The Many Sides of Jeff Daniels
On his new album, Days Like These, actor Jeff Daniels goes for something rather bluegrassy. The title track features twangy acoustic guitar and bluesy vocals. The songs aren’t as tongue-in-cheek as tunes on previous albums. Not that Daniels takes himself too seriously. He still loves to joke around with audiences, something he’ll have a chance to do when he’s on tour in early 2015 with his son, Ben. Daniels recently phoned us to talk about the album and upcoming tour.
Talk about the year you’ve had. You have all these projects coming out at once.
Well, they’re all done separately. It’s a big week when The Newsroom premieres and then Dumb and Dumber To opens. We tracked the Days like These songs earlier in the year. Here they all come out in November and it seems like everything is about me.
When did you start singing and playing guitar?
I came up through choir and did musicals and went to New York to pursue an acting career. I threw a guitar in the back of my car, thinking I needed it to stay sane. It worked. I learned how to play it. Writing became this living, breathing process. I fell in love with that process. It stayed a hobby for almost 25 years. And then I started performing. I did that in 2000. An agent saw me and said I could make it a regular thing.
Do you remember your first notable musical performance?
I was terrified. It was a flop sweat. I had pit stains all the way down my shirt. I just dripped sweat. I couldn’t figure it out. I’d get on a Broadway stage and wouldn’t feel nervous at all. Walk out with a guitar and the creative nakedness was overwhelming. It took 20 shows over the course of a couple years to learn that I didn’t have a character. That safety net suddenly was gone. Once I figured that out, it was fine.
You enjoy the banter, don’t you?
Oh yeah. But be careful what you say. I’m the guy with the mic.
When it comes to comedy, who do you consider to be your inspirations?
As an actor, there are guys like Peter Sellers and John Cleese. I’m forgetting people. I love everything Marty Short does. As a songwriter I love people like Christine Lavin and Steve Goodman and John Prine, who can get humorous in a sly way. Those guys opened up for the door for writing funny and showed it’s okay to go in that direction and mix in the funny with the serious.
Do you listen to a lot of contemporary music?
I try to keep up. I get a little more eclectic. A guy this morning mentioned Willie Nile. I’m exploring him. I like people. I like Jason Isbell and Noah Gundersen. I chase writing. If they’re 25 or they’re 85, it doesn’t matter. If they take care of the words, I get interested in that artist.
You joke about how if William Shatner can sing, you can too. Did he ever respond to your song?
Not yet, no. I’m sure he’s aware. C’mon, really? It’s not the first time. He’s led the way for actors to want to be singer songwriters. Some of us have to overcome that.
Not everyone has such a sense of humor. You keep things on the light side.
I’ll drop in funny because that’s what some of the people, maybe a lot of the people, are coming to see. They probably saw Dumb and Dumber. Or they saw me as an actor and I made them smile because I was entertaining. Leading with the entertaining and that allows you to do something more serious . . . something that will possibly even make you cry. Then you go back to entertaining. It’s like the acting career, you want to go from A to Z over the course of a show instead of just playing one thing.
Not everyone takes that approach. I think few actors do comedy and drama to the extent that you do.
Harry Dunne in Dumb and Dumber doesn’t know he’s stupid and doesn’t know he’s funny. There are mechanics to comic timing and making the audience laugh. I’ve always valued comedy and drama in the same way. They’re equally difficult. Comedy more so because it’s a smaller target you have to hit. You have to do everything a drama does but you also have to be funny.
For this tour, are you playing with your son’s band?
There are songs from Days like These that need a band. I was tired of doing the sitting-in-the-chair acoustic show. I wanted to change it up. I thought, what about Ben’s band? Is there something about these twenty-somethings who have been doing it for 8 or 9 years already? Can this work? In August, we toured for three weeks. It was better than I thought it would be. Right when we came off the road, we booked shows for January. We’re bringing that show to town but we’ll cut and paste a couple of things into it.
Have you had a role in Ben’s development?
We’ve been very supportive of artists. He’s an artist. He’s a poet with a guitar. He came to me at 19 and said he was ready to learn how to play the guitar. I said, “Okay, let’s start with the blues.” I told him to write his own stuff. If he had any success at this, be original. He’s worked really hard at that. They have a whole bunch of CDs and I couldn’t be more proud. To have a kid in their twenties even speaking to you, let alone standing on stage with you, is a life highlight for me. The musicianship is there. We can’t just ride on the sentimentality of father and son. We play to it a little bit but at the end of the day, the music has to be good. We’ve worked really hard at it.
Can you do your storytelling between songs?
Yeah, there’s enough of it. I make sure I’m talking to the audience all the time. Some of the stories end up being funny leading into a certain song. And some of them aren’t and they lead into a song that’s moving. I saw Utah Phillips play and the first song was 20 minutes. I think it was “Railroading on the Great Divide.” I said, “That’s some of the best ad libbing I’ve ever seen.” But he wasn’t ad libbing. It changes from night to night but 90 percent of it is locked. It’s fun.
Talk about how important it is for you to give to charity.
We used to sell CDs and give the money to my theater company [Purple Rose] but the CDs didn’t make enough money. It’s for those actors who didn’t go to New York or L.A. or who did and it didn’t work out. Where can they go? They can go here. They’re still good. It gives them a place and the audience is also a beneficiary. You’re getting more than just a building and money. You’re giving art and the country could use as much of that as it can get as far as I’m concerned.
Upcoming 2015 Tour Dates
Philadelphia, PA World Café Live
Alexandria, VA The Birchmere
Annapolis, MD Ram’s Head On Stage
Natick, MA The Center for Arts Natick
Northampton, MA Iron Horse Music Hall
Norfolk, CT Infinity Hall
Ogunquit, ME Jonathan’s Restaurant
Brownfield, ME Stone Mountain Arts Center
New York, NY City Winery
Beacon, NY Towne Crier Cafe
Jim Thorpe, PA Mauch Chunk Opera House
Charlottesville, VA The Southern Café and Music Hall
Asheville, NC Diana Wortham Theatre
Nashville, TN City Winery
North Vernon, IN Park Theatre Civic Centre
Chicago, IL City Winery
Marshall, MI Marshall High School Auditorium for Performing Arts
Cleveland, OH Music Box and Supper Club