Dan Willson isn’t the man he was. His children have noticed. “Who’s this monk dad?” asked his daughter when she came back home for the first time after being away at university.

Willson, aka Withered Hand, tells me this at the very end of our conversation. For the last 40 minutes he has been tentatively discussing how life has changed in the last few years. Or rather, how he has changed.

“I don’t really know how to talk about this stuff,” the 48-year-old admits at one point as we sit in an Edinburgh cafe discussing life and death and feeling lost. But, fair play, he is having a go.

I had arrived to talk about the new Withered Hand album How To Love, a bold, confident record that’s his first for nine years. And we do. But there is so much more to talk about. Right from the off.

Why the nine-year gap between How To Love and his previous album New Gods, I ask casually as we sit down. Within a minute we are moving into deep water. “There are lots of reasons,” he begins. “I think for a while I was both struggling with my mental health and, I guess, having an underlying crisis of confidence. And also life was happening, for sure. We had a couple of unforeseen things happening and a few deaths close by. My younger brother died and a close friend [Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchison] died within a short time of each other.”

“But when I made the last record my mental health wasn’t great, I realise now. I was so inside it at the time. I was medicating left, right and centre. I think that’s probably the biggest reason I wasn’t showing up with another record.”

For a long time after his second album New Gods, released in 2014, Willson couldn’t write anything. Then out of the blue, just before the pandemic, singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams got in touch asking if he’d like to write songs with her. “I thought, ‘Has she sent that to me by mistake?’ Because things were not good in my mind.” But he agreed and soon they were writing together. And that in turn reignited his own creative drive.

“She’s a great person to just appear in my life,” Willson says. “Through starting songs with her – we’ve written an album’s worth of material – my own songwriting started to come out of a cave again.”

The result is How To Love, part-funded by Creative Scotland, which tackles faith, desire, despair and, as the title suggests, love. “I said to Tony [Doogan, the album’s producer], ‘I’m making an indie gospel record.’ I was kind of joking. But I think there is some truth in that,” Willson suggests.

It’s certainly a record that goes to dark places, yet if anything, it’s often joyous. “It’s good that you say that because I think it is a joyful record,” Willson agrees. “A lot of the lyrics are about getting off a destructive merry-go-round.”

Self-destruction, for the most part. “Over the last few years,” he begins, tiptoeing his way to an answer. “I’ve been like … I don’t know … I wouldn’t say I’ve had a midlife crisis, but I’m probably coming to some kind of reckoning. Reckoning with the past, reckoning with my own misdemeanours and ways of living that were destructive to people around me and to myself.

“In the process of doing that, I started to feel some positive emotions.”

Positive – is that how he feels today? “More days than not. I have other people to help me remember that. When I go on the stage I feel like I can forget myself. I can forget the washing machine of turds that’s going around in my head all the time.

“And also, if I’m playing with the band, I can look around and see these people and think this is actually happening right now and I’m part of it and that’s really good.” And this is a new thing? “I was never sober before. Never. Like hardly ever. So I was experiencing something else.”I’m not sure I understand what he’s saying. Does he mean that previously he was never sober when he went onstage? “Pretty much. And also in life.”

Ah. This is one of the things he is trying to find a language to talk about. He has struggled in the past with anxiety, depression and addiction, he explains. “I could say I have been in mental health recovery of one type or another for almost three years. And the difference in my life is profound, but it is contingent on ongoing work.

“I was wondering how to talk about this, but I am very grateful to other people who have turned their suffering into something that has helped me. It is possible. And also shame is part of the trap. I go to things like men’s circles as well and it is helpful to know that you can be less f***ed up … That’s it.”

Ask Dan Willson about his first musical memory and he’ll tell you about playing The Kinks and T-Rex on the family record player. “When I was a kid I used to be really obsessed with that thing. I used to play the records over and over again and scratch them and think it was a toy. But I can remember the labels in quite a lot of detail.”

Those were his parents’ singles. They had good taste? “I guess so. They weren’t musical. My grandad used to play the organ after retirement. We all used to have to sit around and listen to him play Moon River after a meal.

