By: Thomas D. Mooney
With “The Orientalist,” Daniel Hart has created a chamber-pop gem. Hart has been able to fuse his love for 19th century art–paintings in particular, ex-girlfriends, his travels to China and India while also staying within the realms of what his fans are familiar with. As he puts it, he set out to make “a musical diary of some kind.”
The former The Physics of Meaning frontman (as well as violinist for The Polyphonic Spree, St. Vincent, The Rosebuds, and John Vanderslice) recently decided to release music under his own name. But, that’s not to say Hart’s music and show energy will be much different from his Physics of Meaning days.
The Dallas-based Hart is kicking off a new tour in support of “The Orientalist,” with the second date being here in Lubbock at The Prairie Fire Theater this Sunday.
New Slang: This will be the first time seeing you play and I’ve got to say, I’m pretty excited. You’ve played in Lubbock numerous times before though. How have your past Lubbock experiences been?
Daniel Hart: I think we’ve played there five times now the past few years. The first time we played there, I wasn’t expecting much. You know, we had never really been there before. I didn’t know what kind of music scene was there. It was really surprising how the people were and just how fun it was to play. People were really excited about the music, even though they had never heard it before. So, that was a lot of fun.
NS: How did you first get into music as far as playing and wanting to become a musician?
DH: I got into music at a real early age. Both my parents are both musicians and they started me on the violin when I was three-years-old. And I’ve been playing the violin ever since. [I] Started playing the guitar while in high school. When I got to college, I didn’t want to study music. I had studied classical music the whole time I was growing up, so when I got to college, I stopped playing music for six months or so. But then, I started playing in bands and have been playing in them ever since.
NS: You’re a huge fan of art and have expressed how art has been something that has influenced your music. Why do you think that is?
DH: Yeah, I’m not sure why that is. I just love looking at paintings. Especially from painting from the late 1800s, the Impressionists and then the Post-Impressionists era. The newer things, have to do with trips I’ve taken to China and the East the past few years. One of the trips specifically to India, I discovered this painter. She was a contemporary of Van Gogh, and she had studied in Paris during the same time he was there. Her paintings have a similar feel as artists from that era and they really moved me. But, she wasn’t painting landscapes–or cityscapes–of Europe, she was painting rural depictions of India. I thought that was really exciting. And one of the songs on “The Orientalist” is specifically about her.
NS: How did the East grab you and make you so interested in it? What was that initial interest?
DH: I think it’s been a couple of things. One of them is this Orientalism, which was more prevalent in the 1800s and early 1900s–but I think still exists today–is the way people in the West “exodify” things in the East. So I thought of these places as mysterious and magical. In media and in social situations, they’re still depicted that way…as something unknown and mysterious. And also, I think it’s just the idea of going somewhere that is completely unfamiliar. It’s taking a step out of your norms and yourself and looking at things from a completely different perspective. And it’s regardless if they are exotic or not. They’re still foreign to me. It’s really made me realize that anywhere and everywhere can be exotic and magical.
NS: I just have to say, while I was reading this about you, I thought it was very George Harrison of you. Which, I’m not sure if you know, but today ten years ago, Harrison passed away.
DH: [Laughs]. You know, I have very few celebrity lookalikes, but I’ve been told George Harrison is one [laughs]. So I’m definitely aware of the comparisons.
NS: How long did it take to make “The Orientalist?”
DH: Most of the songs were written while I was on tour with other bands in 2007-2009. We started recording in December of 2009 and finished in September of last year. So it took almost a year to record it. We did some stuff in studios in different cities, just depending on which musicians I was working at and where they were…I was living in Los Angeles at the time, so a lot of the vocals were done out there. Then we finished up in Austin.
NS: Even though you said the songs were written over the course of three years, they’re really connected. That’s kind of surprising to me that they’re so spread out over time, yet they sound so well together. Looking back, were you ever worried that they wouldn’t sound well together?
DH: Yeah, I started writing the songs–a song really–but after two great songs, I realized I had a theme going, so I tried to stay in that theme with the songs I was writing after that. It was all written about these trips to China and India and about past girlfriends, so I just decided to write about those subjects some more.
NS: You’ve played in a lot of great bands. How has playing with these great music minds influenced you as a musician as far as your solo career is concerned, but also, what have you learned just in general?
DH: I learned so much from the bands that I toured with. I think when I started playing with The Polyphonic Spree in 2002, that was the first time I had been in a band where the frontman was also a real showman…jumping up and down, running across the stage, just having so much fun. I thought at the time, I’d like to really do that too. And then when I started touring with John Vanderslice, I was already a huge fan of his, so it was a real honor for me to tour with him. I considered him a big influence on my songwriting already. So I think it just made him even more of an influence. And also seeing how committed he is to his audience. The big thing that we did on those tours with John Vanderslice was that each show ended with playing a few songs in the audience. We’d come down from the stage and play three or four songs in the crowd acoustically…so I decided that I wanted to incorporate that. And then playing with St. Vincent, I learned so much from the technical aspects of performing. I got into different pedals and learned a lot about how to take care of gear out on the road and myself. And then how to explore different sounds that I never thought to explore because Annie from St. Vincent was such a “pedal-head [laughs].”
NS: Most musicians will agree that there is a difference in the studio version and live version(s) of their songs. What are some of the differences you see? Do you think those changes are just part of the natural progression of a song(s) or are you always striving to sound exactly like the studio version?
DH: I don’t try to recreate studio versions when I’m playing live because that’s very difficult. But, I do try to capture the essence of what I was going for in the studio recording when I play live. The core of the arrangement stays the same, for the most part. but especially with vocals. I think over time that my style and inflection, pronunciation and even spacing change as I get to know the song better and as I become more comfortable with the words I’m singing. and I don’t try to fight that. I like how it changes. That is one reason I try to do songs live as much as possible before recording them. In fact, [I do that] to work out the kinks and find the things that need to be changed to make the arrangements the best they can be.
NS: You mentioned your parents were/are musicians and you started playing violin at age three. How important do you think it is for children to be exposed to music and learning an instrument?
DH: The fact that I started the violin when i was three-years-old has shaped my identity more than anything else in my life. But my brother also started violin when he was three and he doesn’t play music much anymore. He does however, have a large appreciation for music. More than most people I know. But, I know amazing musicians who didn’t start until much later in life. If it were my kid, I’d try to expose them to music as much as possible as soon as possible, because I think the magic in music makes life worth living.