Songs of Endearment: Jeff Daniels at the Chelsea Alehouse
It was a sunny afternoon in late April, and as I sat across from Jeff Daniels in the room above his Chelsea recording studio, the sounds of a band practicing below drifted up the stairs, permeating the room with the intoxicating sounds of a particularly tight jam session. (Perhaps it was son Ben's band?)
Daniels is a busy man, but on this day he looked relaxed. He just wrapped-up a series of three sold-out, word-of-mouth concerts at the Chelsea Alehouse, each one drawing a bigger crowd than the last. For loyal patrons of the popular Chelsea watering hole, it was an irresistible opportunity to experience another side of a renowned local talent in a cozy, intimate setting.
For those unfamiliar with the musical side of Daniels' career, there's a distinctive streak of Americana to it -- or as he put in on that crowded Saturday night, "Whatever it is that I do up here." A self-taught musician with a playful sense of humor on stage, the actor-cum-musician fuses folk, blues, and country with a talent for telling particularly vivid, often hilarious, tales.
Though his formidable guitar skills give him the distinction of being a musician, his well-honed talent for holding an audience rapt reveals him to be -- as his other endeavors on stage and screen suggest -- a natural-born storyteller.
As is the case with his play and film Escanaba in da Moonlight, there's an unmistakable aspect of cultural preservation to Daniels' music. Songs like "Big Bay Shuffle" and "Michigan, My Michigan" display a deep-rooted desire share his personal experiences with the world at large.
Meanwhile, his distinctive fingerpicking style -- perfected with years of practice and occasional lessons from talented friends like Keb' Mo' -- can range from delicate and unobtrusive in his more introspective songs, to outright rollicking when he decides the room could use a bit more energy.
Though focused intently on editing a video when I first arrived, Daniels was quick to change gears once we sat on opposite ends of his fluffy studio couch. With the songs from the Saturday night show still ringing in my head, I was particularly eager to learn what inspires the esteemed actor as a musician and discover his secrets for engaging an audience when there's no safety net or script to follow.
Q: Thanks for a great show last Saturday night. We really enjoyed ourselves and it looked the like rest of the crowd was, too.
A: Thanks! The solo show is really hard to do because there's no "take it!" There's no one else. So, there's an art to that. There's a challenge to that -- how to hold 'em and the set list. It's easier to play with a band, so I like the challenge of having a place in town where I can go do that and keep my chops up because I enjoy that solo show. I go around the country with it, so it's a great place to keep it fresh. I've been playing out 15 years.
Ben's band plays (at the Alehouse) and Jason Dennie -- I love Jason, he's such a great player. And Thunderwude -- they did a New Year's Eve show and I had played out with Ben's band; we did some tours of the East Coast and stuff, it was great -- it was fun! So, I had done the New Year's Eve show at The Purple Rose and (the Alehouse) asked if I wanted to come over, and I was like, "Oh, what a fun idea!" So, I did it once; the next year, I did again. I think this is maybe the second or third year I've done it, but I just had a ball. So, I was aware of the room, and New Year's Eve is a different gig, but (it's like) Woody Allen (playing) Michael's Pub over on the east side of New York City -- I don't know if he still does -- weekly. (In 1985) he's in New York shooting The Purple Rose of Cairo, which I was in, and if it's Monday, we're getting off at about 5 o'clock in the afternoon because he's playing Michael's Pub on Monday nights. He's got a Dixieland band and he plays clarinet, and he would do that at Michael's Pub because it was around the block from his apartment. Proximity dictates, so I thought there's the Alehouse, maybe that's my Michael's Pub. I don't know, we'll see.
We set up (at the Alehouse) for three Saturdays, every two weeks. This third show was the better show, better set list.
Q: The flow had the feel of a great mixtape.
A: I've been on stage a lot. Broadway. You can feel when you lost them and when you're locked in that play -- that's it. You're locked into that play, that script, that's it. You know, the first two scenes of the second act are heavy lifting because you just played it for a month and a half, and they are every single night. But if you have control over that ... with me it's always been about, why are they here? What did they really want to see? I mean, if you want to see a great guitar player, go see Will Kimbrough Thursday night at The Ark -- which I'm gonna -- or Keb' (Mo'), or Kelly Joe Phelps. Them! That! I wanna do that!
