Keep On The Rootsy Side: Meet Singer/Songwriter Danny Schmidt

Singer/Songwriter Danny Schmidt has made a name for himself on the national and international festival circuit. Read on here to learn more about his propsoal to fellow Americana artist Carrie Elkins that and Danny Schmidt in this exclusive feature interview.

You will be playing at the Cactus Café, which has its own legacy here in Austin.  One thing that people who are not from Austin probably don’t know is that The Cactus was set to close until the locals stepped up and saved it.  It is now being run in under the management of the local NPR station.  When you are in Austin do you feel that energy of people who are willing to really step up to support their music?

Yeah, I grew up here too and I didn’t realize this until I lived elsewhere for a while in my 20’s that there is just a really deep appreciation in the culture and the fabric in Austin.  Maybe it is taught and trained in people to go listen to music.  I kind of thought that was everywhere, when two people are trying to figure out what to do with themselves, what they would do is go to the music listings and say “this looks cool and interesting” and that they’ll go to it.  The Cactus, and several other clubs in town, have such a legacy of quality in a genre—for the Cactus its singer songwriter stuff—that when someone is looking through the listings to see what to do that night and they see something listed there they don’t even need to know what it is, if its at the Cactus, its already at the level of this is worth hearing if this is the kind of the music I enjoy.  So, yeah, its good to be a part of that kind of legacy and its good to feel you have that kind of support behind you when you’re promoting shows. 

You are actually one of that rare breed that was born in Austin and lives in Austin.  I am the more common moved-here—from-somewhere-else variety.  I have a friend who still lives up in Portland, Oregon, which is known as kind of an artsy crafty city.  We’ll compare the listings in The Austin Chronicle as opposed to the Willamette Weekly, which is their Alternative Newspaper.  Theirs is like a flyer compared to ours.  And The Cactus is such an intimate and wonderful venue.  But, speaking of the Austin Music Scene, I hear you had a special way of celebrating South by Southwest this year?

Yeah, I don’t know if you know who Carrie Elkins is.

A little bit.

She’s my sweetie.  We met at a festival about six years ago and she moved to town about five years ago and we have been a couple since then.  I proposed to her at the end of my set.  Well, I wrote a proposal song.  I don’t know if you saw my website, but there’s a link to the story of how the proposal song went.  It was kind of a funny moment.  We host about 20 musicians to our house during South by Southwest, we have all these little guest corners, so I thought that would be a nice time to propose.    

I read that it’s possible that the two of you are working on an album together?

Yes.  We’re actually working on three different things.  I’m working on a solo project, she’s working on a solo project and we’re working on a duos album.  We recorded the first two tracks for that one in advance of a European Tour we did together, just to have something to represent the two of us together.  We had both toured over there individually, but never as a duo. So we recorded the first two tracks, her doing one of my tracks and me doing one of her songs.  We haven’t gotten back into the studio to produce the rest of it.  I’m not sure exactly when it’s going to happen, but it shouldn’t be too long.  We’re still sorting out our schedules with our solo albums.

So is it going to be a duets albums or more the Buddy and Julie Miller style where you each do individual songs and occasionally sing together?

Well, usually our duo shows she’s singing her songs and I’m singing my songs, but I’m singing all over her songs and she’s singing all over my songs.  It’s kind of trading off who is singing lead, but we’re singing together on every song.  We’ll throw in some covers where we are totally duets. 

In your concert on the third (8/3/2013) you will be singing mostly new material.  Is that from this album, your solo album or both?

Both.  It’s going to be stuff I’ve written in the past few months.  I have had a little more time at home the last few months.  I don’t play locally all that often and I like to have new stuff when I play here.  Local shows you have a lot of family and friends that have seen you a lot of times and you want to have something fresh.  It has been about a year since I played a Cactus solo show and I’m kind of excited.

Your music has a very old, mountain ballad style, very Appalachian.  Is that intentional, or just how it comes out?

