The State of the Danielson

Daniel Smith on his numerous musical projects, former bandmate Sufjan Stevens and being a Christian artist who doesn’t connect with Christian culture

"Heart On Sleeve" era Danielson, Daniel Smith (center)
"Heart On Sleeve" era Danielson, Daniel Smith (center)

Though he’d never want to take credit for it, the extent to which there is a Christian presence in indie rock — a scene generally suspicious of and cynical toward expressions of faith — is largely due to the presence of Daniel Smith. More than any other artist in the post-punk era, he has redefined what it means to camp out at the idiosyncratic crossroads of faith and art. On the avant-garde edges of both cultures, his series of visionary albums have proved he is beholden to neither. With Trying Hartz, a two-disc retrospective spanning the first ten years of his career, Smith offers one-stop shopping for the curious and confounded.

With 1994’s A Prayer for Every Hour, a series of songs designed to accompany each hour of the day that also served as his senior thesis at Rutgers University, Smith introduced us to his squeaky falsetto and band of merry siblings. The son of Lenny, a carpenter — who just so happens to have written the hymnal staple “Our God Reigns” — Smith drew his backing band from immediate family. Smith, the eldest of five (the youngest was only 11 years old at the time), and the original Danielson Famile came roaring out of Clarksboro, New Jersey, and would release four full-length albums, touring the world in matching hospital scrubs meant to symbolize spiritual healing. The music was admittedly odd — a mixture of surreal images and constantly shifting textures and tones — and connected with an equally eclectic cross section of listeners, from eccentric youth group kids to Simpsons‘ creator Matt Groening.

Along the way, Smith would pick up new band members (with a young Sufjan Stevens chief among them) and change the name of his band three times (from Danielson Famile to Brother Danielson to simply Danielson), eventually starting his own label (Sounds Familyre) to provide an outlet for his musical friends. The releases came fast and furious, but it wasn’t until 2006 that the rest of the world finally caught up with him. With Ships, an album where he was joined by over 50 friends, Smith finally found the indie audience that had eluded him, and the 2007 documentary Danielson: A Family Movie (or Make a Joyful Noise HERE) confirmed Smith and his always changing conceptual conceits as a pop culture sensation. Having looked back over his career with Trying Hartz, he talks to Busted Halo about his first ten years on the margins.

Busted Halo: With the Trying Hartz record, was there some reason that now seemed like the time to do a retrospective?

Daniel Smith: Actually, Chris Swanson from Secretly Canadian and I were talking right after we finished up the Ships touring, and we felt like there was a great new audience that connected with this record that either was too young to connect with the earlier ones when they were new or whatever. And, with me experimenting with various name changes and variations on the name Danielson, as well as changing labels from Tooth & Nail to Secretly Canadian, I thought it could be a fun and scary idea. I certainly resisted any idea of a “Best Of” because that doesn’t relate to our music at all in the sense that we haven’t had any singles or hits. That’s not our world, so “Best Of” doesn’t really apply, and it has such a stale history, that format.

What I did get excited about was the idea of retrospective, and this is probably obvious, but the best example of that is Neil Young’s Decaderecord. I think that’s a great record, as kind of a collection and a way to represent his first ten years in a package, and I got excited about the idea of using Trying Hartz to continue to tell a story. Really, I think, those first ten years were a lot of messy communication with the audience. Those are the records, and I’d never change anything about them, but I felt this challenge of putting something together that would allow me to also include some live versions of songs and do some things that I could never afford to do when those records were being made. It all came together, and I got super excited about it, and we reissued the vinyl versions of all of the full-lengths. My hope is that people would get that and hear songs that they haven’t heard from the back catalog and then go buy the vinyl full-lengths. We had a great time doing it, and we did a three-week tour to support it, doing all older material. It was fun, because the last time we went through these towns, we had been playing the Ships album, so it was fun to revisit the older material with a new band. But I’m certainly ready for the next record at this point.

I think my approach to songwriting is forced naiveté. Forced in the sense that I tell myself while I’m writing that I have no perspective whether it’s good or not… Months later, when I’m sifting through these recordings and picking things that are jumping out at me, that’s when I feel like I have better perspective.

BH: It must have been difficult to go through the process of picking which songs would end up on the record.

DS: It was, but there were certain songs that were obvious. I think I took mostly from our previous set lists, the songs that translated well live. Those are the ones that I felt especially connected with, so those made the list right away. I did have to whittle it down a little bit, but I think those were the ones. In a way, I think that was what I was hoping, that the release would reflect the live experience in some way. That’s a big part of Danielson, and I don’t think the records reflect that. The records are their own thing, and the live show is something different.

BH: Right. The record seems to capture your evolution as a songwriter. There seem to be distinct phases from album to album. Did you want to capture that shift?

