Creaky hardwood floors, weathered bar stools, and shallow rock music drowning out the exertion of rain against old-fashioned lead framed windowpanes. “No smoking inside!”, a barmaid shouts across us to two middle-aged men sat in the corner of the pub while she slides us our drinks. Ambling over to a small secluded booth lined with eroded plush velvet cushions and carved initials on the dark wooden bench, selfishly immortalising the legacy of the booth’s previous occupants, singer-songwriter Dan Owen dives into tales of his mischievous but beloved grandfather and touring with his best friends.
After a short walk from the studio photoshoot with photographer Jessica Mahaffey and stylist Dee Moran, missing a pelting downpour by seconds, Dan is familiar with the mise en scène of a typical British pub. Engrossed in a world of pints and pool, frequently going camping, and of course, creating music - Shrewsbury lad Dan is a down to Earth guy with a striking ability to entertain penetrating narratives and give a richly charismatic and personal performance.
The rain ceases, yet the wind howls on the gloomy Wednesday afternoon. Dan describes the scenario framing Stay Awake with Me - the title track of his latest album released in late 2018, chronicling the romance between his grandparents. With a supportive family behind him, Dan went from playing the guitar while his sister sings in his music teacher’s gig breaks and plucking up the confidence to sing on holiday in Cornwall to releasing music with a label and touring Europe with sell-out shows in Amsterdam amongst others. Currently working on his second album, Dan is offering a rawness to his music, enabled by working independently this time around.
Who is Dan?
Well, I’m not a city boy. It’s a tough question… I think I’m different things to different people. I’d say I’m optimistic. I’ve got a lot of mates back home but a lot of them are from music because it’s all I’ve done for so long. Since I was thirteen, gigging is all I did. My friends would probably describe me as a bit of a drinker now and again. It’s kind of what we all do in Shropshire. I’m pretty into fitness, but none of us are really into clubs, although, you end up at them if the pubs shut. Pretty much pub and pool - I can hold my own but I’m not great, my mates play for teams so sometimes they win, sometimes I win. My love for playing pool is probably greater than my ability to play it. I’m trying to do this vegan month thing. I can’t find any reason but my girlfriend’s a vegan and I thought I should make an effort and try. It’s alright but she’s been doing it for years, so she knows what to do and she does loads of cooking so it’s great. I love cooking as well. All my meals are like steak and ale pie.
What makes you happy?
Just being at home makes me happy and going to the pub with my mates, coming back, having dinner, cooking for myself. But then, it’s like a whole different person when you’re out on tour, because I love it. It makes me mega happy when gigs are going well, it’s an untouchable feeling. We just did a tour of Europe and did the whole thing in a motorhome. Because I’ve toured so much, I wanted to do it differently, so I did it with two of my best mates and a motorhome. The three of us went all round Europe and did something like 17 different countries night after night, city after city, and it was the best thing ever. I could’ve done that and never stopped, I loved it.
Did you have a favourite performance on that tour?
The Amsterdam show was great because we do quite well there. It sold out which is always nice, and everyone was well up for it. Lewis plays keys and does photos and videos - we make vlogs of all the tours. James was selling merch and did all the driving and stuff like that. That was pretty cool, just the three of us. Rich, my manager, came out to a few of the gigs to check we were all still alive and get a good dinner down us. Cooking in a motorhome is quite tough!
Sometimes you can’t do too much rehearsing on tour because you don’t want to be singing all the time or else you’ll knacker your voice. I was trying to rehearse before I went on tour and then we were up to level, then hopefully from there you just get better and better.
What was your first gig like?
I remember the first time I ever sang, but not the first gig because that would’ve been 13 years ago. When I first started, my sister was a singer and I was a guitarist, so I’d just sit in the back and play the guitar and she’d do the whole singing thing. We started doing that when I was 13, we used to play in my guitar teacher’s break. He’d do an hour, and then she and I would jump up for 15 minutes and that would be our gig. That led onto open mic nights, we’d go doing all open mic nights in Shropshire, definitely every Monday. Then I started gigging and singing when she went to uni because I had no one to go out and play with, so I thought I’d give it a go. I was absolutely buzzing. That buzz doesn’t disappear unless it’s a tough gig. When the gig’s good and you get that buzz, it’s better than anything. It’s what you get addicted to, I think. When you’re on tour, and even when things go wrong on tour, I quite enjoy it.
Did you have any major problems on tour?
When you’ve got well over a thousand gigs under your belt, you know you have to leave loads of time because of delays and things going wrong. We got to one gig which didn't have sufficient PA, where we decided to do the gig with no PA. There was a piano that was 'in tune but out of tune' if you know what I mean. So, I had to de-tune my guitar to the piano, and then we did the whole gig. We went to the offices next door and found all their lights and put them on stage - it looked really cool in the end, it was one of the best gigs of the tour. It’s about adapting.
How has your style of music evolved?
When I first started singing and gigging around pubs for a living, when I was 16-17, all I used to play was blues - just blues covers, sort of deep-south blues from the 30s, 40s, and 50s. People used to call me ‘Blues Boy Dan’ which I cannot shake! It was always blues, now it’s pretty different. But I was always listening to all different sorts of music, like reggae and the charts stuff, folk music, country, EDM, metal - everything, all sorts. Honestly, my saved Spotify list is everything; there’s Meshuggah and then Miley Cyrus. When I started writing myself and played the songs I was writing, everyone found it a bit of a surprise.
