song and something that helped me get over it. It wasn’t until I wrote and recorded that song that I felt I had accepted what had happened. I’m going to be singing these songs for at least the next year when touring the album so you’ve got to write about stuff that matters and you need to connect to them. All the songs are about things that happened and, when you sing them, that’s your little moment where you can think about it and the only time you allow yourself to be in that place.

The album’s a great introduction to you but also promises much more to come. Have you given any thought to how you want your music to develop?

Yeah a lot, especially in the last two weeks. I’ve been listening to some of the old demos and I’ve already got album two in my head. It’ll kind of go back into more of the roots stuff I used to do because, when we recorded this one, I hadn’t played with a band very much. Now I’m playing these songs with a band more there’s things I’d like to put into an album, thinking as a person that plays in a band. Little things I think will be great live.

What do you hope to achieve with your career and what does success look like to you?

Because I’ve always been a live musician, if I can get to a point where I can go and play around Europe and sell 800 tickets that would be an absolute dream. If I could do packed venues anywhere in Europe I’d be well happy. If more happens I’d obviously take that, but that’s what I’d love to do now.

‘Stay Awake With Me’ is out now.

Dan Owen Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Thu October 04 2018 - LIVERPOOL Leaf Cafe
Fri October 05 2018 - KENDAL Kendal Library
Sat October 06 2018 - NEWCASTLE Cluny
Mon October 08 2018 - EDINBURGH Mash House
Tue October 09 2018 - GLASGOW King Tuts Wah Wah Hut
Wed October 10 2018 - MANCHESTER Deaf Institute
Fri October 12 2018 - LEEDS Wardrobe
Sat October 13 2018 - BIRMINGHAM Castle and Falcon
Sun October 14 2018 - BRIGHTON Hope & Ruin
Mon October 15 2018 - BRISTOL Louisiana
Wed October 24 2018 - LONDON 100 Club

Click here to compare & buy Dan Owen Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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