Jeff Daniels, musician, to perform at Sacred HeartActor/musician Jeff Daniels will bring his unique brand of entertaining story-songs to Duluth’s Sacred Heart Music Center Nov. 11.
If you’re at all familiar with Jeff Daniels’ body of work, my conversation with him started out in the vein of “The Squid and the Whale.”
“This is Jeff Daniels,” the actor/musician announced, in a manner every bit as deftly serious as his character in that 2005 film, the (formerly) celebrated author Bernard Berkman.
Great, I thought, he’s hammering out interviews to promote his music tour every 15 minutes and the last guy pissed him off — just my luck when I finally get to interview one of the most talented individuals in the country.
My fears quickly washed away as I got to the matter at hand: asking him about said music tour, which will bring him to Sacred Heart Music Center Thursday.
Daniels has four records of original material under his belt. It’s safe to say that his songwriting is a second career and not just some dismissible “hobby.”
“I kind of picked music up on my own,” he said.
As he didn’t grow up in a musical household, and his hometown of Chelsea, Mich., didn’t have much to offer in that department either, he would make a 15-minute drive over to Ann Arbor.
“They had a lot of music, particularly a place called the Ark,” he said. “It had a lot of acoustic people come through.”
When I asked Daniels about his early music influences — and the records he first fell in love with — he didn’t hesitate.
“It was Bernie Taupin and Elton John,” he said. “I liked ‘Tumbleweed Connection.’ That jumped out as something I hadn’t heard before.”
While that 1970 album didn’t chart any singles for the songwriting team, it has found fans far and wide. In 2003, Rolling Stone included it in the magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
Daniels also expressed interested in “early guys” like Stevie Goodman, John Prine and Arlo Guthrie. “What they were doing landed,” he said.
If all you know of Daniels is his acting output, you might be surprised to learn that he’s been doing music just as long.
“I bought a guitar in 1976 when I moved to New York City to become an actor,” he said. “I just took it with me and learned how to play it. I started writing and throwing songs into a notebook … it became a great creative outlet for me while I was sitting around waiting for the phone to ring.”
Similar to how Daniels the actor is known for both serious and lighthearted works, his songwriting hovers back and forth between the two approaches as well.
“Some of them are more serious than others, but I find that people generally want me to entertain them,” he said. “So, being a fan of comedy — and my acting career is full of comedy — I like that. I liked guys like Stevie Goodman, Arlo (Guthrie) and Christine Lavin, people who wrote funny.”
As with his movie career, the two seem to go well together for him.
“In a way, the comedic songs set up the more serious ones,” Daniels said. “And I found that [makes for] a better evening, where you’re making them laugh and you’re making them think a little bit … instead of just one or the other.”
Though he’s walked down his fair share of red carpets, and been nominated for some of the most sought-after accolades in the land, a lot of his songs stem from everyday occurrences.
“It’s usually just a remark,” Daniels said when asked what inspires his lyrics. “You find something someone says that you’ve never heard before but rings true about this or that, and you’re always on the lookout [for that].
“You’re listening for that thing that somebody says that might be a good song. You’re always kind of making notes.”
Daniels admitted that when he first set foot on stage as a musician, he got a little nervous.
“A character is really kind of a safety net. It’s this other person that you can be,” he said. “It kind of removes you from [the experience]. But when you’re up there with just your guitar, and it’s just you and your material — no band — there is no filter. You’re pretty naked up there.”
In the last seven or eight years, he’s felt equally at ease and natural taking on either role.
“[Playing music in front of a crowd] took a little bit of getting used to, but, after a couple of years of doing it, it became the same thing as acting,” he said. “I enjoy doing it.”
Sometimes his two loves in this life — outside of his wife and two dogs, who tour with him in his RV — come together. One good example is the Purple Rose Theatre Company, which he established in his hometown.
It was named for his breakout role in the film of the same name.
“That movie meant a lot to me; working with Woody Allen meant a lot to me,” Daniels said. “And Woody said I was good — for a young actor to be told that by somebody like Woody, that was a turning point for me.
“That’s when I knew I would be able to make a living in that business.
“Years later when I opened the theater, we were kicking around names and that was the one that meant the most to me.”
The theater is something Daniels talks excitedly about.
“We do new plays, particularly new plays about the Upper Midwest or Michigan. We have Michigan playwrights writing for Michigan,” he said. “It’s really a professional Michigan theater company, and it’s their home.”
He continues to support the Purple Rose Theatre Company’s mission by, among other things, donating proceeds from his record sales to it.
And Daniels said he doesn’t mind if this is achieved because of his visibility as a mainstream actor. He admitted that it “certainly gets a lot of the people in the door.”
“I think most of the people are coming to see the guy from ‘Dumb and Dumber’ or whatever movie,” he said. “And that’s fine, and I know that, and I even deal with it early in the show.
“Then, after that, it’s about the music and the songs and the evening and trying to entertain them.”
NEWS TO USE
Actor/musician Jeff Daniels will bring his unique brand of entertaining story-songs to Duluth’s Sacred Heart Music Center at 8 p.m. Thursday. Cost is $27 at the door. See www.jeffdaniels.com.