Daniel Pettitt is a singer/songwriter based in North East England. His back catalogue is extensive, (at least 25 CDs) stretching all the way back from 1993 to the present day.
Daniel's style is primarily acoustic folk (Bob Dylan was an early influence and there are clearly similarities in style).
I caught up with Daniel recently to record two interviews. The first of these was a conversation about 'The Songs Of Daniel Pettitt', a CD which brings together some of his finest songs from various stages of his career.
'Above the Taj Mahal' is a great opener. It's certainly one of the catchiest songs on the CD.
A lot of people have said that!
It's a spiritual track and that's something of a theme running through a lot of the songs. Where did the idea come from originally?
Well, going back 13 years ago - 1997 - I'd just finished the first year of my Graphic Design course at Luton University - which is now Bedfordshire University - and I was just working and in my spare time I was just doing something enjoyable and I'd been looking at native American chants, and this real melting pot mix came together with this song. Is it native American, or is it Indian, as in from India, with the sound of it...? It just came together and I couldn't do much about it - it just came out. It's the old cliche; you write a song in five minutes and it's the best thing you've ever done. I wrote it in a few minutes and then just tweaked it a bit here and there with a bit of instrumental stuff.
Is it still one of your favourite tracks?
Not really, no! Well, when you've done a song like that...I've been in a couple of bands some years ago and I always tried not to do that song because I've done it so many times. Obviously, when I go to a gig, I should be doing songs where people will say, 'That's good - I like that!', but I'll play some obscure song that no one's heard before and they'll 'Oh, I'm not so sure about that!'. So I shoot myself in the foot there a bit.
Have you ever seen the Taj Mahal?
No, I haven't. I had the opportunity to go there a few years ago but didn't take it up. But I do want to go there at some point.
'Loved Up (Summertime)' is a much lighter number; a celebratory song for Summer. When did that first come to you?
That was a couple of years after Taj Mahal. I'd finished University and it was just before I moved out of the area. I was still living in Luton and I'd just finished my work there and I was hanging out with friends.. I was playing the blues with a guy called Richard Gouldesbrough and we recorded some of his songs, which were bluesy. I picked up on that and developed some songs which were acousticy but were catchy as well; sort of dark and light at the same time. Loved Up is quite a downbeat song really, but at the same time it's quite happy as well. Somebody could perform it really quite darkly.
'Bringer Of Chaos' is quite a dark song...what do you remember about the writing of that one?
That was just before Taj Mahal, and was very Native American based. There's a chant called 'The Night Hawk' in the background on that one. I was quite happy with the whole thunder and foreboding, like a sort of coming of a native American apocalypse, with the reigning Gods and this sort of stuff. I found the whole thing fascinating and I thought I'd express that in a musical form.
'So This Is Heaven' is in stark contrast to 'Bringer of Chaos'; it's the other side of the coin. This is one of the earliest ones you wrote, back in 1993. What can you remember about that one?
Wow - that's getting the old grey cells going. That was when I first started writing songs and I could hardly play the guitar, so I had to rerecord a lot of those later. I couldn't play the guitar, to be fair. As soon as I picked up the guitar I started writing. I'd been listening to a band called The Sundays. They've got quite a jingle-jangle guitar feel to them - very melodic - and I quite like them. The first songs I wrote were quite free flowing, and that's where that one comes from. Just simple expressions; immediate thoughts that come down and put them on a piece of paper and don't try and tamper with them too much.
That's almost the theme of the song, isn't it? What you have in the moment is all that matters.
'Someone or Something'...
I wrote that at the same time as 'Loved Up (Summertime)'. I got kind of influenced by George Harrison and The Beatles and there was a certain catch to it. It was just a proper love song, because sometimes I can be too obscure for my own good. I wanted to write something which was...poetic, yes, but at the same wasn't too...
Would you say it was light or dark...?
I would say that's quite a light song, but I can see that the way I recorded it, with just that guitar and saxophone, it's quite sparse.
What was the inspiration for 'The Hills of Mexico'?
This was a difficult time for me in my life. In the song it's...this is what I wasn't sure about; I don't want to go into too much depth with great details, but certain things were happening in my life at the time and music was a form of release and expression, and getting things out, like a lot of songwriters do, I suppose - that express what's going on in their life and with 'The Hills of Mexico' I wanted something where it's a form of escapism, so it wasn't just the hills of Bedfordshire; I was transferring myself to a different place and a different time - living in a different world.
