Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Interview With Daniel Pettitt

Last month's feature on 'The Songs of Daniel Pettitt' was well received. Here is the second part of the interview, in which we discuss Daniel's life, musical influences and a lot more.

(Image copyright: Daniel Pettitt)

How did it all start? How did you first become interested in music?

At school I wasn't very good and I wasn't interested in music at all. In music lessons, playing the xylophone and that sort of thing…I had no interest in it. I think it's a common thing, that when kids become teenagers…it's like in the 60s and 70s - as soon as you become a teenager you kind of become interested in music. The whole things with growing up - growing pains - that's when I discovered music. I didn't just want to listen to it; I wanted to make my own music. Because I'd been interested in drawing and writing before then, it was a natural process for me to listen to something and try and recreate it, rather than just listening to it and becoming a big fan of someone. So it must come from the fact that at school I was quite into drawing, pairing and writing, so that's where it comes from. I think.

What about your family, were they interested in music? Any musicians?

No, not really. I was the only one really - an anomaly!

Do you have brothers and sisters?

Yes, I have two sisters - Natasha and Cara - and my dad remarried in the mid-90s and he had a son, so I've got a brother as well.

Your surname is quite unusual. What's the history behind it?

My step-Mum's actually looking into that. She's researching the name and it's interesting you should ask that. Apparently we come from France originally in the 1500s or something. Petite - as in small - because people always ask me and I say, no - it's 'Pettitt' - I'm not small, I'm quite tall. they Anglicised it to make it Pettitt so people could understand it more and it stayed.

Exactly how old were you were when you first picked up a guitar?

The first one I got was a Spanish classical guitar, with the big strings that buzzed along the fretboard. I didn't like it that much; I thought it must be easier to play guitar than this! I wanted the larger American ones. That was back in…I think I was 17 when I first picked up a guitar. I was in sixth form, so that's going back to 1992 and then in 1993 I started writing and singing. I think in 1994 I went to Scarborough and did an art course there. Then I bought a larger guitar and thought, this sounds so beautiful.

Which school did you go to?

I went to the Friends School in Ayton. It closed down and now it's a block of flats.

When did you write your first song? How soon was it after you picked up your first guitar?

I think my best friend, Simon Harding - that sounds a bit sad, 'My best friend'…! But I knew him from Ayton and I'm still in touch with him to this day….he maintains that my first song was called 'The Leaves are Green', taken from a Simon and Garfunkel song. I think my first real song - which I did come back to and record eventually - was called 'Where Is Our Future Now?' I had it as quite a fast song. That's about as far back as I can remember; that's going back to about '92.

Does it survive as a recording?

The original doesn't. My Dad might have it somewhere in his house - in the loft, or the garage or somewhere, I don't know - but I think a lot of those early recordings disappeared, unfortunately. I've got some of them left but they’re pretty like….you can hear the guitar going and then you can hear me stopping, just to change chord!

Where and when was your first performance?

That was in an Art Centre down in Luton. I was at Uni at the time and a few friends came along for support. It was a folk band and they coincided it with the Art Centre. There was a guy playing and he was obviously the main attraction and I was one of the support acts. I played 'Tornado', 'Trouble in Mind' - a Bob Dylan song - and a song called 'Parson's Trail'.

Good memory!

Yes, I still remember it. After the gig I thought, that's just amazing! All these people expressing themselves. I'll have to do that again.

Were you nervous?

I think I was surprisingly not nervous. I was a bit nervous, but just eager to perform.

Dan with Julie Casey

Do you get nervous at all when performing now?

Yes, sometimes I do. It's not too bad I suppose everyone gets nerves, don't they? And they do say that if you don't get nervous then there's something wrong. I do get a bit nervous, but not so much that I can't get up and play.

What makes you more nervous - a larger or smaller audience?

That's an interesting point, Probably when it's a smaller audience, when you can see who you are playing to, you can see their faces rather than just looking out into the darkness.

You have a very large repertoire of songs. At what rate does this continue to expand? Are you writing and recording most of the time?

Yes, I am. At the moment I'm going through a bit of a dry period and not writing much, but that usually comes and goes. I've got ideas for songs; I get ideas all the time. Sometimes I write them down, sometimes I don't. I hear a catch-line and I work on it. I've got some things sort of on the go.

A lot of people who talk about writing - and not just music - say they take their ideas come from absolutely everywhere. It could be the tiniest news item which sparks off an idea in the mind, which then grows, magnifies and changes; or a newspaper headline, or even just an advert…is that the same for you?

