by Clare Canning.
Dan O’Farrell is a well-known name on the music scene on the south coast, hailed as ‘Southampton’s finest songwriter’ and the city’s ‘hardest working musician’. Having played over 90 gigs since last year, alongside a full time teaching job and parenting three teenage children, while the former may be a matter of opinion, the latter certainly seems a reasonable moniker.
After a successful career with the band Accrington Stanley, including playing to 12,000 during a tour of Japan, Dan began writing and performing solo three years ago. He now works with what he describes as a ‘collective’, meaning his gigs can consist of anything from just him to a full nine-piece band – including string quartet – known as Dan O’Farrell and the Difference Engine.
“The Difference Engine evolved organically,” he says. “ During the last few years of my previous band, I also started performing solo, mainly because it was hard to organise gigs for five 40-somethings with Brownie drop-offs to navigate.As I started to perform alone, I found a confidence in doing so; being able to drop to a whisper or build to a scream was powerful!”.
But Dan found he was missing making and performing music with other. “So I did a couple of years like that, but it started to get lonely, always playing by yourself, and I felt some of the gigs needed a bigger sound. I started doing some gigs with my school friend Chris Walsh on drums and some with Rick Foot, local folk and jazz double bass player, before realising I had a classic rockabilly trio, and Dan O’Farrell and the Difference Engine was formed”.
But the band didn’t stop growing here; Dan felt certain songs were “crying out for pedal steel, string quartets, harmony lines in a softer register” and the band grew from that need. “I now rejoice in having a ‘collective’. Some gigs can be just me, some the core trio, some the whole shaboodle, plus – and this is the really joyous bit – any combination of those people, so I never get bored’.
Spending his working life immersed in words heavily influences Dan’s song writing. “As an English teacher, I spend my day talking about words, poetry, books and language; some of my songs emerge from those ideas – Rosaline Wins for example – but others too in less obvious ways. Spending all day talking to teenagers also gives one an interesting take on life and keeps the ear fresh to nuances of the modern world. The extended holidays are also useful in which to record albums!”
Dan’s broad musical tastes are a strong influence on his own songs, and ‘80s Hip-hop and 50s Rock n’ Roll’ is an ode to the power of the only two forms of music he could connect with during a crisis in his love of music. He also spent his childhood listening to Buddy Holly with his Dad, Terry, and embraced the beauty and simplicity of his songs. He further quotes the Smiths as a profound influence, though Morrissey’s swing to the right in politics makes it harder for Dan to hold him in the awe he once did. “The Smiths always represented the opposite of that to me – impassioned sympathy and a different view of masculinity, and humanity, to that offered by mainstream culture in 1983,” he says sadly.
At 49, Dan is proudest of the fact that he is still learning and still improving, especially as he remembers feeling the very opposite when he hit 40. “I felt like a busted flush; too old to sing any more, then suddenly pulling through that feeling whilst dancing to DJ Hammy with my friend Mario, and going ‘actually, no, I still have a voice and something to say’. I wrote ‘Your Facebook Feed is Not the World’ shortly after that, and here I am two albums later”.
The longevity of Dan’s musical career has naturally lead to some less successful moments too. “I could write pages of the cringe worthy moments I’ve had on stage. Accrington Stanley had just played a gig at YoYogi Stadium in Japan. Before I left the stage, I told the 12,000 people there that the gig had been ‘better than sex’. Not my finest moment.
“I also have a habit of standing on my guitar lead, pulling it out, before pretty much any gig I have ever played solo, most recently at the 1865 club supporting The Membranes. Probably most memorable was my attempt to be Iggy Pop. I swung a microphone round my head on a wire and nearly killed Baz on keyboards”.
Politics, the economy and social commentary appear on a number of Dan’s songs. He doesn’t believe this consciously happens, but is more a reflection of the world he sees around him; he then draws attention to sometimes visceral injustice through his words. His eloquence is apparent in his lyrics, ranging topics as diverse as alcoholism, self injury, Shakespeare and the state of the nation, but his rakish sense of humour, and willingness to bare his soul, means these are often delivered in palatable, delightful ways.
Whilst he has no overarching master plan for his music so far, Dan says he is, “just trying to take whatever opportunities I can, carpe-ing the diem and making up for lost time. I used to blame bad luck when Accrington Stanley missed out on things in my teens and 20s, but I guess I have learned to push myself harder and see what luck I can make. So, I am going to keep doing that, getting better at that, until I keel over, mid lead-less guitar solo…”.