by Jane Roser
There were several reasons D.C. singer/songwriter/ WAMA nominee/ 2012-2013 Strathmore Artist in Residence Owen Danoff listed as to why his album release show at Virginia’s Jammin’ Java on Sunday night would be amazing. They included the fact that it would be his first full band show of the year (he’s been playing solo shows so far), Pittsburgh’s Joy Ike would be opening, the venue is kick-ass and also, for sci-fi buffs like us, it was Star Wars Day (if The Imperial March was played half-way through the set, I was totally going to be geeking out). From full-on electric rock tunes to unplugged traditional ballads, the show was, in a word, exhilarating, not only for Danoff’s poetic lyrics and the incredible talent he had joining him on stage, but for the powerful and awe-inspiring way Danoff connects with his audience.
Hailing from a legendary family (dad Bill Danoff was a founding member of the Starland Vocal Band in the late 1970s, winning a Grammy for “Afternoon Delight” and co-writing John Denver’s hit song “Take Me Home Country Roads”), Danoff didn’t become serious about music until his mid-teens. “I think that I wanted to play music [as a career] right around the time that I realized I had to have a job and I knew it worked for my dad and seemed like the most appealing option. I eventually grew into loving it more than when I first thought about it.”
Danoff moved to Boston to study at the prestigious Berklee College of Music (John Mayer, Melissa Etheridge, Gillian Welch and Quincy Jones are all alumni) studying songwriting, composition and bass. Danoff worked on his first EP, Icarus, at this time as part of a school project in collaboration with the music production engineer students. “Their final project was to record a three song demo, so we recorded “Abandon Ship” and “See This Through” (which were reworked on Danoff’s current album, Twelve Stories). The original version of “Abandon Ship” was a big production and I was very proud of writing all of the string parts myself, but I felt it was a little too epic for what I wanted to do this time around.”
Danoff moved back to D.C. after college and only planned to stay through the summer before moving to L.A., but through going to events with his dad while he was growing up, Danoff started to meet people in the D.C. music scene and realized it might be a smarter idea to stick around a bit longer. “I wanted to establish myself here, independently of my dad, but using these introductions. I wanted to have a foundation here before I moved somewhere else. I like how small the music scene here feels sometimes. I’ve played as a backup musician to several different artists here and everyone helps each other out, there’s a real feeling of community here,” Danoff says.
Twelve Stories started off after Danoff was making plans to collaborate with a friend of his. “We both had all of these songs we hadn’t recorded yet and one day he called to say he really needed to record his songs before doing anything else and I had been thinking along the same lines, so I decided it was time to record my songs, too.”
Danoff began a Kickstarter campaign to fund his album and found an unlikely backer in actor Nathan Fillion (Castle, Waitress, Firefly). “We met through a mutual friend in L.A. and were at his house one day. My friend handed me a guitar and asked me to play something, so I played “Abandon Ship” and Nathan filmed it on his iPhone. He was so nice and supportive from the get-go, but it was a huge surprise when he put the Kickstarter funding over the edge.”
Finding his title inspiration from J.D. Salinger’s book, Nine Stories, Danoff’s album is a beautifully cohesive collection of newer and older tunes. “There were a few songs that I felt had to be recorded for this album,” explains Danoff. “”Never Been Kissed” was one because every time I played it at a show, someone would come up and ask me where they could find it. “Amsterdam” and “Hometown Headstone” were important to me and I really wanted to record them, then “See This Through” and “Abandon Ship” I wanted to re-do.”
Danoff recruited fifteen musicians and vocalists to assist him on this album, including long-time colleagues Mike Squillante (guitar, bass), Adrian Godat (guitar), Miles Nasta and Isabelle De Leon (drums), as well as a special guest appearance by Foo Fighters/Wallflowers keyboardist Rami Jaffee.
“Hometown Headstone” came about from the huge chunk of time Danoff spends driving to and from gigs (when we met to do this interview, he had just returned from playing a show outside of Philly). “I think for me, when you’re driving, it’s a reflective time because you can’t really focus on anything else, but what you’re doing is really boring, so your mind can wander. It’s a reflection without a whole lot of emotion, which is really interesting to me.”
“Amsterdam” and “I Wish I Knew Better” both won honorable mentions in the 2013 Mid-Atlantic Song Contest and Danoff explains he wrote “Amsterdam” after a friend of his who was in the Marines passed away. “A month later I was scheduled to go to Europe with some friends. I went to his funeral with a change of clothes in the car and then went straight to the airport. I wanted to write about it, but didn’t want it to be too heavy-handed; I wanted to pay tribute in a respectful way. Amsterdam was the third place we visited and throughout the entire trip I’d been playing the guitar part that became the melody for that song.”
“See This Through”, with it’s electric riffs and vintage sound, stands out from the other tracks and I mention to Danoff that it reminds me of a song you would hear in the climatic scene of a Quentin Tarantino film, to which Danoff smiles and tells me that was exactly what he was going for. I mean exactly as in I’m either very intuitive or scarily psychic. “I wasn’t thinking about that, but my friend’s dad suggested it before we recorded the album, so I called my band and told them we needed to record it Tarantino[esque].”
Danoff recently wrapped up a mini-tour of the South, including stops in Nashville and Georgia where he played the open mic at the famed Eddie’s Attic. “At the end of the night they call back three finalists and there’s like a shootout where there’s only one winner. John Mayer and Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland have won in the past. I got to the finals and then I froze up, but it’s one of the coolest venues I’ve ever played. I like to play venues where people listen and are really into the music.”
Musician Jon Carroll, who performed with Danoff’s dad in the Starland Vocal Band, had this to say: “I’ve known Owen to be, even as a child, extremely thoughtful and circumspect, with his nose always in a book. It wasn’t until his high school years that I noticed how resolute and focused he had become as a writer and musician, as if he’d known that all along and it was high time everyone else cottoned to the concept. One oughtn’t be surprised, but in light of his humility, irony oriented humor and kind demeanor, it’s quite astounding to see how applied and devoted he’s been from the start; to the work, the craft, the entire process. Despite this being his first full-length album release, it-in so many ways-feels, sounds and comes across as something more mature. It’s a bit uncanny, as most artists prove to be.”
Hoping to one day play such venues as World Cafe Live or Mountain Stage, Danoff is next relocating to New York City for the summer and will continue to showcase his talents there until his travels take him elsewhere, or as a verse in “I Wish I Knew Better” goes: “this time tomorrow, I’ll be so far; from the memories we made between people and cars, but people don’t change they just change where they are.”
There are few artists in our lifetime who can carve out perfection to create brilliant pieces of work. Owen Danoff is one such artist and thankfully for us here in D.C., we won’t have to wait too long for an encore.