My first exposure to you came from listening to the song ‘Churchill’ from a recently posted Toadcast. Not recognizing the name, I was fairly certain you were not Scottish. This doesn’t automatically preclude me from paying attention but as this is a Scottish music blog it was something I intended to put off until later. That evening, I kept repeatedly going back to the sessions to listen to the songs. I can’t remember the last time I’ve found someone’s singing so compelling. I had to work you into our blog somehow. Beyond what can be seen in the clip, what can you tell us about that experience in the Toad’s living room?
“Well, seeing as how this was a year and half ago, I can’t remember too much about it in terms of specifics. I remember Matthew making me a nice whiskey and then we did the songs and then an interview. Then we all went to the pub afterwards. This was the night after I had played a packed out little show at Henry’s Cellar Bar with Withered Hand which was very special to me. I am such a fan of Dan’s music and getting to sing “For the Maudlin” with him at the show and hear him live was really a great experience.”
One of the things I first read when I did do a little investigation was your explanation of how your own surroundings influenced your music. It has become pretty clear just how much of Scotland finds its way into the music that we champion. Each time I do discover an artist from Oklahoma, I have a feeling that something similar is happening there. Did you sense an affinity or similarity between the Scottish environment’s musical impact and that of your own experiences back home? (as much as that is possible to gauge from a tour and visit)
“I don’t know if I can actually say much to this. I think it would be unfair of me, as an outsider, to say, in response to my short time in Scotland, “Well Scotland is overcast so all the music sounds this way…” or some weird, overarching conclusion like that. I’m sure if I spent any amount of time there talking to musicians, I would find the same similarity between environment and creativity. I think it is like that everywhere. Unless you are locked up in a room all day, the city, the town, the place you are in is going to affect what pours out of you…and even in the room, the room will affect you. We are sensory based beings and artists are purposely even more in touch with what they are sensing.”
Your session was recorded by Neil Pennycook. Did you happen to bring back any ‘Meursault’ records or ‘discover’ any other artists while there?
“I don’t think I knew Neil was in a band called Meursault until you just asked me this question. I will have to listen to their music! I did, however, start listening to King Creosote after my trip there because Mike MacFarlane, who opened the show we did at Henry’s, played a King Creosote tune and I liked it and so I’ve dived into that a bit and have really enjoyed those songs.”
I found this clip from King Tut’s. I have read that a Glasgow crowd can, on occasion, be ‘tough’. You certainly have their rapt attention here. What was the reception like overall? I’m curious if you found any perceptible differences between a Scottish crowd versus one from Manitoba?
“That Glasgow show was really fun! I didn’t get the feeling that the crowd was humming about or getting too drunk at all. It might have also helped that I was on tour with First Aid Kit (friends of mine, a folk duo of sisters from Sweden) and they always have a polite audience. All my shows in Europe, including England, Scotland, and Ireland, and Canada, have been really positive. I feel like people go to certain places to listen to music and then when they want to get rowdy they go to another place. Actually the toughest shows to play are in the USA. And I can’t tell if people just don’t care as much, or if its because the venues that have live music are also known places to just hang out. So end up having this real mix of people, some who are there to hear the band, and some who are there to socialize. Also, I didn’t notice TVs in very many music venue/bars in Europe, UK or Canada….there are TVs in so many bars and venues over here in the US, and that is my main enemy in keeping a crowds attention.”
I found this nice review of your 2011 opening for Withered Hand in Edinburgh. How did that show actually come about?
“I played at Henry’s Cellar Bar in Edinburgh with Withered Hand. Matthew, from Song by Toad, had been writing blogs every once in a while about my albums since my very first EP, so when I was on tour in the UK, I contacted him to see if he could put together a show in Edinburgh for me and I really wanted to see if Dan could play because I’m such a fan of his. So that show was really great for me. It is always nice to be able to play with bands and songwriters you look up to and that is what that show was for me.”
In a bit of further geographic irony, (as if having to go to Edinburgh to discover an artist from Oklahoma wasn’t enough) when the LP arrived I learned that it was recorded, practically down the street, in San Francisco. How fully formed were the songs before the recording commenced? Were there any changes that came about during the recording process?
“I came into the studio with the songs all written and ideas for them, but the fun and magic of this record came with the fact that all the musicians (all friends of mine from Oklahoma or present band members) and John Vanderslice, hadn’t really heard them. So the parts that were written and the production ideas really were the first gut instinct. And I like gut instincts. Especially when it comes to recording. Laboring over a song and its production and arrangement just isn’t my style. Vanderslice made sure I kept the basic simple integrity of the “singer-songwriterness” of the songs but made good and intelligent tweeks to song endings or repetitions or instrument addition and subtraction to, ultimately, make it sonically interesting for the listener.”
‘Churchill’ leads off side B. I’m turning over the record now and after another listen I’m struck how appropriate and subtle the music is. It is an observation that applies to record as a whole. Is the song title a specific reference?
