A different side to Jeff Daniels
You may know who Jeff Daniels is – an Emmy Award-winning, Golden Globe and Tony-nominated actor, known for his talents both on film and stage – but you may not know that he is an avid musician, having performed more than 300 live shows, written more than 400 songs and released multiple albums. Be sure not to miss your chance to witness his hilarious and poignant blend of music this July when he visits West Virginia to perform on the world-renowned Mountain Stage along with his son Ben Daniels and his band.
You’d be wrong to assume this is the first time Daniels has visited the state. In fact, he performed once before on Mountain Stage in 2011, although then he played solo. “Played it once. Came in, did a solo bit. They were very nice to have me,” said Daniels, “It was fun.”
I spoke with Daniels about his music career and asked if he had always dreamt of being a musician or if it had just been a side project which gained steam. “No, I was supposed to be an actor,” said Daniels. “That was what I was supposed to chase, that was what I went to New York to do. That’s never changed. I just also enjoy other things that kind of came from that.”
Daniels lived in New York during a time in which the city was brimming with creative talent. “I landed in New York in the 70s and I was around playwrights who were writing new plays. Everybody was writing. I didn’t think I could write a play that could find a stage, but I could go back to my apartment, pick up a guitar, and write in ways that they were writing. It was a very fertile time to fall into that. But yeah, acting was what I was supposed to do and then I just did the writing, and the music, and the songwriting, and the guitar playing, for me.”
Daniels’ belief that his writings could never find a stage couldn’t have been further from the truth. He has since written more than 16 plays, all of which have been performed at The Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea, Michigan – a theater founded by Daniels in 1991 in the city that he currently calls home.
A benefit of performing live music is travel, specifically to smaller cities. I asked Daniels if he enjoys visiting these smaller towns and more intimate venues – such as Mountain Stage in Charleston – that acting might not have brought him to. “I do. I make no pretense to try to go in and sell out, you know, some 10,000-seat arena. But I can go into the smaller places and have a great time.” Daniels spoke about some of his favorite venues. “A lot of these communities, whether it’s a special club or a reputable show like Mountain Stage – which is a big deal – one of the things I’ve loved is the opera houses that we get to find in all these out-of-the-way places. Oshkosh, Wisconsin has an opera house. Woodstock, Illinois has a beautiful opera house. But it’s not in Chicago. It’s not in Pittsburgh. It’s not in New York. But they’re out there and they’re fun to play.” Daniels said there is a lot of respect that comes from playing these smaller venues. “When you go and play those places or clubs like that – kind of off the beaten track – there’s an appreciation from the audience, especially for acoustic music. They’re ready to listen. They want to listen. And I love playing for that crowd.”
Daniels enjoys using his fame while on tour to help expose other artists to audiences they may not have reached otherwise. “I’m famous, but it’s my way of supporting other artists who aren’t as much,” said Daniels. “Whether it’s my son’s band, or whether it’s on the same bill, or whether it’s in the same venue. It’s my way of going ‘come see me but also see some of the other people who are coming through this club, or this theater.’ It’s just a way to support the arts while having a good time.”
While Daniels often performs solo, he doesn’t mind teaming up with the Ben Daniels Band, a group fronted by one of his sons. Despite their relationship, he allows the band to define how the music will be arranged. “They’re definitely playing stuff that I want to play, but I make it ‘how do you want to play?’ you know? I never tell them what to play.” Daniel explained his thinking, “Arthur Miller, the great playwright, once said ‘I look forward to seeing what my work inspires in others,’ and that’s kinda how I approach it. I say, ‘fiddle here’ and Wesley (Fritzemeier) figures out what to do. You let them find and define and originate what it is. I really enjoy cutting these guys loose and just asking them ‘what do you hear?’ I tell them, play what you hear.”
Daniels understands that actors aren’t always appreciated for trying to branch out into other forms of art. “We make sure the audience has a good time. We make them laugh. I really enjoy making the audience laugh a little bit which softens them up, relaxes them, and then you kind of drop some of the other stuff on them. Next thing you know they’re going, ‘you know? This was not bad at all!’ They never know what to expect with an actor.” Daniels adds, “It could be a disaster. It really could.” Thankfully Daniels’ performances are far from disasters. A great songwriter and a fantastic guitarist, Daniels has the talent to defy the expectations unfairly put on actors who try to carve a niche out in the music scene.
