Elizabethtown, Kentucky — population of roughly twenty-two thousand — spawned a movie of the same name after a young Cameron Crowe experienced a significant event in its limits. Years later it helped form me into the curious person that I am today. At roughly the same time, Elizabethtown was also home to Daniel Martin Moore, one of Kentucky’s finest young musicians. Daniel has traveled the world, written an album of songs that was released on Sub Pop records and brings a chair to every concert just in case the venue doesn’t have one he can use.
And he’s playing tonight at the Dame with Ben Sollee.
After just a few minutes of talking to Daniel, I knew I had to spend at least a little time interviewing him. As two products of Elizabethtown, we’re similar in some non-obvious ways. However, I must say that Daniel’s probably nicer than I am (which, for we Etown people is a big deal. It’d be like knowing the most famous people in LA or having killed the most people for those of you in Atlanta). Daniel was nice enough to talk about being the first person to be signed from out of the unsolicited demos pile at Sub Pop, getting to record with his brother and why he’s glad he grew up in a small town.
You Ain’t No Picasso Interviews Daniel Martin Moore
YANP: So you’re the first person to make it out of the sub pop unsolicited pile. What was that like?
DMM: Well, I can’t really speculate on what it was like when the package actually diverged from the pile. (Laughs) I didn’t get to actually watch that happen. I didn’t even really know any of that until a while after I started working with them and they were like “We’ve never really done this before.” I thought it was really cool. I felt really lucky to have come about it that way. I knew it was a total long shot, too. I just sent it because i had it and figured “why not?” I was completely surprised to hear from them. I basically had forgotten that I’d even sent those out. i was very fortunate.
I heard that they had a problem getting a hold of you because of travel?
The first email I got from Stuart at Sub Pop said something like “Hey we tried to call you and your phone number area code is in Kentucky but your myspace says you’re in Costa Rica?” (Laughs)
I was out in a place where I couldn’t be easily contacted in Central America. We took about several days for me to get that email after it was sent and it took another few days to get in contact on the telephone.
What were you doing in Costa Rica?
I was down there working at a bed and breakfast for a few months … just working really. I got the job through a friend of a friend and it just seemed like a good idea. I was planning on going to grad school in the fall 2007 and all that stuff was sort of taken care of and ready to go. I had four months where I didn’t have any solid plans and this popped up and I thought it would be neat — and it was. It was a lot of fun; it was a great experience.
Did you ever get to see the Sub Pop unsolicited pile?
Yeah, I did. I was the second time I’d ever been in their office and Andy and Stuart pulled me in there and were like “this is where we keep the demos.” It’s a big pile of packages that they kind of put in this one spot and periodically go through and listen to them. I did get to see it and it was kind of a daunting visual.
What songs from that initial demo made it to the album?
There were four songs on the demo and three of them made it onto the record. “Every Color and Kind,” “By Dreams” and “That’ll Be the Plan” were on the demo along with a song called “Not a Step Behind.” That one is not on the record but it is available on the special edition vinyl that’s about to come out. There’s a limited edition EP with it and on that EP is “Not a Step Behind,” the demo version.
After they contacted you and said they wanted to do a full length, what happened? A lot of songwriting? Did you go into songwriting mode?
I wish I could write that way. I know some people can sit down and write as a matter of force, just write like that… I cannot do that. I come up with the absolute worst stuff. (Laughs) For whatever reason that’s just not how I’m able.. I wish I could. It’d be great to just sit down a couple hours every day and write and come up with something but it always feels really contrived.
Nothing really changed on my end. I was in Costa Rica. We ended up making it official in May and I was in Costa Rica until almost July. I was still hanging out there for a while… I did over that period of the next few months write a few songs and some of them did end up on the record, but it wasn’t like my aim to do that. It just worked out.
More after the jump…
Stuart was able to put me in touch with Joe Chiccarelli, who was a huge part of making the record. He and I kind of worked out how we wanted to approach things. We slowly and surely kicked around ideas for different musicians and talked about the kind of instruments I wanted on the album and how we might be able to make it all work with my brother coming to LA… kind of getting together a schedule. So when I got back to the states, we were able to … we didn’t really move that quickly but we got things planned quickly.
Coming from Elizabethtown, KY as I know you do as well, LA seems like just the craziest place I’ve ever been to in my life. Was it weird for you to go there and work on this soft beautiful album?
I tend to observe a really slow pace of life, you know? And I’ve found that for whatever reason I’m able to maintain that even in a place like Los Angeles. I think LA’s really interesting, I don’t know if I’d want to live there, though. I have a really good friend who lives out there, he plays drums on the song “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” — Eric Solomon and he’s from Kentucky. He moved out there a few years ago and I had been out there a few years ago to visit him so I kind of knew what to expect.
