Austin-based songwriter Danny Schmidt’s new record, Man of Many Moons, was released earlier this month and he’s touring the country for the next few months (though he’ll be back in town for SXSW).
The day before he hit the road he took a few minutes to discuss the album, his songwriting and his photography.
Q: What can you tell us about the new record, Man of Many Moons?
A: It’s the most stripped-down one that I’ve done. We put very little other instrumentation on it, and – which makes it different and it’s a bit of a nerve-wracking experience. The songs are very naked and out there, and when I was listening to the songs and had been writing them – we had the collection of them and starting to think about a whole album – they just seemed like very simple, vulnerable songs, and that that would be the best way to produce them. There’s very little – it’s just me and the guitar and harmony vocals and bass, pretty much on the whole record.
Q: When you’re writing songs for an album or pulling together that list of songs that will be on the album how do you pick?
A: It’s a pretty organic process. Sometimes it’s very linear, like if you’re dealing with a particular theme, and these are the songs that fit on that theme; sometimes it’s more just sort of from your gut – which these songs seem to fit together like that. And there’s a little bit of both on this one.
I think one of the big themes floating around the album was sort of being vulnerable and sort of allowing yourself commitment in life. And so that Dylan song’s one that I’ve had kicking around for a long time, and that’s one of the first songs I learned of his. And it just seemed to fit along that vibe. It’s a wonderful song.
Q: What about the title of the record?
A: I guess I realized a bunch of the songs had to do with my relationship with commitment, like the “Houses Sing” song – of just committing to a place, and part of that process is choosing a home and commitment to a person, as well. A bunch of the record was along that theme, and “Man of Many Moons” was most specifically addressing that theme, so I liked pulling the title of that as the title of the record.
Q: How did you decide to do the music thing?
A: By accident, sort of repeatedly. I’ve played guitar for most of my life; I picked that up pretty early but was kind of a closet guitar player and would just play Neil Young songs and Dylan songs and stuff out of songbooks, and – fell in love with a girl. I was living on a farm back in Virginia, I don’t know, maybe 13 years ago, now, and started writing songs for her.
And then in – on the farm, we would have these sort of little musical get-togethers, where we’d swap songs around and stuff. I would, every now and then, play one that I had written, and people like them and gave me a kick in the butt to go out in public and play them. And so I just – so I started venturing out a little bit more and a little bit more. Eventually it got to be one of those things where I was doing it enough that I didn’t have time for my regular job, and now I’m just doing it all the time.
Q: What does your creative process look like?
A: It’s changed a lot, ironically, the more successful the music stuff is being and the more you’re engaged in the business part of it and out touring more, the less time you have to actually be the artist that you were that you – that made you enjoy the process in the first place. I have a hard time writing when I’m traveling so much. I tend to just sort of collect little snippets while I’m traveling; some little piece of something will pop into my head while I’m driving or warming up backstage – some new little guitar riff will come to me, but I don’t really have time on the road to develop those, very often.
I record it into my iPhone and when I do get home and have a stretch of time at home, I’m one of those ceiling-gazing songwriters that kind of chugs along pretty slowly but once I get focused, a song will usually come out in about a day or two, but some people have ten minutes before their show and then scribble the whole thing out, and I’m not one of those people.
Q: Is it the music that comes first, or the lyrics?
A: It’s usually some line; some little snippet of melody. It’s almost like – you know how you kinda have a jukebox going on in your head all the time, and some George Jones song will pop up in it or Emmylou Harris song or whatever, as you’re going about your life? And every now and then, some line will pop up in there that you’ve never heard before. And it usually has some little piece of melody with it, for me, anyway.
I don’t always know what the line means. Sometimes it’s obvious; sometimes it’s kind of abstract, but every now and then they hook me and I know I like the lines. I don’t know why, but in the process of developing it out, when I get home, it takes on greater context and starts making sense.
Q: What are the top five things that you have to have on the road?
A: More than anything, like, my phone – my iPhone and my computer, ’cause the iPhone – I’ve got a few apps – it’ll search Wikipedia based on your GPS coordinates. So, like, I’ll show up in some little town that I don’t know very much about, and I’ll just click the button, and it gives me a quick history of the town; some of the facts about the town; some background, like why this town even exists, and then some of the interesting geologic features around the town. And so that’s a cool way if I’ve got a couple hours to kill before a show and feel like exploring a little bit, it starts me off in a good direction. That’s pretty fun.
As far as stuff that I think would take with me, you travel as lightly as you possibly can, ’cause you’re stuffed full of CDs and guitar gear, and so it’s usually like two changes of clothes and boxes of CDs and tuners.
Q: Well, what are some towns you’ve been through recently that have had interesting histories or been fun to explore?
A: Let me grab my computer and look at my calendar and remember where I was last time. We were just down in Colorado, we went down to Del Norte, and that was kinda fun. I’d never been down in that part of Colorado before. I was just in a town where Pepsi – that was in New Bern, North Carolina – coastal Carolina, where Pepsi was born. There were all these, like, old vintage Pepsi-Cola signs all over town.
I did a three-week stretch up in – across the plains of Canada, but that was with John Wort Hannam, who’s from Alberta. And he was a wealth of information about all the little places we were going through; that was all new territory for me. And the plains of Canada – they’re pretty interesting.
Q: If you were going to make a mix tape for yourself or to give to a friend or somebody, what would you put on it?
A: Well, that’s funny; I gave – I don’t know if it was exactly a mix tape, but I gave my newborn nephew my 25 favorite CDs and wrote a little note about why they were important to me in my life. And it covered all kinds of ground. It was like Jane’s Addiction, Jimi Hendrix, Dylan, Neil Young; there’s a Townes thing in there There’s Eric Johnson; Stevie Ray Vaughan – there’s a bunch of guitar stuff that was important to me early on in life, and then some singer-songwriter stuff later on.
There’s also some world stuff on there. That was important for me to stick on there – Toots and the Maytal and a couple African guitar players.
Q: How about your photo blog, how does that fit in with the music?
A: That started because – you know, my girlfriend is Carrie Elkin, and she also is a full-time touring musician, and so we’re often in different corners of the world, and it’s hard to stay connected when you’re traveling that much. It’s one thing to check in every night and say what you’re doing; who you’re hanging out with; what you saw. But it just helps a lot with the connection if you’ve got a few images to share, like, “Here’s the people I was hanging out with.”
I started taking pictures and e-mailing them to her on the way, and then I got home from a trip and was having dinner with my mom and my girlfriend, and somehow it came up I was sending these pictures, and then my mom was mad because I wasn’t sending them to her, too. And so – and I just – that’s why I started the blog, “Here, I’ll just post them here, and if you guys wanna see them, you can both get them.” And the – that was – just more people started taking an interest in it.
The road starts seeming a little bit mundane to you, after you’ve done it a bunch, but you forget that – I guess it has a fascination for some people that have a regular scheduled life; in one place all the time. And so I was a little bit surprised that people seemed to have so much interest in seeing what was going on every day.
And I really enjoy photography, and I can’t afford the space to take a real camera with me on the road, but the iPhones have gotten so good now that – and you’ve just always got it there in your pocket, so when the right little moment pops up you’ve got your camera right there with you all the time.
Photo: John Grubbs