Whilst The Literary Sisters is primarily a literary blog, I have always shown my love of music here, what with curating various playlists and posting music videos twice a week. I am always struck by those musicians who are passionate about their craft, and who write wonderful, thought-provoking lyrics which really strike a chord within me. One such musician, Dan O’Dell, formerly known as Dropout Dan and who now writes and performs under the name of Heartwork, has very kindly agreed to be interviewed.
Your newest EP, ‘Coloured Out’, came out at the end of last year. Every song drips with emotion. What influenced you to write it?
Well I was at the back end of getting over the break up of my most “serious” relationship I had been in. So it’s definitely more retrospective of the months that had come and gone, rather than writing from the point of view of a self-loathing mess that’s going through that period of time. The first EP ‘Five’ is coming from that point of view and I like how contradictory they are to each other. Almost like two different people writing about the same things but both have a different standpoint on the situation. On the one hand, ‘Five’ is the heat of the moment, sporadic knee-jerk reaction to a lot of things, whereas ‘Coloured Out’ acts as the more self aware, wiser statesman, so to speak.
It seems a very thematic work – was that deliberate?
There is definitely a theme to ‘Coloured Out’. What I will say is that even though the starting point to both EPs was essentially… going through some kind of horrible anxiety/panic attack episodes, leaving my job, breaking up, moving out, moving back home with my parents, sleeping on a couch, not understanding where I fit in life, not all the songs on both EPs are about the girl I broke up with. Sure, there’s hints of her throughout it, but I think they’re much more than just break up songs. There’s songs on them about getting in touch with people I hadn’t spoken to or seen in a long time. Making some bad decisions whilst influenced by those pesky critters Whiskey & the occasional Gin. But I think that even though at its darkest most self involved points, ‘Coloured Out’ is the light at the end of the tunnel. The mindset that says ‘OK, enough is enough. This happened. You’re here now. What’s next?”
What was the writing experience of ‘Coloured Out’ like?
The ideas of the songs had been floating around since I started writing ‘Five’ at the end of May last year, but none of them really came to fruition until around September time. I think that as I said before, ‘Five’ is very depressing sounding but it didn’t really give the whole picture and I really didn’t want to come across all “woe, is me” about it all, so ‘Coloured Out’ was my chance to shed some light on the other side of the story, which is essentially, “Yeah. I’ve been a bit of a self absorbed dick about things”. The song ‘I Went To Parts’ for instance is a song that had about six different rewrites, as the subject matter on that is the most revealing song I’ve ever written. To put it bluntly, it’s about this one particular week in October 2013 where I was left alone in the flat whilst ‘the ex’ went on a little holiday with a friend to France and I essentially didn’t go into work and didn’t leave the couch for four days. It was around the time I started getting tired of the whole Dropout Dan thing and there were many other things in my life that just seemed to be missing. I had been getting down since the August time and after taking some advice from select friends and family members, I went to the doctor’s and was prescribed antidepressants, which essentially made things a lot worse in the end. So that song is set in the doctor’s room, confessing everything to him. I think it might be my favourite song I’ve ever written actually, as on first listen, it sounds quite upbeat and happy. But when you dig into the lyrics it’s pretty much me falling to pieces in the listener’s ear.
What has the reception to the record been?
It’s been incredibly positive and it’s nice to know that some people have found a certain connection with it. I was worried that because of how personal the subject matter is that maybe people might have a hard time identifying themselves within it, but I guess we’re all a little similar inside.
Your first EP as Heartwork too, ‘Five’ is very personal. Could you take us through what inspired you to write it?
Well, the Sunday after said break up, I went and stayed at my sister’s house in Milton Keynes for the week, simply to get away from home for a bit. She was on holiday but my niece and nephew were there; they had college during the daytime so I pretty much had the house to myself. I watched a lot of Friends, American Dad, Family Guy, etc., and ate a lot of cereal. Then by the Wednesday, it dawned on me that I had the first official Heartwork show in Cambridge that Friday and I had to write some songs. I already had a couple of new songs to play, but they weren’t really anything special. They were just things I had written in the transition from Dropout Dan to Heartwork. So I borrowed my niece’s guitar and it was really out of tune, but there was something about the way it sounded. I plugged it in to a tuner and tuned each string to its nearest note, and the sound was just lovely. From low string to high string, standard tuning on a guitar is E A D G B E but I was playing around with D G D F# A D. Despite playing guitar for about 11 years before that, this tuning meant essentially re-learning the instrument. None of the chord shapes I had grown so used to were relevant anymore. I had to start from scratch. Plus, there were no plectrums in the house that I could find, so I started finger picking, which is something I had dabbled with before but never really taken too seriously. All of a sudden the main riff for ‘Midnight Calls’ was there, so 50% of the battle to writing new material was won. The next morning at around 3am, I wrote some lyrics on the notepad app on my phone about a conversation with someone that I hadn’t spoken to in a long time a couple of hours prior, and it just fit with what I had been playing the day before. From then on, the music/lyrics just came pouring out of me. The gig that Friday was awesome too. I did some drinking and had two kebab wraps. It was fun.
Which is your favourite track on the EP?
That’s a difficult question because ‘Midnight Calls’ kind of got this whole project off the ground and ‘She’ is the most fun to play live but, I guess I’d have to go with the final track ‘With Regards (These Letters)’. It’s a really horribly sad song to be honest, but I remember the day I wrote it. I was out in my garden with my Dad cutting the branches of the trees back. It was boiling hot and I was coming down from a few days of escapism with some of my best friends at 2000 Trees festival in Cheltenham, and I was starting to feel good about things again. Then I just started humming the verse melody for that song and came up with the words, “Where to begin, where do I start?” and the song kind of wrote itself from there. It was after I wrote/recorded that song the same day that I had finished the EP, and could draw a line under that sinking feeling that I had felt for a while. It was definitely a new beginning for me.
