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Interview: Danielle Durack

19 February 2024

Following her critically acclaimed breakup album in 2021, No Place, Danielle Durack’s fourth release, Escape Artist, serves as a reflection on the artist’s personal journey of escaping from reality to navigate through what she describes as “a very turbulent time in my life.” The album encapsulates themes of loss, love, and the transition from the familiar comforts of home to a new life across the country, exploring the myriad of emotions accompanying each phase.

Durack’s earlier albums exuded a sense of hopefulness, yet Escape Artist delves into fresh sonic and thematic territories. It offers Durack a platform to address trauma while finding solace amidst life’s tumultuous challenges. This sets the stage for the recent conversation, which at times delved into weighty subjects, with Durack.

Your earlier releases are a bit more sunny, optimistic. The last two have a different tone. Is that reflective of where you are in your life and your songwriting? Is it reflective of the people you’re playing with? Is it reflective in how and where you’re recording?

DANIELLE: I think it’s a little bit of all of what you mentioned. The first two records were written when I was in college and then No Place, the third record, was written after a breakup so the content was just darker. The newest one, Escape Artist, was mostly written during lockdown so the mood definitely got a little darker as a result.

You are in Nashville now but you grew up and lived in Arizona. When did you make that move?

DANIELLE: Probably seven, eight months ago. So I’m really new here.

Did you move to Nashville for the music or was there another reason?

DANIELLE: Phoenix has an amazing scene and there’s lots of really talented people out there, but it’s a very small scene and it’s very gig-work oriented. There’s a bit of a ceiling as far as the industry goes, you’re not going to be running into anybody in the business side of music in Phoenix. You’re playing a lot of bars and not necessarily as the headliner, but more like the entertainment for the people that are there for that kind of thing.

How has Nashville been so far? Do you find it accommodating and welcoming? Can you go play shows in front of people who are there to hear music and not background noise?

DANIELLE: Definitely. There’s more opportunities here. There’s more everything. There’s more good, there’s more bad.

The only time I’ve ever been to Nashville, I walked down Broadway where it’s venue after venue after venue but it does seem a bit more like the gig-work you were describing. It feels like the musicians that play on Broadway clock in for shifts.

DANIELLE: I’ve never played there but I could get gigs like that in Phoenix. I’ve played a good handful of shows in Nashville where people are really listening and it’s a different kind of draw out here. It’s been really wonderful.

Did you move to Nashville because you knew people in the community or did you just decide you wanted a fresh start and Nashville would be as good a place as any?

DANIELLE: I worked at a pizzeria back in Phoenix and I had been planning on making some sort of life shift. I was mostly planning on LA just because of its proximity to home. I started dating a wonderful guy – we’re still together – and he’s from Nashville. He lived in Phoenix for 10 years. That’s how we met. But, he wanted to move home and I thought that sounded way better than LA. He’s got a whole network of family and friends out here that I’ve been fortunate enough to benefit from. But other than that, I have acquaintances that I knew out here, but no close friends or family. So, I just jumped off the ledge with my guy here.

Have you started building your own little community of friends and musicians?

DANIELLE: I’ve done a little bit. I also work from home. It’s funny, I went from maybe one of the more social jobs in food service to just being alone for eight hours a day. And, with the release of the album, I’m a one-woman show. There’s a lot of dumb admin work that needs to get done so I’m pretty much glued to my computer 24/7. I’ve become quite a homebody since I’ve been here but there are a handful of people who I’ve met who I’ve really clicked with and they’re all musicians. That’s kind of the thing out here. Your barista is a musician. The guy who does your yard work is a musician. The mailman is a musician and he’s the best you’ve ever heard, you know? It’s hard to throw a rock and not hit a musician in Nashville.

Lyrically, Escape Artist is very personal and vulnerable. While it must feel like a bit of a relief to get the thoughts out of your head and into song, it also feels like it might be difficult to perform these songs live given the subject matter.

DANIELLE: I think the first time or two playing through a song can feel a little shaky in that way. For some reason, it doesn’t feel as scary as it should. The music helps me put my thoughts together in a way that I’m not very good at verbally expressing or even writing down. Music is my way of organizing my thoughts. I’ve played the song “Dean” off the new record a couple of times and that one is definitely really tough. My voice shakes and the emotions of that one are pretty strong. There’s enough metaphor in my music to mask things. I’m not calling anybody out, like, “This song is about this person and here’s their address.”

