The American actor, singer-songwriter and playwright Jeff Daniels joins our good friends at Sodajerker to talk about his songwriting process
oining Sodajerker’s podcast this time is an actor, singer-songwriter and playwright, who’s probably best known for his notable roles on the silver screen over the last 33 years. But he’s also been prolifically writing songs and playing guitar for as long as he’s been a professional pretender (as he puts it) He’s also recorded a number of fine albums, the most recent of which Days Like These was released a couple of months ago, we’re absolutely thrilled to welcome the awesome Jeff Daniels to the show.
Born in Athens, Georgia in 1955, but raised in the town of Chelsea, Michigan, Jeff picked up the guitar not long after graduating from high school, before the acting bug led him to study theatre at Central Michigan University. After moving to New York City in 1976 to pursue his acting career in earnest, he attended a concert by the late folk musician Steve Goodman and his hold over the audience, in spite of the fact he was performing completely solo, made a deep impression on Jeff and was something he would draw on many years later, when he became a performing musician himself.
But, before that came the movies, of course. Jeff’s breakout role was in the 1983 comedy drama Terms Of Endearment, playing Debra Winger’s philandering husband. Dual roles in Woody Allen’s Purple Rose Of Cairo quickly followed. Since then Jeff has established himself as one of the most beloved, dependable actors in the business and has delivered strong, varied turns in a string of memorable films, not least Something Wild, Arachnophobia, Speed, Dumb & Dumber, Pleasantville, The Squid And The Whale, Good Night, And Good Luck and Looper.
Back to the music, Jeff began performing his songs in 2002 as a way of raising money for the upkeep of the Purple Rose Theatre, which he founded in 1991 in his hometown of Chelsea. He released his first album, Jeff Daniels Live And Unplugged in 2005, which is a great calling card for his country and blues-inflected style, and a second long-player followed in 2006, entitled Grandfather’s Hat. Following his 2007 album, Together Again – a collaboration with Jonathan Hogan – he served up a second live album, Jeff Daniels Live At The Purple Rose Theatre, and put out the album Keep It Right Here in 2010.
So, without further ado, it’s time to talk to songwriting with Jeff Daniels…
When did you start the writing process for the latest record Days Like These?
“The recording process is easy to pin down, but the writing has been mostly over the last five years or so. But Days Like These I probably wrote in 1988 and California was probably early 90s. I’ve got this notebook full of songs – some of them are crap, you’re not going to play them for anybody, but you’ve got to write that one to get to a good one. I’m kind of always writing.”
What do you recall about the writing of the song Holy Hotel?
“It’s probably triggered by all the religious wars we’ve got going on still, and we’ve certainly had them for centuries. I’d read a book called the History Of The Arts and saw what the Catholic church had done in the 14th century. Nobody’s immune here – with all the stuff that’s going on with terrorism in the name of religion and certainly what people do in the name of Christianity. So it just seemed to be a big huge charade and you come to that and think, ‘I think I’ll check out of this holy hotel and kind of live every day, instead of being at the mercy of some Sunday morning doctrine.”
Do you try and keep a log of interesting things that you hear in your notebook?
“I think writers do that. I write plays a lot too for my theatre company and the radar is always out, 24/7. And when you hear something, it might be for a play or a song. There was a song I wrote years ago when I was doing a movie with Ryan Reynolds. We were shooting in this little house and there was no room, so we were passing each other in the hallway. We kind of did one of those things when you try and go round each other, but go the same way and Ryan says, ‘Why don’t we just take our pants off and relax?’ So I was going ‘Take a note, take a note’ and it became a song. I actually get the audience to sing-along.”
Obviously the guitar’s very important to what you do?
“When I moved to New York City to be an actor and I bought a guitar – a Guild D40. I threw it in the back of the car and took it with me. I’d done musicals and taken a little piano, but I wanted to learn to play guitar – it was as simple as that. When I got to New York, off Broadway I was with the Circle Repertory Company and there were a lot of playwrights walking around. For a young actor who’d done plays by Shakespeare, Molière, Gibson and O’Neill, you just go, ‘They’re all dead!’ Then you go to New York and you walk in and there’s Lanford Wilson, among other playwrights, sitting there trying to rewrite a second act. And you’re going, ‘My God, they live and breathe!’
