Jeff Daniels: Actor, Songwriter

JEFF DANIELS is another one of those singer-songwriters who is also an actor.  This interview was recorded on Halloween, on the stage at Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta, Georgia.  Jeff Daniels was kind enough to perform a song for us.

Daniels does a great job of talking about the creative life.  He is a great songwriter.  His serious songs represent his best work.

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a great pleasure to welcome our special guest, fellow Michigander, Jeff Daniels. Thanks so much for making the time to do this.

Thanks, Paul.

Who is the real Jeff Daniels?

I have no idea. That would take, um, probably a team of psychiatrists to figure out. I mean, if you look at the acting career it’s certifiably schizophrenic. It really is (laughs) because you can go from Dumb and Dumber to, uh, to Gettysburg or Squid and the Whale – there’s a lot of people in between those two, those two or three people. So, uh, probably the music, uh, is probably the closest but even in the music I go wildly comic to very serious so I’m probably still in search of whoever that is.

Can you remember and tell us some of your earliest musical influences?

I remember getting Tumbleweed Connection, the Elton John album and I didn’t even know who Elton was. And the album jacket, the cover, intrigued me at a young age and I bought it and I just loved it. And I didn’t know why I loved it. I’d never heard anything like it. And I think a lot of it was Bernie – Elton’s playing but Bernie Taupin, the writing. As I look back, I started to look at the writers. I started to look at the story-tellers and then that led to guys like Arlo Guthrie who could tell a story and then weave a song into that story. Stevie Goodman – I saw Stevie Goodman at The Bottom Line in New York – amazed at what that guy did with just himself and a guitar. Christine Lavin. You know, lately, guys like Todd Snider. Todd’s got such a point of view. Only Todd can write those songs and they’re almost like you can’t cover them. So, and that’s what you look for in writing – guys that have a singular point of view.

Yeah. When I was listening to the album that I got of yours, I thought ‘this guy sounds like Steve Goodman and Arlo Guthrie.’ That is what I thought (laughs).

Yeah. My heroes. My early heroes. They really, they openedthe door for you can just have a guitar, and you can write funny and you can write serious back-to-back and that – and Christine Lavin was another one. I chased all those three people. They were, they kind of led the way for me.

Could you pick a favorite artist that influenced you?

No, probably not because I’m still probably trying to, uh, define what it is I do and it’s influenced by a lot of people. Then you get guys like Stefan Grossman who I’ve been privileged to have lesson from and have also studied him since the ‘80s – his tab books on finger picking and the whole deal. Then you get into the blues. You get guys like, you know, Lonnie Johnson, Skip James, Robert Johnson – all those guys and what were they singing about? What were they doing? Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee. I remember listening to them in the ‘80s. A friend turned me on to them. They’re all probably in there somewhere. There’s a – Lyle Lovett is a guy that, again, as a writer only Lyle could write that song that way. If I had to pick somebody present-day it would probably be Lyle.

Can you remember the first song that you wrote?

Yeah. It’s in my notebook. My big, huge notebook of everything I’ve ever written. Yeah. I think it was about my dog, my first dog and it’s god-awful. It’ll never see the light of day.


You do this tour. You have four albums to your credit thus far. So you’ve recorded, you’ve written songs, you’ve performed. Could you pick a favorite part of music?

I think the moment – and it happens in some of the older songs now that I’ve played a few hundred times – but it’s, uh, certainly that moment when you find you get on top of that new song. And it takes a bunch of performances in front of people to kind of give birth to it. But you get on top if it, you get the phrasing right, you get the guitar right and then it connects. And you see and hear from an audience that this thing that really was just an idea in your head weeks or months ago is now something that you will be playing on a regular basis because it connects with people you don’t even know. It’s that moment where that first connection happens, that new thing. That’s pretty cool.

In the liner notes to one of your albums you talk about how these songs are like a snapshot and you’ve been keeping, like in this notebook, like a journal. Take it a step further and you record these songs and perform for people. What would you say makes you want to do that?
I’m living a very creative life but it’s creative on my terms. And this country, you know, uh, it – I wouldn’t say it’s exemplary in the way it treats its artists or supports its artists. I could argue that Europe does a better job of that or takes it more seriously. I think America has always been like that. There is certainly room, there is room for artists and art but you kind of have to make your own space, you know, if it’s what you’re supposed to do, which is what I was told at the age of 21. I had a director from New York see me in a college production and he took me aside and he literally asked me ‘You know what you should do with your life, don’t you?’ and he said ‘Come to New York and join my theater company and chase an acting career. No promised but you’re good enough to give it a shot.’ And that acting chase led to a lot of sitting around, waiting for the phone to ring, for someone else to tell me it was time to be creative. The guitar, which I picked up in 1976, became that go-to creative outlet so I could keep that side of my life and that part of my brain, and that – just that part of me, which is probably the essential part, going 24/7. And I didn’t have to wait for the phone to ring. I didn’t have to wait for somebody in Hollywood to tell me that I’m hot and I can now be in a movie. I just was able to do it on my own. The music has probably, you know, fulfilled me the most of all.