The last year or so I've been out at quite a few folk clubs and I've just been soaking up all the information really, all the different music and I do that. There are some times when I release everything I've built up in my head and there are other times when I'm absorbing everything, taking everything in, and then I might go back to it later. It's like doing a painting, where you've got a reference, a guide to what you want to do.

What percentage of songs do you start work on but never finish?

That's interesting…yes, there are…When I was doing my back catalogue I found a tape, a 2X90 cassette from '98 or '99, which is just me going through half-idea songs that were never brought to light. It was weird listening t it, because I'm not really singing words. I never progressed with those songs, they were just a rough recording. So I'd say that happens - percentage-wise - maybe five or ten percent.

Do you eventually revisit them and make something of them?

Not necessarily, no. Maybe I should really.

How about your heroes and influences?

The big one, that everyone who knows me, knows I'm a big Bob Dylan fan. I liked my Dad's influences; they were obviously what I was brought up on. So my parents' influence is quite big, like The Beatles and Paul McCartney, Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon, Neil Diamond and people like that. But then I started listening to Dylan. I had a Greatest Hits and I thought, this is interesting. Then I remember, when I was a teenager, getting some bootleg tapes of Bob Dylan; a mono recording of Blonde on Blonde or something. And I listened to that and it just blew me away. I think the danger is always that you can become like a clone of your hero. Dylan had that problem when he first started writing because he was a big Woody Guthrie fan. It's just my style; it's the natural style that I have and I try and just be open with that. I saw Jakob Dylan at The Sage and he was fantastic. And he has his own style, his own thing going on.

I know you saw Bob Dylan early this year, at Hop Farm. Had you seen him before that?

I first saw him in Edinburgh in '95 and he was just amazing.

Which of your other influences have you seen?

Fortunately I got to see John Denver before he passed away. I saw him in Newcastle. I think that was about four years before he died. He was amazing - just him and his guitar. It was quite a small venue. I think he was promoting 'Earth Songs'.

He's very much a forgotten man now, isn't he?

I know. People say he was a bit sort of mainstream, but I never saw him that way really. I thought he just wrote very intelligent songs.

Which instruments can you play?

I can just about play the harmonica - to my own style, let's say! I can play acoustic guitar and electric guitar. I play a bit of piano and keyboard. I've had an interesting relationship with percussion. I can't really play the drums. I've tried, and I can play them on a certain level, just keeping the beat, but I can't do anything more than that. I've had a varied history with drum machines. Sometimes they've beguiled and bemused me. Other times I've been able to get an ok string of drumbeats down for a track.

There's big differences between working in a band and working solo - which do you prefer?

Ideally I prefer playing in a band because I imagine it's more interesting for the audience, with a variety of instruments and the interaction between the players. So as a solo performer I feel a bit limited in a sense. But there's obviously pros and cons to both.

What projects are you currently working on and what ambitions remain?

Since the Middlesbrough Festival it's been non-stop, really. I've been organising a lot of stuff for download links. I had a big box of CDs and I put them all on the computer, which was quite daunting, I've also been working on my lyrics book and getting that in the right format. All the typos I had with the first two proof copies were a nightmare.

Tell us more about the book.

Well, there'll be a launch at the Middlesbrough Central Library at 7.00 p.m. on 18 November. Sara Dennis, Andy Broderick and Ray Legg are doing some work in conjunction with it, so it won't just me boring everyone to death! The book goes hand in hand with the download link. It’s all of my lyrics put together, plus some unreleased ones.

Is the launch open to all or is it invitation only?

It's open to all.

Presumably you'll be singing a few songs as well as signing your book?

Singing a few songs, yes.

What are your ambitions for the future?

I think I'm a bit too past it to be in the rock and pop world…but I think my ambition is to do more festivals and to be more organised and proactive. The festival circuit is a good outlet for someone like me. I might produce some stuff for Sara Dennis. I've just been in the studio with her and backed her on some tracks for an album of hers; just playing guitar and stuff.

Are they original songs or cover?

Sara's written a couple of them. She's covered a couple of mine which she liked and she does them better than me! Some of them are traditional folk songs, like House Carpenter and stuff like that. I've been working mostly on my recordings this year but next year I hope to gig a bit more.

It seems to me you are clearing the decks and preparing for something. You have uploaded and catalogued your music, you've got your book of lyrics coming out very soon…everything is coming together ready for the next big step forward. Now we are looking forward to see what happens next!

Daniel Pettitt, thank you very much!

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