“If I was given special permission I was allowed to mess around on the organ as well. And just playing notes could make you feel a certain way.

“But I didn’t really learn to engage with music. At school I was chucked out of the orchestra for faking playing a trumpet.” And the school choir for “making funny voices”, he adds.

“I really loved music but I didn’t feel it was for me. I messed about with guitars a bit. When I first moved up here I was in a band with a good friend and I was the guy who would sing during sound checks but then at the gig they’d be like, ‘What happened to the backing vocals?’”

What did it take to get up on stage the first time? “I just remember shaking like a jelly. Actually shaking.” Did he get any pleasure out of it? “I must have. It was like pain and pleasure at the same time.”

Music was just part of Willson’s story. His parents belonged to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and he was brought up within that belief system and with the idea that the world was coming to an end. In his teens he rejected the movement. Instead of going to meetings he’d volunteer at the local history museum.

“I was thinking about the curator of that museum,” he says. “You know those people in your life … It could be a teacher or your uncle, someone who was a really good role model … They planted a little seed there. And you’re gonna trash the garden, you’re going to completely burn everything to the ground, but the seed will still be there somewhere. And so I have a lot of fond memories of the time spent with the curator of that museum.”

Not that Willson thought that at the time. “I was thinking, this is just a stopgap before I get old enough to drink and see girls and that stuff … which it was. I left that and went pretty bananas.

“And when people around me started to check out I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t feel great either. I’m feeling very self-destructive.’ But it’s funny. When you’re inside it you look around and think everyone is doing this.”

Was there a moment when he realised he needed to change? “Yeah. I ran to a meeting one time. I needed to get help and I thought, ‘I’m not going to stop running …’ And my mind was saying, ‘Stop running, turn around, get yourself back to behaving like a maniac.’ But I just kept running.”

Willson is reconsidering a lot these days, thinking again about the idea of faith, about a minister he met at his gigs. “Why would a minister come to my show?” he recalls thinking in the past. “Is he stupid or something? Where are all the messed up kids?’ That’s what I thought it was about.

“I don’t know … I think I’ve been missing it. Singing it and missing it. Often.”

These are the big questions. Life, death … “I was thinking about death from very early on.” Well, given his upbringing, that was probably built-in, I say. He nods. “‘By the way, Armageddon is tomorrow. What?' And I do know that there is a lot of stuff about love and peace and forgiveness. I didn’t get any of that. I feel like I’m in remedial class. But then people go, ‘But listen to your songs.’”

This album is called How To Love, I point out. “I almost put a question mark at the end. I think one of the things about learning something about how to love is noticing where I have been loved. I think in some of the stories that my mind can spin to me I overlook all the ways I have been loved and use that to justify an unloving mind.”

He laughs for a moment. “So, yeah, actually how to love. There’s a lot of isolated and confused men. I am. I can put my hand up.” Did he feel loved as a child? “I know my parents loved me the best they could have, being two mixed up kids themselves.”

We’re never adults, are we? “When does that happen? It’s going to happen …”

The truth is, of course, that he is loved. He moved to Edinburgh back in 1996 because his girlfriend was studying here. They’ve been together for 30 years. Their daughter is 21 and their son, 18. Something has been going right for him in all that time, I suggest. “I mean, really, you should be interviewing my wife. A lot of people carry us.” She’s always been there for you? “Propping up, shoring up,” he agrees.

And this is the thing, isn’t it? Despite everything, despite himself, Dan Willson has built a life. He is loved and with his music he does something he loves which in turn is loved. That’s beautiful, isn’t it?

“Being able to see the beauty through the suffering. What else is it about?” he asks. It’s a good question. One more before we go. What gets him out of bed in the morning?

“I get another chance at a day. And I get another sober day, which is really a different story as well for me.” That’s a story worth telling. I am so glad he has.

How to Love is released on April 28. Withered Hand play a launch gig at The Liquid Room, Edinburgh on the same date