Jeff Daniels Reflects on His Musical Roots and Shows His Serious Side

Jeff Daniels Reflects on His Musical Roots and Shows His Serious Side

By Chris Steffen

Jul. 29, 2015

Jeff Daniels was just nominated for a second Emmy for his role as Will McAvoy on HBO's The Newsroom, and has entered the cultural lexicon via his acclaimed appearances in The Purple Rose of Cairo, Dumb and Dumber, Arachnophobia, The Squid and the Whale and Pleasantville But beyond acting, Daniels' affinity for music runs deep, from his early days as a frustrated piano player to a folk-loving teenager who performed in a bevy of stage musicals. He's gone from putting on annual performances to benefit his Purple Rose Theater in his hometown of Chelsea, Michigan, to hitting the road for live dates, sometimes alongside his son, Ben. He also put out an album last year, Days Like These, and is currently in the midst of a set of shows at the Purple Rose Theater, running through Sunday, August 2.

We caught up with Daniels to talk about his earliest musical memories, why he used to stress out significantly more before musical performances than before his acting roles, his desert island disc and why he felt it was time to move into more serious musical territory.

AllMusic: As a kid, what music do you remember hearing around the house?

Jeff Daniels:
My dad used to play piano, he could play some jazz, he knew two or three jazzy improvisations, or maybe just one, to be honest. He loved Nat King Cole. We had a piano and he’d bang around on the piano, suddenly you’d hear these jazz chords and stuff, but he didn’t play that much. He told me I should learn how to play piano, so I spent high school doing that. I fell in love with Elton John and then just started trying to play like Elton John, which sent my piano teacher up a wall. Then I kind of gave it up.

The first concert I ever saw was Arlo Guthrie at the Masonic Temple in Detroit in 1970, maybe. I didn’t have a driver’s license, so my dad and mom took me and a couple of friends to see Arlo. He had just had “Coming to Los Angeles,” and all of that was going on. There might have been a lot of pot going through the Masonic Temple audience if I remember right. But I loved it, I loved the acoustic guitar, I loved that Arlo was standing out there with a band, but right front and center was an acoustic, and I think that’s where I said, “What is that, he’s not doing Top Ten hits, he’s doing Arlo Guthrie songs,” and I liked that, and that got me to Steve Goodman, and by the time I got to New York I saw him at the Bottom Line, a friend turned me on to Doc Watson, and that guitar that I’d bought at Herb David’s guitar shop in Ann Arbor suddenly got pulled out, and I was learning how to fingerpick like Doc Watson, and that was in the late seventies.

AllMusic: Michigan had a lot of different kinds of music going on.

MC5, I remember, for nothing else, that lyric. But I remember MC5, I remember seeing J. Geils Band, and just the energy of that kind of stuff really turned me on, I really loved…I remember seeing Elton John at Jenison Field House, probably two-thirds full, and I loved the energy of what a concert could do, what music could do. And I was an actor, I was going through the theater programs in college and then off to New York, so that was a whole other thing, but there was that thing that happens when a band walks out onstage and everyone leans forward and here comes the music, I never lost interest in that.

AllMusic: So you could appreciate the energy of the MC5 but you didn't feel compelled to make music like that.

No, I was an actor, I was supposed to be an actor, that’s what I was supposed to do. So you can buy a guitar if you want and you can sit around in New York and write songs, but it’s a hobby, because you’re there to be an actor, you can only do one thing. That was what was in my head for 20 years, it was just something I really enjoyed doing, it was very relaxing, it kept me sane in a business that doesn’t breed sanity, and it was a wonderful creative place to go that I had complete control over, which is not what being an actor is like. Being an actor, you’re at the mercy of so many others. It was a wonderful creative outlet, and that’s all it was, and I worked at it, but it wasn’t until 2000 that I stepped on the stage at the Purple Rose to raise some money with it. But there were no gigs, no dreams of being a musician, it was just something I enjoyed doing.

AllMusic: Were you always comfortable singing in front of people?