That’s just how it comes…It’s not even that I listen to that much Appalachian music, though I have listened to a lot, but a lot of the music that I like is heavily influenced by that so I’m sure it just kind of creeps in.

Over the past year or so there has been a revival in the popularity of folk music on the pop culture scene.  What do you think has driven that?  You have Mumford and Sons scoring top 40 pop hits which is kind of weird.

You know, it’s funny, I was just having this conversation with my friend and we’re both kind of baffled.  Especially if you’re in this world and you go to a lot of festivals and conferences, we have a million friends who are doing that same thing.  Every once in a while someone will take a flyer from someone in that world and say “You know, there’s no reason the broader market wouldn’t enjoy this if they got to hear it.”  But it’s good for everybody.  It like when O Brother came out and all of a sudden regular people were saying “These Appalachian tunes with these rich mountain harmonies and these bluegrass instruments, that’s pretty cool stuff.”  And all of a sudden the whole folk world get lifted up a little bit.  But why it happened with Mumford and Sons, I couldn’t tell you.  It’s a chaotic system.

Radio is such a weird area right now.  Do you feel that the way the run playlists to tight on mainstream stations is hurting artists like you or is that an issue you are able to side step because indie stations are more accessible?

I think they’re killing themselves.  It certainly is bad for us, but it’s been that way for my whole career.  I think radio is making itself irrelevant at a time when….The tighter and tighter they run their playlists the less interesting and relevant they are at a time when there are all these internet and digital alternatives that they think are just niche-y because there are infinite of them.  A station can creep up around a really tight interesting niche, and still if you visit there’s a few listeners there and then another one creeps up over there around another niche.  If you like classical banjo picking there’s going to be some Pandora station or Spotify playlist that has grown up around that.  It’s going to slowly syphon off all their listeners who like music.  I think they are always going to do well with people stuck in their cars or people at work who have something on in the background and don’t really care what it is. 

And at work you have to be safe and play music that isn’t going to offend anyone.  Radio can help filter that out.

Yeah, I understand its role.  I just think it’s a less and less musically relevant role.  In my life, I think about Public Radio quite a bit, that’s where my stuff gets marketed to, but I don’t really think about mainstream radio.

And down here in Austin I know where we recently had that split between KUT which plays all news and KUTX which plays all music 24/7, and that’s a huge outlet for local musicians. 

Yeah, it’s awesome, and it’s an interesting experiment too.  I think a lot of people in the radio world are keeping their eye on that to see if it’s successful.  Austin might be unique in its ability to support too.  I think it’s awesome.  I love both halves.  I wish there were more hours in the day, because I always listened to the NPR part of KUT and I always listened to the local music connection.  Now they have split it in half and you get full time both.  Hopefully the market can support that.

Do you find that stations like Spotify and Pandora are good ways for you to reach your fans and for your fans to share your music with new people?

It’s interesting to me.  I have been talking a lot to the guy from Pandora, he’s interested in how to present himself to musicians.  There’s all the legislative battle about royalty rates and it’s important that people understand all the different models.  People just lump internet radio or digital music subscription into one category and their very different.  Personally, I think Spotify is awful for musicians, I think Pandora is great for musicians.  I think Pandora should be paying a much lower royalty rate, I think Spotify should be paying a much higher royalty rate than they are because they are basically stealing music sales.  Pandora is driving music sales.  Spotify is stealing them and not really paying fairly for it.  As far as would I like them as music fans, totally.  I understand why they’re popular.  Personally, as far as my tastes go I prefer new stuff.  I want them to turn me on to new stuff that’s exciting.  Spotify seems better for just listening to the stuff you already like over and over again.

There are sure to be some Roughstock readers who are unfamiliar with your work.  If you could pick one song to introduce yourself, what would it be and why?

