A Chat with Jeff Daniels

by | Apr 9, 2017 | Music

Shortly after seeing Jeff Daniels perform at the Chelsea Alehouse, we had the opportunity to chat with him about playing at the Alehouse, his music, and Michigan.

Jeff Daniels and the Chelsea Alehouse

Jeff Daniels @ Chelsea Alehouse

Jeff Daniels @ Chelsea Alehouse

Our friends at the Chelsea Alehouse have been hosting solo acoustic nights with Jeff Daniels. Many people know Jeff Daniels from the movies, yet aren’t aware that he is an accomplished singer/song writer. Not only is Jeff Daniels a fine actor and musician, he is an advocate for Chelsea and Michigan. He is more than happy to help promote the music scene that venues like the Chelsea Alehouse are growing in their city. 

Aubrey Martinson (co-owner of the Chelsea Alehouse with her husband/brewer Chris Martinson) wanted to share a bit of the magic behind the shows with Jeff Daniels. She asked if Jeff would be willing to do an interview with Life In Michigan. To say we were thrilled is an understatement! Jeff graciously invited Chuck over to 2188 Studio which he and his sons operate. The following is a recording of our chat with Jeff Daniels as well as a transcribed version for your reading enjoyment.

Chatting with Jeff Daniels

This is Chuck Marshall and I’m with Life in Michigan and I’m talking to Jeff Daniels. Jeff how are you?

Jeff Daniels: Good

Life In Michigan: So you recently did a couple shows over at the Chelsea Alehouse. How did that come about?

JD: I’ve known Aubrey for quite a while when she was the CCA here in Chelsea. I like what they were doing and live music in Chelsea. I mean, Ann Arbor’s got it; but you can see people trying to create that scene. She’s one of them.

Ben’s band, my son’s band had played there. You know some great artists there like, I don’t know all of them, but Jason Dennie; I’m a disciple of his playing and Jason’s played there. So it’s like, you know, how can I help? So by coming in there and playing a few nights in and just to see.

What triggered it was Woody Allen in my in New York. When he is in New York, he’s got a little Dixieland quartet or something that he plays with at a place called Michael’s Pub on the east side of New York City. He comes in on Monday nights. Doesn’t talk to anybody. The quartet comes in. They play for whatever an hour and a half and then they leave. It’s just Woody playing live and keeping his chops up. He chose Michael’s pub because it’s around the corner from his apartment.

I said, well the Alehouse isn’t that far from my house. What if I had a place where I could go and just keep that live show, in this case the live solo show kind of tuned up? The best way to get good is to play out a lot. I mean there’s no substitute for it. You know game conditions kind of thing and so the Alehouse might be a real good spot for me to to do that kind of thing. You know it’s fun. I love interacting with a hundred people. It’s a different show than playing to five hundred or a thousand.

LIM: I was at the April 1st show. It was fantastic. It was a lot of fun.

JD: That’s very nice, thanks.

LIM: How was is it from your perspective playing to that small crowd?

JD: It’s good. You know, did the old jokes work? I’m always, I never know what I’m going to do. I never know. I had a guy that was just not cracking a smile about 8 feet from me and so I knew I could turn this into a running joke. I challenged him. I said I’m going to make you laugh before this night’s over. I don’t care what I do. If I don’t do anything else you know. There’s a way to engage the audience when there’s a hundred people that’s fun. You try to get them in the palm of your hand where you can control it.

Part of that is is the variety of the set list to me. I’ll follow you know, “Have A Good Life, Then Die” which is this road rage song that usually has him laughing pretty hard with something like “Grandfather’s Hat” that just is like this whole kind of gut punch.

What you learn from theater and playwriting and storytelling is that if you make him laugh, you soften them up. Now they’re open to more of an emotional punch with something right behind it. Stuff like that. It’s fun to figure out and come to play with when it comes to sets. Walking on stage the Alehouse, I get to practice that.

LIM: That leads me into my next question. There definitely was a humor theme to the show that I saw on the 1st.

JD: Yeah, I cranked up the comedy.

LIM: Were you just feeling that way or was that how you want the audience to be engaged?

JD: I played two weeks before and I rolled out a lot of old blues, driftin blues, matchbox blues, deep river blues. I just played that show; I played stuff I wanted to play. Which is fine, but they weren’t as interested. It was a Saturday night. You know the Alehouse a third of it is a bar right and two thirds is seating. So I had to do a better job grabbing them and not lettin go. I led with like half a dozen comedy songs and just had them so that you’re here to see a show and then you slide in the stuff cause now you have them.  You gotta, you gotta earn it. You gotta get’em. You don’t just get them because you walk on stage.

