Jeff Daniels’ Fallback Plan, Part 2

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: When most people think of well-known actors – or musicians for that matter – we more or less assume that they live in New York City or Los Angeles. You live in Chelsea, the small town in which you grew up, about an hour west of Detroit. This might be a chicken-or-egg question, but in what ways do you think your decision to live there colors your work?

Jeff Daniels: Hmm. I don’t know.

I had a journalist ask me once, ‘Are you trying to attain the same success you have as an actor with your songwriting?’ No. I’m just doing it because I have to. Jim Carrey and I were talking recently, and he said, ‘I have to create.’ He’s turned into this fabulous artist and sculptor. We have to be creating something; that’s kind of what we were born to do. So in my case it ends up being plays that go straight to the Purple Rose; if they’re done anywhere else, terrific. If they’re not, I don’t care.

And the same thing for the songs: I’m doing it for me, and I’ve figured out a way to do it in clubs and smaller theaters where it’s fun for me. It works, so I enjoy doing it. That’s the Broadway for me, walking onto the Diana Wortham Theater stage [in Asheville NC]. I’m thinking, ‘I don’t need anything else; I get to do this tonight.’ So that’s kind of where it lies for me. And that’s enough: the fact that somebody else wants me to play somewhere else is gold.

BK: Your website says that you’ve authored about 400 songs. I’m guessing it’s safe to assume that this is a raw number, as in, some of those are ones you’re not pleased enough with to record or perform them.

JD: Yeah. You’ve got to write four [songs] to get to the good one: one out of five.

BK: Do the really good songs reveal themselves to you right out of the gate, or do they sort of grow on you as they develop?

JD: Mostly, it [just] happens. You write a good one, and it may take a day. It may take months. But you know that this one is worth chasing. And there are others that are just throwaways, that you just think, ‘Okay, let me get it down. Maybe someday.’ On this last CD, Days Like These, there are some songs from the 1980s. Ones that just needed a band, or that needed something. There would be half a song there, and I’d think, ‘Instead of creating from a blank page, I wonder if I could turn “Days Like These” into something.’ I enjoy that.

BK: From my reading, I see that you bought your Guild D-40 in 1976, around the time, I think, that you were at acting in plays in Ypsilanti at Eastern Michigan University. So clearly music was already a part of you; you didn’t start then. The early 1970s was the era when singer/songwriters really started to catch on in a big way; was that whole scene the primary musical influence on you, at least initially?

JD: I was in New York to be an actor. So the songwriting and the guitar and the performing anywhere were all a distant second. My effort was made at songwriting, and in trying to get better at the guitar, but there was no ‘Hey, I can play’ to the agents. I focused on one thing.

I remember going to see Steve Goodman at The Bottom Line. I remember seeing Doc Watson, and T. Michael Coleman, and Merle Watson – the three of them – playing The Bottom Line. I looked at it from afar and thought, ‘I wish I could do that. Maybe someday’. And I kind of looked at what I do now with the guitar, and touring with my son’s band [The Ben Daniels Band], as where I probably would end up when the acting career failed. I thought to myself, ‘Why don’t you get good at the guitar privately, get better as a songwriter, so that when it all falls apart you at least have something to fall back on.’ And the acting career never died.

I moved back to Michigan in 1986 after three or four movies, expecting to make three or four more. And them, like every other actor, that would probably be it. And then I’d do something else, probably with the guitar. But the acting went on, and I’m fitting in the playing because I just love it. I’m lucky; I get to do both. And I didn’t see that [coming] back in the 1970s. And it beats opening a restaurant with your own 8x10s all over the wall, pictures from some show you did twenty years ago.

BK: I’m a fan of The Verve Pipe, but I wouldn’t have necessarily connected you to them musically. But then I listened again to “Overboard,” the song you co-wrote with Brian Vander Ark, and I do perceive a shared musical sensibility. The idea of song as story is as old as songs in general. When you write a song, is the goal to paint a portrait of characters or situations that listeners can relate to, or is it a more internally-directed thing?

JD: Coming from the theater, play writing and story, when a song locks in and you know that you’re going to be spending a considerable amount of time on, you know if it’s a story song or it isn’t. If it is, you know that with the rhymes and such you’re going to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. And maybe a twist. With other ones, sometimes it’s just imagery. I’ll go back into the third, fourth and fifth rewrites of something. Then you’re picking over every word like you would with a play. And you’re thinking, ‘There’s a better word here that paints a better picture in line three of the second verse.’ I enjoy that, the finding of the perfect word or phrase.

And that comes from people like Lanford Wilson, the [Pulitzer Prize winning] playwright who I grew up with in New York. That’s what he did, and – knowingly or not – passed on to me. Sometimes you write something that’s quick: ‘You look fine, you look good.’ But I tend not to write those. I get bored with those.

I get playwrights in the theater company asking me, ‘I’ve got twenty pages; do you want to read it?’ ‘No. Call me when you’ve got a hundred pages, with a beginning, middle, and end. And then we’ll read it. And that’s when you’ll start writing.’

My feature based on this interview appeared previously in Mountain Xpress. – bk

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