I would introduce mainstream people to something different from someone who wants to dig deeper.  I think the strength of my music is sort of the nuance and layers, part of the story and the lyrics.  I have some songs that are immediately accessible and you can sort of tap your foot and enjoy it.  Those are like the bait, I guess, to get people to listen to the stuff where you can listen to it fifty times and get a different meaning from it.  I guess the song “Better off Broke” as a first introduction, or a song like “Stained Glass” or “This Too Shall Pass” if they want to see more what the complexity and nuance is.

The reason I had to laugh when you said “Stained Glass” is my very next question is:  I would pick “Stained Glass.”  What inspired you to write that song?  I fell in love with that song the first time I heard it.

It’s a lot for a new fans to digest.

I grew up on folk ballads.  My dad weaned me on Ralph Stanley and Flatt and Scruggs.

Cool.  Let’s see, the line that first wrote itself from that song is “It may not be the best, but it’s the best that I can do” line. That line popped into my head literally the moment I was dropping into the mailbox the final master and final artwork for the album I had just finished.  And that was how I felt about it.  I knew everything that was wrong with it and we’d fixed everything we could fix and I was just like “Well, I did the best I could.”   So the It may not be the best, but it’s the best that I can do line popped into my head and I started concocting a story.  It started out with a father making a stained glass window for his daughter’s wedding.  It was the concept of a very ugly piece of work that somehow reflected all of our flaws so it was beautiful in that.  That was basis of the story.  It ended up taking a kind of church-y turn as it wrote itself.  The concept of the glass that reflected our own personal flaws in a beautiful was, that was the concept.

There is a lot of Christian imagery in your music and some gospel influences.  I read that you had some concerns as to how your family would react to those?

Yeah, I was raised Jewish.  My family is entirely Jewish on both sides.  I, spiritually speaking, am not especially Jewish. I’m not especially any one thing.  I’m sort of a spiritual explorer and I spend a lot of time thinking and trying out ideas.  My secret self, is a combination of a lot of things, I think a lot of them are getting to the same thing with different semantics.  Its one thing if a fan get the wrong idea about how I identify myself, I don’t really care all that much.  It’s another thing if my cousin or my uncle has this idea that I am a used-to-be-Jewish-now-Christian person, when neither one is accurate.  I want my family to have an accurate idea of me. 

And there is a lot of Christian metaphor that is built into American culture and history that we kind of use without thinking about it.

Or use it and think about it.  Any time we all share certain images or word together that makes them a very powerful image or word that we can use in our song because with one word you can get everyone’s ears pointing in the same direction.  And I think that’s pretty much the reason for the Christian images...also the Christian religion is pretty image laden, more so than other religions, which makes it pretty handy when you’re writing.

How would you say your heritage—both your Jewish culture and any other heritage--has influenced your writing?

I think there is a strong value placed on writing and articulating your thoughts in the Jewish culture and I think that trickled into me.  I’ve always been a writer, even as a kid.  Not songs but, other stuff and that was always valued.  Also, my dad taught at University and I think higher education and openness to other ideas are I feel like are fundamentally Jewish ideals. It’s not an especially dogmatic religion, so I think influenced me.

Well, and it seems to place a value on contemplating, rather than looking for a literal interpretation, taking all the information and contemplating.

I think that’s true.

You have gotten a chance to travel with your music.  Where is your favorite place you have travelled to?

I love Alaska.  We have been to Alaska a bunch of times.  I love the land there.  I love the wild spirit of the people there.  I love the Netherlands a lot.  I love how civilized they are and how liberated.  Switzerland is super civilized, everyone is super respectful and really uptight.  They remind me of Germany a little bit.  And the Netherlands, man.  Nobody seems rich, nobody seems poor, and I’ve never seen anyone be indecent to anyone there.  I mean, it must happen something, but it’s kind of inspiring to see a whole county that seems pretty interesting and nice to each other.

If you could go back to one place and really study the music of a specific place and make an album with local folk musicians where would it be?

