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How I Made It: Dan Conway’s “Northernness”

Dan Conway is a singer-songwriter based in Singapore.

TGCA: Dan, you’ve just released your album Nothernness. Tell us about it. How did you get started? Where did the ideas come from? What are you trying to do in the album?

Dan: It all started with books! Between Christmas 2016 and March 2017 I had some time on my hands, so I read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I also went on a C. S. Lewis biography binge. The end result was that I could see and feel longing everywhere. Longing for home, for reconciliation, for forgiveness, for grace, for truth, for adventure, for discovery. And what struck me was the way everything I loved about these stories really comes from God’s great story. The themes were too big for the books. So I was awakened to hearing echos of grace and truth in the stories we tell each other.

I went on a C. S. Lewis biography binge. The end result was that I could see and feel longing everywhere. What struck me was the way everything I loved about these stories really comes from God’s great story.

Some songs were inspired by particular characters that moved me. I wrote about Atticus Finch and his grace and truth. I wrote about Ebenezer Scrooge and his need for forgiveness and a second chance. The apostle John has a similar song, except that his story is non-fiction! Other songs are more personal and about my own struggle with death, the sins of the past, and the weight of becoming a father.

I hope the album uncovers these things for people, gives them a chance to enjoy them, reflect on them, and if they haven’t yet, consider the God in whom these longings really come home.

TGCA: Tell us about your creative process. How do you go from idea to end product? Do lyrics come first? Or later? Or at the same time?

Dan: I used to write music and lyrics at the same time, usually on the guitar. Most times it would be melody and chords prompting lyrics. But after my last album, Lazarus Come Forth, I wanted the lyrics to be deeper; more meaningful, more thoughtful. So I set myself the challenge of writing songs that could be read—without music—and still be appreciated. I began as though I was a poet—which I am not!

For “Atticus”, I used a collection of my favourite Mockingbird passages. I tried to pin down the essence of the story and an aspect of it that might work in a song. Then I just started writing. The fun part was sitting with the guitar—later—and just singing the lyrics out. The phrasing was unpredictable because the lyrics were already written, so that moved me out of my comfort zone. I also resolved to obey the old rule of writing everything out as it comes and organising or editing it later (this can be messy!). I’m almost certain (now) this is the best way to write anything.

I also resolved to obey the old rule of writing everything out as it comes and organising or editing it later (this can be messy!). I’m almost certain (now) this is the best way to write anything.

TGCA: Tell us about your background. How did you end up a singer-songwriter?

Dan: I grew up playing the guitar in bands and for other singers. So I never thought of myself as an artist in my own right, or even as a singer. I started writing songs in high school as a way of expressing myself. The songs were terrible. But the habit was formed. In my late teens some of my friends began to really like my songs. So I just kept doing it. That was the satisfaction in writing something—that it was significant in some way for someone else.

TGCA: What’s your favourite part of of the process?

Dan: The very beginning. When an idea first hits you the creative experience is really unique and it does feel as though the song wants to write itself and will do so with or without you. That’s very cool. It’s also exciting at this stage because the song can go anywhere. The challenge for me is to not settle for something generic or something that I already know works, but to ride the creative energy into a fresh direction.

TGCA: What’s the hardest part of the process?

Dan: Adjusting to life after the honeymoon period. For me the honeymoon period is the first day of writing. I think I’m Bruce Springsteen on that first day, and I’ve just written the chorus of “Dancing in the Dark”. But right after that, when the inspiration juices seem to have stopped flowing and there’s work to be done. That’s hard. “Ebenezer” from Northernness was like that. I was thrilled I was writing a song about A Christmas Carol for about three days. And then for the next six months I thought it was rubbish. But deadlines are wonderful things. And usually working hard on unfinished songs is quite rewarding. Not to mention they always turn out better than half finished songs.

TGCA: What are you working on at the moment?

Dan: Our church—The Crossing Church in Singapore—is turning ten years old next year. As part of the celebration of all that God has done among us we’re going to record an album of songs about it. It’s been great working with a team of our songwriters, writing for our sermon series, and trying them out on our generous and patient congregation.

TGCA:  Which other songwriters do you like? Who has influenced you most?

There are two songwriters who have made a big impact on me. John Hiatt is an American songwriter who’s been around forever. He does something not many songwriters can do. He writes songs which you feel you need to hear the end of. Often there’s an actual ending, content wise. Basically, he writes stories that sing really, really well.

Bap Kennedy is a northern Irishman who only made five or six albums. But when I discovered him, I never wrote another song without trying to be like Bap. The crazy thing is, he writes the simplest, most straight forward songs I’ve ever heard. But this is the kind of writing that moves me, both lyrically and melodically. Bap’s unique talent is frequently to make his opening line the best line of his songs. I think that is the coolest thing ever. “Blessed are the poor, well that’s alright then, baby you and me, are goin’ straight to heaven.”

TGCA: What are your hopes for the album?

I hope people give credit to Jesus when they read Atticus Finch. I hope they rejoice in the forgiveness of the cross when they read Ebenezer. I hope they long for the new creation when they go ‘farther up and further in’ with Middle Earth and Narnia. What really excited me about these stories is the unlimited opportunities we have to be pointed back to God and his great story even as we read our own stories. If this comes home to people listening to the album, I’ll be very thankful.

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