Written by Alexander Greco
September 23, 2020
Born in Arizona, but currently residing in Los Angeles, Daniel Blake is an eclectic musician with roots in classic rock, old school and 90’s country and blues, and contemporary folk. Having released a number of singles, including his most recent, “Freeway”, and his EP, Circle Mountain, Daniel is quickly gaining recognition, with his music already being featured on a number of television shows and a Spotify-official playlist.
Daniel’s music immediately struck a spot in me, as it possessed the same calm yet haunting expressiveness of some of my favorite artists, Ben Howard, Bon Iver and Adam Granduciel, and the same simplified, emotive style of contemporary musicians like All Them Witches, Wild Child and Josh Abbott. Blending styles from across blues, folk, country and rock, along with the ambiance of synth and keys in the background, Daniel’s music echoes in your mind with calming yet soulful songs of love, life and a roaming freedom.
When Daniel and I first started talking, he communicated in a handful of 3-5 word sentences, and I thought, “Fuck, I’m gonna have to wring the answers out of this guy.”
However, despite Daniel’s laconic first responses, once he did open up about music, his answers were some of the most detailed I’ve received in interviews (even beating out a few writers I’ve talked with) and Daniel’s passion and experience with his craft became crystal clear.
And so, while I usually include much of my own thought in these sorts of articles, with this article, I let Daniel do much of the talking and step back more than I usually do.
Without further ado, here is my article/interview with Daniel Blake.
We began our interview discussing how Daniel became involved with music and how he eventually arrived where he is now.
Xander: “So, to start off with, how did you get into music? How did you start singing and playing? Have you had any formal training in music, or are you self-taught? Have you been a part of any other bands or musical projects, and, if so, what were those like?”
Daniel: “My dad played music at church so there were always a couple of guitars lying around the house. I eventually learned a few of the basic chords (G,C,D & EM) which gave me something to build off of. I later took some lessons at a local music shop but wasn’t too involved in music at school. I had tried forming a couple of punk bands when I was in Junior high and High-school. However, they never amounted to much. mostly just recording 15 minute instrumentals we would listen to while driving around town. I didn’t really start singing until I was in my 20’s when I started singing at church. From there I started messing around with an old 8 track recorder we had lying around the house.”
X: “How have you developed over the years? And how have you arrived where you are now in your career?”
D: “When I first started out I really had no clue what I should be doing. I pretty much just started recording music and uploading it to Soundcloud. It was sort of nice to work at my own pace to learn about the best ways to use my voice. I eventually had to step out and present it to the world, which is when the journey really began. It was difficult to find a venue that would allow me to do a set so I had to start at ground zero. Basically playing anything available which at the time was mostly open mics. Like anything else, one door always leads you to another door until one day you look back and say, ‘man, that’s a lot of doors!’ haha.”
Next, Daniel and I delved into his musical influences. I knew about a number of them, and his songs possess the unmistakable echoes of voices and sounds still reverberating from the dawn of folk, country and classic rock (Dylan, Cash, Neil Young, etc.). I called Ben Howard the moment I heard his first song, and I wasn’t surprised to learn he listened to Iron & Wine. Still, Daniel’s catalog of influences was quite broad, and I enjoyed hearing about all the artists who’d left a mark on his music.
X: What other musicians, musical groups or eras of music have influenced you? How did early influences like Tom Petty, The Beatles, Van Morrison and others affect you? What about their music do you enjoy? And are there any contemporary artists you resonate with or find any inspiration from?
D: I love old country music (Hank, Willy, Waylon & Cash). The songs remind me of my grandpa and his friends sitting around in a circle, telling stories and teasing one another. It sort of feels like home I guess. I’m also a big fan of a lot of 90’s country/blues music too (Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, Brooks & Dunn, Bonnie Raitt, SRV, Dire Straits…). All of these artists are a piece of me in one way or another. The common thread for all of these artists is great songs.
D: However, there is something much deeper (especially for groups like the Beatles). They constantly evolved and experimented with different ideas. they pushed the envelope and opened the world up to new sounds. Every song didn’t need to be a love song. It was okay to create something just for the sake of making something new. As far as contemporary music goes, I feel like I may be a little behind, haha. However, I have definitely been influenced by artists like David Grey, Ben Howard, Band of Horses, Iron & Wine & Postal service.
After this, we discussed Daniel’s influences in a more general sense.
X: Are there any cultural, social, religious, or other kinds of influences on your music or your songwriting? Are there any personal experiences that have shaped your music and songwriting, or even your outlook on making music?