I was in musicals, and that was fine, I had no problem from high school on, that was no problem at all. But when I did walk out with a guitar the first time at those Purple Rose shows, there was a nakedness to it that I didn’t see coming, and the flop sweat, literally, I had pit stains down to my belt, it was just so obvious, I had to hold up my arms and show the audience, because I looked like Albert Brooks in Broadcast News, it was horrible. I couldn’t understand why I could be on a Broadway stage or be in musicals, but this is so difficult. The songs were mine, they were personal, so maybe that’s the problem, and I would do these shows at Purple Rose, a little Christmas thing or New Year’s thing, those were the only shows I’d do. I’d do one on New Year’s Eve and then I wouldn’t do it again until the following Christmas, and I’d write and get ready for it, and it was still the same flop sweat.

By the third year I realized, “Oh, there’s no character, I don’t have a character to play, I’m not hiding behind a filter.” You’re using yourself in acting, but you’ve got almost this protective shield called the character in front of you, so I said, “Oh, that’s what it is,” so who’s the character? Oh, it’s Jeff in a good mood. That’s who you’re playing. Now suddenly the flop sweat was gone. That, plus the woodshedding. There’s the whole thing of it’s just you and a guitar and you realize that you aren’t good enough, so you spend months getting better with the guitar so you feel like you’ve earned the 90 minutes that they’re paying money to see, and there will always be people better. I remember seeing Kelly Joe Phelps at [Ann Arbor venue] the Ark and going, “Well, I could only dream of playing like that, so let’s enjoy the show.” But you can get better, you can really work at it, and that’s what I’ve done over the last 10, 12 years is just work on getting better so that’s not a cause for any kind of nerves or anything. “I can play, here it is.”

AllMusic: What musicals did you do?

The first one, when I was a senior in high school, I played Fagan in Oliver!, and that was the one where people said, “Look out, there’s something going on here, this kid’s really standing out.” Right away, she put me as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, 18, blond, Midwest, don’t have a clue what Jewish is, but I’d seen the movie six times, so it was a pretty dead-on impression of Topol, I must say. I remember going to New York and within six weeks I was sitting in an agent’s office and he goes, “What have you done, kid?” and I said, “Well, I recently played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, and the guy almost laughed himself out of the chair. I was able to step onstage and do things like that, and that’s kind of all I did, Snoopy in Charlie Brown, El Gallo in The Fantasticks, Harold Hill in The Music Man, Cornelius Hackl in Hello, Dolly!, we had a regular little amateur musical theater company going on in Chelsea for about six years, every summer we’d do one or two musicals, it was a great experience, I learned a tremendous amount.

AllMusic: The song that stood out to me the most on your new album was "Holy Hotel." It's also a pretty long song.

What we do is we track me, all the guitars, all the guide vocals, and then I had to leave to do Dumb and Dumber, and the producer and mixer were basically left with it, and I said, “What do you guys hear?” “I hear strings.” “Then we probably ought to write some.” “OK…” And I just let my producer go off and put it together and do it, and he sent me a computer version of his arrangement of the strings, he’s getting his master’s degree in violin and fiddle right now, he came out of the womb fiddling. So there’s such an understanding of music and theory and all of that that he has that makes a song and the album better, so I just turned him loose and came back and checked in with what they had done. I’d say 90 percent of the CD is what they thought should go on, thought should be added. They’d send it to me and I’d say, “Sounds great to me.” Let the artists do what they want to do, what do they hear, what inspires them? I like that, I like when a song does that. Brad really got into “Holy Hotel.”

AllMusic: So you don't feel like you have to be hands-on for the entire process.

There’s a time later on when you come in and say, “Let’s really listen and get specific, there’s too much there, where are you going with that, that’s not adding anything,” but what was so gratifying was that 90 percent of what they did to it, stayed. I never would have thought of that, and it made it better, terrific. You have to get the right people and you have to trust them. And we’ve played together for years now, so he has a great understanding of what my songs are and what he hears and what he sees. It was a good move to have him produce.

AllMusic: At the live shows you sometimes do some sillier material, but your latest album was pretty serious.

