Q&A with Jeff Daniels

Jeff Daniels Talks About Playing The Purple Rose, His New CD “Keep It Right Here”, and How To Dance Like You’re From The Upper Peninsula

December 29, 2010

L to R: Brad Phillips, JD (clapping on the 1 & 3), and Dominic John Davis playing “Keep It Right Here” at the Purple Rose Theatre Company. Chelsea, MI. December 28, 2010.

HOW MANY YEARS HAVE YOU BEEN PLAYING THE PURPLE ROSE?

This is my 10th year. Initially, it was simply a fundraiser for my theatre company. Still is. Since the Purple Rose was between shows over Christmas & New Year’s, I wanted something that we could do that was cheap and easy. Someone suggested I go out with my guitar and sing my songs. How hard could it be, right? Problem was, my previous gigs had been confined to my back porch. So there I am, playing in front of sold out crowds, just me and my guitar, no band – I was so scared I wet myself. Twice. I had pit stains down both sides of my shirt. I was a mess. Stunningly, I hadn’t realized prior to those first few gigs that there was no character to hide behind like in a film or play. Somehow, I survived it. Came back the next year and the year after that. Eventually, my perspiration output slowed and I figured out how to beat that stark creative bare naked fear – here’s a tip: practice!! – and then I was okay. Now I enjoy it.

YOU RECORDED “LIVE & UNPLUGGED” TO RAISE MONEY, RIGHT?

Strictly. We recorded the 3rd year of the Purple Rose shows for that CD. Honestly, we thought it would be of no interest to anyone beyond Southeastern Michigan. Then a friend of Christine Lavin’s got her the CD and she called me up and invited me to New York to appear on her show on the Folk Channel on XM Radio. It meant a lot to me that she acknowledged this hobby of mine as something that should be heard beyond my back porch. When someone like her says what you’re doing is good enough to travel, it’s time to start taking it seriously. So I did. Christine’s that rare artist who is supportive of others. Class act.

THEN CAME OTHERS?

Yeah, then I couldn’t be stopped. GRANDFATHER’S HAT, while still containing mostly live performances, was tilted more towards song writing. TOGETHER AGAIN was a chance to sit down with my friend, Jonathan Hogan, in my apartment in NYC and do what we’d been doing since the ‘70s – play and record our songs together. Back in the day, we used to be slaves to our respective 4 Track TEAC Reel to Reel machines. Dinosaurs now, but great fun for struggling songwriters who loved recording. We were our own biggest fans! PANHANDLE SLIM & THE OKLAHOMA KID is a mini-musical I wrote for the Purple Rose Theatre Company. Near the end of the run, we brought the cast into my Home Recording studio and put down a Cast Album. I also added my original Demo Recordings of the songs, as well as a 15 minute discussion with Guy Sanville, the director and Artistic Director of the Purple Rose, discussing the “Making Of” that particular musical. Then came LIVE AT THE PURPLE ROSE which consists of live performances taken from five August ’09 shows I did at the Purple Rose. A year later, it was KEEP IT RIGHT HERE. (For CDs, go to: http://www.jeffdaniels.com)

HOW DID THE IDEA FOR “KEEP IT RIGHT HERE” COME ABOUT?

In August ’10, I played some dates in Michigan, Indiana, and then on down to Nashville and Memphis. I took my son Ben with me – on a break from his own band, bendanielsband.com – and Brad Phillips, a terrific mandolin and fiddle player out of Saline, MI. Brad had sat in with me a couple times in the past and had played with me during holiday shows at the Purple Rose the previous year, so off the three of us went. After those shows, Brad and I came back and recorded the seven or so songs we’d played, just as we did them. Ben recorded them live, again in our home recording studio. Then we sent the tracks up to Harvest Creative Services in Lansing, MI, where Mark Miller massaged them. Steve Curran thought adding Dominic John Davis on Upright Bass would be a good idea and had him come in and “spit on it”, as L’il Wayne might say.

HAD YOU PLAYED WITH DOM BEFORE?

Several times. He’s with Steppin’ In It, this great acoustic band out of Michigan. They play in about a thousand different styles, consummate musicians all. He’s playing with Jack White behind Wanda Jackson’s new album on LETTERMAN and CONAN in January ‘11. Like Brad, he’s a player. Listened to the songs over the weekend and laid down his tracks in an afternoon.

YOU SAID SEVEN SONGS…?

