In terms of rock’n’roll tales, Dan Owen has had a head start on most musicians his age. Forget social media and canny collaborations, the 25 year old has earned his success the fun, old-fashioned way. He started out playing every pub that would have him and honed his craft with old bluesmen who gave him his own nickname. He has gone from performing for politicians at Westminster to partying in Nashville with Willie Nelson. This Shropshire boy with the big blues voice has a wealth of stories to share.
Dan’s debut album, Stay Awake With Me, released on August 17, 2019 through Atlantic Records, distils a decade of experience and half a lifetime of playing live into ten spectacular songs. Some are already familiar. New single ‘Icarus’, which proved a smash hit currently across Europe, and became a fixture on both Radio 1 and Radio 2. Its predecessor ‘Made To Love You’ has surpassed 15 million streams and garnered widespread acclaim for a video that deals with domestic abuse. Last year’s breakthrough hit ‘Hideaway’ continues to soundtrack a ground-breaking Boots advert.
Fans fortunate enough to have seen Dan’s raucous live show in recent years will also recognize a handful of songs from his self-released EPs, albeit rerecorded with brass and sumptuous strings. But the raw power of that deep, rich, resonant voice remains undimmed throughout. “Until recently, I didn’t see myself as a studio musician,” says Dan. “I’ve been playing pubs and blues bars since I was 13 and I still feel most at home on stage. But I loved making the album. I hung around the studio even when I didn’t have to be there. I got to try out new ideas and work with a band for the first time. Recording some of the songs with strings was amazing because that’s how I’d always heard them in my head.”
Dan didn’t grow up dreaming of becoming a musician. Despite discovering that he could silence a room by singing blues covers at the age of 15, he harboured hopes of becoming a farmer, then a carpenter… but first his dad, and then fate, intervened. “From 11, I went out with my dad every weekend to round up 100 cows,” says Dan, who grew up on an estate on the outskirts of Shrewsbury surrounded by fields. “We’d get up at 4am and look for the cows in complete darkness. All I wanted was to become a farmer, but my dad wouldn’t let me. He said there was no money in it.”
By the time Dan had discovered that he hated school – “I was so disinterested I even failed music,” he admits – he was already spending several nights a week playing live. He was bought a battered guitar from a charity shop by his mum at eight, then began taking lessons at secondary school with a teacher who was happy to let Dan, and his singing big sister, accompany him to pub gigs to play during his breaks. “It was my sister who sang,” says Dan. “I just sat at the back, playing guitar. We did covers of stuff like KT Tunstall’s Black Horse and the Cherry Tree. We’d be there til 2am and my mum kept getting letters from the school saying I’d fallen asleep in class.”
At home his dad played Duran Duran, but through his teacher Dan discovered the blues and began creating his own covers. Aged 15, on holiday in Cornwall, where the family went camping every summer, Dan was talked in to taking part in an open mic night at the local pub, The Star Inn in St Just. He sang Lonnie Mack’s ‘Oreo Cookie Blues’ and got so much applause that back at the campsite he couldn’t sleep. For the remainder of the holiday, he bugged his parents to drive him around Penzance to perform at other open-mic nights.
Still, the idea of making music a career hadn’t crossed his mind. By 16, he thought he’d found his calling in carpentry when he took an apprenticeship and, for once, came top of the class. Dan’s dream of building guitars was due to come true when he was offered a placement with the world-famous guitar maker Patrick James Eggle but, just before taking it up, he suffered a horrific injury in the workshop that all but blinded him in one eye. “I was walking past a machine and a chunk of wood flicked out and lodged in my left eye,” he says. “It severed my retina, which left me with no depth perception. I still have double vision some of the time.”
After months of recuperation and daily hospital visits and battling post-traumatic stress, Dan tried returning to carpentry, but his impaired vision made it impossible. Even playing live had become problematic because of the lights and judging distances on stage. But since singing was the only option he had left, he threw himself in to getting gigs. “I worked out how many I had to do to survive, picked up a Yellow Pages and rang every pub within a two hour drive,” he recalls. “I wasn’t thinking about getting signed, I was just desperate for money. From calling 40 pubs, I’d get one gig, but every place I played, I’d be asked back. I started on January 1 and by the end of the year, I’d played 150 gigs. I was pretty determined.”
