‘What kind of songs would we write together and what would they sound like?’ Find out when Kathryn Williams and Withered Hand play Selby and Otley

Kathryn Williams and Withered Hand’s Dan Willson: Playing Selby Town hall tonight and Otley Courthouse tomorrow

KATHRYN Williams is a prolific solo singer-songwriter but she loves a creative partnership too.

Her latest collaboration, with Scottish indie folk troubadour Dan Willson, alias Withered Hand, brings the duo to Selby Town Hall tonight and Otley Courthouse on Thursday to showcase their album Willson Williams, released on One Little Independent Records on April 26.

Already, Liverpool-born, Newcastle-based Kathryn has recorded 2008 album Two with Neil MacColl; teamed up with Anna Spencer, from the punk band Delicate Vomit, for The Crayonettes’ 2010 children’s record Playing Out: Songs For Children & Robots and made the 2012 album Pond with Fairground Attraction’s Simon Edwards and singer-songwriter Ginny Clee.

Add to that list her 2016 release Resonator, a set of jazz standards crafted over six years with jazz musician and vibraphone player Anthony Kerr; 2017’s Songs From The Novel Greatest Hits, to complement Laura Barnett’s novel about a fictional singer-songwriter, Greatest Hits, and her 2021 Christmas album, Midnight Chorus, recorded remotely in Zoom sessions with playwright and former Poet Laureate Dame Carol Ann Duffy.

“I’m a serial collaborator! Overall, it’s been 25 years of putting out albums, and I want to be someone who’s always learning, always happy sharing a creative process, always travelling on different roads,” says Kathryn, who turned 50 in February.

The partnership with Willson has its roots in a chance meeting in a spiegeltent at the 2019 Edinburgh International Book Festival, curated by Hollie McNish and Michael Pedersen.

“I thought we’d first met at Fence Collective festival in Fife, but Dan doesn’t remember that, so we say it was the spiegeltent,” says Kathryn. “It’s strange; we have loads of the same friends in the music business, like James Yorkston, Rachel Sermanni and Kathryn Joseph, so when he came up to say hello, I gave him a big hug because I felt I knew him already!

“I’d read that he hadn’t written or released anything for a while, so I got in touch afterwards, tweeting him: ‘What kind of songs would we write together and what would they sound like?’.”

Dan thought she must have sent it to the wrong person. Not so. Whereupon Kathryn travelled up to his Edinburgh house, with curiosity to find an answer to her questions but with no plans to write an album together.

“I just thought we could do a song for his new album or for someone else, but slowly we built this friendship over our writing, and then last year Dan put out his first record for nine years, How To Love [his first since News Gods in 2014]. It was our writing that got Dan back into doing his own album,” she says.

Kathryn and Dan continued travelling to each other’s homes for writing sessions, as he recalls. “We talk and spend time together, and then it’s almost like the next time we sit down to write, a synthesis of late-night kitchen conversations become distilled into the songs,” says Dan. “It’s hard to separate who’s done what and where the songs sprang from. The writing and the friendship with Kath rejuvenated my own songwriting process enough to be able to do this.”

Williams and Willson were boosted by receiving funding from Creative Scotland, enabling them to enlist prime Scottish musicians for the recording, made with producer Rod Jones – Idlewild’s guitarist – at Post Electric Studio, the site of a former brothel incidentally, in Leith.

Step forward Louis Abbott, from Admiral Fallow, Graeme Smillie, from Arab Strap and The Delgados, Kris Drever, from Lau, Chris ‘Beans’ Geddes, of Belle & Sebastian, Pete Harvey, of Modern Studies and Kenny Anderson, alias King Creosote.

“When we got the funding, we were like, ‘what is our dream team of Scottish musicians who could be on the record?’, so it was a beautiful thing to be able to do it with them all. We were just grinning from ear to ear,” says Kathryn, who gives an example of the participants’ enthusiasm.

“We were so lucky that Dan and I had just done a BBC 6Music live session for Marc Riley’s show with Louis Abbott, Admiral Fallow’s lead singer. He ended up playing drums on the album because he’s one of those people who can play everything.

“It was beautiful that everyone was really excited to be there, and we just couldn’t feel any happier.”

Kathryn and Dan share common ground in their creativity: “As we’ve got to know each other as friends, we’ve found we’ve had the same issues of imposter syndrome, not feeling we’re good enough or that people won’t like us,” she says.

