Jeff Daniels: In Conversation

. August 1, 2014.
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Perhaps best known for his career in Hollywood, Chelsea native Jeff Daniels has been honing his musical career in front of local audiences here in Michigan for years. And his roles in Hollywood, ranging from Harry Dunne in Dumb and Dumber to Will McAvoy in HBO’s
The Newsroom, match the sweep of his song selection, which goes from light-hearted, crowd participation songs like “How ‘bout We Take Our Pants Off And Relax” to sentimental, introspective tunes like “The Michigan In Me.”
Current recently spoke with Daniels, who, backed by The Ben Daniels Band, headed by his son, plays The Ark on August 17. He discussed his origin story as a musician, connecting his concert performances to his history with musicals. He drew contrast between performing as a musician and performing as an actor. And he told us about the time he sat in with John Hiatt, Joe Healy, and Guy Clark.

You’re in LA right now working on The Newsroom?

Yeah I go to work actually in about an hour. We’re about a little over halfway through Season 3.

You have your guitar with you?

I do. Actually, last night the American Film Institute did a tribute, a lifetime achievement award, to Jane Fonda, a pretty heavy affair, and I had written a song for Jane about a year and a half ago. She was getting honored at the LA Press Award thing, and they called and said “we hear you write songs, can you write one for Jane to surprise her” (laughs). Well I wrote this song called, “Abs, Buns, and Thighs,” basically saying that while everyone else reveres her for Julia, China Syndrome, Coming Home, you name it, my number one Jane Fonda favorite is Abs Buns and Thighs, the workout video. So it was very funny and then when Jane was going to get the AFI tribute she asked if I’d play it, so I did last night in front of about 2,000 Hollywood industry folks. I looked out in the audience and there was Clive Davis, Mel Brooks, Cameron Diaz, Lily Tomlin, Jane, you know, on and on and on. It was a heavy crowd but it went really, really well, and I cracked them up. So that was fun.

A lot of your shows and your songs are really well scripted. Each song has a story, and each song is a story. Can you talk a little bit about how narrative informs your songwriting?

Yeah, it’s a really good point. I came out of Circle Rep, Circle Repertory Company in New York City, a Broadway theater company that had living breathing playwrights walking around. One of them was Lanford Wilson. And so this Midwestern actor right out of college was thrown into this beehive of writers. I think that just by being with them, narrative became part of what I was going to do as a writer. So I’m picking at my guitar with 3 or 4 chords, and while writing some bad songs to get there I was heading towards narrative, I was heading towards a beginning, middle and end, and how to do that. There’s a song that I did called “Across the Way,” a straight story song that I wrote, I want to say, in 1982. I’d been in New York for six years and that song comes from people like Lanford. Also, in high school and college I did a lot of musicals. And in some ways each song, it’s almost like a musical number.

Right, there is always the set up before they start singing in a musical.

Yeah, there’s a scene in front, or an intro, and the song supports the story point of that first scene. So I think that influenced the selection of what a song could be in the set. It’s kind of the process I have to go through in order to get the song in front of an audience, and it’s definitely, you’re right, it’s definitely narrative. It’s standing there like the security guard at the gate.

Your songs are, by turn, heartfelt and humorous. I looked into what kind of guitar you played and I found out that it has a story, too. I love the 12th fret inlay.

Dick Boak and I, Dick Boak of Martin [Guitars], were kicking around what to do, and he said a lot of signature artist guitars sign their name in the 12th fret, but even Clapton said “do you really want to be playing a guitar that has an Eric Clapton signature across the 12th fret? So we had to do something, and I said “the masks, the two masks.” Comedy and tragedy: that’s an actor’s guitar.

Do you write Michigan songs when you’re on the road feeling nostalgic, or are you writing them at home feeling inspired by your surroundings?

Initially, when I walked out on stage with a guitar it was to raise money for the Purple Rose. I knew the audience I was playing for and I knew it when I’d written the Escanaba plays, which were specifically written to get that audience into my theater. And I said, well, it’s the same crowd, we’re not trying to write hits, we’re not trying to, you know, make anyone outside of our corner of the country notice, so here come the Michigan songs. “State Trooper,” “Michigan, My Michigan” all that stuff was for the people sitting in those Purple Rose seats. My team said, you know you can do this elsewhere if you wanted. I said oh ok, and the Michigan songs get put in the drawer and I had to come up with stuff that could travel. And then we get into “How ‘bout We Take Our Pants Off and Relax,” “Grandfather’s Hat” can travel. “The Michigan in Me,” that was definitely turning 50, having driven across the country sitting on the U.P. beach right before the bridge, saying this is where you’re from; this is your home.

Could you talk a little bit about your fondest musical memories?

Let me think…. a few of them…. I remember the Wharton Center in East Lansing with Lyle Lovett. I met Lyle on the couch of the Johnny Carson show, and we were friends over the years. He came through Lansing with John Hiatt, Joe Healy and Guy Clark. They sold the place out. I went backstage to see him before the show, and he says “I hear you play.” And I said “well define play.” He said “do you want to sit in.” Aw Jesus (laughs), I said “of course, yes.” Now what, I thought. And so halfway through the show he does this long introduction, and then out I come. Guy Clark, I mean Guy Clark, hands me his guitar and then walks off stage like “go head, kid, kill ‘em.” And I sit down and I look to my right and there’s Healy and Hiatt and Lovett going “go ahead.” And I march into “If William Shatner Can, I Can Too.”

Perfect.

Yeah, we have a picture, a picture of Hiatt biting his finger, laughing. That was a turning point. If you could do it in front of those guys, get them to go “yep you know what you’re doing,” you knew you were doing right. And that opened the door to the rest of my life feeling good every time I walked out.

Guy Clark. Incredible. There must have been some nerves happening for you.

Yeah it’s terrifying. It certainly existed in the first couple of years doing those Christmas shows at the Purple Rose. I would start working on those shows in October. You know, I can walk in front of a movie camera and it’s my second home. And I couldn’t figure out the difference. Then I realized there’s no character. As an actor you’re protected with the filter of a character. You walk out with a guitar and your song, it’s just you, and there’s a nakedness to that. It’s the same thing with a talk show. It’s the fear of “oh my god it’s just me.” The character I have to play is Jeff in a good mood. It sounds trite, but that’s it. Boom, out you go and you can make them laugh, make them cry, and then you can let them in. Same thing with Hiat and Lyle…The trick is to play within a bubble around you, where it’s just your eyes, your fret board. You don’t have to try to jump out into the audience. Keep it right on stage and it will travel. That took a while to learn. And then you go out there, it doesn’t matter who’s sitting there.

You’re playing at The Ark with your son’s band. I’m curious about the dynamic you guys have in the rehearsal room and on stage.

So am I. I’m curious as to what that’s going to be. I know the show where it’s just me and an acoustic guitar. I can do that show tomorrow. But I don’t know this show yet. And for the past month or two, I’ve been going through set lists and working up stuff that’s band-friendly. The show is going to feature them (The Ben Daniels Band) as much as any show I’ve done with anyone. I’ve written six songs specifically to be played with the band. There’s one that I hope comes up. We were in Georgia and met this guy named Mike Snowden, this guy who builds these cigar box guitars. They’re sturdy and you can plug them in. So I got three of them. It’ll be almost like ZZ Top. We’ll do this song called “Oh So Close, But No Cigar.” And there’s a song I wrote when Ben was three years old about what’s important: being famous or being a father. We’re hoping to play that one, too. It’s going to be a good show. By the time we get to the Ark, it’s going to be a show that we’ll have in our back pocket.