I, surprising myself, really enjoyed Nashville on a Musical level.  I thought it was going to be this really cutthroat industry town.  I think the industry drew a lot of songwriters there and a bunch of session people, and since they were there they built this community.  I have definitely felt a strong sense of community with the songwriters there, lots of little group gatherings where people workshop songs with each other, lots of collaborative writing together.  And that inspires me more than what players are in it, because I feel like Austin has an incredible pool of players.  If you want a drummer of any style or vibe anything you are going to find someone within one connection away from you.  And that is certainly true of Nashville.  It’s true of most decent music cities---Portland, Seattle, San Francisco.

I think we have this image of Nashville when we don’t live there that its all the bright, shiny Pop Country stuff you hear on the radio, and we forget sometime that you have people like Todd Snider living there, Guy Clark lives there, at least part of the time.  There’s a lot of the people that we associate with the non-mainstream side of music living there.

Yeah, that’s true.  I’d say more and more I think of the pop world of music, and this gets back to the radio question we were talking about before.  I don’t even think of that as the music business, I think of that as the entertainment business.  I think that Clear Channel is not a distributer or music, it a distributor of background entertainment.  And it’s just not part of a world that I spend any time in.  I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it, it’s just not one that pops into our head as musically relevant.  And for our friends in Nashville, none of them pay any attention to or have any notion about the big shiny Nashville Country world.  That’s a whole different thing, like Hollywood or something.  Of course, every now and then one of them will get a song cut by somebody and that finances their real music world.  But that’s about the extent of it.

I hear you have a pretty remarkable Martin Guitar.  Tell me about it.

Well, here’s the technical part:  It’s a double low 28 f custom.  It’s one of 7 that got made.  Sting got number 7, mine was the first.  It was a creation of the custom shop, combining a bunch of sort of old antiquated styles that had not been combined before as far as this kind of wood with this body shape and this neck shape.  They were all styles that had been done before, but put together in unique ways by the custom shop.  It’s a beautiful small bodied guitar that sounds really woody and big for a small guitar.

I saw on your website that your music was featured in the movie Highway Walkers.  How did that come about?

I think these guys were just a couple of young fans.  I don’t know if they were listening to my music a lot…they were hitchhikers and wanted to make a movie about their experiences hitchhiking.  I don’t know if my music was the soundtrack of their lives while they were making the movie, or if they were already just fans and just thought it went well together.  They just picked stuff I had on different albums and made that the soundtrack to the movie. 

I think that your music—this goes back to the Christian iconography question---I think your music has a lot of American imagery in your music that makes it a good backdrop for travel scenes and it feels familiar, but it’s not the same songs you hear every time you see someone driving across the country in a movie.

Right.  Also, I think there is a contemplative nature, like we were talking about earlier, in the songs.  And I can imagine when you are hitch hiking you have a lot of time to contemplate.  That’s a strong Americana image going back to on the road where traveling around and not knowing where you’re going next and deciding it along the way is part of the process of personal exploration.  I guess my music suits that a little bit.

So, 2013, you have a new duets album coming out, possibly a new solo album coming out possibly a new marriage coming up.  Any other plans.

I think that should keep me pretty busy.

One last question for the Austin insiders:  Who’s more fun to share a stage with Kinky Friedman or Billy Joe Shaver?

I played a show with both of them, together.  The only time I ever shared a stage with either, I did three shows with both of them.  Who’s better to share a stage with?  They’re so different.  I enjoyed both of them.  Kinky because everything was light and he never took anything too seriously and you never knew what was coming at you next with him.  The Kinky Friedman that the audience knows, from my experience, is the Kinky Friedman you get pretty much all the time.  Billy Joe Shaver is just this sort of deep, spiritual pool who is very genuine and open to me.  You meet some of these guys and they won’t give you the time of day, but he was very nice to me about my music.  Where Kinky is this huge character with these caricatures, Billy Joe’s stuff is this super genuine, deep stuff.  And I really appreciated that.