How would you describe your music style now?
I’d say it’s roots music - folk-y. I guess the last album is kind of contemporary. The next album is going to be a lot rawer, a lot more real instruments. We’re three songs in; it’s an ongoing thing. We’re not going to put it out until maybe next year or the end of this one, but it’s happening. I’m really excited because I only did a one album deal with the label, so now this is just me doing this next record. I’m not with a label now which is a great thing - to be independent.
You also recently released an acoustic version of your album, what was the reason behind it?
When I’m playing live, it’s acoustic. The acoustic album is more what I do live. That’s why it felt more right to do it acoustically, as well as the big electric version. The acoustic version is more what people actually see on tour.
Which of your songs do you think best represents you?
I reckon ‘Call My Name’ probably represents me the best. My favourite one to sing is ‘Stay Awake With Me’ because it means a lot to me.
Your title track from your debut album 'Stay Awake With Me’ is an ode to your grandfather, were you close to him?
Yeah, I was always close with him growing up. But I was away - this is when touring can be quite rough because you’re away from home. I knew he was a bit ill, but everyone expected him to come out because he was in and out of hospital all the time. I found out over the phone that he had passed away. I was in Italy at the time and before I knew that he was passing, we knew that he was not going to wake up. I wrote the song because he and my nan were together for over 50 years, and I always found that amazing. The song is about that because they told us he wouldn’t wake up. The first verse is their first night together and then the last one is when she crawled into the hospital bed. It always means a lot to sing that one. He was in the army and her dad was in the army, so they met on a military base in Berlin at a dance thing and he impressed her.
What does your grandma think of the song?
She loves the song - the whole family loves the song. I was worried about the video, I didn’t know if they’d like the video because every picture in that video is a real picture. If you haven’t seen the video, it’s pretty much the story with actors and I’m singing in the background and she’s looking through photo albums. The photos in the albums are real photos, so it’s nice. I like the video, and the family see it as a bit of a tribute to him.
What is your favourite memory with him?
We used to do a lot of fishing and then we’d be doing up a boat. There was this one time, we were in a pub - it was the first place I’d ever sung - down in Cornwall. We were drinking together and he fell off his stool.
Was he a big influence in your life growing up?
Not so much growing up. It’s a long story - he was quite naughty - that’s what he would always say when we’d ask him why he was in prison. He’s a bit naughty but he’s a great old guy, he had a lot of stories. A lot of them came out at the funeral, it was great - all of us standing around hearing about all the old stories. He proposed to my nan through prison bars - he was let out to marry her and have one night. There are some great stories about him. He wrote a song for my nan but he wasn’t much of a songwriter. I’d like to get that song and put my spin on it.
How would you describe the mood of your album?
I wrote about 200 songs for it over three years, so it’s hard to know what the mood is like - it was so up and down. I was doing it with a record label, just writing and writing. You don’t know when to stop. You get a hundred in and you’re like; "right, that’s it", but then it’s never right, you always keep going. It’s your first album and you want your first album to be great. It’s sort of like a statement thing to say you’ve arrived, but it’s hard to know when it’s finished.
Is it easier or harder now you’re making the next album?
It has been easier because I’m not trying to impress a label. If I like it, I send it to Rich, and if Rich likes it, we go record it. That’s as simple as it is.
What will your next album be like?
More acoustic. More roots, more band in the room - everything real.
What does your writing process look like?
I don’t think I have a set process and I’m pretty happy with that. Sometimes I write with other people and friends and it’s quite nice to do. Sometimes I’ll get the guitar down and then start singing random words and humming random melodies, and that sort of finds something that you sing the most and sticks into one thing. Sometimes you hear words and you write the whole song and then you record it. Sometimes I get a guitar idea, record the guitar, and then just get behind the mic and make noises and add lyrics to that. Or sometimes, you’ll produce a whole track up and then you’ll write something. Sometimes you get the ideas and write the verse on the train. Just however it happens.
What does it mean to be ‘masculine'?
Just being able to look after yourself. I’m quite proud to know that I can live on my own, keep a place clean, cook for myself in a healthy way, and keep myself fit and healthy. I do washing and all those things people reckon were ‘girl jobs’ back in the day when things were all a bit weird. But then I like doing things that people would look at as being ‘masculine’. I’m going camping next week and I went camping a month ago in a field - going to the woods without a tent and just sleeping on the ground in sleeping bags when it’s frosty, cutting up trees with axes and saws, and lighting fires. I don’t know, I’m kind of masculine but I don’t see it as anymore masculine than others.
What's the best thing about creating music?
The best thing is that it keeps you sane - it’s a release. I’ve never kept a diary, but that’s pretty much what the album is; they’re all stories and stuff that’s happened in a way that other people can relate to. It’s just a release for me; it’s like a sport. I meet so many people through it and I go to so many places - it’s quite a way of life really.
What does 2019 have in store for you?
More writing. Start releasing tracks from the second album, and then trying to see what we can do in America. All the focus has been on Europe up until now, and now we’re going to give them Americans a go to see if they like it. If they do, happy days - if they don’t, I’ll stay over here. Hopefully festivals through the summer and tour towards the end of the summer, then it’ll be album campaign and get the second album out by early next year.