The comedy thing is more fun to play. Whether it’s Dumb and Dumber whatever, they kind of expect something for me. Though I don’t know that they know that this is coming. It’s not to be dismissed; comedy. I’ve never felt that way and as long as you can slip in some of the more intricate guitar stuff and drop into a serious one or two to let them know you can do that. You know everyone will be entertained if you do that.

LIM: Acting, playwriting and music writing all involve story telling. Do you think that your skills as an actor help you in writing music?

JD: Actor writing music. I don’t know. I guess I write for me. I tailor it. When I write plays, I tailor it for certain actors at the Purple Rose Theater Company. Maybe I’m and certainly some of the ones that I write that I know are you going to set, they’re tailored to be acted. They’re written to be acted. Not just sung. Because you got this voice that, you know Alicia Keys liked on the show or something. There’s got to be, I know I gotta bring more to it than that because I don’t have that voice.

The actor knows how to time, a pause. He knows how to hang on to dramatic tension; it’s not unlike the musical tension, before you deliver the next line. The timing of the joke and all that, so the actor, yeah, he informs all of that. I might write to it on occasion, knowing that I got an actor that can find whatever emotion it is or evoke. Not just that the actor can find it. Because it is not important whether the actor feels it. It’s this thing you learn in theater. The audience has to feel it. You can feel like you’re up there thinking about where you’re going to eat later after the show, but if you deliver it in a way that makes the audience cry than mission accomplished. Same thing with a song.

LIM: That kinda leads into another question; so when; I imagine that when you’re acting you’re taking on parts of that, aspects of that character you’re playing. When you’re performing music do you take on the persona of the song or is it just you and your guitar?

JD: In and out. In and out. There’s a song I do called “Leaving” about just an old guy who got dumped by the woman he loved. You sing it in a way that could be the voice of him, but it’s still sung and it’s still technically performed for an audience. I think it’s less of a full immersion that you can do in front of a camera or on a stage when you’re playing somebody. There are still technical aspects. What’s my next line, all the stuff. But that’s more of a complete head to toe. Where this is still more; you’re only acting with your voice when you’re singing it so it’s a little different.

LIM: And your guitar, I mean

JD: Yeah yeah yeah and the guitar can evoke that. It’s interesting, maybe the guitar is the body; the actor’s body. I don’t know

LIM: Are there any fictional or nonfictional writers that influence your music?

JD: Like novelists? Those guys? The rhythm of TC Boyle. I love his stuff. I’ve been reading; I’ve been researching this stuff. I have been reading about FBI stuff.

LIM: Has it crept into your music at all?

JD: No. TC Boyle is one. Sorkin has a rhythm. Aaron Sorkin on Newsroom. There’s a rhythm you know. I go back to more; Neil Simon has a rhythm. Though you take out one word of a Neil Simon joke or the set up to a joke and it isn’t funny. It’s that meticulous; that specific. Shakespeare had rhythm. David Mamet had rhythm. Lanford Wilson had rhythm. These are all playwrights you know. I guess more the playwriting. Because its all; has been more influential than novelists.

LIM: On your new album simple truths you are working with (stumbles over name comically) Brian Vander Ark from the Verve Pipe. I hear that you co-wrote and played on the ‘Overboard’ album. How did you guys start working together?

JD: We shared the same agent at the time, Jim Fleming. Fleming said you know you might like this guy is over in Grand Rapids. I knew of Verve Pipe. I knew of Brian. I don’t, I can’t remember, he would know where we met. I listened to his stuff. He’s been through it. He’s been through the mill of songwriting and labels, and studios and all that stuff. I just write so that I can take it to the Alehouse you know. I don’t have that pressure.

He’s been in the music business and I think he was looking to go Indy. I think in his head, he was looking to write differently than trying to satisfy what they might want on the next album. He sent me, what was it “Little Town”? There was another one, little town; “My Little Town”. Like a lotta songs. I got a bunch of songs that are started but. He had started that and so I just, I kinda knew where he wanted to go. He wanted to go edgy. He wanted to go darker. So we made it darker. Instead of the soldier coming home to the young bride waiting for him; coming back from Iraq. He doesn’t come back. So now what’s that third verse? That collaboration worked well. I just threw two pages of what-ifs and here’s some possible lyrics and he did the rest. He had done 75% of it, but maybe more. I just steered it and threw some ideas at him.