The cover artwork for Kathryn Williams and Withered Hand’s album Willson Williams

“We call it the skeletal voice, and we get to voice those fears or worries to each other. We both understand it – and I’m actually a really big fan of his albums because he’s so witty and funny and open.”

One overarching theme emerged in their writing process, Kathryn and Dan being mutually in the grip of grief, mourning for loved ones. “The initial premise and starting point for us was discussions and open conversations on bereavement,” they recall. “We’d both lost friends who were also in the public eye, and we talked about the strange place between personal loss and the communal grieving of a public figure we knew.”

Kathryn elaborates: “Dan had lost his brother Karl and then his friend Scott Hutchison [frontman of Scottish band Frightened Rabbit], and I’d lost my dear friend Jeremy Hardy [the Aldershot-born stand-up comedian and BBC Radio 4 regular panellist],” she says.

“As we got to know each other as we were writing songs, the things we’d been going through came to the fore in the theme of grief. But when you say ‘it’s an album about grief or loss’, people would assume it would be morose, but I think it has a sunshine feel. It’s uplifting, inspiring, comforting, and the whole thing was a joy to create and then go into the studio with these amazing musicians to record.”

Typical of Kathryn’s assertion is Our Best, the first song that the duo wrote together. “Kath arrived in Edinburgh with a refrain that we worked up into the chorus of this song,” says Dan. “Together we built a delicate structure around it, tentatively letting our voices harmonise and support each other, embodying the idea of doing what we can do in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds and changes”.

Or, as Kathryn puts it, in the face of loss, “having to do our best without you…and remembering advice from those who have gone to ‘not waste your life’.”

The track Elvis takes its title from Costello, not Presley. “That was the last show we went to in Edinburgh before lockdown. My friend Steve Nieve [Costello’s regular keyboard player] was playing with him at Usher Hall and offered us tickets,” says Kathryn.

“The song was a reaction to that gig, and as with a lot of the songs, it came from our experiences together, talking about touring, being on the tour bus. After the gig, we chatted with them backstage, and when Dan and I came out by the stage door, elation quickly turned to deflation when the crowd realised it was only us!”

Kathryn and Dan are playing their 17-date May tour as a duo, combining acoustic and electric guitar and Kathryn’s mellotron. “It’s just me and Dan because, one, we couldn’t afford anyone else and, two, no-one else was available,” she says.

“We’re our own support act too. I’ll do a 20-minute solo set, so will Dan, then after a break, we’ll do the complete album. That’s three gigs for the price of one!”

Away from making and touring her music, Kathryn has hosted three series of her podcast Before The Light Goes Out, with a fourth “under wraps”. “It involves me interviewing artists, poets, novelists, musicians and songwriters about sleep, with me asking each of them the same questions,” she says.

Why ‘Sleep’? “The whole point of it is that I love going to sleep listening to podcasts, ones that keep the voice calm,” reasons Kathryn, whose guests have included Steve Nieve, Scottish writer Kirsty Logan, The Magic Numbers’ Romeo and Michele Stodart, Neil MacColl, Kate St John, Rachel Unthank, David Ford, Chris Difford, Marry Waterson, The Anchoress, mystery novelist Ann Cleeves, poet Clare Shaw and, yes, Withered Hand.”

Looking ahead, Kathryn’s next album will be a solo work. “It’s already written and recorded, and it’ll come out early next year,” she says. “I think it’ll be called Mystery Park. That’s the current title. It’s quite a personal album, quite minimal too, going back to my roots.”

Kathryn Williams & Withered Hand, Selby Town Hall, tonight, 8pm, and Otley Courthouse, Thursday, 8pm. Box office: Selby, 01757 708449 or selbytownhall.co.uk; Otley, 01943 467466 or otleycourthouse.org.uk.

Willson Williams track listing:

Arrow; Grace; R U 4 Real?; Our Best; Shelf; Wish; Sweetest Wine; Weekend; Sing Out; Elvis; Big Nothing.

All songs written by Kathryn Williams and Dan Willson except Sing Out, written by Cat Stevens.

Musicians on the album:

Kathryn Williams, vocals, guitar and mellotron; Dan Willson,vocals and guitar; Louis Abbott, drums, percussion and backing vocals; Graeme Smillie, bass; Chris ‘Beans’ Geddes, pianos, organ, mellotron and synth; Kris Drever, guitar; Pete Harvey, cello; King Creosote (Kenny Anderson), accordion and backing vocals; Jacqueline Irvine, backing vocals and mellotron; Rod Jones, producer and engineer at Post Electric Studios, Leith; Miles Showell: mastering at Abbey Road, London.