But the way Joe was able to set the sessions up… even though we did it at two different studios — the first studio was a bit smaller, but it still felt like a haven. You go in there and shut the door and you’re in your own little world. Of course, working with Joe was wonderful because he is really patient and knew how to speak… He knows how to work with artists. That’s one of his strengths as a producer and engineer. He knows how to make sessions go smoothly. While we were in session, it was never hectic ever, even though the clock was ticking. Plus my brother was there and Eric was there and we had really good friends there taking photographs.
I’m so glad you know I’m from Kentucky too, so that question doesn’t seem like “was it weird to come to a place with indoor plumbing?”
(Laughs) Oh yeah, I know. people always think that if you’re from Kentucky then you’re a neanderthal or something. (Laughs) Personally I’d much rather be from the south or the midwest — from a rural place, than from a big city. Because if you’re from a big city, the attitude that I always seem to pick up is that no other place is as interesting as the big city.
I completely agree
I mean, when you’re from where we’re from, you can find pretty much any kind of place interesting. you can appreciate the country and you can love the big city.
Daniel Martin Moore with Ben Sollee
When we talked at your CD Central instore, you told me a bit about why you chose the image you did for your album cover. Could you share a bit about that again?
Sure. The cover of the album is an image that appears on the title page of a series of old books that I’ve stumbled into collecting over the years. I found one in a used book store several years ago. It’s a translation of T’ang dynasty poetry … After I read that book it changed the way I thought about writing and frankly I think my material improved drastically. I don’t mean to say that it’s good or bad now, but if I played you some of the stuff I wrote five or six years ago I don’t think you’d be too excited about it (Laughs)
So when it came time to choose a cover for the record, I wanted to incorporate some kind of imagery from these books. Most of them are about 100 years old and were published in Britain. They’re about seven inches by five inches and they’re these translations of religious texts and poetry. They’re just great little insights into another culture or other bodies of literature.
I knew that I wanted it to somehow be a part of the traditional because they’re really old and have a really neat look about them, you know? That image is actually on all of the books, pressed into the title page. So I thought that would be a really good thing to choose. Plus it is a really striking image, I think. It seems like it could be a sunrise, but it could also be a sunset. If you were to interpret it as a sunrise, it seemed like a fitting cover for a debut album.
Now you’re also passionate about mountaintop removal, correct?
Yes, that’s something that I consider to be a pretty big issue to our state and also in the broader terms our national energy policy. I think it’s huge — it’s totally beyond politics. There’s an environmental aspect to it because there is generally a lot of pollution associated with it, let alone the carbon emissions from burning coal. Even the mining itself.. typically it’s not done the way it should be done. The regulations are not followed and the rules are not enforced. There’s a lot of polluting the water in places where mountaintop removal is done.
But for me it’s much more about the quality of life issue for people here who live in an area with a tremendous resources. It’s kind of like living on top of a gold mine but still being dirt poor. It doesn’t make any sense. The people in eastern Kentucky have this incredible natural resource on their land and they’re some of the poorest people in the United States. A lot of people could make a lot of money off that coal, but somehow the people in eastern Kentucky get the short end of the stick. It’s criminal, really. The fact that their elected officials aren’t really helping them and are clearly in the pockets of the coal companies is an outrage. I try to talk about that at least for a few seconds at shows… I know people don’t come to concerts to be preached at, but I try to bring it up and make myself available after the show to anyone who wants to know a little bit more because it’s a shame. There has to be a better way to do it. there has to be a more equitable, just way to do it.
At the instore you played a song called “Black Rock Blues?”
Was that a cover or an original composition?
That is not on the record. It’s one that I wrote. In a way it’s embodying everything I was just talking about with the mountaintop removal mining. “Flyrock” is a term that the coal industry uses for when there’s a big explosion on the mountan and giant boulders fly through the sky; it’s called “flyrock.” Occasionally one will tumble down the hill and take out a part of a road or house. So that’s why it’s called that. that’s one i wrote right after I read Eric Reece’s book “Lost Mountain” which is just a tremendous book that really paints a bad picture of the situation.
Now my favorite on the record has to be “It’s You.” What can you tell me about that song? Where did you write it? What kind of mindset where you in?
I really enjoy that one as well. i like that recording of it. it just came out so nice. that’s one that I particularly like the piano part in there – that’s my brother and I was so happy that I got to record with him. He’s a great musician and it was great to have him with me through the whole process. That’s one of the older songs on the record. “It’s You” is probably three or four years old. I think of it as a pretty straightforward love song. It doesn’t hold a lot of mystery for me. It seems like when i wrote it it was straightforward expression.
What’s one that does have some mystery for you?
I kind of avoid getting too specific about my songs just as a general rule just because I really like leaving them open ending because I like letting people bring their own interpretations to the table. That’s my favorite part about any artwork — whether it’s a painting or a film. The viewer is going to see things that the artist or musician had never intended. That’s a very rewarding thing for an artist to hear someone interpret your own work back to you. It’s an awesome experience.
People fill in the holes with part of their lives
Exactly. That’s a huge blessing and it’s one of my very favorite things. So I try to not elaborate on any mysterious elements if there even are any.