By Lindsay Zoladz | 22 February 2011
It is perhaps the understatement of the century to say that New Jersey gets a bad rap, and though it’s particularly apparent right now, this has been true long before Snooki took the literary world by storm. Even more respectable artists who hail from the Garden State seem prone to perpetuating the old “cultural landfill and actual, literal, steaming landfill” mythology. Born and raised in Gloucester County, New Jersey, I’ve always found a perverse delight in telling people that I grew up one town over from the place about which Patti Smith wrote “Piss Factory.”
So, I’m very pleased that longtime New Jersey resident Daniel Smith decided to make the new Danielson record, The Best of Gloucester County, an overt celebration of his much maligned state. Full of lush, pastoral arrangements and lyrics about looking back, the record is evocative of his experience growing up in and later returning to Clarksboro, his hometown in rural South Jersey. I called up Smith to talk about his writing process, his favorite vegetables, and that universal, adult experience of realizing that your hometown doesn’t suck as much as you thought when you were sixteen.
Lindsay Zoladz (CMG): I want to say first of all that I’m so excited about this album because I’m a Gloucester County native myself.
Daniel Smith (DS): Oh, wow! So you know that I made all this up and that it’s not as close to as exciting as I’m making it look.
CMG: Yes, exactly. What made you decide to namedrop Gloucester County in the album title?
DS: Well, I think that for me it was a number of things. This is the first Danielson record that we’re putting out on our own label, Sounds Familyre, and it just felt like we were bringing it all back home—in terms of making the record in our own studio, mixing it here, and then releasing it on our own label.
It got me looking around and thinking about this area. Growing up, I couldn’t stand it. I swore I’d never come back. And yet, after touring and traveling in different areas, coming back here now, I feel like I have different eyesight. The frustration I had was that it seemed like a cultural vacuum, especially growing up. And it still kind of is, but now if we want culture, we make something. So that part of me is satisfied now. I think probably that feeds my art-making as well, the lack of cultural distractions. But the thing that I was getting excited about was just looking around and trying to recognize the things that I maybe missed growing up when I was so obsessed with what it wasn’t. So the album title and the artwork all celebrate an area that I couldn’t celebrate when I was younger.
CMG: Having spent the first 18 years of my life in the area, I can relate. “Cultural vacuum,” as you said, is a pretty apt term. But when I go back now, I think I appreciate it more too. Especially taking it out of the context of the Philly art scene or the New York art scene, there are things in and of themselves that are distinct about South Jersey.
DS: Yeah. I never really wanted to live in New York City, although I love it. I never wanted to live there because there really are cool things happening all the time and I think I would be so distracted. I kind of need open space and green trees, just to have a sane mind. And also with that comes a place where I can feel inspired and want to write songs and record and make things, which is what I’m always trying to find more and more time to do.
CMG: How important is a sense of place to your writing process? Are you ever able to write on the road?
DS: I’m never able to write on the road. And even when I’m home, I also have to cancel all my plans. Although I also get inspired by taking drives, and I did that a lot with this new record. I would take drives further south beyond Gloucester County, and that’s what inspired the album art with these big kind of sprinklers that look like creatures that line the fields as you drive down Route 77. All that open space does inspire me. I wasn’t necessarily writing about it in the individual songs but in terms of the album and the collection and the artwork for sure.
CMG: What’s been your experience with the local music community in South Jersey?
DS: That’s a bit of what I was having fun with by calling this record Best of Gloucester County, which as you know is a local contest, where every year there’s the Best of Gloucester County Chinese Food or the Best of Gloucester County Hair Salon or whatever. And I was having fun with that because nobody around here even knows who Danielson is. [Laughs] So that was kind of just a fun starting point of, “Well, I’ll just award myself this prize.”
But in terms of a connection with the local music scene, I really don’t have any connection with it. I’m sure there are other bands around here. But as you know, the culture around here tends to be mostly cover bands and bar bands. And that’s fine, but that’s not what we’re doing at all. I don’t know too many others. I have more of a connection with the Philadelphia music scene. And in terms of our studio, any bands we have here tend to be from all around the country or from Europe and as far away as you can imagine.
CMG: In the past decade or so, everyone has been talking about the effect that the Internet has had on music and how easy it is to disseminate music to a community unbound by geographical limitations. But I still think there’s something cool about localism, and I think a lot of the charms of localism get lost in digital culture._
DS: Yeah, for sure. And probably a lot of the localism that’s represented on the album is kind of a romanticized version of the area. Because in the past, I’ve met people on tour and they’ve been like, “Clarksboro must be so cool!” [Laughs] And it’s just funny to me because it’s just a small town like anywhere else. That’s what I was having fun with and hoping that people apply it to their own situation, which is that you have to make your situation into something. Growing up I just thought it was so uncool to be from South Jersey and wished so much I was in New York or Philly or something. But then you’re pretending to be somebody you’re not.
CMG: When did you first come back to the area?
DS: I lived in Chicago for a little while, and then I went to Rutgers for college so I lived in New Brunswick, and that’s North Jersey culture. I remember later towards the end of college coming back down on the weekends and that was the first experience I had, driving around here, looking and seeing the nature for the first time. It’s beautiful around here, I just didn’t know it until I was away stuck in New Brunswick for years.
