Danny Schmidt - reluctant topicality
As news of another mass shooting in America comes through, Danny Schmidt wishes that he wasn’t a topical songwriter.
The Austin, Texas-born Schmidt, who is one of the guests of this year’s Glasgow Americana festival, has a song on his superb latest album, Owls, that was written in response to an earlier series of shootings when it seemed like every day brought another headline about gun crime.
“I don’t think of The Guns and the Crazy Ones as a political song,” says Schmidt down the line from the latest stopover of a lengthy European tour. “The situation with guns in the States is very complex politically and I’ve been finding it hard to explain over here that a lot people back home … we’ve just reached the point where enough’s enough. You know, let’s sit down like grown-ups and resolve this issue because when you have one tragedy following another, day after day after day, it’s emotionally draining. And that’s why I wrote that song. It’s not political so much as a personal, emotional response to something that we could really do without.”
Schmidt wasn’t always comfortable getting up in front of an audience and bearing his soul. He was a comparatively late-starter as a songwriter, twenty-five, when a broken heart spurred him to set his thoughts down. He’d been playing guitar since his early teens, a closet picker who had grown up listening to Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Johnson, who were both beginning to gain wide recognition at that point in the 1980s.
“I used to try and play like them in my room back then and I read interviews with them and discovered that they were Jimi Hendrix fans,” he says. “So then I listened to Hendrix and read about who he’d listened to and that took me back through the electric blues players to the country blues pickers and when I heard Mississippi John Hurt, Rev Gary Davis and Brownie McGhee, that’s when it started to get serious for me. These guys could fill so many roles simultaneously – rhythm, bass, melody – on one guitar. Other influences coloured my playing – Richard Thompson and the English folk guitarists – but I would love to be able to watch a video of some of these blues players way back because it’s one thing to hear it but another thing entirely to see how they do it and they really were one-man dance bands.”
There’s much of the one-man orchestra about Schmidt’s own guitar playing. His talent remained private, though, until he moved to Virginia in his twenties and lived on a large farm with a community of a hundred or so others. On Saturday nights they organised what they called the coffee house, when everyone took their turn onstage. Children recited poetry and wrote and acted their own plays. Grown-ups sang their favourite songs and in this spirit of sharing a party piece with family, Schmidt took his first steps as a performer.
“I was never comfortable when I had to speak in class at school and I’d never aspired to performing in front of people but when I started writing songs I realised that the only way to get them heard was to play them to an audience,” he says. “It’s simple, I know, and back on the farm, it was it was a case of me taking my turn to do my spot and sharing something with family but when I went to play outside of that community, I worried that people were being judgemental. So to get over that fear I closed my eyes and kept that feeling of sharing in mind and that helped to temper my nerves.”
As a songwriter Schmidt’s influences come as much from literature as they do from music. Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen have made an impact but as a keen reader he’s fallen under the spell of authors including Gabriel García Márquez, whose ability to present magical, fantastical elements as a matter of fact part of his storytelling helped to shape some of the narratives on Owls. Schmidt has also learned over the years – Owls is his ninth album – that the original idea for a song can end up anywhere in the song’s structure.
“People often seem to think that a song comes as a fully formed idea and that the writing process is just a matter of getting it down on paper as it comes to you,” he says. “That can happen but more often a line will come and you’ll work backwards or forwards and you can forget where the idea came from in the first place. Ultimately what’s important is that the songs become compelling enough for people to want to listen to them and that they’re stimulated by them.”
From The Herald, October 7, 2015