I lost my daughter nearly six years ago suddenly and unexpectedly to a freak medical situation. I don’t have many dreams about my daughter and, when I do, they are all sad dreams. “Dean” is about losing someone close to you and you sing about dreaming about Dean. You sing, “I got to see you smile again,” something I haven’t seen in my dreams about my daughter. I’m wondering if seeing Dean smile in your dreams is satisfying and a positive thing?

DANIELLE: I don’t think losing someone close to you is something you ever fully recover from. You learn how to live with the pain and the pain eventually comes in smaller waves. Dean was my stepdad for the formative years of my life. He moved away when I was 14, after they got a divorce. We stayed in touch and had a great relationship. He was a very troubled guy who struggled with addiction. I believe he was also bipolar so he had a rough deck of cards. As kids, thankfully, we never saw any of the really bad stuff. My mom took the brunt of all of it, for better or worse.

He moved away and we kept in touch and then when I was probably 21, he called and he had told me that he had taken some pills and he was on his way out and he just called to say goodbye. I obviously was not trained for that. I was 21 and had no idea what to do, I was just sobbing. Luckily, at the last minute, he called for help. That happened a couple more times. And then, in 2021, I got a call from a coroner’s office. He had finally done it. I think that as a result of his addiction issues and his mental illness, he had alienated himself a lot from his family, from most of his loved ones. I think I was privileged to have the relationship that I had with him and to see pretty much only the good stuff for most of our relationship. I was very hurt. It felt like most of our family and his family weren’t grieving. It seemed like almost a relief. That sounds cruel and I know that’s not how they felt, but I really took it all on. I was like, “I’m going to carry the grief for everybody because everyone deserves to be missed.”

I was in such a hole for months. I had this dream where I was in a plane with my mom and I was going through this photo album, it was pictures of the four of us, my brother and her and Dean. And I was like, “Where did you get this?” And she said, “Dean gave it to me.” And I was like, “Dean gave it to you?” She’s like, “Yeah, he’s alive.” And suddenly I’m on this beach by this lake house, and I run to the window and I look in and he’s standing there. And I run out of the house and he’s just the brightest, most healthy, happiest version of him that I’ve ever seen. I run up to him and I give him a hug. And I remember it feeling warm in the dream. I don’t remember what exactly he said, but it was something along the lines of, “You don’t have to carry this anymore. I’m okay and I’m happy and I’m so proud of you.” They were just kind words and I had a true feeling of him saying, “I’m better, things are good.”

I really do feel like that dream allowed me to let it go. It didn’t make missing him feel any less painful but it gave me the feeling that I didn’t have to worry about him anymore. It’s like he was saying, “I’m good.”

Are there songs on Escape Artist that you would consider siblings? Songs that are related in some way?

DANIELLE: That’s a good question. Maybe “The Door” and “Jackson” are in the same sonic world, the Americana side of things. They were written in a pretty similar time frame of reflection.

The album is full of stories but it doesn’t sound like it’s sequenced in order from start to finish but, rather, these are short stories that make up your life but not presented chronologically. Was that difficult to tell a non-linear story as you sequenced the album?

DANIELLE: It’s usually pretty easy to decide what songs go where. I feel like for this album, it was a bit harder. Samuel Rosson is the producer and he and I had differing opinions about what song should go first. We settled on “Shirt Song” because, narratively, it felt like the obvious transition from No Place into where we are now but I feel like “Shirt Song” is the sonic anomaly of the record. Nothing else on the album really sounds like it, which is fine, but I think I knew that I wanted “Moon Song” to either be first or last. Once we decided it was going to be last I was like, “I want ‘Dean’ right before it so that we can end on this song.” It goes from dark to knowing things get better.

I imagine that when you start playing these songs live, people will come up to you after your show to talk about “Dean” and tell you their stories of loss.

DANIELLE: I don’t play “Dean” very often. It’s in a weird tuning. That’s my main excuse but, yeah, whenever I play that one, I get people coming up to me to share their stories. In the past, with my breakup record, people were like, “I needed that. I’m going through that exact thing right now.” This is why I do this. It’s the best compliment.

But do you ever feel like you’re putting other people’s weight on your shoulders? I feel like I put my weight on your shoulders by sharing my story.