DS: No…I think it’s impossible for me to judge. Looking back, in terms of songwriting approach or phases, I don’t think I can even see that. I think it’s impossible for me to see it, because as a songwriting method, I try not to think about any of those things. I try to turn off any of those sensibilities. I think my approach to songwriting is forced naiveté. Forced in the sense that I tell myself while I’m writing that I have no perspective whether it’s good or not. I also decide not to have any goals in mind. All those things go out the window, and a lot of those decisions, in terms of what is worth continuing to work on or what kind of song it is, sometimes happen months later. I feel like when stuff is just happening and I’m recording it on some little Dictaphone or something, it’s like my nose on the mirror. I can’t see anything. Stuff’s just kind of happening, and I’m just going with it. That’s always been the process and continues to be. Months later, when I’m sifting through these recordings and picking things that are jumping out at me, that’s when I feel like I have better perspective. I don’t remember what chord I played, and there’s no technical thing in the way. All that, just to say that that’s never changed.

BH: Did growing up seeing your dad write songs influence the way that you put them together?

DS: Oh, absolutely. I don’t know about the way that he writes them technically, because I still don’t know how he does that. But the absolute diehard emphasis on the song, yes. He comes from the folk tradition, where you write the chords and you write the melody and you write the lyrics. I don’t do it in the same order that he does it, because he always writes the lyrics first and then the melody and finds the chords. I pretty much do it the opposite, or I do it at the same time but over different days. But in terms of emphasis on the actual song and song structure and melody and lyrical content, especially lyrical content inspired by a spiritual journey, all those things are directly inspired by him.

BH: Growing up did you have a sense of him being a songwriter or did you realize that later?

DS: Well, it’s the music that we heard around the house all day every day. We had the songs memorized. All these songs, especially now that I’m working on his next record, they all have these amazing memories and feelings connected to them for me, personally. It’s probably hard for me to judge.

In a way, I feel like I’m a better judge than he is (laughs), because to him, the ones that are older “didn’t go anywhere.” And I say, “Dad, but no one has ever heard these songs.” But at the same time, I have a deep relationship with certain ones that connected with me, and those are the ones that I’m focused on getting on the record. But we really always loved his songs, and eventually there was a point in college when I was listening to all kinds of stuff, and I went back to his stuff and was like, “Wow, this stuff is really amazing.” Especially when we recorded [Lenny’s] Deep Calls to Deep in ’92, ’93, making that record was connected to me making A Prayer for Every Hour. I felt it was important for me to finish his album before I started my own, so we finished Deep Calls to Deep in ’93, and that’s when I felt incredibly proud of his songs and who he is and that it was a shame that no one knows his music.

It was also because I’d learned a lot about recording and had come up with a lot of opinions about the right way of doing things, and any recordings that he had done in the 80s sounded, as you can imagine, like the 80s. They were awful, awful. Literally, he went to the studio in the mid-80s to make a record, and the engineers and producers told him that it would be better to use this synthesizer that imitates an acoustic than for him to play his 1965 Gibson. So it’s synthesized acoustic guitar with Lenny singing. I’ve said enough! Reacting against that kind of stuff and feeling like we needed to get some really good recordings, we started recording him on a four-track and got him going. It’s a lo-fidelity record, but I love it. The songs are strong, and it’s a shame that another one hasn’t come out since, but we’ve been really busy building the label and the studio and working a lot with other artists. But, yeah, that’s my dad.

Daniels father Lenny
Lenny Smith

BH: It’s interesting that as an artist, he’s fairly obscure, but everyone who picks up a modern church hymnal has one of his songs in it.

DS: That’s right; whether they know it or not. “Our God Reigns” is his big hit, and that’s an amazing story, because that was something that he wrote and sang in their church, in the Gospel Temple, in the early to mid 70s. And some evangelist came through and heard it and took that song around the world. And it’s in many, many languages and it really connected with a lot of different denominations and a lot of churches. It was never recorded or on a proper record, it spread in just the most organic, folk way that songs travel. I think it’s an incredibly powerful story and something that we should think about in terms of sacred music and the way that it’s distributed and promoted now. There’s something really different and lacking from that way, when songs travel and are successful because people love them and talk about them and bring them where they are going. That wasn’t that long ago. We’re talking about the 70s. But you don’t want to get me going on that tangent.

BH: Were you cognizant of that happening when that song was taking off and connecting with people?

DS: Not so much. My whole childhood, my dad was doing carpentry work to pay the bills, and my mom stayed home with us five kids. And, yet, he was constantly writing songs and trying to make a go of doing fulltime music. So there would be periods of time — when that song started taking off, and royalty checks would come in from publishing, and a couple well-known CCM artists covered the song — and it seemed like his ship had come in. I think there were even times when he hung up his hammer and was like, “That’s it! I’m fulltime music now!” But then the reality set in that it doesn’t last, and he had to go back to carpentry again. That’s my memory of him, always making music but having to support his family. He always had hope that his catalog, of 170 songs or whatever it is, would get a fair shot at success like the one song did. But that’s the kind of thing that you can’t reproduce. It just happened, and I would say that it’s something that God decided to do, and there’s no formula for a song connecting with people in quite that way. Right now, our hope is that people will hear his album and it will connect, kind of like with the new Welcome Wagon. It’s amazing that there’s this album that is filled with church songs that is connecting with, as far as I can tell, a pretty wide fan base, from church folks to people who like Sufjan’s music. And one of my dad’s songs is on the record.