Interview: Dan Layus
Having left Augustana behind, this alt-country star has rekindled his love of songwriting and is ready to own his name
It’s slightly misleading to call the new record by country musician Dan Layus his debut release. Having been the frontman and driving force behind American roots-rock band Augustana for 12 years, he is already responsible for a healthy catalogue of broad-sweeping anthems. Though still ostensibly an Augustana record, 2014’s Life Imitating Life was essentially a Layus solo album, with the songwriter continuing to use the name one last time after a parting of ways with his bandmates.
What’s more accurate is to call this a fresh start for Layus. Now settled in Tennessee, Dangerous Things is sparse, raw and without studio trickery, augmented only by the harmonies of The Secret Sisters, and is the most focussed creation of his career to date.
With Layus touring the UK we decided to give him a call and find out a little more about the album…
What it always your intention to make Dangerous Things much more stripped-back than your previous work?
“It was a very deliberate effort to strip it back, both on the record and live. I wanted to take away some of the unnecessary sonic elements and only keep the things that needed to be in each song. I feel very confident about that aspect of the record.”
Did that change the way you wrote the songs?
“Yeah, it definitely had something to do with it. As the writing progressed and I realised that I wanted it to be more stripped-back, I was a little more comfortable with writing songs in a way where I wasn’t thinking about how the drums were going to sound or how it was going to work rhythmically. Instead, it was about going with the feel of it and seeing where that took the songs. That certainly did have a driving force behind how the compositions actually rolled out in each tune.”
“THIS IS A RARE MOMENT IN MY LIFE AND CAREER WHERE I FEEL VERY CONFIDENT IN MY CHOICES”
Something that intrigued us from the press release was you saying, “Things started to make sense you started to stop treating songwriting as songwriting.”
“Yes, and that was a challenge in and of itself. If you’ve been doing one particular thing, not just songwriting but anything, for long enough you end up becoming a bit lackadaisical and you forget that at some point there was a passion behind it. It was important for me to let go of that term ‘songwriting’ or the idea that I am a ‘songwriter’ and just be myself around a piano or a guitar and see what happens.”
Does that mean there were some false starts before the album arrived at a place where you were happy with it?
“You know I felt like it got to a place that I wanted it to get to pretty quickly. This is a rare moment in my life and career where I feel very confident in my choices, especially the creative aspects. I allowed myself to be a little bit more vulnerable on the record, sonically and lyrically, and I feel that this is actually the most comfortable that I’ve ever been.
“It’s funny, when I’m not hiding anything, that’s when I’m most comfortable. Which is a strange thing, but that’s what you’re supposed to do I guess. If you’re going to call yourself an artist you have to paint a self-portrait which shows all the flaws that you feel.”
One song which stands out from that sense is Only Gets Darker.
“Yes, absolutely. That one was certainly taken from personal experience and feelings. Sometimes the only way to get to a resolution is to take action in your own hands and not wait for somebody else to solve the problem. In my life that’s how it’s always had to work. That’s where that song is coming from.”
Do you think songwriting helps you with that process of resolution?
“It’s a very cathartic process for me, at least recently. It goes back to the whole idea of writing a song for the purpose of writing a song rather than because it’s something that you feel that you must do. I’m at a place where I feel like even if I didn’t professionally do music any more I would still write songs. I’m inescapably a songwriter, it’s not an obligatory mission it’s an unavoidable one.”
Does the personal nature of the album make you more concerned about how people will react to it?
“It’s been good to let go of that and just be happy with it myself, rather than how it’s been responded to by the audience, folk in the songwriting community or the press. This is the first time I feel that way. I can go to sleep at night and be okay.”
That feeling must help you know that the decisions you’ve made up to the point have been the right ones?
“To keep it black and white, yes. There are grey areas in there; I look back on my career choices and life choices and there are things that I regret or wish that I would have handled differently. That being said, I think it all led to the right place and I guess that’s how it goes. So today, yes it was right.
“I didn’t break up Augustana, the band dissolved naturally and mutually. That was hard and took a while to get through. I decided to keep the name going for a while because I didn’t know what else to do but I eventually built up enough confidence with this record to say ‘you know what, even if I lose my entire fan base it has to be worth it because it has to be under my name.’
“We have to able to move forward and try something new, not just rest on our laurels and what’s comfortable. I know that I can always continue to play that catalogue of songs that I’ve written over the years, but it was time to take ownership. If I was going to continue to make music I needed to own my name and be okay with however that shakes out. It’s good and I feel okay about it.”
“I’VE COME TO EXPECT NOTHING FROM ANYONE BUT MYSELF AND MY IMMEDIATE CREW”
Are there things you miss about being in a band?
“For the last five years under the name Augustana I was essentially operating like a solo artist and so the transition hasn’t been as earth-shakingly brutal as I thought it would be. I’ve become used to carrying the weight of a name and a catalogue on my own for a number of years. So in that way, it’s been a very smooth transition.”
Does that make it more exciting when you get into the studio and work with people like The Secret Sisters?
“Absolutely. The freedom of being able to work with someone like The Secret Sisters, or any musician or artist, outside of the band is wonderful. At that point, you don’t have to pass ideas through and get them approved by multiple band members. That said, it’s also good to have that support system. People come with their good and bad but I think in the long run it feels very good to be able to make those choices in the studio.”
Do your songs tend to evolve much in the studio or stick to your blueprint?
“On this particular album it was a very quick recording. I didn’t need it to evolve so much, I wanted it to be very much in the moment, realistic and emotive in an immediate sense. “
We can hear Tom Waits and gospel on some of the tracks. How much does the music of other artists influence your writing?
“That’s all in there and some traditional country. Guys like Don Gibson, George Jones and Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline. There are so many more, the list goes on; Dwight Yoakam, Gary Stewart, Ray Charles’s Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music. It’s also guys like Randy Newman and The Carpenters that I’m taking some influence from as well, 70s singer-songwriter type stuff as well. That’s all mixed through my own eyes and ears and interpreted in my way.”
Does living in Nashville also have an influence?
“I can’t deny that living in Nashville has certainly had an influence on the outcome of the writing and how everything sounds. It kind of gets into your blood a little bit, as far as the way you write songs and the people you want to play with and have on your records.”
Do you have a different expectation in terms of what you want the album to achieve?
“I don’t mean this in a cynical way but I don’t really know what to expect any more. I’ve come to expect nothing from anyone but myself and my immediate crew. I expect that I will go out and work as hard as I can to get the music to as many people as I can, whatever avenue that takes. That’s where my expectation is.
“As far as how it’s received, I don’t know. I feel like I’m at a place where my priorities are in the correct order and this shouldn’t be my number one concern. At one point that was all I cared about, how my album was received and how many people were at my shows. It feels nice to let go of that and know I’m doing the right thing for myself and the music. The rest will be taken care of by the music gods.”
Dangerous Things is out now. Find out more at danlayus.com