Photo by Jim Newberry
Interview by Robert Pally
"I find writing songs difficult and often very discouraging."
Daniel Carlson, who was raised in Chicago, creates on his third record Aviary Jackson, music that goes beyond just putting some songs in a nice order. In the tradition of Burt Bacharach, Pearlfishers, The Beach Boys, High Llamas and Louis Philippe, he offers pop jewels of high quality that satisfy the body and the mind. In this interview, he talks about liking the Carpenters, how music changed his life in high school, songs that move him, what inspires him to write songs and what success means to him.
PSF: Do you come out of a musical family?
Daniel Carlson: My mother was a big music fan, so there were always good records in the house. Beatles, Leon Russell, Mamas & the Papas, things like that. The thing was that she rarely put them on, so I became the house DJ pretty early on, always listening to her records. When I spent time with my dad, it was different. He was and is a real lover of music and always has it on: at home, in the car, wherever he is. But I can't think of anyone in my family who played or sang, aside from singing around the house.
PSF: What made you then want to become a musician?
DC: On one level, it's an easy question to answer: I loved music and idolized musicians and so of course it was something I was really drawn to. On another level and I know this isn't exactly what you're asking but the question about what draws people to music and why we like the music we like, this is really fascinating to me. I remember responding to certain songs as a kid, songs that were popular on the radio, and thinking "why do I like this more than other songs, why does this song give me goose bumps?"
PSF: What was the first song you liked?
DC: I don't have a clear memory of this, although I imagine it would've been one of the old Beatles records that were around the house. That said, the first records I really remember being conscious of the writing - the actual songs - were some of The Carpenters records that were on the radio. Hearing those, I thought "wow I really like these melodies and chords". So as much as I loved (and still love) the Beatles and all those kinds of things, I gravitated to other kinds of writing pretty early on. Much later, I'd sort of forgotten this early fascination with more pop stuff, but when the Elvis Costello/Burt Bacharach record came out (Painted From Memory), it gave me the same kind of feeling as those Carpenters songs (and the Fifth Dimension, and the Burt Bacharach/Dionne Warwick songs) and reminded that I'd had those kinds of reactions as a kid.
PSF: Music changed your life by...?
DC: I can't imagine who I'd be without music. It isn't so much my identity as a musician, but my love of music and how it's in my head almost every waking hour. In terms of my interests in life, it remains the centre of everything. But to give you a more specific answer, I think my experience in high school would've been completely different, and a lot worse. While I was a terrible student, I had this identity as a musician that really helped my through that time, made me feel like I wasn't a total failure. And, of course, that's carried on well past that time, that sense of being a music person at every stage of my life.
PSF: What was the first instrument you learned?
DC: Drums, which is funny because I can still barely play them all these years later. But yes, drums, that was really the first attraction. My mother rented me a snare drum, got me a practice book, and sent me off to the school music teacher to learn how to play the snare drum. Not so much fun. I changed to guitar quickly. Same deal, though: rental guitar, a few lessons. That wasn't much fun either, but it eventually took. I never lost that thing for the drums though, and finally got my first drum set last year. More fun than that lone rental snare drum.
PSF: How many and what instruments do you play?
DC: I play guitar and bass fairly well - these are the ones I can actually move around on. Keyboards a bit less, but I can play simple parts. With drums, I'm just learning the basics. A very simple beat is within my abilities, but anything beyond that is tough.
PSF: How was your first band called and what kind of music did you play?
DC: Ugh. We were called Echo and we played Beatles songs. I was 12 or 13.
PSF: Did you put out anything with one of the bands you played in?
DC: No, nothing came out.
PSF: What quality must a band have for you that you like it?
DC: I'm drawn to good writing. It doesn't have to be flashy or clever (although I often like that, too), it just has to be good. So there are simple things I love and complicated things I love and everything in between. That said, there are styles that I like - 60's chamber pop, mid-period Beach Boys, early 70's singer-songwriter - and if I hear a record that references that stuff, my ears tend to perk up a bit. I also tend to notice records where there's something ambitious going on with the arrangements, the production. Again, that late '60's/early '70's period is often great for that: mellotrons, non-traditional (for rock) instrumentation, Moog's, etc. The sounds of people trying to change the genre from within. There are a few Marcos Valle records from that time (Vento Sul & Previsao do Tempo) that are great examples, with Valle really trying to stretch the boundaries of what was going on in Brazilian music, both compositionally and sonically. I love those records.
PSF: What was the first song you wrote and what was it about?
DC: Sorry, no memory of this at all.
PSF: Was there ever a song that made you cry?
DC: Not sure a song has ever made be burst into tears, but there are plenty that move me. Mostly it's about melody and there are tons of things that absolutely get to me. Lyrically, I don't respond in the same way, although I can be a sucker for a good story song. "A Postcard to Nina" by Jens Lekman is one, a recent one. I mean usually these sorts of narrative songs are just so dopey, so obvious. But I thought that Lekman one was really sweet in a good way. Can't think of any others at the moment, but it happens from time to time.
PSF: What inspires you to write music?
