Interview: Actor Jeff Daniels talks life on the road and the joy of touring with his sons

Jeff Daniels
Jeff Daniels will perform at CSPS Hall in Cedar Rapids on Sunday, Oct. 25.

“It’s hard to be two things in this country,” says actor Jeff Daniels. “They’ll give you one, but not two.” The notion of a successful actor or actress breaking through into the music world is indeed a precarious one, with fame working as both an ally and enemy, a foot in the door and a deafening distraction. It’s the kind of juicy plotline that sets music critics salivating, ready to take Hollywood down a peg or two—sometimes, with good reason.

Daniels, a singer-songwriter and guitarist for more than four decades, isn’t setting out to win a Grammy by any means, but it’s clear that his music is no gimmick—not a product of boredom brought about a cushy life and ample name recognition. Fans will get a chance to see this passion firsthand as Daniels performs alongside his son on Sunday, Oct. 25 at CSPS hall. Before the show, Daniels spoke with LV about life on the road, performing alongside his son, and the diffuclty of being ‘more than one thing’ in a country full of cynics.

A lot of your songs seem to stem from experiences you’ve had as an actor, and I’m wondering how crucial this interplay has been for your music. What do you think you’d be writing about, musically, if acting weren’t such a big part of your life?

Because of acting, I found writing. I don’t know if I would have found it — and been so taken with it — had I not moved to New York to be an actor. When I did that in 1976, within the first couple of weeks I was there, I met Lanford Wilson … a Pulitzer-winning playwright.

I instantly became fascinated with what he was doing because I knew he had written plays — I had been in one of them back in Michigan — but I was meeting a living, breathing writer and it blew me away.

Maybe if I’d met Spencer Tracy or Peter Sellers or something, maybe it would have had the same effect — but I was fascinated by the fact that … [writing] would be such a living, breathing ongoing process. Once I found that, I wonder if — had I not been an actor — would I have been anywhere near the writer that I am now, because I wouldn’t have been so directly influenced by someone of Lanford’s sature. You can hear him in some of the songs I’ve written — his influence.

I’m curious to hear what you’ve learned from touring, specifically. What does that give you, personally, that you don’t get from other forms of media?

The big difference — and it matters — is that you’re going to them. You’re getting in the vehicles, and you’re driving to Cedar Rapids and you’re playing for them. Especially places like Cedar Rapids, which I enjoy playing. New York, Chicago, LA, that’s terrific — but I love the audiences away from those places just as much, if not more.

I remember booking three gigs in Alaska just so I could go to Alaska, and they were going, ‘Thanks for coming all this way. We really appreciate it.’ And that’s a different audience sitting there at 8 o’clock when you walk out than one that’s just looking for something to do on a Friday Night.

It sounds like you’re able to develop a closer connection to your fan base through music than you might through acting.

I think that’s part of the allure. I’m standing there with a guitar, singing these songs I wrote, but also talking to them, and having a conversation with them in a way that they probably haven’t with a public figure, celebrity or whatever. I think that’s part of the allure, and I certainly put that into the show and make that a part of the show because I know that’s what some of them want. They want a back-and-forth a little bit.

Is this banter cathartic for you? What do you take away from that sort of audience interaction, exactly?

There are two different things. To attack a role like Will McAvoy in Newsroom or even Harry Dunne in Dumb and Dumber, it’s like going down a tunnel. You’ve got to get to McAvoy at the end of it every day, so it’s more focused somehow.

[Music] is more revealing. It’s personal sometimes, and so you’re kind of putting yourself out there, and you’re talking to them, and it’s this conversation with this fan that you’ve got who’s been with you for 40 years. It’s weird, it becomes — not talking to yourself, but talking to people who might be interested in what you might think — and when you let yourself go like that, and wander off, you can find some stuff in front of a microphone.

It’s fun to see where it goes for me. It’s the same every night, and yet it’s different. If I say something different or go off on a story, suddenly there’s a whole new story and a whole new part of the show.

What’s the experience like of performing alongside your son? You taught him how to play, and I imagine that’s quite a powerful experience.

It’s a thrill. You can’t put it into words because I never thought it would happen. Never thought it would happen. And not that it had to happen. To be honest, 10-12 years ago, [My son] Ben came to me and said, ‘Alright, I’m ready. I want to play the guitar.’

And you had made an offer previously, is that right? ‘Just let me know when you’re ready,’ that kind of thing?

Yeah, years earlier when he was in high school I said, ‘Listen, you paint, you photograph, you draw, you’re artistic. You might be a writer, I don’t know? If you ever want to play the guitar…’

[He said,] ‘Yeah yeah yeah, okay.’

It was girls and hockey, hockey and girls. and then three years later, he walked in and said, ‘I’m ready.’ It was like it was ten minutes later for him (laughs). I said, ‘Ready for what?’

