By David Courtright
Jeff Daniels, like many successful people in the creative industry, doesn’t sit still well. Aside from Screen Actors Guild and Tony Award nominations, aside from starring roles in classics like Dumb and Dumber, Pleasantville, and The Squid and the Whale, he is also a prolific playwright and champion of small theater. And a songwriter. He takes a break from his busy touring schedule to chat about songwriting method, the purity of local art and theater, and his musical influences.
What are some similarities and differences in your songwriting and acting method? And do you find one more intuitive or natural than the other? How do you approach each? Do you come to a song with a particular character in mind?
Well they come in different ways. I guess the similarity would be the point of view – you approach a character and the story determines what the point of view of the character is – is he the protagonist, antagonist, does he create action, do things happen because of him? You kind of try to get into that guy’s head and think like he thinks, and that just kind of rolls it down the hill. In songwriting, you have to find the where the point of view is as well – is it something that’s common to me, so therefore it’s more just me, or is it my take on the world? Or is it a story song, is it a story about a character you create like you would for a movie or play that you’re acting in? “Across the Way” is a story song that I did about an old man looking across at this young girl, so you kind of just get into his head. So sometimes it’s exactly the same thing as creating a character, and other times you’re chasing it, it’s something closer to me probably, and you write it, then you walk away from it and go, “Alright does it make the set list or not?” Sometimes it’s just a song, sometimes it’s just a piece of a puzzle, and then it has nothing to do with acting. Sometimes you’re just a writer, whereas an actor is kind of going “Where are the words someone wrote that I have to say?”
Right. Like many of your songs come from a place of humor, where as some of them are very endearing, like “The Michigan in Me” seems much more personal.
Yeah, the humorous ones – it’s been interesting to work with some of the people I’ve gotten to work with – you know, comedically to work with Woody Allen, or Jim Carrey, or Robin Williams, they all have a unique point of view that is their own. To me, good comedy really jumps out when it’s something that is universal, that is familiar to someone listening, but that comes at them in a way they’ve never thought of before. In the case of a song, just a phrase, or a title, or a hook, that’s going, “Oh God, that’s funny – I’d never thought of it that way but it’s so true.” That’s what you’re looking for.
I’ve noticed a lot of your music is very bluesy. What are your influences and what brought you to the guitar?
I just picked one up. When I moved to New York in 1976, I bought a guitar and took it with me figuring I’d be sitting around the apartment waiting for the phone to ring a lot, and quickly that became the case, so I just wanted to play it and I wanted to play it well, I didn’t just want to be a strummer. So very early on I got hooked on Stefan Grossman, and Stefan had, back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, these tablature books where he taught you finger-picking, county, blues, and various variations of that. I became a student of those books, and really stayed on it, and that led me to later on the ’20s, to Robert Johnson, Skip James, and Blind Boy Fuller, all those kind of, how they would play this or that. And then you’re immersed in the blues of the Delta way back when, and all those guys who took their Stella guitars and sat on a porch and played with two fingers and you start going, “What are they doing?” It just made the guitar fun to get up and around, and the blues being the basis for damn near everything musically. It was this wonderful kind of pilgrimage to the beginning of it all, and I’ll forever be a student of it.
You’ve said that acting puts a filter between you and the audience. In what ways does being in small town venues in such close contact with the audience liberate you as a performer?
The similarity to film is that it’s like doing a close up. I’ve said with acting that when you’re doing a close up the audience is three feet away. And film actors love that – they live for the close ups because you can reveal so much with just a look, with a simplicity, the performance can become much more nuanced, detailed performance. In a way it’s like that, it’s like sitting in their lap, or their living room. And I like that. Feels like home.
How is it different to be able to play off the audience? More like theater in terms of having that immediate reaction?
Yeah, it’s the thing that makes comedy so tricky, in movies. Well, in a way. You do a comedy, even like Dumb and Dumber, you do a comedy and you lay the joke out, and then a year later you find out if they laugh or not. And that’s just the nature of film. And also if you have comic timing, you’re in complete control of it, which is another thing I love about walking out with the guitar and playing music and rolling out some of the more humorous songs, is that I’m in complete control, there’s no editor, there’s no studio, no one else has their hands on it, so I get to time it. I’m the one who gets to do the set up and the joke. And you like that, you can build on that. There are certain songs, like “Recreational Vehicle” is a song that’s changed over the years as it, references change, timing changes. It’s interesting to me, having played it so many times in front of people, to see how it grows. And really it’s a back and forth – it’s not a Q and A, but there’s definitely a conversation going on, right from the get-go, as soon as I walk out there. I’ve broken the fourth wall, there’s no filter, how quickly can I make a connection with them, talking to them, ad-libbing, gumming around, all of a sudden dropping into something, a song or whatever, where you take control again. But it’s a wonderful back and forth that I like, that goes beyond being on Broadway in a play.
And your proceeds go to benefit the Purple Rose Theater in your hometown in Michigan.
Yes, any money I make on CDs goes to Purple Rose.
What role would you say local theater plays in our lives today with such a saturation of free entertainment on the internet and in movies?
Theatre has survived a lot, way back from the Greeks to Shakespeare – it’s survived television, movies. There still is something quite wonderful about a well-done play, a live performance, which the internet can’t ever really give you. Where you go and you sit and they do it just for you that night, in that room, in that theater. And when it’s well done, it’s just as good as anything, I think. And probably better. We may not be heading in that direction, you know, with everything available on your iPhone, but I still think there’s a wonderful kind of human connection that happens in a live performance of music, or theater. And all art is local, I believe. It’s not to be saved for the museums and the huge performing arts centers in the cities. Everyone came from somewhere, and it can be an amazing experience to see something local that’s well done, whether it’s a piece of art, or theater, or some guy’s playing violin on the corner of the street. And I think that art is just as important as some of the art that’s celebrated.
And has an authenticity…
Yeah, there’s a purity to it, and an honesty to it, and it’s fun to discover it. It’s wonderful to be in a smaller venue or a smaller town, away from where you think you might find it, and suddenly there’s this beautiful piece of art, or there’s a performance in a play somewhere, or you know, some college kid gives this incredible performance in this play and everybody else around him sucks, but there’s something there. And you saw it, and then ten years later, you find out he’s in movies. It’s kind of cool.
You were born in Georgia.
Have you spent much time in Atlanta, or Georgia?
No, just kind of passed through, been down to Hilton Head a lot to play golf, but haven’t spent much time at all. Gone through Atlanta, and of course the whole world goes through the Atlanta airport. And I did make a trek – we did go to Athens and saw the house where I lived. We only lived there six weeks; my dad was in the Navy, he was in some quartermaster school near the end of his Navy career, and I was born and six weeks later he was discharged and we left and moved back up to Michigan.
Have you played Atlanta before?
Thanks Jeff! Good luck with the tour!
I’m looking forward to it!
Jeff Daniels plays Smith’s Olde Bar on October 30.