Then “Overboard”, he said let’s do it again. It was a love triangle. The old girlfriend was a little bit like Glenn Close in ‘Fatal Attraction’. She wouldn’t go away. He had a good set up for it. So I said, let’s kill her. You know (laughs). In the song, the boyfriend pretends he’s going to get back with the old, you know psychotic girlfriend. He says let’s go up to the U.P. It’s beautiful. You know, the water is beautiful at night. Took her out in a boat and threw her into Lake Superior. That’s a love song in my book. (Laughs)

LIM: On Simple truths, the lyrical content seems a little bit more somber than on other stuff you have written.

JD: Yeah.

LIM: What was the motivation behind that?

JD: Well, we just said, let’s stay away from comedy. Let’s just write, you know the way Jason Isbell does. Sturgill Simpson, Kacey Musgrave does. There’s lyric, there’s writing in there and imagery in there. And again, Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, John Prine, Cheryl Wheeler these people, they care about the words. So if we took comedy off and tried to do like a serious album. Let’s take the best of the ones we throw at each other. We wrote via email from a distance for about six months. And just kinda whittled it down to these are the ones we can do and came in here and recorded them over the summer.

LIM: It sounds really good.

JD: Yeah, it was, it was good. It is fun to watch him work and watch him in the studio. He has such a knowledge of vocals and how to build a song. Just that whole studio rat thing you know he’s been around and been enough studios to to know it. It was a great. I had a great time. Great experience.

LIM: Are there any other musicians or artists that you would like to collaborate with? Cause I’m thinking that you and Bruce Springsteen should do an album together.

JD: Yeah, that’ll. That’ll happen (laughs)

You know, Keb Mo is a friend. He’s been here (at Studio 2188)

LIM: Oh cool!

JD: He came up.

LIM: Was he stopping in when he was doing a show?

JD: No, he came up for another thing. He had an idea for a song.

I met Keb Mo fifteen years ago at the Ark in Ann Arbor. I celebrity-ed my way backstage. Because I loved his first couple albums and I’d bought his tablature book. This is before DVDs and the internet. Maybe twenty years ago, because I had a tab book. I learned two or three of his songs. I was really into his style of the blues. I just told him, you’ve been a big help. He said if you’re in LA, here’s my address. Stop by and I’ll give you a lesson.

I was shooting “Good Night and Good Luck” in LA and I called him up.  He said yeah Saturday at three. I came over and he was great. He spent three hours with me. Great lessons on how to play solo. It’s harder. It’s hard. You don’t have the comfort of the band or you can’t miss a note and it’s buried in the mix. That but he said staying on the beat.

LIM: You’ve got to keep your own time. You don’t have a drummer.

JD:  Oh my God. You’re always going to speed up. Adrenaline. That’s why I’ve gotta keep going to the Alehouse and other places. Just so, that not the nerves, but the adrenaline and now you’ve just picked up speed. Tempo.

He said, the best one he knows of who can play solo, and stay on the beat is Taj Mahal. He said just get your foot. You’ll see that guy doesn’t move. He said work on that. That was a great lesson. Get there late was a great lesson. White people are ahead of the beat. Black people are behind it. He said don’t get there, just get there. It’s the spaces in between. All that stuff was fascinating.

He even sat in with me in Portland Oregon. I played and he was there at the time. He called me up. He said I hear you’re playing. I said bring a guitar and amp. He said all right. I was like, oh my god. L stayed on the beat that show. He was in the wings. If I did nothing else, I was going to stay on the beat.

So we just got a friendship going. He would do some acting things. With John Sayles, he did something. He would say, tell me what to do. This is new to me. So I would give him some easy acting tips. Just tell the truth. Look the guy in the eyes and just him the truth. Don’t worry about the camera. If you can do that, you’ll win. He came up and we spent the day. We wrote a song together. We talked about it a couple weeks ago. He said let’s get together and write some stuff.

LIM: So he is coming to town with Taj.

JD: Yeah. I don’t know. What month is that?

LIM: Gosh, I want to say May. I’m not positive. Maybe, June

JD: I looked at that. I’m gone. I’m working. So. It’s killing me. That would be, I would be in Blues heaven.

