The first signs of Dan Croll's re-emergence came last year.
Signing to Communion, the Liverpool-based songwriter began to pull himself forward, inch by painful inch.
Debut album 'Sweet Disarray' dropped in 2014, and while it was a creative triumph - and a Top 40 success - he needed to step back, to take stock.
New full length 'Emerging Adulthood' is the end result of this process, with Dan Croll fusing his innate pop instincts with some wonderful lyricism and Ben Allen's sparkling production.
At times playful, at others serious, it's a record that refuses to be defined on anything but its own terms.
Clash caught up with the songwriter just before the album's release to find out a bit more...
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The album is coming out in just a few days, are you excited?
Yeah man! I keep forgetting what date we’re on… But yeah, it’s not far at all.
When did you actually start work on this record?
I guess it songwriting never really stops, to be honest. I think there was like a very brief moment at the first album where I had a bit of a lull and I thought, well, do I want to do this any more? But then as that faded I thought, I actually can’t do anything else! This is all I can do and all I kind of know.
I just felt very confident with it, and started to think how I wanted to approach it, and set myself some goals. Writing it in six months, recording it in two months, recording it outside the UK, playing all the instruments on the album. That was the competition I was having with myself, in a way, it was very driven.
So the guidelines were there from the start?
Yeah definitely. I think I come from a sporting background, so I’m quite competitive with myself, as well. So having these goals is quite a bit thing for me. I had to beat myself, definitely.
How closely did you stick to those goals?
I managed to stick to them all, and that was it. That’s why I have this feeling of excitement for people to hear it, because I’m super proud that I gave it my all. It’s been quite an exhausting process, taking quite a lot of mental and physical stamina to create this album and get it out there. So I’m super proud of it.
Does the record benefit from having this structure, do you think?
Definitely. I think it’s a mixture of that, and the excitement of getting out of the UK to record it in a place that I had never been to before. Working with someone like Ben Allen was very exciting, and he really understood what I was like as well. In terms of how competitive I was with myself. I think he got the best out of me in the studio.
Ben Allen has an enormous range of experience, is that something you wanted to tap into?
Oh completely. Ben came highly recommended to me from friends, who drew a lot of similarities between me and him in terms of our influences or being occasionally a bit scatty with what we wanted to do. I really liked how on one hand he’d worked on the more commercial side of things – like Cee-Lo Green and stuff – and then on the other hand he’d done albums with Deerhunter and Animal Collective. There’s a huge difference there to the pop side of things.
And so I think that’s what I wanted from the album – I wanted to create a poppy, commercial album, but I wanted to come at it from an organic, left of field angle.
Those influences definitely come through. How complete was the record before you met with Ben?
Of the ten tracks that are on the album I’d say maybe two had some more writing done to them because Ben felt I could do better… and I appreciated his straight-talking. I really like that figure in a studio, to have someone with no bullshit. So there’s a couple of songs where he just went, nah you should change that. And it wasn’t a case of him going ‘let’s work on it together’ or anything, it was more just like: you go into that room and write something better. And I was like: oh… OK. Came back in and presented the ideas to him, and if it still wasn’t enough I’d go back into the room.
Where do you do your writing? Do you have a home studio set up?
For this album I was renting a studio in Liverpool, but it was a bit of a shithole to be honest! A brick room with no windows, and it was rather damp. It wasn’t the best place for writing songs, but I managed to power through it and see the daylight on the other side.
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‘Bad Boy’ is hilarious, what prompted that song?
It was about this theme of growing up that’s on the album, when you’re on the verge of adulthood. And it got me thinking about periods in life that probably a lot of people have shared or gone through or could relate to. Real character building moments. I think ‘Bad Boy’ is one of those, where it’s that phase of teenage life where either the girls wanted to be going out with a bad boy or the boys wanted to be the bad boy. It seemed to be a common rite of passage for a lot of teenagers. I felt like it was quite funny to look back at that.
Were you a bad boy, Dan?
I was, briefly… for a day! And then I horribly regretted it.
What were you like as a teenager? Were you more focussed on music?
I wasn’t the best teenager. I was not very academic at all. Actually, I was thrown out of French, and that got me into music because my music teacher took me under his wing. Against the world, he was the one who helped me out a lot as a teenager, so he’s responsible for a lot of all of this, which is great.
Thrown out of French… but ‘Je Ne Regrette Rien’ eh?
(Laughs) I wish I knew what that meant!
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‘Away From Today’ seemed to amplify expectations, what’s the story behind that track?
That track was just about how we can all be our own worst enemy at times and how important it is to take a break and give ourselves headspace away from everything we’re doing. I think that the video shows that. It’s me trying to run away from myself because of this competitive streak, this drive to better myself as a musician.
The process of writing these songs - ‘room with no windows’ - it all got quite unhealthy for a brief period where I was really struggling mentally and not coping with all the pressure. There was this moment where I started realising that, and started giving myself breaks and actually went on holiday for a weekend, which is something I never really get to do. I came back slightly revitalised and inspired to write about that.
Do you feel like the music industry almost encourages unhealthy working habits?
Yeah! It’s something that’s been a big feature of my career so far, is a few dealings with those mental health issues because of my music… and after the first album being dropped, and trying to get back on my feet, deciding whether this is the occupation that I want and if I could cope with doing it my entire life. It’s tough to be so active on the internet – there’s this constant feeling of someone doing better, or leading a better life. It can get quite messy, to be honest. Again, that’s why it’s so important to switch off and step out of the matrix for a second.
And I suppose this album is you re-asserting control over those doubts, in a way.
Definitely. There was a breakthrough moment, after spending a year not knowing a lot of things, like where I was, who was helping finance things. I was very much entirely on my own. When I’m on my own it’s not so much just me, it’s me having to provide for six or seven of my closest mates – so it can be a lot of pressure as a solo artist. But yeah, this is the moment where I manage to get back on my feet and get back at it, really. Go for it again.
As a songwriter do you see things through to completion, or do you draw from scattered ideas left here and there?
I’m pretty terrible at finishing songs. I usually go through writing loads of half-songs and then – depending on which half is best – I go back to it and try to finish it off. I don’t know why I do that but it’s a weird thing that I seem to write intros, verses, and choruses, and then stop. And probably get distracted by something. It’s usually this thing of writing loads of half-songs and then if the first half is good enough then yeah, I’ll write a second half.
So you’ve got a hard drive full of half completed songs?
Tonnes and tonnes of half songs, yeah!
You’ve just played Heaven, how does it feel to be back out there playing new material to fans?
Yes, massively. It’s energising and kind of nerve-racking at the same time. Right before you go on you’re more nervous than ever, because it’s so new – not only to fans but also to yourself and the band. The past month or two have been a real rollercoaster of a few gigs, testing the water, and seeing reactions. It’s all been really good and we started off the festival season a couple of weeks ago.
It’s a great time of year to be putting new music out there because people at festivals are already on such a high and it’s really easy to gauge reactions and feel really good about it in a sense.
To finish, what’s the one thing you’ve learned from this record that you didn’t learn on your debut?
I think one thing I’ve learned is to just take breaks, to be honest. To give myself a bit of a break. I almost think the pressure can lead you to a pretty dark place. You look at some of these great songs that have been written, they’re about people who’ve been in real tough places with mental health or substance abuse and all that kind of thing. It’s like, woah, these are very real songs!
And then you start writing songs and it’s like, I’ve not really felt anything like that. Maybe I should feel that a bad place is a good place for a songwriter – but it definitely isn’t. I’ve learned that! For now, I’m all good.
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'Emerging Adulthood' is out now.