So, that means I've got to entertain them. They've seen my movies; they've seen me on TV. That I can play, and I can have fun with it, I think is part of why they come. ... I led with a lot of comedy because you're in a bar on a Saturday night and it's their night out. If you're going to go up there and navel gaze in the key of A minor, then perhaps this isn't the night for you. So, the first gig was kind of like that. It's been almost a year-and-a-half since I'd really played out, and that was jumping back into the ocean, but the second and third gigs I was going, "OK, I know what they want." And I haven't played those (songs) in a long time, either, so here they come, "Have a Good Life, Then Die" and "Dirty Harry Blues." It's fun and it's weird because you know you're not James Taylor, you know they're not waiting for "Fire and Rain" because you don't have it. You don't have anything like that. But there are people who look forward to hearing "Recreational Vehicle." The CDs are out there, or that's the one that stuck, and so that's interesting to me.
There's three songs that you get to convince them. If they've never seen you,and don't really know what this is except we're here and it's Saturday night and how bad can it be. It's three songs before the shoulders drop and they relax, so there's kind of a moment where, "OK, are you with me? Everybody's with me now. Great!"
Q: So, it sounds like you leave some room for flexibility in your playlist.
A: The night you saw, I swapped out one. I'd written a song called "Real People, Not Actors," which is based on the Chevrolet commercials. You know, the rotating groups of five people who are all looking at Chevy trucks. They insist, Chevrolet does, of inserting that little white card with "Real people, not actors," which to most everyone means nothing. To me, it's offensive because it implies that actors aren't real people. That's the premise, and off I go with it. But I can't get the bridge right. I was working on that one all Saturday afternoon because it's got a nice blues thing in it that I ripped off from Joe Bonamassa (laughs). He's a friend. I got to meet him and he's a really nice guy. It was Norm's Guitar Shop in Tarzana, California. He was playing this great riff. And I'm going, "Yeah!"
Anyway, I was trying to get that ready for the show and I couldn't, so I slid "How 'Bout We Take Our Pants Off and Relax" in there. It was coming (along), but I just changed the placement (in the set list). When you don't have an intermission, you plant that one to give 'em a boost. And then you drop in a serious one.
Q: Speaking of that Chevy ad, can we talk about how you seek and discover inspiration? I heard your story about being inspired by a golf announcer.
A: It's in "Wicked World." David Feherdy. "That'll get the doors in your head slamming." (Saying) something like that after a guy missed a short putt -- Feherdy's so great! -- and you just "phhft" (mimes grabbing idea out of the air) and that's it! I was trying to work this one in, but it stayed with comedy. I was on a movie set and they were pushing us. They really wanted to get done by 7 o'clock because at 7:01 they went into triple overtime, so they're pushing, and the union guy that was doing the lighting stuff was walking by me and goes, "If they don't like this speed, they're going to hate my other one" and I literally grab it out of the air (for "Hate This Speed").
Q: That's how most of the ideas come to you?
A: You keep the antenna up. It comes mostly from playwriting. All the playwrights I hung around in the '70s and '80s New York City. I had never been around writers until then ... living, breathing writers who are all rewriting a second act. The way they talked and the way they looked at the world; the images and the words they would choose. It's like comedians going (deadpans), "That's funny. What you just did. That's funny." They never laugh, they just acknowledge it and look at the mechanics of why it's funny. Same thing with these playwrights. They would see an image, or describe something as only Lanford Wilson could describe what we both just looked at. And that fascinated me. The choice of words, the selection of words, the imagery.
Q: Maybe the cadence of the speech, even?
A: Lanford's plays are full of -- it's not poetic or poetry -- it's just ... only Lanford would say, "There are only a hundred of us." (A perplexed look washes over his face) What? After he had come to my theater company, he said, "There are only a hundred of us." And I'm going, "100 of us wha?" He goes, "People who would do this, and devote their lives to the art of theater and playwriting and also acting -- and stay in it." The artist end of it. When you make no money in it. None. Zero. Why do it in this world of capitalism and free market? What are you doing it for? Lanford says you do it because that's your art and that's what you have to do. It was just a high, high compliment from somebody who was far more of an artist than I was.
Q: Let's talk about collaboration. You recently collaborated with The Verve Pipe's Brian Vander Ark on the album Simple Truths. You said in previous interviews that you typically write your music solo but that Brian was one of the few musicians you could see yourself collaborating with.