D: I think that if you are an honest writer it is impossible to write something that does not somehow reflect the issues that are going on in the world. At the same time, I really try to zoom in on a moment and tell a story. It’s sort of like painting.
D: If you try and paint the whole world it would be impossible to include enough detail to really give anyone a sense of what it’s like to live here. However, once you zoom in you can start to see more and more detail. If you were to paint a doorknob you would be able to express all of the reflections and metal fibers. People could determine if it is on a wood door or a glass door. If it’s night or if it’s day. Whether it’s on the inside or the outside of the building. All of the clues on and around the doorknob help to give you a sense of the environment, just like the subject matter of a song. I basically try to say it without saying it.
D: There are a few moments that really stick out as playing a major role in the way I approach songwriting. I remember driving home from work listening to the radio when a Red Hot Chili Peppers song came on. I realized that I don’t understand most of the lyrics. However, the overall sound (melody/production/cadence) all flowed together in such a way that it didn’t seem to matter. This memory stuck with me for a really long time. The foundation for any great song is always a strong melody and production. This however sets up roadblocks that you must learn to navigate around. In fact, it forces you to write better lyrics because you need to figure out ways to say what you want to say within the constraints that you have setup for yourself.”
Next, Daniel and I spent some time talking about his some of his specific songs, as well as a bit about the recording process for his recent releases.
X: Can you tell me a bit about your latest release, Freeway? What was the inspiration for it? How was the process of recording and producing it?
D: I’m originally from Phoenix, AZ. Throughout the years I’ve made dozens of trips back home to visit family. Whenever I would get to the middle of the stretch; I would look at the small clusters of housing developments and trailer parks. I imagined what it would be like to grow up in a town like that where you constantly see cars passing by on the freeway. I imagined that the freeway could become a symbol of hope, especially for a couple of kids growing up in broken homes.
D: The recording process was a lot of fun. I worked with Bill Lefler; who had produced all of my previous work. My good friend/guitar player Paul Redel came into the studio and laid down probably 100 different guitar tracks. I stood at the doorway and watched as Paul would play a lick and Bill laid on the ground turning knobs on the pedals. Each take was completely unique, magical and a mess at the same time. From there, Bill had the task of sifting through all of the takes, cutting and pasting things together until it started to sound like something completely out of this world. During an unrelated session, Bill had hired a horn player for something else he was working on at the time. The horn player had finished the session a little early so Bill asked him to mess around with a few takes on Freeway, which sort of added a whole other element to the song.
X: Can you tell me a bit about your other releases, like the Circle Mountain EP, Here With Me and The Ones You Love? What have been some inspirations or motivations for these songs and others?
D: I had eventually come to the point where I realized that you are extremely limited without having any music out in the world. When you first start out in this industry you have a lot of unrealistic expectations about the way things work. You imagine being greeted by some A&R rep the second you step off stage who signed you to a label. The sad truth is that there are very few stages you can step off of if you don’t have any content, not to mention the fact that A&R reps typically go after people who are doing pretty well on their own. I realized that the next step would be to release my music out into the world, even if it didn’t receive much attention.
D: I spent several months trying to record my music at home when I finally threw up my hands and decided I needed a producer which–was the smartest decision I ever made. I met my producer Bill Lefler through a friend of a friend. I was impressed with the artists he had worked with in the past and quite frankly I felt honored that he would be willing to listen to some of my homemade demos. Bill really sold me on his enthusiasm. He appeared to understand what I was going for and was excited to share some of the ways he thought we could get there. We initially agreed to do the first track on spec; which is another way of saying “if you don’t like it then you don’t pay for it and move forward with someone else”. However, it didn’t take much time into recording the first track that I realized Bill and I would be working together for a long time.
D: At the time, I had about 20 songs I had written which gave us a lot to work with as far as options. I was open to Bill’s opinion because I wanted him to be excited about the songs he was working on. I also figured that eventually all of the tracks would be released, each at the right time. We decided to do 5 tracks and picked four that we were both excited about. We left the last slot open for something new I would write based on the feel of the first 4 tracks which happened to be “All I Need”. Overall, the experience was really great.