What was the writing experience of ‘Five’ like?
Looking back, it was incredibly therapeutic. There’s a great phrase that Justin Vernon of Bon Iver uses when he talks about the writing process of the debut album ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ where he says that writing those songs was a way to excavate his emotions around a particular timeframe and let them come up to the air and breathe. I certainly feel that way about ‘Five’. Even though the only song on that E.P. about the break up itself is the final track, there’s a lot of referencing certain things that had been going on in my life around the songs that I wasn’t really sure how I felt about until I listened back to them. I surprised myself a few times and really got to understand myself a little better because of it. I also feel that way about ‘Coloured Out’. For instance, ‘The Apple Tree’ sounds like it’s about someone else, and when I started writing it, it was; but in hindsight, the main protagonist of the song is me.
Was ‘Coloured Out’ a natural transition from ‘Five’ for you?
I think so. I could’ve easily recorded another EP that sounds just like ‘Five’ but I wanted to add a bit more colour to it. Again, the song ‘I Went To Parts’ has more of a full band feel and I like the contrast between the really personal, self-involved lyrics and the wholeness of the musical arrangement. There’s also a song on there called ‘Cold Coffee’ which is about a subject I never thought I’d write about. It’s a confession about a few things that are probably best left unsaid, but after a particular night in November last year, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut any longer.
You’ve just moved to Cardiff. Are you finding that your new surroundings and transition in life are influencing your music? How?
Funnily enough, I am. I don’t know what it is really. It might have something to do with the fact that nobody here knows me. There’s no preconception about me. Literally everything here is new. I was talking to my housemate about this a week or two ago over some rum & cokes and I said that “I’ve never felt so content before in my life”. It kind of shocked me as I said because it just kind of came out, but I definitely meant it. He grinned and said how happy he was to hear that.
You’re now writing your first full-length. How does the process differ to writing an EP?
So far it’s differing in a big way. I’ve already thought of most of the titles to the songs and am kind of writing words and music to go with the titles rather than the way I normally do it, which is the other way round. I have about 3 and a half full songs written, and so far the demos I have are sounding like a good progression from the last two EPs.
What has inspired you this time around?
Well it’s safe to say that the catalyst to this whole new life is all the things I went through in 2014. It wasn’t my best year by any means, but it got me to a point where I was ready to leave everything I’ve ever known behind. It brought me here and already I’m looking at things differently. It most certainly isn’t going to be a break up record, however!
Does the music you’re working on now come from a good or bad place?
I think that to have the good, you’ve always got to have a little bit of the bad. I’m probably a pessimist when it comes to most things in life, so the way I view the world is a little tainted by that and my stupid brain, but what I’ve got so far is quite cleansing. The first song I’ve written for the album, for instance, is a song called ‘Water’ and it’s about how easy it is to choose to self-medicate, or how quick I’ve been to slip back into old routines and put myself in similar situations, but at then end of the day something as simple as a glass of water can refresh your outlook and make you think “enough is enough”.
Will we see your lyrics moving away from the heartbreak of ‘Coloured Out’?
I think so. Just before I moved out here, I took the opportunity to clean the air with my ex. She’s not a bad person by any means, and I didn’t want to leave with a bitter taste in my mouth about anything back home. In all honesty, yeah, it wasn’t the best of situations, but we’re adults and can move on. She’s still a fan of mine it would seem, and I know that she’d want nothing more than for me to continue making music and finding happiness in whatever way I can. I think that there will always be a hint of her in some of my lyrics though, as this project wouldn’t be in existence if it wasn’t for what we went through.
Where do you see yourself in ten years time, music wise?
10 years ago I was still learning guitar but also still trying to write a rap album under the name DODELL. I wish I was joking. I am not. So who knows? In 10 years time I could be repairing people’s hover boards in what used to be Argos before the self-serve machines gained human emotions and started an army of self-serve robots that enslave the human race who now travel exclusively by hover board. Ask me again in 10 years.
Are there any projects in the pipeline which you can tell us about?
Myself and my housemate Chris used to play in bands together back in the day. He was also my bassist whenever I did a full band show as Dropout Dan, so since we moved in, there’s already been a few nights where we’ve just set up the guitars, had a few drinks and recorded some ideas. Nothing’s really set in stone, but we will be looking for a drummer at some point and look at booking some shows. Completely separate to Heartwork though, by the way. Something a little more technical and a lot more noisy. I’m also still working on a technical, instrumental metal album under the name Glitterskin, but that’s really taken a backseat at the moment what with everything that’s been going on recently. Whenever I have a spare five minutes, I’ll try to get something written for that, but it’s just not a priority at the moment. When the time comes, there’ll be more news on that!
When did you first start writing songs?
I had always toyed with the idea of writing songs from a very early age. There’s footage of me in my living room growing up with an old Casio keyboard just banging the keys and singing things horribly out of tune. It wasn’t until I was about 11 and I got into Eminem that I started forming full songs. Rap songs however. I’m probably the least gangster person you could ever meet, so I had absolutely no business whatsoever dying my hair blonde and writing songs about things that literally make no sense whatsoever, but I did! On the one song that I actually recorded properly called ‘DODELL IS ME’, I somehow managed to come up with the lyric “Spitting rhyme lyrics through bullet holes. I’m not in royalty but I’m Prince Charles”. To this day I still have no idea what I meant by that, or how I had the audacity to rhyme “Holes” with “Charles”. I like to think I’ve come a long way since then.
Looking back, are you happy with your first efforts?
No. I’m absolutely mortified.
‘Coloured Out’ is available exclusively from Bandcamp
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Watch out for part two of the interview, plus a special making of the ‘Coloured Out’ EP video, tomorrow.