A: Jim Fleming is my agent, and he was handling Brian and said, "You two guys should meet!" And once we did, it was like, we both like to write our own stuff, we're not interested in (collaborating) -- me even less than Brian because he's got Verve Pipe and has had success in that area. ... I just write to write -- and he has such a great pop sensibility from his (Verve Pipe) days and all that, (but) I think he just wanted to write differently.
I write by myself -- I write the plays by myself and write the songs by myself. The only thing is whether they're more diary, to put in the notebook for the kids to read later, or does it have a chance to fight its way into the set list? The listening room set list or the Saturday night at the Alehouse set list? Either one? That's kind of what I write toward now. Third is, nope I gotta write it because it's this really nice blues thing and the words don't work right, but into the notebook it goes and move on to the next.
If I'm gonna write with somebody, Brian's just such a nice guy and such a good writer and he understands it and let's give it a shot! We went back and forth, and I didn't think it would work, to be honest -- because of me. But we would e-mail back and forth, we would send guitar and vocal demos back and forth, and we would half-finish them. I paid more attention to the story of it, and he's great at grabbing a moment and writing about that moment. I loved "Behold the Brave," which was tough for him to write. It's about his dad, and now he's got his son, and he's coming to peace with his dad, his own father. That's just a father standing over his grandfather, and his father's casket, and that's the moment. So, he wrote about that backward and up to (the present). He's great at that.
From theater, I'm like, "There's a beginning, a middle, and here's the end, and something happens." Whether it's a button, whether it's a last great joke, whether it's a resolution of some sort. That's the world I come from and I have to fight against that. There's an awareness now because in a lot of my stuff there's just an ending. It's just what I've been doing for so many years.
Q: So, would you say that the collaboration altered your perspective as a songwriter in any way?
A: In the theater -- and I go by this as a playwright -- Arthur Miller said about his play, "I look forward to seeing what my work inspires in others." When I sit down with Brian, I go, "Here's the idea: 'Another American Down.'" We wrote that on a Saturday via e-mail, and we were recording it on Monday and it was mastered on Wednesday. It was the Dallas shooting. The Minnesota shooting. The Baton Rogue shooting. And let's not forget Ferguson. It's weekly. It's every 8 minutes.
So, bang! We're gonna write. And it was there. I just had (sings chorus) "Another American Down." The demo just goes through them, and I sent it to him and he came right back like three hours later with stuff that was, probably most of it, and we kicked that back and forth and found the bridge and it was just, "Get here on Monday!" That was cool. I loved that. That was, "I've started it and here ... (mimes handing it off) is this anything?" That's when it gets exciting.
And they were all like that! "Hard Right in the Rain" kind of went to him pretty much there. "Behold the Brave" there may have been a little reorganization but not much. So I enjoyed it! If you want to collaborate, don't send people a finished song! (Laughs) Start there! It was great fun to send something kind of half finished out there; what came back was always interesting.
Q: "Another American Down" is a very affecting song. It really captures a moment in time.
A: Yeah, it's time. This is when artists need to speak up, whether they want to or not. It's a lot easier not to. You stay off the internet that way. You don't instantly piss off half the country, but I remember Frank Rich was -- he executive produces Veep now -- but he was The New York Times' theater critic, and writing for New York magazine. It was six weeks or so after 9/11, and he had written, "Where are the artists? Where are the artists, now? The time is now."
(It's) the same thing (now). Whether it's "Another American Down" or one that we just recorded and put up on the website called "Hard to Hear the Angels Sing." That's about the election. I played it at this years' "Unplugged at The Purple Rose" right at the end, because you know you're gonna piss somebody off. There are a lot of people in this country -- fewer every day -- who are thrilled that he (Donald Trump) is the president. "OK, I'm not gonna even get into that." My thing is, I don't like the way he did it. As a nation, we lost class, and we lost decency and civility. We lost something when that won, so I wrote "Hard to Hear the Angels Sing," which was taken right out of a Kathleen Parker editorial in The Washington Post.
Because of all the vileness and the insults and the overt racism and the Hitler-esque rallies she just asked, "What are we watching?!" And then he wins! You know, "But when your freedom bells ring, it's hard to hear the angels sing." Because I don't like the way you did it. It's fun to write like that because it's my outlet. If I'm going to say something political, I'll do it. I'll just stay off Twitter. Do it through the art.
Q: Do you ever find there's a disparity between the songs you have in your head and the final product? Does it always come out as you initially conceived it, or do you have to make compromises to get it where you want it to be?