Well, then Steve sent me the Rough Mix. I was deep into my Fall Tour. From August to Thanksgiving, I put 10,000 miles on my Bus and yes, I drove it myself (see other blogs). Anyway, somewhere in Minnesota I listened to it and thought we might have something. So I all but pulled the bus over to the side of the road and demo’d three more songs I’d been playing on the Tour by myself – TWO FINGER RAG, WHAT WOULD JESUS DO, and IT’S NOT THAT SHE DON’T LOVE ME – and MP3’d them to Brad, Dom, and Steve and asked if it were possible to add them. Everybody had them on that Friday. Brad was in Ireland at a music festival, playing with his regular band Milish, and Dom was in MI. I got off the road on Sunday morning. Went into Harvest’s studio on Monday with Dom and played our tracks together, live. Brad got back from all things Irish and came in and added his mandolin on Wednesday.

AND YOU’RE HAPPY WITH IT?

As happy as I’ve ever been with anything I’ve done, musically. I meant what I said on the back of the CD. Arthur Miller, the great American Playwright, said he looked forward to seeing what his work inspired in others. I love writing something, playing it, and then giving it to talented people who take it and run. It’s one of the great joys of music; coming in with an idea and never telling someone what to play but instead, asking them what they hear. One of the best directions I ever got was, “You can’t do anything wrong. Action.” Same thing with Brad & Dom. Surround yourself with great artists. Give them the material and turn ’em loose.

And the title track, KEEP IT RIGHT HERE?

It’s a cousin to “in the pocket” or “in the zone”. You hear Sinatra as he counts a song off. As he’s snapping his fingers in front of the mic, he says, “That’s it. Right (snap) about (snap) here (snap).” Then I started thinking about how the world is so instant, so never in one place, always on the move, all resulting in all of us having the attention span of a gnat, or so it seems to me. It’s me going, “Let’s slow down. In fact, let’s all…just…stop.” If only for one song. Then, of course, the song takes off at the end. At my annual “Jeff Daniels & Friends” show over Thanksgiving Weekend, we had 30 musicians on stage, including the Saline Fiddlers with an arrangement that Brad wrote for them, as well as special guest Alto Reed from Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band. My boys, Ben and Luc were by my side. A great way to end that show and a song that’s all kinds of fun to play. It’s probably my version of MAMA DON’T ALLOW, the song made famous at least to me by Steve Goodman where solos get passed around to every instrument. It’s a great finale. For them and for me.

L to R: Brad Phillips, Ben Daniels, JD, Alto Reed, Luc Daniels, Amanda Merte, and Charlie Marcuse performing “Keep It Right Here” at Michigan Theatre. Ann Arbor, MI. November 28, 2010.

And what’s with the BIG BAY SHUFFLE?

That’s an actual dance – well, more like a drunken sway – that they do up at the Lumberjack Tavern in Big Bay, MI. I came upon this backwoods choreography about 32 years ago. Kathleen’s family has a hunting camp up there. We stopped in to the Lumberjack on a Tuesday Morning and we were late to the party. There were these two women three sheets to the wind Big Bay Shufflin’ to Englebert Humperdink. It’s very simple: feet stay anchored to the floor, your hips sway side to side, and you hold a beer in each hand. That’s it. Now, years later, every time I do the song I get Audience members up on stage to doing it.

“The Big Bay Shuffle” at the Purple Rose Theatre Company. Chelsea, MI. December 28, 2010.

After the whole Audience is up Shufflin’, my son Luc comes out to an introduction not unlike Bruce Springsteen’s introduction of Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons.

Luc “The Roadie” Daniels making his entrance for “The Big Bay Shuffle” at the Purple Rose Theatre Company. Chelsea, MI. December 28, 2010.

Luc takes the stage and puts a modern day spin on it complete with Michael Jackson moves, something called The Worm where he hits the floor and “worms” his way across the stage and, as a finale, finishes by jumping five feet into the air, and coming down into the splits with a style and execution that would make Mary Lou Retton proud.

L to R: Brad Phillips (hidden), JD, Dominic John Davis, and Luc ” The Roadie” Daniels performing “The Big Bay Shuffle” at the Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea, MI.  December 28, 2010.

And no one was injured?

Only those of us watching.

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About Official Jeff Daniels

It has been brought to my attention that someone like you might want to know what someone like me is doing, why I did it, and how I feel about it after I'm done doing it. "People want to know about stuff like that?" I said. "Can't get enough of it," they said. "What about when I'm not doing anything?" "Especially when you're not doing anything," they said. "What do people like me do?" "Twitter and tweet." "I don't twitter and I can't bring myself to tweet," I said. "So write a blog." "Can I write a blog about how much I hate twittering tweets?" So, when inspiration strikes, when I'm compelled to express myself, or when I happen to think of something that is better shared, I'll blog it for those who want to know. Beats twittering a tweet --- Jeff Daniels
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