DAN WHEELER is one of the best known session guitarists on the UK Christian music scene. He's also a powerful new singer/songwriter. He met up with Tony Cummings.
The release in 2004 of the EP 'Ten Things To Do' and the album 'Long Road Round' put the spotlight on one of the most refreshing singer/songwriters to emerge from the UK Christian music scene. Yet Dan Wheeler is far from being a fresh-faced newcomer. Since he first emerged as a guitarist on a Steve Parsons album, Dan has clocked up literally dozens of sessions working for a wide range of artists including Cathy Burton, Nicki Rogers and a seemingly endless succession of Spring Harvest and worship albums. Dan took time off from his busy schedule to visit us at Cross Rhythms. I began by asking what he thought has been his best piece of work so far as a session musician? "I honestly feel that as a session musician my job is to make the song sound as good as I can. I think probably my more recent work is stuff that I am really happy with because you start to mature as a player and the way you approach the music, and the stuff you get to spend more time on is probably better than going in and rushing out an album in a day. So I think about the Cathy Burton album, 'Speed Your Love' - we spent a lot of time doing guitars for that and I can listen back and reflect on all my work and it's quite nice. We got a good amount of time to put onto Nicki's 'Feeder Lane' album and again that was just a nice experience because you are with your mates, you have got a whole load of amps set up and you just crank it up and enjoy yourself!"
Playing tasty electric or acoustic guitar licks is one thing; writing songs is something else. How did the East Sussex-based songsmith begin writing songs? "I think it had always been a long term plan for me. Back from being a teenager I wanted to write songs that people would listen to and I guess there is a kind of pressure, of time ticking away, but as a Christian I don't really feel that so much. You know, there's just a right time for doing things and for me I think it just took time. I was probably lazy as well but it took time to really find my own voice and putting across what I thought I had to say, and finding a writing style that was natural and a style of music that kind of just feels comfortable to me."
Being a session-seasoned pro enabled Dan to bring his self-composed songs directly to the attention of a UK industry mover and shaker. "I spoke to Dave Bruce at Authentic when I was doing guitar over-dubs for Nicki's album. I thought there was probably a gap somewhere for a male singer/songwriter. I was getting to the stage with my songs where I thought there was enough to really start going at. So I played some to Dave Bruce in the ICC flat and he seemed to enjoy it and we took it from there. I sent everything I had away to him to mull over for a little while and then just around the turn of the year we decided it was worth looking at more seriously."
Dan's first recording of his own material was the 'Ten Things To Do' EP. Dan explained the decision to start with that: "Some people know of me as a session player but no one's probably thought of me as a singer/songwriter so it was worth putting out a taster for people, just to let them know I was on the way. We recorded that basically all at my house and mixed it at Trevor Michael's place. I enjoy recording 'cos it's time spent with my friends and I enjoy the process."
Although it didn't exactly set the world alight, 'Ten Things To Do' did bring forth some favourable reviews. Dan is still pleased with his initial effort. "There's one song repeated from the EP on the album. I actually reflect on the EP and I really like all the songs on it and there are songs on the EP I would still choose to do live because I feel they have got something to say and I think they are good songs. But the album's pretty much, apart from that one song, all new stuff."
The 'Long Road Round' album is a far more ambitious project than Dan's EP with his wistfully moody songs accompanied by some exemplary musicianship. Dan explained how the session came to be: "With the album we did a lot of tracking at ICC, roped all my mates in and so Callum was drumming, Mark was playing bass, Steve Harding on piano and Paul Burton was running the desk and making sure everything sounded right. So we did that for a number of days and then just took everything back home and it was just so cool to be able to play around with. Spent far too much money on pre-amps so back home I was able to get the same quality as we would if we were paying you know, over £100 a day in the studio. So it was very, very nice, almost relaxed kind of way of recording. Just spent six or seven weeks at home, apart from my fingers stopped working half way through!"
Dan wasn't exaggerating about the failure of his digits. "I was doing a session for Russ Hughes at ICC and it was a really, really long day. I got in the car on the way home and said to Rachelle, 'I think I've got a problem.' My finger kind of seized up for a couple of weeks. So there was a lot of slide guitar on my album for a little while! I got Dan Boorham over for a day as well just to take some of the pressure off. We decided I just had to play and it was wonderful actually. I didn't think I was going to make it and just started picking up guitars and playing them and we got away with it!"
The enigmatic imagery of Dan's songwriting is a long way from the prosaic evangelical sloganeering of some CCM artists. Dan has strong views about the art of songwriting, "To me, I don't think the best songwriters give you really neat packages all the time. I think sometimes you just need to have something that's kind of genuinely heart felt and that's enough and there's a sense in which, you know, half the impact of a song is in the way the listener interprets it. I remember, I am pretty sure it's a Rich Mullins quote where he said, 'If you want a sermon go to church,' and I think that was probably good advice. I think there's spirituality throughout the album to be honest, because my faith is one of the most significant things about who I am, so you can't write songs and that not come out. I think there's a few metaphors in the song "The Long Road Round", but you know they resonate in all kinds of ways and there's, yeah, that sense in which to achieve something, whether you are striving to live your life as a Christian in a good way or if you are, whatever it is you are trying to achieve, sometimes it just feels like everything is going the other way and you have just got to bash through it. I think we are in such a kind of ready made state of mind in our culture, we want everything so quick, we have lost sight of the value in pushing through and the experience that you gain in the way your character develops through taking time to achieve things and working through the obstacles."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.