A: There are very few that just pop right out. Playwriting informs this. I know that when I write what I think is the song, it's the first draft. I may think it's the song, but the playwright in me is gonna go through five drafts of this thing. We're gonna kick the shit out of the second verse because it's not as good as the first half of the third verse and the bridge rhymes, but you just dig deeper. That's what playwriting teaches you. And maybe it warrants it, and maybe it's a throwaway, but I never let up on 'em, because the ones that went through that -- "Grandfather's Hat" -- I'll come back to 'em, and I won't change a word.
Q: No more tweaking and reshaping.
A: The ones that tell me that they're good songs are the ones where I play 'em 10-years later. "Across the Way" -- I wrote that in 1982. Haven't changed a word. There's no bridge in it, but it just (bobs his head as if he's feeling the groove fall into place), and you're going, "Wow!" That's right out of the theater. That's living off Broadway and I went to the apartment and wrote that.
I'll play others and I'll go, "No … third line of the second verse." But you know, not bad -- good song. But there's a speed bump in there somewhere.
Q: Can we talk about some of your earliest musical memories? The ones that shaped you as a musician?
A: I saw Arlo Guthrie in concert at the Masonic Temple in Detroit in 1971. The stories. He was doing a lot of "Hobo's Lullaby" and "Washington County." Acoustic guitar! (His face lights up) Oh, that's interesting. I like that. I'll go back to listening to Elton John and Led Zeppelin and James Gang and everything, but what was that acoustic guitar, and what's Stevie Goodman doing? What's that? That was funny!
When I got to New York, I saw Stevie Goodman at The Bottom Line because I was fascinated by one guy, a guitar, and the whole night. That's it. How is he able to do that? What's he doing? And then Christine Lavin. I saw her at The Ark, and I watched this woman, with an acoustic guitar that was bigger than she was, hold us. As somebody who's been in plays, holding an audience is a challenge, so I was fascinated by that. So they always kind of stayed with me -- those performances -- then you discover Doc Watson and Stefan Grossman and (John) Renbourn and all of those when you're in New York. I was drawn to that, and then you discover the blues scales and you go (the look of an epiphany washes over his face), "I had no idea! Highway 61?! What is that?!" And then you go into that and that's when it gets fun. Now I get it.
Q: So it was the role of the storyteller that appealed to you as much as the act of being a musician.
A: Arlo was funny! Those four -- Stevie, Arlo, Christine, and John Prine -- they were funny! It was OK to be funny! It was different than trying to win a Grammy or trying to be a rock star and trying to be "Here's another album of very serious songs." Comedy's always been a second-class citizen. It is at the Oscars. You're kind of "less." You're not a "serious" artist if you're doing comedy, and so I think there was kind of a resistance to "Oh, who's going to want to hear this ..." to "Wait a minute, I can be funny, too!"
I got to know Christine Lavin really well over the years. I told her, "You gave me permission to be funny." Because they're never gonna take me seriously! I'm an actor! I'd just rather do it for fun, and if I can entertain and make a little money at it -- great!
Q: There's a kind of honesty in comedy, though, so it makes sense that it could help a performer to form a bond with the audience. That certainly seemed to be the case last Saturday night!
A: Yeah, it's part stand-up. It's not unlike the movie career, which is Dumb and Dumber to Gettysburg to Newsroom. It's like this and so's the music, and it's fun to pull off both extremes in the same set. I like the challenge of that, and it breaks it up for (the audience)!
Here's the other thing you learn: Make 'em laugh and you soften 'em up., and then you drop in ...
Q: "Mile 416"?
A: "Mile 416." Boom! It's a bigger impact if you've softened 'em up, which laughter does. Physically it does that and it's just structure. That was fun. That's set-list fun.
Q: You take the music seriously without taking yourself too seriously. It's obvious to anyone who hears the music that you do take it very seriously.
A: I work very, very hard at it, but I don't have to make my living at it, which takes a huge pressure off how seriously you take it. I have the greatest respect for people who make a living at it however that can. They're the real artists -- of the acoustic guitar and that scene -- so I take it seriously because I want to be the best that I can be at it, and I've been working at it ever since I bought a guitar at Herb David and took it to New York in 1976 in my car. I'm gonna learn how to play this thing while I'm sitting in my apartment -- and I did. It's been 40 years!
Q: So, you're basically self-taught?