DC: Two ways to answer that question. The first is why I write music at all, which is a difficult one to answer. I find writing songs difficult and often very discouraging. But I do feel that it allows me to get to a place that I can't really get to any other way. I also feel that it's something that I'm able do, and so I feel a responsibility to do it. In the end though, it gets me in touch with who I am in a way nothing else does. But if you're asking what inspires me to write a specific song, well it's never really worked that way for me. When I'm in writing mode, I make a schedule and write every day. This idea of a song coming into my head while I'm walking down the street, it's never happened to me. A guy I know who's a really good writer carries a little tape recorder around with at all times, just in case a song comes into his head. I just can't imagine that. Makes me laugh just to think of it. I sit, I play and sing, and - if it's a good day - something comes out that makes sense to me. It's like writing anything in that you've got to constantly be the author and the editor simultaneously. You write a bit of melody and immediately try and figure out if it's worth keeping, or how to change it to make it better. It's so tiring if you're really making an effort, but really pays off. Really though, if you don't have that ability to edit as you work, you're sunk.
PSF: For songs lyrics, do you like to write stories or is it more imaginations?
DC: Never stories. Or, rather, never "story" songs. It's just that I tell my stories using fairly unspecific language. Asides. Digressions. But for me, almost every one of them is about something specific or a person or a bit of both.
PSF: On your site it is says: 'he withdrew from the scene to rethink the route his musical life had taken." What route was that and what made you rethink it?
DC: I'd become stuck with guitars and Beatle-y pop, XTC, Elvis Costello. Not a bad place, but I'd just grown a bit tired of it. I'd played bass in lots of bands and done some writing, but it just wasn't a good fit. I can't really sing that way - that kind of rock singing. I was also just tired of that kind of music, of playing that kind of music. Then I started to hear things in the mid 90's - the High Llamas, Stereolab, The Divine Comedy, people like this - that completely energized me, made me want to write and play again.
PSF: Your first solo EP Somnar came out in 2001. What memories do you have of it?
DC: I still like the songs on it, and there's some wonderful playing on it by some of my friends. But I wasn't singing well enough and it just didn't really come together in the end. Still, it was an important first step in this sort of second act of my musical life.
PSF: Three years after Somna, you released Now, again an EP. Why again no full LP?
DC: Two reasons, really. The first is that the EP length - 18-20 minutes of so - reminds me a lot of the album-side length, which is how I grew up listening to music. As a listener, I find it easier to engage with something new if I get to know it in these shorter chunks (as opposed to a full length CD, which doesn't have the side break). So that was the first reason, just to simulate that vinyl listening experience. The other reason was that I thought - and still think - that most LP's don't have enough strong material to justify the longer playing time and they also tend not to work as a longer piece. It's just song, song, song, song, etc. So I felt that, with the EP's, I could do something that was relatively strong throughout.
PSF: Looking back, what dont you like about Now?
DC: I'm pretty OK with it, actually. I'm not crazy about my singing in a few places, but I think it turned out pretty well otherwise. That's almost wholly due to (producer) Neal Ostrovsky's participation. While I wrote, sang, and did lots of playing on the songs, he really brought everything to life, which has allowed me to hear it a bit more from the outside, as a listener. The whole project also went down pretty quickly, so I didn't hear these songs 300 times while we were working on them, which makes it easier to listen to them later. The other thing about those sessions is that they were really a lot of fun, so when I do hear one of the tracks, I'm reminded of that. Lots of laughing and eating in the studio.
PSF: After Now, it took you seven years to release another album. Why so long?
DC: Yeah, I know. Too long. There were a few things that contributed. I was writing during that time, so material wasn't really an issue. But I think a big part of it was that, while I wanted to work with Neal again, the logistics (he's in Chicago) seemed a bit daunting. While Now (which Neal had produced) hadn't taken all that long to do, I had a sense early on that the follow-up was going to take quite a bit longer. So I ate up a bunch of time flip-flopping about that. I'd also begun to work with some wonderful musicians in NYC and wanted to do something with them. With that though, I knew I wanted an outside producer onboard. Unfortunately, I had no idea about local people and who might make sense. It wasn't until a friend really pushed me to get moving that I finally got started. And, after all that, I did end up starting with Neal again in Chicago. We did three or four days and really got things started. After that, I ended up talking with Michael Leonhart in NYC and he and I ended up working here with him producing, mostly just the two of us in a room. I should say that, at that point, I was thinking that it would be another EP. It wasn't until I played some of the tracks I'd done with Michael for Sean O'Hagan - who suggested strongly that I think about the LP length -that I really committed to the full-length thing. So I'm indebted to Sean for that piece of advice and encouragement.
PSF: Aviary Jackson sounds different from your other 2 albums. How come?
DC: That's down to Michael. His abilities and an arranger, producer, and musician are amazing, astounding, sometimes overwhelming. So while I'd bring in demos with fairly elaborate arrangements, he'd bring it all to a much higher level. Just watching him work with the other musicians was an education. When I thought a part had been played well enough, he'd make a couple of suggestions to the musician (often me!) and - a take or two later - it would be better in ways I couldn't have imagined.