Some of the pubs were so rough that Dan had the landlord on stage as a bodyguard when fights broke out in the crowd. He was dubbed Blues Boy Dan by veteran bluesman and played sets that lasted for over two hours. Every summer, he returned to the Starr Inn, where one night he played from 9pm until 3am while people danced on the tables and poured shots in to his mouth as he sang. “I learnt so much on that scene,” he says. “It was wild. After playing for farmers, fisherman and crazy Irish Guards, I knew I could cope with any kind of crowd.”
At one show a fan filmed Dan covering Bob Dylan’s ‘Ballad Of Hollis Brown’ and posted it on Reddit. The response was immediate. Alerted by a friend, Dan watched with bemusement as views of the video jumped from tens to hundreds of thousands and eventually hit half a million. Mick Fleetwood got in touch and became his mentor. Ellen DeGeneres called and asked him to appear on her chat show. He performed on Andrew Marr’s weekend politics programme, although he wasn’t sure why. Still in Shropshire, sharing a house with two drummer mates, he didn’t even have a manager.
With help from a friend who ran open mic nights, Dan began travelling to London to play showcases and writing songs that were more pop rock than straight blues. An early contact sent the 21 year old to Nashville’s legendary Bluebird Studios to record four of his original songs and he couldn’t believe his eyes when he met his backing band – Jack White’s bassist, Jamey Johnson’s drummer and former Black Crowes’ guitarist Luther Dickinson – never mind his producer, the four times Grammy award winner Vance Powell. “Looking back, it was the wrong time,” shrugs Dan. “Now I could keep up with them, but it was worth it for the experience. I’ll never forget playing with these amazing musicians at one of the best studios in the world.”
One night in Nashville, Dan was invited to Willie Nelson’s birthday party, which was being filmed for country music TV. “It was a small room, with just his family and friends,” recalls Dan. “First Willie Nelson gets up to play, then Ashley Munroe, Jamey Johnson, Norah Jones and Sheryl Crow. At the end, up comes Neil Young. I thought ‘Is this what abroad is like?’ I’d only just come from Shropshire. I got my first passport to go to Nashville.”
Back in Britain, Dan met his current managers and, in 2015, self-released his debut EP and continued to tour to ever bigger audiences, both in Britain and abroad. Offers from labels flooded in and in late 2016, he signed with Atlantic, last year releasing the singles ‘Moonlight’ and ‘Hideaway’ that appear on Stay Awake With Me. “Some people were shocked when they first heard my songs,” says Dan. “I love the blues, but I’ve never wanted to write blues music. I listen to everything from metal and EDM to pop stuff like Paolo Nutini. I write about my life, my friends and the experiences I’ve had and I couldn’t do that with blues. I’m from Shrewsbury, not the Deep South.”
On Stay Awake With Me, you’ll hear tales of friends getting caught up in drugs (the majestic, strings-soaked ‘Icarus’), of male domestic abuse (the stately, spine-tingling ‘Made To Love You’) and of the traumatic aftermath of Dan’s eye injury (the menacing blues-rocker ‘Hideaway’). The beautiful title track is an ode to Dan’s beloved grandfather, who passed away just before Christmas, and is written from the point of view of his nan – the pair met at an army base in Berlin as teenagers and spent 50 years together.
Both ‘Stay Awake With Me’ and the raw piano ballad ‘Hand That You Hold’ are demo recordings that Dan kept because they captured emotions that couldn’t be recreated in the studio. Most of the album was recorded at RAK in London with MyRiot (London Grammar, Halsey, James Morrison, Birdy). All of it is as honest and soulful as it is built for being howled back in festival fields and – pints of Real Ale aloft - sung standing on tabletops.