Balancing acting and music can prove to be a juggling act, although Daniels’ clout in the industry has made that a bit less of a struggle now than in earlier years. “Music is only tricky because you have to book these things six months out,” said Daniels. “The acting career is starting to line up but for many, many years it was the phone rings and I’m gone, and you know, that 30-day tour you booked six months ago now has gotta go away because you got a movie. That’s the only down.” To combat this Daniels refuses to cancel tour dates and thankfully is surrounded by agents who honor his commitments. “I’ve got to book these things like this coming July, August, and then treat it as sacred. Fortunately, my movie and TV agents are so supportive. I get to have the best of both worlds.”
Despite mastering how to balance his various commitments, Daniels remains almost constantly busy. In addition to recently playing the lead on The Looming Tower on Hulu, presenting an award at the 2018 Tony Awards, remaining active in feature films, touring with his son, and writing plays, he is also currently preparing for his starring role as Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird on Broadway this December. The show’s script is being written by Aaron Sorkin, creator and writer of Jeff Daniels’ previous HBO hit The Newsroom. “We kind of stayed away this summer from anything so that I could one, sit down and relax, and two, go out on tour and then do the play,” said Daniels.
As for what audiences should except from Daniels’ Mountain Stage show he says you need look no further than the recently released Jeff Daniels and Ben Daniels Band Acoustic Sittin’ Tour 2018 album available digitally on his website. “I’ll be doing some of the same stuff and we’re gonna add in some other stuff, you know. Shake it up a little bit,” said Daniels. “We came off that tour, it went really well, and I was really happy with the way we were arranged and played. So, we recorded that and then immediately booked one (a tour) for the following August to take it out again, just do a different part of the country. I really enjoy hitting the northeast swing. There’s a lot of great listening rooms on this tour.”
Daniels has a faithful companion in his OM Jeff Daniels Martin Custom guitar, which has toured with him for many years and will more than likely be making an appearance at the upcoming Mountain Stage performance. “I think it’s the go-to,” said Daniels of his custom guitar, “It’s number 26 off the line. I’ve got number one hanging up on the wall. It’s not going anywhere.” Daniels is gracious for Martin’s faith in him as an artist. “We sold 53 of them, which isn’t bad for an actor. It was a great honor to even be on that list, you know, with the guys they made custom artist editions for.”
With that guitar Daniels creates music that can make an audience both laugh and cry. When asked which type of song he enjoyed writing, comedic or serious, he replied, “I enjoy comedic if they’re funny. There’s nothing worse than a comedic song that – Tommy (Reifel), the bass player, once said, ‘I just don’t get it. I don’t get it.’ You just hit the delete button. It’s like doing comedy. It’s a smaller target that you gotta hit. It’s not as broad. You gotta be funny, you gotta land with the audience.” Daniels appreciates the time it takes to craft a humorous song. “I enjoy the art, but also the science, the craft behind ‘where’s the joke? Where’s the laugh?’ It’s just like doing a play, you know. ‘We’re gonna get a laugh here, but we want it here, not there. So, fix that. This is a bigger laugh.’ There’s a science to it, it really is fascinating. I mean, Mel Brooks, Jim Carrey, Seinfeld, they’re all this like this. Such artistry and precision in comedy.”
“Standing up there with a guitar and a funny song, man, when it works – it works every single time,” said Daniels. “You know, Have A Good Life Then Die works, How About We Take Our Pants Off and Relax works, Fifty Shades works. Once you find one that works you could put it in your pocket and take it anywhere.”
As for Mountain Stage, Daniels is excited to return and bring along the Ben Daniels Band. “We’re looking forward to it. It’s a great gig, that Mountain Stage, it’s a great gig. The band has never played it, it’s gonna be a lot of fun to put them out there.”
Richard Allen is a freelance writer for various publications. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on facebook.com/richardallenwrites