I thought it was time to not rely on funny. Funny was what raised the money at the Purple Rose when I first walked out there with a guitar, they wanted a good time, “Entertain us.” I had seen Christine Lavin, Stevie Goodman—funny is OK, it’s a legitimate art form and it’s not second class to anything. It’s hard to do and hard to do well, and I enjoyed doing that, but this one, it felt like, “Let’s go straight down the line, here’s the songwriting, here’s the song, here are songs in a more traditional, serious sense, I want to show you that I can do that, too.” We recorded a studio version of the “Big Bay Shuffle,” which is a song where I get everybody up on their feet, dancing, it’s a drunken dance that they do in Big Bay, Michigan, it’s a real thing. That was on the CD for a while, and then it just didn’t fit, it veered off, so we pulled it and we put it up on the website.

AllMusic: Who are some musicians you admire who walk that line between funny and serious?

Lyle Lovett has a sly sense of humor, I have to say. I love watching him, I’ve been fortunate that he’s pulled me onstage a couple of times, but I just love his writing, love the originality, I love that. He’s being funny, but he’s singing and saying it in a way where it’s like, “Did you get that, did you get what I just did?” I really like that. He’s very, very clever. Christine Lavin really stuck out as someone who made you say, “Look how far out she’s going. Oh, you can write something like, “Baby, take your tongue out of my mouth, I’m kissing you goodbye.” Christine would do that. Stevie Goodman, I saw him at the Bottom Line, he had such a good time standing onstage with just his guitar, and he’d be in the middle of New Orleans, strumming away, blow a string and keep going, make it a bit, get his arm caught in the string. Look at these guys entertain people, and it really made it OK to use humor to set up the more serious ones and make them more moving. Basic storytelling.

AllMusic: How much fun has it been to watch your son get into music?

In high school, my son was into hockey and into girls, and I said, “Hey, whenever you want to learn how to play the guitar, I’m right here,” and he goes, “Yeah, yeah, OK,” and nothing happened. Then when he was about 19, he walked into the room one day and said, “I’m ready.” “Ready for what?” “Teach me how to play the guitar.” “OK…” I picked one up and said, “OK, here’s E, here’s A, here’s B7, here’s the blues.” And I swear, he’s had a guitar in his hand ever since, 11 years later. That was a joy, just to see him take to it and, in his own way, figure it out. I hear him sitting in the living room doing some finger-picking thing where I say, “Nope, I wasn’t doing that in my twenties, nope.” So that’s very gratifying.

AllMusic: Now that you're more active in music, is it something you intentionally have to carve out time to do?

It’s a battle. In a way, I keep waiting for the acting career to end. Hollywood is very well known for “you’re over, on Tuesday, you’re over,” and nobody told you. And with Newsroom and the sequel to Dumb and Dumber, it’s hardly over. So now it’s about wedging it in, and you have to book these dates at least four months in advance, if not longer, and in the movie and TV world, the phone rings and you’re gone for three months. So there’s no lead time. Once I booked a January tour, I’ve turned down this and that just because I won’t move it, and that’s kind of the problem, you book these music gigs and then here comes a movie gig or a TV job. It’s just a matter of going, “No, not available, call me on February 1.” So that’s what’s great about that, they know how much I love doing it.

AllMusic: Do you think you could pinpoint the a song you've heard the most number of times?

If you eliminate songs from beer and truck commercials, I gravitate towards songs where every time you hear it, you’re hearing it for the first time again, “Sweet Baby James” by James Taylor, you just stop, it just stops me. I remember hearing that in high school and just going, “Wow.” The simplicity of that, it’s probably one of the reasons why I gravitated towards the acoustic guitar, saying, “Look what that guy can do with just an acoustic guitar.”

AllMusic: Does that one take you back to a specific place?

No, maybe a time period. There’s the Elton John song, “Levon,” I remember being in the Dairy Queen parking lot in Chelsea in my dad’s blue Valiant, hearing that on the AM radio, CKLW, hearing that song for the first time. It’s the only song I know of that I remember hearing for the first time and just going, “What is that?”

AllMusic: Is that one of the songs you tried to learn on piano?

Yeah, that’s a tricky one. “Rocket Man,” I had some of that. I remember getting an Elton John songbook and it was in the key of B, which is not a friendly key on the piano, especially for a guy who stays on the white keys. I remember trying to do “Levon,” and I could do that little trill he does at the beginning, but that was about it. 11-17-70 is the album, if I’ve got to go to an island and I only get to take one CD, that’s the one. Oh my god, every time I hear it, I just turn it up.