“I wrote “Churchill” sitting in this room in my house that had piles and piles of books. There were these two big books standing side by side that kept staring me down. It was two volumes out of the Second World War histories by Winston Churchill, “Their Finest Hour” and “The Grand Alliance”. I had hit a long period of writer’s block and felt very out of character with the self-seeking opportunist that I had thought myself to be all my life. This change in demeanor and personality felt much like a war inside my brain and heart and so these book titles seemed worthy of being worked into the lyrics of the song I was writing and then I slapped “Churchill” on as the title to pay homage to those volumes wedging me out of the writer’s block.”
After the first listen it was fairly apparent what a nearly flawlessly perfect record ‘Kid Face’ is. The intimacy of a living room session is conveyed throughout. I still have not listened to it enough times to keep from marveling just how incredible it is. As much as I love the vocals, the music is equally evocative and compelling. Your guitar playing and the embellishments that spring from that are equally noteworthy. Did this all just come about naturally? What do you think has helped set up this deeply expressive balance?
“It did come about naturally. For me, the record I make is a very intimately direct picture of the state of my mind and life. The Confiscation EP, that I wrote when I was 19, was raw and full of imitation. Songs In the Night was written when I was 21 and when I had a steady band and we all lived and played and worked together. It was cohesive and polished. You (Understood), I wrote when I was 23. I was emotional, unpredictable, confused and the record is the same. And then we come to Kid Face. I wrote it when I was 25. I’m in a good quiet spot in my head. I can think clearly and have control. This record is restrained in the same way. It is a picture of the quietness, clarity, restraint, and control that I feel in my life right now.”
Despite its brevity, the recent Rolling Stone ‘review’ contains this sterling insight – “The emotion in her tone is a dissertation”. When did you first start singing? Was there a guitar in your hand from the beginning?
“I will say “yes” because the first time I started being aware of my singing or singing as an expression was when I started playing guitar. Something about having an instrument with me allows me to sing with impulse and freedom. Without an instrument, I am much more cautious in singing.”
I’ve enjoyed listening to the digital press album quite a bit these past few weeks, but was still caught by surprise just how much better it sounds on vinyl. Given the record’s dynamics that stands to reason. Are you a vinyl aficionado?
“Yeah! I’ve been listening to vinyl since I was a kid. We’ve always had a record player in the house. And given that the recordings on Kid Face never went through a computer in the studio, I can see how vinyl would be its natural environment. The subtleties of the manipulations and frequencies that Vanderslice was conjuring in the studio are best displayed on vinyl. I feel like you hear the whole picture.”
I recently ‘discovered’ another Oklahoma band via the enthusiastic praise of ‘The Seventeenth Century’ who played with ‘Other Lives’ in Scotland. I did manage to uncover ‘Colourmusic’ on my own. Is there anyone else we should investigate?
“Other Lives. Amazing. Colourmusic. Amazing. Keep your ears open for Parker Millsap, he’s a 20 year old wiz at folky blues and sounds like Robert Johnson and Tom Waits and William Elliott Whitmore all rolled into one. I have high hopes for him. Also, Penny Hill, who sometimes plays bass for me, she is an amazing guitar player, songwriter, and singer.”
You will be heading into SXSW soon. Keep your eyes open for Washington Irving. Is there anyone there you are hoping to see play? In fact, I’d love to hear your reaction to this song ? (note: sadly Washington Irving had to cancel after sending these questions but Mr. and Mrs. Toad are there right now, presumably causing mayhem)
“Oh what a rad band! I will try to see them. But SXSW is a mess for me and I’m usually very overwhelmed and don’t know what to do and don’t know how to have fun there. So I’ll probably just end up hiding out towards Dripping Springs, coming in when I have to play, then retreating again. My friends, Frontier Ruckus, have an amazing saw player in their band so I always have a soft spot for that.”
I keep trying to come up with a Scottish artist I might find comparable. This is more of an emotional connection, but I keep coming back to Panda Su. I would certainly say that you are both singer song writers with an engaging vocal style that resonates on an emotional level slightly more deeply than most. What’s your take on this song?
“You really have to stop showing me videos of bands or I am just going to stop playing music! She’s good!”
I’m most likely projecting here but a situation that I imagine has occurred frequently on tour is someone coming up after a show and telling you how moved they were. Have you gotten used to that yet?
“Yeah sure I’ve gotten used to it, but I still haven’t figured out the perfect gracious response. I mean I hope people are moved, I don’t do this all for myself. But I’m still trying to understand what it is that people want to hear back. And maybe that is just “thank you”.”
Now that the record is out and the tour seems to be winding down: what’s next? Of course, what I’m really asking is how long before we can reasonably start looking forward to your next SF show?
” TOUR WINDING DOWN!? what are you talking about? The record is out which means touring BEGINS! Just because there aren’t a lot of dates posted doesn’t mean we aren’t planning things. Its hard to get venues to let you play these days unless you have costumes and a few synths and a review in Pitchfork so we’re trying to book shows, really we are…SF will be happening soon I hope.”