Jeff Daniels’ musical fallback plan becomes his second (or third) career

WHAT'S HIS MOTIVATION? Although Jeff Daniels sidelined his songwriting pursuits in favor of an acting career, music is still an important creative outlet. "I've figured out a way to do it in clubs and smaller theaters where it's fun for me," he says. Album art courtesy of Daniels

“I remember going to see Steve Goodman at The Bottom Line,” says Jeff Daniels, screen and stage actor, playwright and musician. “I remember seeing Doc Watson and T. Michael Coleman and Merle Watson — the three of them — playing The Bottom Line, too. I looked at that from afar and thought, ‘I wish I could do that. Maybe someday.’” Someday is now, as Daniels brings his guitar and songs to the Diana Wortham Theatre on Monday, May 18, where he’ll be backed by his son’s group, Ben Daniels Band.

The elder Daniels recalls thinking to himself in the 1970s, “Why don’t you get good at the guitar privately [and] get better as a songwriter so that when it all falls apart you at least have something to fall back on.” But his film career never did fall apart. “I was in New York to be an actor,” he says. “So the songwriting and the guitar and the performing anywhere were all a distant second. Effort was made at songwriting, and in trying to get better at the guitar, but there was no ‘Hey, I can play’ to the agents. I focused on one thing.”

These days, Daniels is fully engaged as a television and film actor (roles include the recently concluded HBO series “The Newsroom” and the movie Dumb and Dumber To with co-star Jim Carrey), playwright (director of the Purple Rose Theatre Company in his hometown of Chelsea, Mich.), and as a touring and recording musician-songwriter. His latest album, Days Like These, is his sixth; proceeds support the Purple Rose.

Reflecting on the similarities between drama and songwriting, Daniels notes that acting is a collaborative endeavor. “You end up giving [your] performance to someone else, and they — for months on end — do whatever they’re going to do with it,” he says. “And you hope that it comes out in some kind of form that makes sense. But it’s not in your hands.” He sees performing as a form of collaboration, too: “Walking out with a guitar, there’s no one else to answer to. But there is a collaboration with the songs and the songwriting and performing, and that’s with the audience. I learned that from the theater.”

That relationship is essential to Daniels. “If you’re up there singing a song that only means something to you, then you’re navel-gazing,” he says. Daniels keeps that in mind when putting together a set list of his original songs: “If the material doesn’t retain that connection, it gets cut.”

The musician brings a dramatist’s sensibility to his songcraft. “I enjoy finding the perfect word or phrase. And that comes from people like Lanford Wilson, the [Pulitzer Prize-winning] playwright who I grew up with in New York,” he says. “That’s what he did, and — knowingly or not — passed on to me.”

Considering all of Daniels’ creative pursuits, it’s clear that his drive to create is never-ending. “I’m just doing it because I have to,” he says. “Jim Carrey and I were talking recently, and he said, ‘I have to create.’ He’s turned into this fabulous artist and sculptor. We have to be creating something; that’s kind of what we were born to do. I’ve figured out a way to do it in clubs and smaller theaters where it’s fun for me. Walking onto a stage like the Diana Wortham Theatre, I’m thinking, ‘I don’t need anything else; I get to do this tonight.’ And that’s enough: the fact that somebody wants me to play somewhere is gold.”

WHO: Jeff Daniels with the Ben Daniels Band
WHERE: Diana Wortham Theatre,
WHEN: Monday, May 18, 8 p.m. $45 general/$40 student/$15 child/$10 day-of-show student rush

About Bill Kopp
Author, music journalist, historian, collector, and musician. His first book, "Reinventing Pink Floyd: From Syd Barrett to The Dark Side of the Moon," published by Rowman & Littlefield, is available now. Follow me @the_musoscribe

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