Danielson – A wing and a prayer
“Using all ranges of my voice — including falsetto — is in keeping with the tradition of rock ‘n’ roll and soul music,” he contends. “It’s not this shocking thing when Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons do it, or Al Green. In an indie-rock context, it may seem a little more strange.
“Also, there is this vulnerability that I love that comes through. Sometimes, I’ll choose to sing falsetto on a certain line,” and, he says, visualize his heart leaping up to his head and out of his mouth.
“So there are conceptual reasons, and sonic reasons, and I think it sounds beautiful,” he concludes. Listeners tend to be divided. For some, Smith’s singing clinches their affinity for Danielson; others regard it as a deal-breaker.
This distinctive vocalizing aside, the predominant timbres in Danielson are those of instruments better suited to marching bands than rock bands. This is deliberate, too, a direct reflection of Smith’s original impulse to form his group. In the mid-’90s, for his senior thesis at Mason Gross, the arts conservatory of Rutgers University, singer-guitarist Smith roped four of his brothers and sisters (David, Megan, Rachel and Andrew, the youngest of whom was still in elementary school), into playing some of his original compositions.
“For those particular songs, I had pretty clear ideas of what I wanted,” he recalls. He had to, since he was asking them to step outside their areas of limited expertise. “They had never really played anything except John Philip Sousa, or whatever you play in marching band,” he explains. “But we were all embracing the fact that our skill level was pretty low, and that something else, beyond that, would be coming through. Certainly, the songs were still rooted in more experimental ideas about songwriting, much more Velvet Underground or whatever else I was inspired by at the time.”
These recordings would eventually become A Prayer For Every Hour, credited simply to Danielson, and the first of several albums for the Christian rock label Tooth & Nail. By 1995, with the addition of Smith’s best friend, Chris Palladino, the re-christened Danielson Famile was a full-on enterprise. Their live shows attracted attention not only for their sheer can-do spirit, but also for the costumes: The band dressed in white, vintage nurse uniforms, adorned with a three-chambered heart to reinforce their messages of good news and love.
Smith’s modus operandi with subsequent Danielson undertakings, even before they ramped up to their 1997 sophomore set, Tell Another Joke At The Ol’ Choppin’ Block, was more elastic. “From the beginning, I’ve always tried to find the balance between making the things I was hearing in my head happen while at the same time not being too much of a control freak,” he says. By his own admission, what his untrained cohorts come up with frequently outshines his original ideas.
Anal retentive or no, Smith puts tremendous thought into the inner workings of the Danielson machine, right down to the myriad names under which it traffics. “When we put out Tell Another Joke, the Famile was what was happening: We were all together, and we had these uniforms, and we were performing that particular way,” he recalls. “But the following albums were the two by Tri-Danielson [Alpha, 1998, and Omega, 1999], which was about the idea of splitting Danielson into these three different concepts. It was, again, conceptual, based on people around me, and trying to make sense of the art-making process, while still giving honor to the folks involved.”
The next record, Fetch The Compass Kids (2001), saw the Famile name revived, before Smith undertook his more or less first solo venture, Brother Is To Son, credited simply to Br. Danielson.
Ships, attributed once more to just Danielson, brings everything full circle. It represents the culmination of eleven years of music-making for Smith; he wrote and produced the album, and no fewer than 34 of his relatives (including spouses and children) and friends, such as Sufjan Stevens and members of Deerhoof, performed and contributed to its completion.
“I see Ships as wrapping up this study of working things out, the art-making process, through records,” he says. “The combination of me, writing as this single entity, and then taking these songs, these very scaled-down structures and melodies, and presenting them to my family and friends. With Ships, I really wanted to try and take the study all the way.”
In addition to the album, three 7-inch singles of non-LP tracks are being released, on a trio of different labels. And the credits on Ships run longer than those for most Hollywood movies. “It has definitely been a mammoth project,” he says.