Big Think Interview With Dan Zanes
Dan Zanes is a Grammy-winning family musician. A former member of the band the The Del Fuegos, he has gone on to redefine children's music with an "unsanitized, unpasteurized, [and] organically even" mode of composition. In 2009, he won the Independent Music Award, and has collaborated with Lou Reed, Sheryl Crow, Suzanne Vega and numerous others on his albums. He lives in Brooklyn.
Question: What first inspired you to play guitar?
Dan Zanes: To play guitar, Lead Belly. Lead Belly was the inspiration and I’m still trying to figure out what he was doing after all this time. I still haven’t quite gotten it, but that was the inspiration and still probably the most mysterious guitar player that I’m aware of.
Question: How has Leadbelly influenced your music?
Dan Zanes: Lead Belly, the thing that I like about Lead Belly you know I listened to him when I was a kid and I would listen to those records and I would… I could picture… These are the records that came out on Folkways and I would picture Lead Belly sitting in my kitchen playing guitar and I would picture myself right there with him and listening to those records it gave me the sense that that’s where music made, in people’s houses and the thing about Lead Belly that really influences what I do now is that those records it was a mix of old and new songs. He did a lot of music for young people, but in a way the music that he did for young people was kind of the template for everything that I’ve been trying to do where it’s the traditional tunes. It’s some new songs, some songs that are sort of in the back parts of his brain. They come out the way he thinks they were. You know he kind of… He is always reinterpreting things and it was you know sometimes it would move more for young people then sometimes more for older people and I never got the sense that he considered his younger audience any less able to understand what was going on.
You know there is so much mystery in that music and I thought when I started making… You know when my daughter who is 15 now was born I went over to the Tower Records, no longer there. It was a long time ago and I was looking for the updated version of the Lead Belly records that I had listened to as a kid. I just thought that is the template for perfect all age’s music, family music and instead of finding that… I mean I think about Lead Belly or what or Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger, Ella Jenkins, you know those people it was the same thing and it all sounded like it was recorded in somebody’s house and it drew on a variety, from a variety of cultures and extremely artful and sophisticated, but it was… It also sounded like driftwood and bent nails. You know just real homemade and instead of finding the updated version of that what I… You know a lot of what I found was very corporate. You know it seemed like everything is either tied into a cartoon or a movie or something like that and eventually I found a lot of great all ages music, but I didn’t find the sound I heard in my head, which was again, the update version of those Folkways Records, so that’s… So the idea of what Lead Belly was doing stays with me and that’s always been what I’ve been trying to create when I go out to make this family music, so it’s a constant. He is with me always.
Question: Who else inspired you?
Dan Zanes: I like the way Bob Dylan plays guitar and Gordon Lightfoot and the guy from the Bahamas, Joseph Spence, great guitar player, but I… Pops Staples probably the person that I most try to be like that I feel like his playing is within my grasp unlike Lead Belly’s playing I think Pops Staples I can figure that out, so that is always what I’m moving towards and also I like to play electric guitar, which was never Lead Belly’s thing, but Pops Staples’ is an electric guitar player.
Question: What is your creative process when writing a song?
Dan Zanes: It’s always a little different trying to figure out how we’re going to do things, but in the beginning it was I was interested in finding older songs that I could update and I wanted the people who heard them, especially young people to be able to have some kind of an emotional attachment to it, but it couldn’t be at the expense of the adults, the adult listeners, so I mean there is children’s music out there and that tends to be particular to the experience of children and then there is adult music, which is probably most of what we all listen to, but in between songs about learning to eat with a fork or putting on a pair of trousers or learning to say please these are things that young people are kind of that’s a big part of their world. So that is one end of the spectrum and then the other end is songs that I would have sung when I was in rock and roll band about old girlfriends or drinking or you know fascinating themes like that, so between those two extremes there is… that’s kind of where I live, so it’s got to be… the tunes have to… you know they have to work for all ages all the time, but it could be more… could lean more towards adults and more towards young people, but nobody ever gets left behind and if a song is good and easy to sing along with that’s a big plus because when we perform it’s great to… You know it’s great if it can be like a little Grateful Dead show. You know that is really sort of a goal for the live part because we want everybody to be in it together, so singing, dancing, nobody has to sit still, but the more people sing along the more it’s like a you know less like a concert and more like a show.
Or more like a party I should say. You know you want to make it more like a party.
Question: How has the music industry changed since the 1980s?
Dan Zanes: Well it seems like in the early ‘80s the idea, the whole idea was to find yourself a label and be on it and it seemed like when I was in a group called The Del Fuegos and we all… We had one label that we wanted to be on and that was Slash Records. That was where the Blaster and Los Lobos and X and Rank and File and The Violent Femmes, they were all on that label and we just that was kind of the more high octane American music and that’s where we ended up, so there was a music industry. Now I don’t know. You know now after making five records for other labels I was completely convinced that… And when I started doing the family music I decided at the very beginning that I would start my own label because I had made five CDs for other labels and didn’t own anything. I had no rights to any of the music, so other than the music publishing, so I thought well that doesn’t seem right does it? Why don’t I just start my own label and now the technology has changed and you can really do it this way, so it’s… You know I think the music industry may have killed itself in a way and but it makes incredible opportunities for the smaller operations, so my label we’ve put out ten CDs and this is our tenth year. You know we’ve been going really strong for ten years and figuring out alternative ways to do it and you know I couldn’t imagine what… that I would still be able to keep going if I had signed with a label to do this family music. I don’t think it would have been… I don’t think anyone would have hung in there for ten CDs. It just doesn’t happen that way anymore except for a handful of people, but I like to think that maybe I’m in the toy industry rather than the music industry.