(Editor’s note: The Keb Mo and Taj Mahal show at the Michigan Theater is on Sunday, September 10th at 7:30pm)

LIM: Awesome. So at this point in your career what do you get more satisfaction from music or acting?

JD:  Since newsroom the acting has measured up to the satisfaction I get out of writing and playing. It’s hard to top, playing or going on tour with Ben’s band. My son Luke is a tour manager. To be out there with your son and his band and that the fact that they are players. It’s just that nothing could top that.

The acting roles, though have been challenging and so that is still satisfying. If they weren’t, if I was say doing a TV series and you could just tell it was formula. If it was one of those, which is fine, it employs a lot of people. God bless you, but I would quit. I’d be done. I couldn’t do it. I’d rather devote 100% of my time to 2188 Studio and the music, if that were the case. It’s not. That’s the problem. The problem is I’m doing more challenging work. They want me more than they ever have in my what five decades, no four decade career. It doesn’t happen this way. I would love to stop and just do 2188 and play music. I would love to. “Every time I try to get out, they pull me back in.” Bad Pacino?

LIM: Yeah. So a lot of your songs have Michigan woven into the narrative; what are a few of the things you love about your life in Michigan?

JD: It’s not that it’s the most beautiful place in the world. Though there are the Traverse Citys and the beaches and the Manistees and the

LIM: Big Bay

JD: The Huron Mountain Club, Big Bay, all of the Upper Peninsula. There are some beautiful places. I was just thinking about this the other day. There’s no bullshit here. That’s kind of indicative of the Midwest, but it’s not. It’s that where I work, in New York and LA, Hollywood. It’s all about that. Not bullshit. It’s just that kind of..

LIM: Right, taken on that

JD: ..glamor, appearances. It’s a fine line between being seen in and being worthy of being seen. You don’t get that here. So there’s an unadorned lifestyle, a simplicity to it. It is also right next to honesty, in a kind of truthful way to go through the day without having to be famous or be important or be someone you want to project to people. That’s where I work and I don’t do a very good job with that anyway.  So this is a wonderful..just the opposite of that. I need all of this in order to endure what I have to endure, when it comes to that kind of thing, as an actor. I love between action and cut. I live for between action and cut. All the rest of it is the job.

LIM: So I think you have another…Do you have another show coming up at the Ale House?

JD: April 15. Yeah, we are sold out, but yeah.

LIM: Great. So did I hear that you’re planning to do some more or are you just going to see how this one goes or what?

JD: After the second one, after April 1st, I emailed Fleming, and he said how’d it go. And I said I think I’m remembering how to do this. It’s been a while. I’ve been out with Ben’s band and that’s different because you do it but then…

LIM: You are in a band

JD: …you share it. And you make sure they are featured. It’s a whole different thing. You are in and out. But this is a hundred percent. Also, its Saturday night at the Alehouse. It is their night out. They don’t want to necessarily listen to me for an hour and half gazing into my navel, singing about some lost girlfriend. It’s not what they want on a Saturday night at the Alehouse. So it took a show to learn that. Then I was, oh I got that set. Then what’s fun is they just don’t know what’s coming. I mean it really is. I didn’t ask the first time. I said how many of you is this your first time? And it was what two- thirds?

LIM: I’ll be honest, it was the first time I’d seen you.

JD: A different joke, but I said you are going to get to about this point in the program and you realize there’s another 90 minutes of this. And it could go downhill starting right now. This is a celebrity with a guitar.

LIMI love that part where you are talking about that…let see if he can fucking do it?

JD: It is the elephant in the room. The dirty little secret is that I can play well enough and that I know I can entertain these people. I don’t care who you’re. I don’t care If you are the table of women who are giggling at everything or it’s Mount Rushmore over here. You know NASCAR Mount Rushmore and it’s fun. It’s fun to kind of engage them. It’s the standup comic in me that gets to come out. It’s the Louis CK. I get to say anything I want and usually do. I’m not Bridget Everett or Chris Rock but that it is fun to kind of push people over the edge a little bit.

LIM: And have some fun with it. So Jeff I just have one more question for you and it’s kind of a silly question that I like to ask. What is your favorite breakfast food?

JD: I’m into that Kashi Organic Island vanilla cereal with one fake sweetener, Trivia and some raspberries. Not bad. Yeah, my cardiologist would be very happy.

LIM: Awesome, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me.

JD:  Appreciate it.

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