Ladies and gentlemen, you’re listening to an interview with singer-songwriter and actor, Jeff Daniels. Grandfather’s Hat – tell us about that tune.
That’s a song that – I wear a fedora. I really like those fedoras. They’re kind of timeless and, um, I was – my kids played hockey and, uh, high school hockey in Michigan, and I was wearing it to one of the games and a friend of mine came up to me. And he knew my family and he knew my grandfather, and he came up to me and he goes ‘Is that your grandfather’s hat?’ and I said ‘No, no. It’s just one that was very similar to …’ Before I got to the end of the sentence, I knew it was a song. Not just a song about my particular grandfather but your mother’s necklace or your aunt’s ring or your father’s knife. You know, Guy Clark has a great, great song, uh, about his dad’s, um, jackknife. And so it’s that, that kind of ‘missing someone who is no longer here’.
Well, would you like to play it for all the listeners out there
Sure. [Performs Grandfather’s Hat]

Ladies and gentlemen, Jeff Daniels. Thanks so much. One of the things about music is you get to meet a lot of people. One of the tracks that you do, you did a cover of the George Harrison song, Here Comes the Sun. tell us about some of the exciting people you’ve met through your music.

Umhmm.

I mean, first of all, George Harrison – say no more (laughs).
Yeah, that was pretty cool. Uh, the short version of that story is I was doing a movie called Checking Out in 1988 and it was produced by George Harrison’s independent film company called Handmade Films. And we were hoping he would show up on the set in L.A. and, sure enough, one day he did. And I had a guitar in the dressing room and I said ‘Would you mind signing my guitar?’ and he said ‘I’d be happy to.’ Took him into a back room so it wouldn’t be, like, 100,000 signatures. And he signed the guitar and then, before he gave it back to me, he flipped it over and, on that guitar, played Here Comes the Sun. I mean, just me – and two other guys – just the three of us sitting there. It was like our own little private concert. It was such a gift that he gave and he couldn’t have been nicer. He couldn’t have been more interested in anyone other than himself. It was just a great lesson on how to handle that level of fame or any kind of fame.

You have a theater up in Michigan and everyone can check out JeffDaniels.com. The proceeds from the sale of the CDs goes towards this theater, the Purple Rose of Cairo. We just reviewed that film. It was from 1985 but we did like a flashback kind of thing. So tell us bout the theater a bit.

The Purple Rose Theater Company is 20 years old this season. Uh, it’s mission is mainly to do new American plays, particularly plays about that part of the country. That’s how I was brought up in New York, at the Circle Repertoire Company. Every play was a new play. Every play, the months before, the playwright was walking around rewriting the second act, getting ready for rehearsal. There was a thrill to that versus doing what New York had done last year and being popular, or doing, you know, Shakespeare or the old classics and all, which are fine. And many, many theaters do those. I want new stuff. I want living, breathing playwrights writing about the people sitting in our seats. Write about them. Connect with them and then I’m interested. After 20 years, that’s what we’re able to do now, more often than not. I’m real proud of that place and the fact that that part of the country supports it. It means the world to me.

What made you call the theater The Purple Rose of Cairo? That movie is great. I got to interview Woody.

I was a young actor. I was 30 at the time. I’d been in New York about nine years. Terms of Endearment had come out and I got that movie ten days after Terms of Endearment had been released. So Terms was now the #1 movie in the country which, at the time, for a character-driven film like Terms – it bypassed Raiders of the Lost Ark and all those kind of at the time special-effect movies. You hadn’t seen a character driven comedy-drama in a long time like that yet there we were, #1 – due, in no part, to Jack, Shirley and Debra. Jim Brooks had a hit and, uh, I was, I happened to be in it. Ten days later, they were looking to, uh, recast Purple Rose of Cairo and they called me in and, you know, a screen test later and, you know, a meeting with the studio, I got it. So now I’m working with Woody Allen. And I get handed the script and it’s not a supporting role or it’s not one starring role. It’s two starring roles in a Woody Allen movie. And I’m going ‘OK. Everything I have ever learned, please God, let me remember now.’ (Paul laughs) and that’s how I went into work everyday. And about halfway through the movie, Woody said I was good. For a young actor who had been battling, you know, rejection and, uh, are you going to make it? What’s it – you know, is this really worth it? It’s nine years. Terms of Endearment, yeah, but is it two or three movies and done? You know, you just don’t – the business is so, uh, here-today-gone-tomorrow. And Woody said I was good. And so, I remember going home and saying to my wife, um, ‘I think I’m going to be able to make a living in this business.’ And it wasn’t ‘I’m going to be a star.’ It wasn’t ‘I’m a genius.’ It was ‘If Woody Allen thinks I’m good, I think I’m going to be able to make a living in this business because if I’m good enough for Woody, I’m good enough for anybody.’ And that was a turning point. So years later, when it was time to name the theater, we named it the Purple Rose Theater Company.

My two final questions. What is the best part about being Jeff Daniels?

So many people go through life having to do things they don’t want to do, or they have a job that they wish they’d never taken but there’s security in it. And I think the satisfaction that I’ve had – I’m going way back to that director, Marshall W. Mason from Circle Rep, when he said ‘You know what you should do with your life, don’t you?’ What he didn’t say? It’s going to be hard. You’re only one who believes in you and you’re going to have to find people along the way. The fact that, decades later, I pulled that off and that now I’m still living a creative life and doing what I want to do, and that people in the business, whether it’s Broadway or film, TV or music want whatever it is I do – that’s the best part. It’s that I’m still relevant.

My last question. What would like to say in closing to all the people who are listening?

What I told my kids. I tell my kids, ‘Fall in love with tomorrow.’ Don’t worry about today. Don’t worry about the past. Fall in love with tomorrow. What are you doing tomorrow? That’s the creative process. That’s the creative life right there, is working on that next thing. Yeah. Fall in love with tomorrow.


Well, Mr. Daniels, it’s a pleasure. Thank you.
Thanks, Paul.

TRANSCRIBED BY GAYLE BRAZDA

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