CMG: I’m sure you will agree that South Jersey and North Jersey culture are so different.
DS: Oh yeah.
CMG: People who don’t know the state think I’m crazy when I say that, because it seems like such a small state, but it’s a very real divide. And I’m sure we also both agree that South Jersey is much better.
DS: Oh, absolutely!
CMG: Do you always feel like you have to defend New Jersey?
DS: Oh yeah. I just did an interview where someone was asking about Jersey Shore and if I’m upset about the bad reputation that Jersey has now because of that show, and I was just laughing because New Jersey always had a bad reputation. The show is just the newest excuse.
CMG: You mentioned before the idea of romanticizing the place you come from. Is the album kind of a response to that?
DS: Yeah, I’m sure it is. There is a sense of pride in where you come from. I think I’ve always kind of had that in my identity, so this is kind of just putting it down on paper, applying it to a release. And exploring those personal connection points, and maybe having fun or romanticizing it. But also hoping that it’s way beyond just talking about this area, but also where people come from in general. Hometowns, and really those kinds of identity issues where we’re kind of ashamed of it when you’re younger and then you get to the point when you learn how to embrace it.
CMG: The album opens with this image of you “looking at the Book of Daniel” and looking back at your clippings. And then there’s the song “Grow Up,” which seems like you’re channeling the voice of that teenager who just wants to get out of the area. Why all the looking back?
DS: I think that came out of just this lag of five years between the last record. I liked that pathetic image of somebody who just can’t seem to move forward and is just stuck in some highlight of the past…afraid to move forward. And then really just taking that on and saying, “That’s it, I’m going to go for it.” “Grow Up” of course is this idea of moving forward, from whatever place one was already—from being self-obsessed to starting to think about others.
CMG: Well, I guess the big question is: What were you doing for those five years?
DS: Living life! Trying to build up the label that we have been working on for years, working on recordings and production stuff, building a studio. We bought a house, had children, and then the next thing you know it’s four years later, and I think, “Wow, I really miss writing and recording and singing.” I’m always collecting ideas and bits and pieces of music and words, but it really took a kind of “clear the calendar and schedule some songwriting time,” otherwise there’s never time for it. Whereas years ago when life was simpler, I was writing in the evenings. Nothing else to do.
Now, I really enjoy this focused time of writing because it’s got to be very efficient. It doesn’t give me much time to over-think things and to get really insecure about things. And I think that’s the best. I wouldn’t have chosen that, but now doing that and kind of deciding to embrace the time restraints, I’m really pleased with what comes out of that.
CMG: Why is this the first record you decided to release on Sounds Familyre?
DS: Well, I think it just felt like it was time. We had a wonderful experience with Secretly Canadian, they’re great folks and a great label, but I think it came down to…we’re putting out records from friends of ours, and we really try to build a label and community, and things like that—and yet I wasn’t putting records out. It always felt strange. It just felt like this time it was time to put all our chips into the vision, so to speak.
CMG: Who’s in the core band right now?
DS: On drums is a local drummer, Patrick Burkery. He’s been playing around the Philly area for years. Joshua Stamper is on bass. Evan Mazunik plays piano and organ. Andy Wilson plays electric guitar. My sisters, Megan and Rachel, and my wife Elin sing on it, and my daughters Eden and Lily sing a little bit here and there. Sufjan Stevens played banjo. He was visiting us and he was gracious enough to knock out all the banjo parts in a day. And Jens Lekman has a cameo on “Lil Norge,” which is the song that Elin and I wrote. Elin’s from Norway and we had this idea of a duet between a Swedish boy and a Norwegian girl. It’s an idea we’d worked on for a while and we asked Jens about it, and that worked out so he sang on that. Emil Nikolaisen from Serena-Maneesh, Chris Cohen, Glen Galaxy, and Mark Shippy all played electric guitar.
CMG: Quite the supergroup.
DS: They all kind of came together. And there’s the core band that everybody plays on all the songs, but then there were these little features here and there, and the songs just dictated those decisions.
CMG: Who’s going on tour?
DS: It’ll be a six-piece band: drums, bass, keys, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, background vocals. It’ll be the core band that plays on the record.
CMG: And the family?
DS: My sisters and my wife are all kind of switching. Different sections of the tour will be a different female singer. Because everybody has kids, so we’re just trying to figure that out now. Each night will either be Rachel, Megan, or Elin.
CMG: Will your kids be performing at any of the shows?
DS: No, no. When they’re old enough to decide whether or not they want to do that, then maybe.
CMG: Do they have their own costumes already?
DS: They don’t have the new ones, actually. When they were babies they all had the nurse’s uniform.
CMG: They’ll earn their stripes later.
DS: Yeah, I don’t want to force that on them.
CMG: So, what kind of costumes can we expect on the tour?
DS: It’s going to be the blue uniform. That’s set, that’s here to stay. As time goes on, I’m hoping to keep adding patches and various imagery from the record art to the actual uniforms, so it’ll be evolving.
CMG: In closing, I have to ask you what your favorite piece of New Jersey produce is.
DS: Ah, I would have to say white corn.
CMG: That’s my favorite too!
DS: Yeah, it’s gotta be the sweet corn. Actually, it’s a tie between the sweet corn and the asparagus.