With songs like that, which are obviously based on your very personal experiences, do you feel the pain of the experiences when you revisit the songs - when you play it now, for example, or do you find it too painful to play now, because of the experiences?
There's an album I wrote called 'Halo', which I find hard to listen to now because it's hard to relate to, because I'm in such a different place now - a much better place. So there are songs in my back catalogue which I don't really listen to.
(Image © Daniel Pettitt)
Is it because having got through the experiences and triumphed over them, they are not really part of you any more?
Exactly - yes. I appreciate them, but I find it hard to relate to them.
'Dancing Gypsy Child'...I think that must be one of your favourites. It conjures up a lot of mind pictures. I know it's based on a poem you wrote; was that from long ago or was it around the same time that you actually created the song?
That's an interesting question...it's the only song that I come back to again and again. I wrote a poem in 1993 called 'Empty Rooms'. I was even at school when I wrote it and I gave it to the teacher. I got the impression that he actually seemed to think it was about him! Then in 1997 my dog died and as a homage to my dog I decided to put this piece of poetry to music. Then in 1999 when I finally came to look at it and record it, which is when I first did it properly, I added the chorus. I'd never have done it otherwise; it goes against all my rules as a songwriter.
What is the story behind 'Reach for the Stars'?
Well, you said spiritual earlier...spiritual can have a lot of religious connotations to it but I''m not really part of a religion or anything. That's more about my feelings towards the Bible or ancient religions and ancient traditions...it's looking back and seeing it in a philosophical way, really. Seeing the beauty of the images and the language of the Bible. I don't take it to the point where I study it or believe it, but I appreciate it at the same time and that's what that song's about.
'Earth Heart' is next. That's from 'Halo' too...you said that was quite an intense album. Does that go for this song too?
Yes, it does. I think with Earth Heart being on this collection, it's OK...I came back to it because I appreciated it as a song. It might be something personal but you don't songs which are too cold and impersonal. A song like 'Above The Taj Mahal' edges on being too impersonal. So I thought it would be nice to have something with a really personal touch to it and that's why I put it in there.
Then comes 'Mama Death's Blue Eyed Boy' I thought was quite an intense song too.
Oh right - I never saw it like that, but...I don't know how this sounds, but I'd been brought up on...my Dad was always fascinated by the Second World War and he had loads of books on it and I grew up watching Second World War films and First World War films so it seemed to make sense that eventually I'd cover the subject in some form. I just wanted something simple; very folky; not about me.
War seems to be in a few of your songs. Has that always been the influence of your Father's interest, do you think?
Maybe it is, yes...maybe it does go back to that. I've never thought of it like that! It's a bit worrying...!
You're finding out quite a lot about yourself tonight, aren't you? You'll be writing songs about yourself as soon I'm gone.
The last one on the CD is another with war in it: 'Born to Die'. What can you tell me about that one?
Yes...I wrote that thinking about the troubles abroad, with Iraq and Afghanistan and I wrote it with that in mind. I did it just on guitar there because I literally didn't have the capabilities to have the big band sound. As it's a long song, the arrangement in the studio would have been crazy if I'd brought in a sitar player and a bongo player...I'd like to have it with a band sound, with a crescendo and stuff but I did what I could.
When songs are sparsely arranged the message can be stronger, because the message is less cluttered.
That's what I wanted with the whole CD. Not varied to the point where it didn't work together, but something which had a bit of depth, a bit of variety.
There are recurring themes: war, loss, love...big themes. How do you stand on war? Are you anti-war or just an observer?
I wouldn't say I'm anti-war. If we were in a time like the Second World War and got called up I'd have to go anyway but at the same time...it's...I suppose it's in our nature to defend ourselves but it's the way of the world, isn't it? It's part and parcel of international politics. But at the same it's a very controversial area with the Middle East. I'll step back and be an observer as far as that goes.
Daniel Pettitt, thank you very much!
The second interview, in which we discuss Daniel's musical career from his first steps to the present day, will appear here at Marsh Towers in October.
Meanwhile, there's more information about 'The Songs Of Daniel Pettitt' here:
...and much more about Daniel here: