The Austin Chronicle

Danny Schmidt: Slow & Easy & Winning the Race

By William Harries Graham, September 5, 2014, 12:20pm, Earache!

Danny Schmidt remains the kind of beloved folk troubadour that begins a Kickstarter campaign for a new album called Owls, and by the next day he’s halfway to his goal. That’s how much fanatics love this Austinite’s music. He’s also embarking on a new journey, marrying the love of his life in October – local songbird Carrie Elkin. Their For Keeps is out now.

The duo’s disc came out to critical praise in May. Sample it live on Sunday at Strange Brew, 6pm. Schmidt spoke about both and more this week, prefacing the call by emphasizing the latter half of his singer-songwriter designation.

“For me, the focus is on the writing,” he stressed. “That’s the part I enjoy. The ‘singer’ part is the mechanism for how I can share the song I’ve written.”

Austin Chronicle: Tell me about Owls?

Danny Schmidt: It’s a collection of songs with a somewhat mystical bent to them. We put a cool, vibe-y band together and recorded it live for the most part, so it has a really cool organic energy to it.

AC: How did growing up in Austin influence your music?

DS: Growing up in Austin exposed me to a really broad range of music and to really good players in all musical styles. Austin has given me an appreciation for quality. It was lucky to grow up in this musically affluent island in the middle of the ocean of Texas.

I was born and raised in Austin. My dad took a teaching job in the engineering department at UT just before I was born, and my mom was a full time run-around-get-us-where-we-needed-to-go parent.

AC: How were the high school years?

DS: I was a closet guitar player in high school. I was very openly passionate about music, but very quiet about my own playing. Me and my friends went to lots and lots of shows. I was especially into the guitar players: Eric Johnson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Denny Freeman. And I was really into the alt-rock stuff that was coming through Liberty Lunch and Hole in the Wall.

AC: I hear you love football.

DS: I love college football. On Saturdays, I’d be on the sofa ordering pizza and watching the full schedule of games all day if I could. I don’t get to do that very often, but man, there’s nothing better when I can. A beer, my buddies around me, and Texas 49, OU 0 is a perfect day – as well as ones when I’ve created something new in the world, football aside. There’s nothing more gratifying than creating something that’s never existed in the world before.

AC: Do you remember the first song you wrote?

DS: Yep, it was called “Cliff Song.” It was a love letter back to a girl, responding to her letter. I had no idea I could write songs until that one popped out of me.

AC: What’s your biggest musical influence?

DS: I had pretty broad tastes. When you’re young, you churn through different musical styles pretty quickly. I settled on things like Toots & the Maytals when I was happy, and Jane’s Addiction when I was pissed off; Hendrix when I wanted to marry my guitar and Bob Dylan when I wanted to think about the world and try and understand it better. Later, as my tastes evolved, I got more exclusively into the songwriters and the country blues guys.

AC: When did you start music full-time?

DS: I don’t feel like it was ever really a decision I made. It just happened over time. Music, and the business of music, just started taking more and more of my time until it was in conflict with the rest of my life. I would say that music became the unconflicted full-time pursuit of my life in about 2004.

AC: What’s your musical journey been like so far?

DS: In the broadest stroke possible, I’ve followed a very grassroots path: small intimate shows and direct contact with my fans and people who are interested in my music. The whole big money big world is a bit of a lottery ticket. They put their resource intensive machine behind you, and you will either get huge from that process or you won’t have a career at all. I picked a lower ceiling, but a more certain path that would allow me to make a good, solid, middle-class living and write the songs I want to write.

I’m certainly not dogmatic about taking one kind of path over another. I just took the one I was most comfortable with. It’s been a nice, consistent, slow and steady climb, with periodic accelerations in the curve during album release cycles. Signing with Red House Records in 2009 gave me a nice bump and raised people’s awareness about my music some.

AC: What have been your favorite stage moments so far?

DS: Carrie and I got to sing at the Ryman Auditorium with Emmylou Harris last year. That was a big thrill. My first time playing out at Kerrville Folk Festival felt really good, too. That festival has such a long deep history of celebrating songs, so it felt really good to be part of that legacy. I felt the same way, frankly, the first time I was onstage at the Cactus Cafe – that same sense of having a place in a long storied history.

AC: What’s your best advice about music?

DS: Three things, I guess. First, keep the focus on your music. Always be creating something you’re excited about sharing with the world. Second, be patient. The overnight success stories are the anomalies. Usually the process is long and slow and plodding. And third, remember that it’s a business and that you’re a businessman.

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