He hasn’t had [the guitar] out of his hands since. Always writing, always playing. He went to school to become a recording engineer in Arizona, so he does that, records the band, mixes the band. It’s a thrill to see something artistic passed on … It’s thrilling to see him go, ‘No, this is what I want to do with my life.’ And in a way, it’s a reflection of him watching me going through what I’m going through, and not just the good stuff that the public sees, but the times when it isn’t going so well. He’s seen it all, yet he still wants to do it.

Now he’s working at it, and I told him, ‘Great, now spend the rest of your life getting better at it.’ And so far, he is.

You’re in movies, you’ve written plays and performed in Emmy-winning shows. Given that, do you get nervous before a music show? How are you typically feeling before that curtain opens up?

It’s about getting ready to ‘go.’ That’s kind of what it feels like, more or less. It’s our fourth tour together, so we’ll make some changes and the show will be different, but basically we know the show, and we know how the show works. So we’re not too nervous about it. We’ll probably have a couple rehearsals, maybe just one, before we hit the first gig in October.

It’s just a matter of focus. If you’re walking out on stage on Broadway and you’re playing a character that’s so unlike you, then yeah there’s some focusing that needs to go on backstage before you step into his head. It’s basically just twisting your mind around so you think you’re someone else, and that takes a little bit of mental agility, but that’s different than the gigs.

The other tours we’ve gone on have always been enjoyable. We get along. The band has a great time, they make money, they’re thrilled. The audiences are usually pretty good, and it’s fun. It’s an adventure, and yeah there’s driving, but you’re at this new place for the day, and this new venue.

There’s always stuff that happens on the road that you remember and will have forever.

Who are are you traveling with on these tours?

It’s just me and the band, and my wife will be along. My two dogs will be along …

Your wife tours with you?

Yeah! We enjoy it. We drive a small bus — we’ve got kind of a tour bus of sorts for the band and the guys … We’re doing something we love.

You’ve no shortage of accolades. Is there anything in particular you’re hoping to accomplish, musically? Is this purely a creative outlet?

I don’t look any further past it than what it is now. It’s hard to be two things in this country. They’ll give you one, but not two. You know, ‘An actor and a musician? Whoa, whoa, wait a minute.’

So I’m perfectly content with doing what I’m doing — [working on] an independent label that I control with a friend of mine, recording when we feel like it, putting out a CD when we feel like it, and playing the venues that we’re playing. Great audiences. Great audiences in places like Cedar Rapids, Oshkosh … It’s great, and if that’s all it ends up being, that’s quite a bit. And touring with your two sons? It’s pretty great.

There’s never been this desire to get a Grammy, be on the Billboard Top 10 or write a song that somebody buys. It’s never been about that. It’s been about the art of it, to be honest. The fact that people enjoy it is a bonus.

I imagine your status as an actor affects your stage presence to a certain extent. Is that something you feel you have to overcome?

A little less so now, but still, it’s in every gig I play — those people who go, ‘I didn’t know you played music. I know you’re an actor, I really liked you in these movies, so I’m curious. That’s why I’m here.’ There’s kind of an elephant in the room, and that’s okay. That’s alright. I play to it actually, I refer to it. We talk about it early on. But eventually they have to listen to the songs, the songwriting and the musicianship of the band, and it’s there.

This is the fourth tour. We wouldn’t have gone out on number two and three if the musicianship wasn’t there, and the evening wasn’t there beyond just seeing a celebrity on stage. That’s what kind of sold me to keep going with the solo act …

You don’t strike me as someone who’s concerned with labels, but how do you see yourself. ‘Artist’ seems so trite.

I guess that’s the all-encompassing word. It sounds elitist and lofty, but it really is. I view them as coming from the same place, just in different forms. Playwriting, songwriting, acting. It’s all coming from that same place.

Just to wrap things up, can you tell me a bit about who influenced you musically growing up? What are you listen to currently?

Growing up, it was Elton, really. I was taking piano at the time, and when I heard 17-11-70, that live album, I just said, ‘Oh my god. Oh my god.’ I got turned onto Arlo Guthrie too, early on, though I don’t quite know how, which led me to Steve Goodman. I started playing the acoustic guitar about five years later, and then I really started into Doc Watson —  all those albums — [and] people like Tony Trischka.

And now it’s just whoever’s being heralded as [great songwriters], and there’s some good ones. The Milk Carton Kids, Jason Isbell … to name just a few. I just got, also, Joe Bonamassa’s Live at Radio City Music Hall. He’s just incredible. Put on earphones and turn it up, okay?

Drew Bulman regrets the fact that he did not ask Jeff Daniels about his experience filming the 1994 action hit Speed. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. This article originally appeared in Little Village issue 186.

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