DANIELLE: I don’t really see it that way. I feel music is one of those things that opens up these things that we don’t talk about on a day-to-day basis and it’s nice to be able to talk about it. I’m sure you don’t get to talk about your daughter very often, the good or the bad, so it’s a nice opportunity to have human interaction with people. And even if it is heavy, it feels good to be able to connect with people on a pretty real level.

As a listener, do you have certain artists you listen to based on the type of mood you want to be in? Like, do you listen to artists that you know will make you feel worse about the situation you’re in but doing so because you need to feel that emotion?

DANIELLE: 100%. When I was going through my breakup, I had two playlists. One was a “putting gas on the fire” playlist and then the other one was a “it’s time to pick yourself up” playlist. I would listen to whatever I was ready for at the moment. Music has always been a place for me to turn. I find it all so therapeutic. Sara Bareilles was probably the first one that inspired me to want to make somebody feel the way about my music the way she makes me feel when I listen to hers. It’s a feeling of “even though I’ve never met this person in my life, I’m not alone in the way that I feel.” We’re all having a human experience here.

Have you ever had a chance to tell an artist what their music means to you?

DANIELLE: I’ve only had that opportunity with a handful of artists and I’m such a weirdo, I just don’t know how to talk like that, even with my friends, the words don’t do it justice. I’ve talked to Rachel Price from Lake Street Dive. I went to a vocal workshop with her and I felt like a teenager. I was like, “I’m such a fan. I feel so inspired when I listen to you.”

You’ve made two videos so far for Escape Artist. I saw a behind-the-scenes photo on Instagram from the “Good Dogs” video and it looks like you shot the entire video using an iPhone.

DANIELLE: The video for “Shirt Song” was filmed on a decent DSLR camera. “Good Dogs,” the hot dog video, was definitely shot on my iPhone.

It’s great that you can make videos that look good without having to spend a ton of money like artists had to do back when MTV was so crucial to an artist’s career.

DANIELLE: I was born in ‘95 so I caught like the tail end of when MTV was just doing music videos in the morning. I definitely spent money on videos in the past. It doesn’t feel like everything in this little career of mine is very expensive. Music videos are less and less of a priority especially with TikTok. It doesn’t seem like there’s a huge demand for long-form videos which is kind of liberating and exciting. I just get to make something fun that I think is cool. It’s a different way for me to express my creativity without having a high pressure feeling like somebody’s got a gun to my head about it.

You’ve got a full band on the record. When you tour, is it a full band or do you wind up playing a lot of solo shows?

DANIELLE: For the West Coast run, I’m taking my band from Phoenix. We’re doing those dates together and then they are also flying out to New York to do the Rockwood Music Hall show.

And is the live band also the band that played on the record?

DANIELLE: The drummer and guitarist, yes. My producer picked the bassist from Seattle, someone that he liked working with.

I noticed that Sean Lane is on the record. He’s played drums with Pedro the Lion and Ann Wilson, among others. I also saw he’s going to be Heart’s touring drummer.

DANIELLE: He didn’t do drums on the record. He did aux percussion. He has this instrument that he made called the Bike. He’s a mad scientist genius. He took the frame of a bike, threaded a violin string through it, and amplified it somehow. He has a full pedal board attached to it so he can play it and make spooky sounds, very ambient and atmospheric, that add texture. He was the drummer on No Place. For Escape Artist, I wanted a drummer that I’m going to play with live, but I still wanted Sean involved because he brings such a cool texture to the table and he’s such a cool guy.

Having had the experience of playing shows as background entertainment at restaurants and bars in Phoenix, how do you approach playing club shows where people are there to actually hear you?

DANIELLE: It’s always a treat to be able to play a room where people are there to hear you. On this coming tour, we’re playing at an artist collective space in San Francisco. Other than that, I think all the shows are at proper venues. That’ll be a first for me. On the East Coast, I’m doing a record store show in Baltimore and then a bar in North Carolina. So, that will be an hour-and-a-half slot where I can play some covers. I get a flat rate and that’s like most of the work I did in Phoenix.

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Upcoming Tour Dates

Feb 19 – International Artist Lounge – Salt Lake City, UT
Feb 23 – Rambling House – Columbus, OH
March 1 – Rockwood Music Hall – New York, NY
March 4 – Wax Atlas Record and Stereo Exchange – Baltimore, MD
March 6 – Bowstring Burgers and Brewyard – Wilmington, NC
March 11 – The Basement – Nashville, TN

 

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