PSF: What remained is the melancholy feel of the songs. How much has that to do with your personality?
DC: I think that, in my every day life, I'm an optimist. But you're right that these songs - most of my songs - have this kind of melancholic feel to them. I don't know, when I sit down to write, these are the songs that end up coming out. These kinds of melodies resonate with me, whether I've written them or not. Good question.
PSF: Aviary Jackson makes the impression of a concept work. If yes, what is it about?
DC: It's a concept work in that we wanted to do something that felt like it had a beginning, middle and end. And I do think that, melodically and lyrically, there's an arc to it that feels like a story, takes you a few places maybe and then brings you back too. There are pieces on it that really only work in the larger (album) context, that wouldn't work if you just heard them as stand-alone pieces. The albums I really love have lots of weird bits like this. Things like the track "Aviary" and the end of the song "Velvet" are examples of this on Aviary Jackson.
PSF: Who or what is 'Aviary Jackson'?
DC: The album was almost done before we figured out what it was called. I sent a CD to Karl Jensen, who was doing the artwork. He asked what it was called and I asked him to come up with a title. Karl is a great friend and one of my favourite visual artists, so I really was curious what ideas he might have and glad to involve someone else in this whole project, to have another collaborator. After he spent a few weeks with it, and worked through some ideas for the art, Karl called and said that he thought it should be called 'Aviary Jackson.' I thought it was a perfect fit.
PSF: is there a connection between the music, the lyrics and the cover design?
DC: Karl didn't start working on the art until the record was done, so he wasn't involved at the beginning, meaning that his work was in response to mine. In my opinion though, he was able to create something visual that articulates perfectly the songs, the recordings, the lyrics. These little spaces he created - with the models of instruments used during recording - have become the rooms I think about when I think about the actual recording process we used. The little world of his feels like a place I've spent time in, that I've worked on music in. But really, it's one of the greatest pieces of CD packaging I've ever seen.
PSF: There is one song on Aviary Jackson that is different from the rest: the dancey "Downtown Again." What is the story of it?
DC: Using different process occasionally leads to very different types of songs. Usually I write with a guitar or on the piano, just working until a melody and chord progression emerges. But in this case, Michael sent me a drum track and I wrote the the song around that. Oddly though, while I almost never get any kind of writers block - when it comes to melody writing, anyway - I got stuck on this one. Michael came up with the second half of the main melody. But yes, I do agree that it's different than the rest and hope that it adds a bit of variety.
PSF: You never print the lyrics to your songs in the booklet. Why is that?
DC: The lyrics I write are really intended to be heard with the music. I don't think they work as well if they're printed on a page.
PSF: What means success to you?
DC: When I was younger, it involved a lot of expectations that were - for the most part - out of my control. Things like commercial success, mass adoration, huge financial rewards, those kinds of things. I wanted to be a star! Now that's all changed, of course. I'm really just concerned with doing the best work I can do - writing, playing, singing. I spend a lot of time focusing on these things. For me, the recording is the thing - to capture the best that I can do on tape. Now I know that sounds obvious, but it's just not true for everyone. I know people who can sit in front of you - whether just one on one or at a show or whatever - and they're just amazing, incredible performers. And for a lot of them, they don't seem to have the interest or inclination or patience to get that down on a record. And so for them, the record doesn't accurately reflect what they do. For me, it's the opposite, I think. When it succeeds for me, it reflects exactly what was going on in my head when I wrote it. It's about being able to articulate that initially mood, that feeling on record. Hard to do, but worth it for me.
PSF: What is important for you when you play live?
DC: Probably easier to start with what's not important. I don't really care if we recreate the recorded arrangements. I don't care if what we played at show is exactly what we played at rehearsal. I do care a lot about the rhythmic feel in what we're doing. I like it to feel right and, for me, that starts with the tempos being right, the feel being right. But outside of that, it's up to the people playing with me. I love hearing great musicians and if they're standing right next to me, bringing new ideas to things I've written, all the better. It can be really exciting.
PSF: What dream (like for example becoming the next Brian Wilson or something else) do you have?
DC: I would like to work with a larger group of musicians at some point. When I listen to certain session tapes (things that are now bonus tracks on CD's I love, mostly from the late 60's and early '70's) and hear a room full of 10, 15, 20 musicians all working together on a tracking date, the idea of working like that is really exciting to me. But financially, it's just not something that I can get into right now. Some day, though. Aside from that, there are a lot of musicians, many of them friends, who I'm really looking forward to working with in the coming years.
PSF: What are your next musical projects?
DC: I just finished a remix for Jude Cowan, for a record she's done of songs based on (William) Blake poems. I'd never done anything like that before and had a good time with it. I did a some work on David Myhr's (ex of the Merrymakers) new solo record. I'm also hoping to do something with Pulco, a wonderful Welsh group I met last summer. Other than that, just beginning to think about the next album. There are a bunch of songs, so it's just a matter of figuring out how and where I want to head.
For more on Mr. Carlson, see his website
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