A: A lot of self-taught, and then tab books in the late '70s, early '80s. Doc Watson -- now here comes the alternating thumb -- Stefan Grossman, those tab books. Kenny Sultan. Just learning some of those. Now you're finger pickin' -- that's different than just the strummers. It's interesting to do certain picks from 1982 that you just pull out of a notebook. This is what you were doing back then. I was doing little self-taught rolls with the alternating thumb then. I was trying to figure out, "When did I learn to go back and forth?" I didn't play as much as I should have but I would still write. It was more just to keep myself sane, creatively, because you're not making it. You're off-Broadway, you're out of work -- and good news, you got a McDonald's commercial! You know? There were years of that, and you're there to be what? An actor? Creatively, the one thing you can control is playing the guitar today and writing this song that no one will ever hear. It doesn't matter. I can control that. I can't control anything else; whether they will call today or whether I will get the job, what they want. When you're struggling and trying to work your way up … creatively, that's what kept me sane.
It was a ladder-climb. Then Terms of Endearment and Purple Rose. Now we're into movies. Now you can start to breathe a little. But it was seven years before I did Terms. So you're not just sitting there doing whatever actors do when they're out of work and self-destructive. You're creating something, and that's where the interest in the writing kept going.
I met Stefan Grossman later at the Martin Guitar factory and he gave me a couple of lessons; and Keb' Mo', he's been here. I met him backstage at The Ark and we stayed friends. We wrote a song together a year ago. It was always about the writing. I love the writing, and the guitar and the songwriting. And eventually the playwriting in the '90s. It was like, "Oh! That's what I've been chasing!"
Q: You've faced plenty of challenges as an actor. What's the biggest challenge you've faced as a songwriter?
A: I was going to say deadlines, but if you gave me a deadline of tomorrow at 6 pm and I will write something … and it will probably be not bad -- maybe even better than that.
I think the greatest challenge now is that if you know when you've got a good lyric -- and vice versa -- and now you have to make sure that the guitar behind it is there. Because everything goes solo unless, "This is such a Ben's band song (to play on) and I just know that's what it's going to be and there it is." But I always try to find a way to play 'em solo because I'm always looking. So, if you've got a good lyric, you want the guitar to be fancy enough to match it. "50 Shades of Grey" was a good lyric. Funny. Earns its laughs. It's hard to play because there's a fancy little fingerpick thing going on. I waited until I had that down.
Or say you've got a really cool guitar thing -- you've got a phone full off riffs and you record them because you will never remember them! Then you go through and it just needs some lyrics. That's why you keep the radar out. You go back to Ryan Reynolds and "Pants Off." Then you realize you have that little blues thing and that's fun!
Q: So, would you say it's the lyrics or the instrumental that most often comes to you first?
A: There are more instrumental riffs floating in my phone... there are no lyric ideas. Those come. I have a friend named John Jeanette that I went to Central Michigan with. He was here a week ago. We were here for three days. We wrote some stuff. He had a couple of ideas, and we had started one together that we had written back and forth over the years. It's fun. I enjoy that. There's some good stuff in there! The three or four that we did, and that's the beauty of the studio. You can come over here and put it down. (Ben's wife) Amanda is singing on it and (Ben's bandmates) Wesley and Tommy are working on it, and Ben. So that's thrilling for John and for me!
That's one of the key songwriting things is, "Don't judge it!" Keb' is great about that. He kept saying "Great! Then we do this and that and then he sat on the cat." "Wait, sat on the cat?" "Don't worry about that. It's a placeholder, we'll come back to it.'
I knew what a placeholder was but to see him do that. We wrote it in an hour! We do that in the theater all the time -- fire the judge. It's basically, get out of your own way, stop acting in front of the mirror, don't be self-conscious. Don't judge it! Lowell Cauffiel was a Detroit News writer. True crime novelist. He's out in L.A. as a screenwriter now. Lowell said "Garbage in. First draft, garbage in." In the theater company we go, "I have an idea for a play, and I've written 10 pages." Write the other 90, get a beginning, middle, and end then bring it in. If you aren't going to go to 100 pages, don't bring it in because we don't want to hear about it. Get it in there. So that's Keb's philosophy, too. Go! Push! You give yourself permission to suck. You'll take out suck later.
Jason Buchanan is a writer and movie fanatic living in Ann Arbor.
Jeff Daniels will play the Chelsea Alehouse whenever he's in town and feels like performing. You can buy his music here. Visit Lifeinmichigan.com for Chuck Marshall's video interview and live photos of Jeff Daniels.