Worth his weight in Happy Meals: An interview with Daniel Smith

2 Feb

Note: This piece comes from our newest contributor, Callie Windle. We’re glad to welcome her to DayBowBow.

By Callie Windle

Artists aren’t what they used to be. Purveyors of opinion and story, their works were intentional portions of self, carefully served to us–their viewers and listeners–hungry for truth and reality.

We feasted on Dylan, his words becoming the sustenance for our young and rebellious spirits; we savored Frida Kahlo, each morsel seasoned with pain and loss; and we could feel awkward originality in every bite of Vonnegut. The artists were part of our lives, and they themselves became part of us.

Today’s “artist” is more often comparable to a children’s meal at a fast food joint. Their packaging is equally as, if not more, important as the substance. The bright colors distract us from what we’re really getting: over-priced, unnourishing snacks. They don’t satisfy, and they don’t stay with us for very long—one-hit-wonders crowd shelves at Half-Price Books stores across the nation.

There are, however, exceptions—artists who carry on the traditions of old, folding love into the batter of their words and sprinkling conviction on their musical snow peas. And occasionally they give us even more—innovation. Daniel Smith is one of these artists.

The frontman for Danielson Famile, Smith is well-acquainted with the arts. Though he is mainly known for his musical endeavors, the New Jersey native is also a visual artist, and his album covers offer listeners a peek at his work.

More than that, Smith is no stranger to the discomfort that often accompanies the different, the unknown. His music has been the subject of much debate, even leading to a documentary, Danielson: a Family movie (2006).

Smith and I recently talked during his afternoon break from mixing Norwegian band I Was a King.

What follows is a glimpse into that old world of true artistry.

What was it like growing up in a large family?

It was awesome being the oldest of five kids, and we were a very musical family—you know my dad is a gospel folk song writer—so I have a lot of memories of him writing songs and teaching them to us and all of us singing along. Our mom made a lot of our clothes, so it was a very handmade arts-oriented home. There were siblings to play with and to have that community was great.

And you didn’t watch TV, right?

[Laugh.] No, no TV until my Pop Pop came over and was appalled that my parents had not bought a TV for us, so he immediately wrote a check. But even then we were each only allowed to watch one program a week.

It comes down to this: we’re all creative beings and we need to find a creative outlet.

How does your visual art fit in with making music?

There are pockets of time here and there where I get back into it, but I’m hoping to get back into it in the next year. It’s part of the music, but it takes a backseat.

What is art to you? How do you define it?

It comes from the creative process, some sort of hand-making, music or sculpture or drawing—any kind of expression that connects people with who they are and who they’re made to be. The word is not very sacred to me.

I’ll put it this way: I don’t hold that in some higher plane, like someone who’s passionate about making houses, that can be art and in a really practical way. It comes down to this: we’re all creative beings and we need to find a creative outlet.

There’s a monthly event in Denton called Drink and Think, where we talk about current issues and music and art. The question posed at a NX35 Drink and Think was, “Is Midlake better than Miley Cyrus?” What do you think about that—can art be judged?

That’s a tough one. So much of it is our personal experience with it. For example, there can be—just talking about music—there can be records that l like that changed my life that I continue to like the same, if not more, but then there are others that were fun but didn’t last past the summer.

I never knew I liked Abba until a few years back, but now I love them. So I think so much is about where we’re at. There’s pop music that’s fun now but boring in four months. Being interested in writing music and always looking for a new sound, sometimes it’s hard for me to separate work from music and listening for something new, something to change the world, versus [for] fun.

I love the mystery of [creating an album] and the sort of unveiling, all the way up to the packaging—the artwork itself, and the way it fits into it all.

What would you say is the purpose of your art?

It’s built into my lifestyle now. There are periods of time where there are songs and ideas that I’m just collecting, doing my work day to day, whether I’m mowing the lawn or recording someone’s album or doing house work. There comes a breaking point where they need to turn into songs, then recording, then a record.

It’s an amazing experience every time, and number one, I feel fortunate I get to do it, and number two, that people even care. In terms of a purpose I don’t have some grand goal, by any means, but when we go out to shows and people say nice things, that’s great.

What is your favorite part of that process?

I really like them all, because you know, that’s all a process, from the very beginning. We just recorded 14 songs in December and I just set aside a month before to write, and it just shocks me every time to watch it go from zero to one. But there’s still so much to go, because in the writing process there are so many sounds and layers. I love the mystery of it and the sort of unveiling, all the way up to the packaging—the artwork itself, and the way it fits into it all.

I read in an article that your favorite piece of art is Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden. Is that still true?

I don’t know about favorite, but most life-changing art experience for sure. Just that experience, and that journey down to Georgia and the discovery, finding the place and walking through it, and seeing all this scripture written on these pieces.

This quote was in the article: “There, I found a true and original artist who was speaking things about a spirit that I have known.” Can you explain what you meant by that?

It was a time where I was just kind of, I was in college, I was trying to figure out who I am. I was in art school—they try to teach you who you are as an artist—but at the same time, you’re trying to figure out who you are as a person, as a creature, an individual. I was searching, I’m still searching, but really searching then.  Part of that searching was ignoring my childhood.

So I saw this spirit of God, this spirit I knew as a child, and so it got spooky and exciting and wonderful at the same time, because I felt like God was saying, “It’s time to grow up and take some responsibility and seek me instead of seeking yourself all the time.” And there was this moment of, “Wow I’m extremely selfish.”

I’m going to stop a few things that are getting me nowhere and I’m going to start doing a few things that I know will get me somewhere.

Can you tell me about the Quilt Car? Was that for your senior thesis?

Yeah, Quilt Car, that was for the final senior thesis project. It was [based on] a car that I had, and it kept breaking down, and there was a final moment when that car broke down and God used it to just literally stop me, and it’s one of those moments when you try to explain it, it sounds goofy and trivial, but it was really important to me.

It made me say, “I’m going to stop a few things that are getting me nowhere and I’m going to start doing a few things that I know will get me somewhere.”

Catch DANIELSON at The Loft on April 13th with Binary Sunrise and Fishboy.

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