“I fell in love with that whole writing process. I was surrounded by all those writers and I wanted to do that, and the place that I could actually get a result was with a guitar – I could write a song. Then I’d pay attention to the songwriting, not just melody. I started picking up on guys like Arlo Guthrie, Steve Goodman, John Prine and those guys were actually paying attention to the words, just like the playwrights did. So I chased that. I knew I couldn’t get a play on Broadway, I knew I couldn’t write a movie and get that done, but I could write a song in my apartment and get that done. So that became this wonderful creative outlet that a lot of musicians and songwriters have. It’s kind of what kept me sane during all those years – and still even now – waiting for the phone to ring. If you’re an actor you can go nuts, or creatively you can go to sleep, and to have a guitar and to writing, or be working on, the next song can be sanity.”
“When you get it right, it sounds so great and you’re at one with it. And then when you write something that just works, it’s the joy of creating. It’s what artists do. It doesn’t happen the way you want to all the time, no matter what you’re creating, but in my case with a song, when it does work you’ve got it forever.”
With the guitar being your main writing instrument, do you ever experiment with writing on other instruments like the banjo or the mandolin?
“I bought a banjo, open G. I can play it. I usually just whip it out to give certain songs a different feel during a live show. I didn’t pursue it. Time I’d spend working on the banjo is time I should be spending on getting better at the guitar, so that’s how I funneled it down. I bought a cigar-box guitar. They’re great. Three strings, you plug them in… I ended up writing a song called Oh So Close But No Cigar about the worst guy in the world that you’d ever want sitting next to you in a bar if you were a woman. It’s this guy just putting all the moves on her and he doesn’t get anywhere near.”
There was a blog post on your website about songwriting that said: ‘Tell me a story, tell it with structure, unpredictability, originality, a point of view only you have, and then that shared piece of art in the end will change them.’ Can you think of any examples of your songs that achieved that?
“That’s the goal. Sometimes it’s just to get a laugh, but sometimes it’s the one that stays with them, that connects with them. Grandfather’s Hat is a song that does that – it’s a song about missing a loved one. People have come up and said they have their mother’s necklace, their aunt’s bracelet and they’re crying when I play that, so that’s one of them.
“Mile 416 is one. That’s a song about driving down through Montana, nothing but prairie. I was driving across country by myself, and I went past one of those crosses by the side of the road, where someone had ‘bought it’. I just got the legal pad out, kept driving and wrote this song about this person I’ll never meet.”
What’s your relationship to the blues?
“It’s certainly educated me on where American music begins, I think. When you go down to Mississippi, to Clarksdale and you go to Robert Johnson’s grave and, like me, you stand over his grave and play the song I wrote Forgive Me, Robert Johnson, you’re making the pilgrimage – you’re going back to where it all began. You honour that and it starts to filter through and then you learn the blues scales. For me, it made songwriting fun – it didn’t have to be serious. It got sexy and dirty, like the blues did, they took it out of the churches and made it dirty. I liked all that.”
It would seem you’re always expressing yourself creatively one way or another, whether that’s writing songs, or plays or acting, or whatever it might be. Would you agree with that?
“Yeah, I just have to keep creating. Jim Carrey and I were talking about that – he paints and that’s what he can control. We can’t control when the phone rings to go act in something, but we can paint, we can write a song, we can write a play. That’s what I do and I think that’s my ‘normal’ – I’m working on something. It doesn’t have to be intense, but as long as there’s something you’re working on.”
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Liverpool-based duo Sodajerker, who now have over 60 episodes under their belt. Established in 2012 by songwriters Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M. Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright, KT Tunstall and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the full 60-minute interview with Jeff Daniels – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them via www.facebook.com/sodajerker or www.twitter.com/sodajerker, or download the podcasts from iTunes.