Question: Can you explain your transition into children’s music?
Dan Zanes: What happened was when my daughter was born and I went looking for this sound I had in my head I had just… I was working on a solo record. It was my first solo record after The Del Fuegos and I… And it was… You know it was the adult themes, old girlfriends and drinking and I put that out right at the… And while I was doing that you know I hadn’t been able to find this all ages music that I was looking for in the Tower Records, so I thought I would make it myself one fall and have it be… I would make a cassette that I could give out to families in the neighborhood just as a holiday present, not holiday music, but it would be just handmade music for families and so I made this cassette and gave it out to everybody and what happened was no one cared about my solo record, but everybody wanted more copies of this cassette that I had called… I called it Rocket Ship Beach and I really had fun making it. I made it in three weeks and I just had a reel-to-reel 8 track and it just turned out to be… And I thought… And we were mostly updating folk songs and bringing in friends from the neighborhood who included West Indian babysitters that I had met. Sheryl Crow lived around the corner. Suzanne Vega came in to do a tune. Some guys that I had met we had a string band and we played and so it was just that. It was just real homemade community fun and people were way more interested in this cassette than they were in my expensive solo CD and as much as I liked it I felt like this… I felt like a useful member of society for the first time in a long time because making pop music for me was always a very self centered activity. It was always you know what’s in it for Dan and I felt like making this family music I had possibilities where I could actually… I had something to give other people and that I could be… You know I could be the guy who shows up with the guitar or the banjo and gets people singing along and you know I could… Somehow when you can do that you get invited to a lot more parties and that was you know that wasn’t lost on me and I decided that I would stop pop music and I would just move into family music and totally devote my time and energy to it and it was… It wasn’t any… It wasn’t part of my big master plan, but it was certainly when it kind of revealed itself deciding to go into it was by far the best decision that I’ve made in my adult life.
Question: Would you call this music educational?
Dan Zanes: I don’t know if I think of this as being educational. The minute I hear someone else tell me that what they’re doing is educational I’m not… That’s when my interest level plummets, so I feel like in my heart I believe it is educational, but I would never say that because I’m an entertainer. I really am. I’m not and educator, but I do believe that for me my experience is that music is my window to the outside world and it always has been through my entire life and it still is. This is the beginning. For example, we made a CD called Nueva York and it’s all songs from different parts of Latin America and we collaborated with a lot of our Latino friends around here in New York and before beginning to make this CD my knowledge of the different parts of Latin American culture or the cultures of Latin America, my knowledge was so limited, but it was through the music and then of course immediately after that is food and then from there you know politics, geography, world view, you know everything else unfolds from that, so and I’ve always tried in making our CDs we’ve always tried to include the neighborhood as much as possible and I think that I always try and think… I grew up in New Hampshire and which is kind of a white monoculture. You know certainly at that time it was, but it’s changing a little bit, slowly fortunately but you know so I think about the kids that live in those type of… those parts of the country and thinking about if they get one of my CDs and they listen to it and they hear people from different backgrounds coming together and making music and singing in different languages you know that’s… there is always an… We always try to have an element of that just because I think that we get an opportunity to create a little world here with these CDs and the world is a joyous one and communal music making is a joyous experience, so we really do try and… You know I may not think of these as being educational, but I definitely have an agenda.
Question: Why is music important to you?
Dan Zanes: It’s the reason that I’m so passionate about music and the reason that I believe in music so much is because it’s this is for my entire life. Since I was 7 or 8 years-old music has been the most important thing to me and it’s always… And it’s gotten me through the good times and the bad times and it’s opened my eyes in a way that nothing else was able to. I know for other people, other art forms might do it, but for me it was always music and I think that what I’ve noticed since I started making family music what has become very clear to me is that America used to be an incredibly musical country as far as casual communal amateur music making. There used to be a lot of it and since the advent of recorded music you know ion the last hundred years or so what’s really happened is that we’ve become very much a consumer… consumers of music and the music making has really dwindled, but I do… I am optimistic and I believe that electronic media, the very thing that turned us into consumers or that we allowed to turn us into consumers will also help us to become music makers again. You know it’s so easy now to go online and get lessons, get guitar lessons, Ukulele lessons or if you… or to hear a song or get the chords to a song. You know all those things they used to have to go to the music store for. You know I would have to go down and look at the song books and try and write the chords down in my notebook and all that stuff, but now it’s all right there, so I think it’s going to… I do think it’s going to turn around because I think we’re hardwired to participate in music making and that’s been you know probably preceded language. You know I think singing and music making was probably our original form of communication, so it’s an essential part of being a human and the thing that it’s… You know what I also… I mean the other thing is that it’s… It is an incredibly joyous experience and why leave that to the professionals? I mean I love my job, but really this is something we could all be doing.
