Just as a movie portrays a story, the same concept applies to live music.
At least that’s how Emmy Award-winner Jeff Daniels sees it, and his secret to an intimate show is similar to his successful acting career. He starts his set with funny songs, then transitions into serious moments, in the same way he approaches a comedic or humorless character in acting.
“It's how to build a story, and it’s how to build a set,” he told The Blade during a phone call before an acoustic show in Indiana. “You soften them up with laughter and then hit them with a powerful one. It's just basic storytelling.”
On Saturday Jeff Daniels brings his acoustic guitar to the Michigan Theater, 603 E. Liberty St. in Ann Arbor. Special guests include his son, Ben Daniels, and his band.
What: Jeff Daniels with the Ben Daniels Band
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Michigan Theater, 603 E. Liberty St. in Ann Arbor.
Cost: $35 to $75
Some might recognize Jeff Daniels as Lloyd Christmas’ best friend Harry Dunne in the 1994 hit movie Dumb and Dumber with Jim Carrey, or as Will McAvoy in the HBO drama The Newsroom.
When he’s not in the Hollywood spotlight, the 62-year-old breaks out his acoustic guitar and writes his own music. He said his love of music began simultaneously with a passion for acting.
Growing up in Chelsea, Mich., Daniels found himself immersed in musicals while in school, whether it was playing Harold Hill in The Music Man or El Gallo in The Fantasticks. But when he moved to New York, he went as an actor. He remembers being inspired by the 1975 thriller Dog Day Afternoon and wanting to be Al Pacino.
“I didn’t have the voice that a lot of these musical theater kids did,” he said. “I could carry a tune and sing character stuff, but the guys that could really sing? No. I saw Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon and said that's what I want to do. Al isn’t singing, so that was the push. The music was just something I just wanted to do for myself. I wanted to learn how to play the guitar while I was sitting around in New York waiting for the phone to ring.”
In his free time outside of acting since the ’70s, Daniels has written more than five albums and hundreds of songs, blending old-school blues with acoustic folk as he sings about the simple life. He’s known to write with Brian Vander Ark of the Verve Pipe, as well as perform on stage with his son, Ben, and his band.
But for the most part, he writes his own songs, attempting to incorporate comedy and serious tones into strong melodies.
“When you do Dumb and Dumber, it's like you’ve lost your membership in the serious important actors club,” he said. “My argument is the last time I looked the Greeks were holding two masks. You should be able to do both.
“That goes for songwriting. There is a portion of the audience, especially when they’re buying a ticket to see an actor sing, they want to be entertained, so you have to entertain them and you set them up with some of the funnier ones ... You can’t let them get ahead of you, that’s the other storytelling secret. You’re dead if they’re ahead of you and know what’s going to happen next. If they know where you are and then you surprise them with a last verse, then you’ve written a good song.”
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Before Daniels moved back to Michigan in 1986, he chose to learn the acoustic guitar because the instrument was the most mobile and he didn’t need an amplifier that would annoy neighbors next to his apartment. Learning started with “Sweet Baby James” by James Taylor with reading tabs, followed by a musical interest in folk guitarist Doc Watson. Then he discovered finger picking through tabs by Stefan Grossman.
“Then the guitar got interesting, and it got fun,” he said. “I got hooked up on the acoustic Delta Blues and now all of a sudden you’re picking stuff by Robert Johnson. Then the acoustic guitar became a real instrument for me and something to really pursue.”
He credits those he spent time with off-Broadway when it came to writing original songs, specifically mentioning American playwright Lanford Wilson.
“In college you’re doing plays, but the playwrights are pretty much all dead,” he said. “Now all of a sudden I’m in New York sitting around with a playwright who is rewriting a second act. That fascinated me. I would go back to the apartment and either bang out a very bad play that no one was ever going to do or I would pick up the guitar and start writing.
“I was interested in guys that were writing new songs, not just playing covers. Because of the playwrights I was hanging around I wrote original stuff from the ’70s on. That’s why I got so many songs. A lot of them are bad, but I was writing. You have to write four bad ones to get to the good one.”
When asked about the difference between music and film, Daniels was quick to answer: It’s the music’s rhythm.
“If you don’t have rhythm when you’re doing the song and are off beat, then it's a train wreck,” he said. “If you’ve got it right and everybody can start tapping their foot, then you’ve got them.”
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