D: After releasing Circle Mountain, the EP had caught the ear of a music supervisor who asked me to record a cover of the Dido song “Here With Me” for the TV show “Roswell New Mexico”. This was a major milestone in my career as up to this point I could only dream of having a song on TV. “The Ones You Love” was a Christmas song that was mixed in with the other demos I had originally sent to Bill when we were working on the first EP. I figured it wouldn’t be a bad idea to release an original Christmas song for the simple fact that there are too many covers floating around and Christmas songs typically get re-visited every year. Bill liked the idea of doing a really stripped-down version to sort of give it that “Carpenters” sound. Again, the recording process was a lot of fun and is something I will always cherish.
The last thing Daniel and I talked about was probably my favorite part of the interview. It’s really goddamn hard to make it as an artist, as a musician, as a writer, and so forth. While so many of us look up things like, “What is ‘so-and-so’s’ morning routine?” or “What does ‘Person X’ do to get motivated?”, I don’t think enough people take the time to listen to the actual advice and experience of people who’ve made it further down similar paths that we’re walking.
So, I’ve been trying to talk with people I interview more about what people actually need to do to be successful. The sad truth is that recording a beautiful song, writing a deep piece of fiction, or painting a stunning landscape is only the first step in an endless marathon to success. Luckily, with this knowledge, you can start learning what steps to take next.
While Daniel’s response here is more geared toward music, a lot of what he says can certainly be translated to other creative industries.
X: A lot of people who read the magazine are independent artists, musicians, writers and so forth who are trying to break into their respective fields, or are even just starting, and so I’m sure a lot of people would love to hear from someone who is a bit further down the path from where they are.
X: What do you think is important for aspiring musicians to know about the business? Do you have any advice for musicians trying to start their career? What are some things you wished you knew getting started? And do you have any advice for marketing music, getting your name out there and picking up traction with your music?
D: It’s a very difficult question to answer because no two artists’ paths are the same. However, there are a few things that I think are key to being successful in this industry. First off, it is extremely important to be a part of the music community. Seek out local open mics or artists hangs and make as many friends as you can.
D: When you’re first starting out, the friends you make in the music community are often the only ones standing in your corner, pushing you to keep going. It’s also a good way to expose yourself to any potential opportunities that may come up (“oh, you need a keyboard player? I know just the person”). You will learn about the best producers, mixing engineers & mastering engineers. You will learn who curates which events or which events are simply a waste of time.
D: Secondly, I think it is extremely important to have a balanced perspective of the world. Understand that this thing you are trying to be successful at is un-relatable to 99.9% of the people in the world. At the same time, you need these people more than they need you. Don’t use your platform to complain about all of the struggles that come with doing this thing you chose to do. Instead, make great content that can provide an escape for these people.
D: Lastly, I would say that you need to work harder and smarter than everyone around you. Figure out a way to make the best content possible. As an indie artist, you are pretty much self-funding all of the services that would come with a record deal. No one says, “This guy looks like a complete hack but I know he’s indie so I’ll give him a chance.” You want people to look at the work you put out and assume you are already signed. You may need to work a full-time job so that you can afford recording/marketing/PR fees on top of food, gas & rent. The hard work doesn’t end once you have a mastered track. In fact, often the hardest part is getting people to listen to your beautiful track. This is in part why it’s so important to make as many friends who are proud of your work and are willing to pass it along. Everyone you have in your corner (friends, curators, producers…) are all advocates for the work you put out to the world.
And here we’ve arrived at the end of my interview with Daniel Blake. It was great getting to hear from Daniel about his experiences creating and recording music, and he definitely gave some solid advice for anyone looking to make a name for themselves in their respective creative fields.
There’s one thing he said that stuck out to me: “Understand that this thing you are trying to be successful at is un-relatable to 99.9% of the people in the world.”
I could probably write an entire article just on this sentence.
If you’re out there trying to make it as an artist, musician, writer and so forth—if you’re out there trying to do the impossible—you might find yourself living a life that no one around you understands. As Elton John said, “It’s lonely out in space.”
Most people will never even put in the initial effort to try. Just taking the first step forward will set you aside from almost everyone else in the world. From there, the path forward is difficult. You’ve already set yourself apart from most other people in the world, and now you have to set yourself apart from all the people who’ve already set themselves apart.
But, it’s worth it. It’s worth it to at least put in the effort and say, “I gave it what I had.”
And, even if the path is an isolated one at times, know that you are not alone. Know that there’s others out there walking, hiking, crawling and climbing similar paths.
I definitely had a great time hearing from Daniel, and I always love getting to sit down and enjoy new music. You can find Daniel’s music on Spotify (“Daniel Blake”), and you can find him on both Instagram and Linktree as @danielblakemusic. Give him a listen, and expect to hear more great songs from him in the future.