Question: Was it strange being asked to have a role in “A Wonderful World”?
Dan Zanes: Yeah, it was a little weird at first when I… I didn’t… When Josh Goldin the writer and director contacted me he didn’t say a lot about it. He said it had to do with a children’s singer, but then as I was reading the script there was nothing about this guy that I could identify with. He was bitter. He felt like the music industry had totally let him down and he wasn’t very nice to people and you know just everything that I feel like I am to some degree. I’m very optimistic. I believe in the best… all of life’s best possibilities you know so all these things, so as I read it I thought well clearly this has nothing to do with me, but at the end you know the thing that was hip about it for me was at the end of the movie there is some kind of redemption and there is a real, a fundamental shift in the way that the guy sees the world and it ends where he is singing and playing guitar and I think that that’s where a lot of that comes from. You know I really believe that in music making that we begin to have… that our whole perception of ourselves and the world around us can change and especially in music making with other people in a social setting, so I was really into that part of it, but even though the guy was bitter and negative and everything else I love Matthew Broderick and I knew it was going to be good and I was relieved to find out that it really had nothing to do with me as a person.
Question: What was working on the movie like?
Dan Zanes: Working on Wonderful World is very exotic for me because I’ve been making records and touring for so long, so to get to be around any kind of movie making is good. I think most musicians… I think all singers feel like they can be actors and I didn’t really get the chance to do much more than a couple lines in the movie, but to make some instrumental music and to write some songs for it and be on the set and watch it all happen was… It was a great experience and I loved the movie and I loved the script, so it was a real easy one for me and hopefully something that I’ll get to do more of, but it’s… And also when the movie was being made it was very uncertain whether it would ever get picked up or where it was all going to go and to see that it has gotten picked up. It’s being distributed. It’s opening in cities around the country and getting great press. It’s really that part of it is exciting, so it’s just it’s nice to see all the work that goes into something and then it pays off and it sort of makes you believe that these things really are possible.
Question: Do you miss being in a rock and roll band?
Dan Zanes: No, there is nothing about being in a rock and roll band that I miss at all. It was really fun and it was… I felt you know. I’m really, really lucky that I was able to do that because everybody that I knew wanted to be doing exactly what we were doing, so and there were plenty of bands that were better than we were, but we got some really lucky breaks, but everything that I liked about playing in a rock and roll band, the sense of community that we had in the beginning in Boston, the feeling that you could wake up and write a song and be playing it that night at a show if you wanted to, just the feeling that anything was possible musically, just that open ended part of it, all that stuff and the energy of… You know for us in The Del Feugos’ time we didn’t even think it was a show if people weren’t dancing. You know people had to dance for it to have any meaning to us at all and that is still the case man. You know it’s just… It’s so you know and that was really one of the best things about it, so all the things that I liked about rock and roll, the energy of it and the participation from people in the audience and just the completely open ended musical aspect of it, all that stuff is alive and well in my life every day, so all the great things are there and then all the sort of the more negative sides of it all. You know the you know unhealthy lifestyle, terrible hours, questionable associates, you know all of that stuff is not there anymore and now it’s really hard to imagine shows or gatherings without young people around. It’s just they’re very inspiring. You know they’re inspiring on the dance floor. They’re inspiring the way they’ll sing even if they don’t know the words. They just set a good tone, so I love having young people and adults together and we even get teenagers at our shows, so that is the ultimate crossover and so there is really nothing. There is nothing that I miss. I feel like I have it all now.
Question: What was the best career advice you ever received?
Dan Zanes: Yeah, well I know when I… You know the thing… The reason I feel so lucky about being able to make family music now is because when I was wasting my youth in a rock and roll band we were able to make… You know we made four records and toured around the U.S. and Europe and got to meet our heroes and do all that stuff and everyday was an opportunity for new mistakes and I feel like we just made them all, so people could have been giving us good or bad career advice and we wouldn’t have known it. You know we were just so self willed, so willful about what we were going to do and how we were going to do it and we just... You know we were just constantly shooting ourselves in the feet, but then when I started the family music I felt like I had an opportunity to do things differently, but a lot of the advice that I did get was you’ll never get… you know you’ll never get distribution. You got to go with a major label and don’t try and start this yourself. A lot of people really weren’t too supportive of it and so I’m really… Sorry, excuse me. A lot of people weren’t supportive of my starting a label and having a go of it. You know the feeling at that time ten years ago was you really need to work with a larger company and so I guess that was you know. I mean I don’t know if it was bad advice, but fortunately for me it has worked out really well that I’ve been able to start a company and be independent and I’m surrounded by great people. I’m not running the company, but I’m surrounded by great people that are doing it.
Recorded on: January 19, 2010
A conversation with the family musician
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