Austin native Danny Schmidt brings his impressive talents to The Bowery Stage Friday, Dec. 2.
The Chicago Tribune declared Schmidt “One of the 50 most significant singer-songwriters of folk in the last 50 years, together with other such notable singer-songwriters as Harry Chapin, Leonard Cohen, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan and John McCutcheon.”
Pretty heady praise for someone who writes ethereal songs about stained glass, a girl with lantern eyes, paper cranes and ten penny nails.
Schmidt’s songs are not background noise. They make you sit up, listen and think. Usually, you’ll need to peel back the layers of meaning, one listen at a time. But what rewards you will reap.
Schmidt took time from his duties as a new father to 8-week old Maizy to answer a few questions about growing up in Austin, the artists who influenced his style and how he comes to new material.
The Winnsboro News: Growing up in Austin in the 70s-80s must have been a blast.
Danny Schmidt: Austin was a wonderful place to grow up. It’s an extremely intellectually and culturally stimulating town, especially musically.
One of its charms, back in the day, was this insular sense of irrelevance, ironically . . . this sense of isolation, that we were outside the view of the national interest . . . and so it just felt like bands were playing for each other, and for their local fans.
TWN: Talk about your decision to leave The University of Texas after three years and join intentional communities Eastwind and Twin Oaks.
DS: I left UT because I was interested in alternative lifestyles, in living in ways that increased my sense of connection to those around me, and to the earth, and to my own life.
So I left school when I discovered East Wind Community and Twin Oaks Communities, both utopian experiments in building intentional community. And at the time that just felt like a more meaningful education to me than college.
I lived in those communities for almost five years, and looking back, I still feel like it was a wonderful education, and really a defining time in my personal development.
TWN: You started writing while at Twin Oaks. Was songwriting always on your radar?
DS: Songwriting was my radar, already, in the sense that I loved listening to songwriters.
Songs always spoke to me more than any other forms of writing.
But I had never intended to become a songwriter myself. It was quite by accident.
All of a sudden, when I was at Twin Oaks, songs started popping into my head, in bits and pieces . . . the same way songs we know and love pop into our heads . . . except these were new songs I hadn’t heard before. And I felt compelled to finish them up, write them down, and save them from a fleeting existence.
TWN: You won the Kerrville New Folk award in 2007. That must have been a shot in the arm to a young singer/songwriter.
DS: Every young artist needs some validation.
Much as we tell ourselves that we must absolutely follow our own artistic compass . . . and it’s absolutely true, if you can’t validate your own art at the deepest level of your core, then you’ll crumble under the vulnerability of putting your art naked out in front of the world’s eyes . . . but that said, it certainly bolsters your own ability to validate your work when people you respect and admire tell you you’re doing good stuff.
Or in the case of Kerrville, when a venerable institution puts its name next to your work and says that these are songs worth hearing, it’s very reaffirming, and it makes it easier to remind yourself in those darkest moments of doubt, that these are songs worth hearing.
Kerrville is great soul ammo in those moments.
TWN: You’ve cited your influences as Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and Dave Carter. Now, there’s a pride of lions to draw to.
DS: Those guys are all certainly writing influences for me, at various points in my musical and personal development.
Dylan was the first. I was introduced to his music when I was 15 and feeling pretty alienated from the world. And his music spoke so powerfully to me, and managed to articulate so many feelings that were stirring in me, but had never found expression. It was a really profound experience. And I would transcribe my favorite lines on index cards and thumb tack them to my wall.
And all of a sudden I had this connection to this person who saw things the way I saw things, even from half a world (and two decades) away . . . and I realized that songs were the conduit that could carry those messages and feelings. Then over the next few years, I would find my way from writer to writer, and feel that same sort of connection.
TWN: For those not familiar with the late Dave Carter, can you talk about his influence?
DS: Sadly, I didn’t become aware of Dave Carter’s music until the year after he died.
I do feel a strong affinity for his writing, for the metaphorical and metaphysical nature of it, the sort of pagan sense of spirituality, and also the love of language itself.
TWN: You’ve toured Europe, where your style of music has sometimes been more widely accepted than stateside. Talk a little bit about your experiences across the pond.
DS: It’s interesting to see where and when people connect with your songs. And yes, Europe has been great.
I think they’re generally a little bit less hung up on exactly what a particular style of music is called, and what “genre” it falls in.
Maybe the process of translating in your head forces more attention onto the words and to the language choices. Maybe because many of them are fluent in multiple languages, and so they notice the nuances in the language choices you made as a writer.
I don’t know . . . but I have noticed a great appreciation for the subtly of the lyrics . . . and that benefits my music a lot.
TWN: Talk a bit about your writing process? Do you need peace and quiet or can you write while out on the road? Or both?
DS: I definitely write better when I have a chunk of time to really get focused. It’s a pretty meditative process for me. The first seed of a line sorta draws me into a particular world, or a particular set of imagery, and then I just need to cozy up into that world for awhile to explore it and suss out some meaning and coherence.
I wish I could I write on the road.
And lately, I wish I could write better in between diaper changes and feedings!
Though, to be perfectly frank, that last one is a delightful trade off to make!
TWN: Your family has recently expanded. Congratulations. Talk a little bit about the new girl in your life.
DS: Yes, indeed, we just had a baby girl named Maizy. She’s a pure relentlessly exhausting joy!
It’s been a lot of fun to take some time off with my wife (Carrie Elkin, who is also a singer-songwriter) and just camp out in our little baby bubble for the last part of this year, and really get the time and opportunity to get to know this wonderful new person in our lives. She’s really quite something!
Tickets for the Friday, Dec. 2 show are $12 in advance, $15 at the door. Reserved seating tickets are $20. They are available at Winnsboro Emporium, 903-342-6140 or at the arts center, 903-342-0686 or by logging on to www.winnsborocenterforthearts.com
Check out Schmidt’s music on his website, where he lists the lyrics for each song from his nine albums. www.dannyschmidt.com