Singer, songwriter, and recording artist
Dan Zanes was born in Exeter, New Hampshire, in 1961, and spent time being a kid, first, in Texas and then in Fredericton, New Brunswick, where he can still remember enjoying ice hockey and Gordon Lightfoot.
He picked up the guitar when he was eight and began taking Leadbelly records out of the public library as soon as he was old enough to get a library card. "But it was not until one night in junior high school while babysitting at a house that had some old Chuck Berry records that he fell in love with rock and roll". He was soon in a rock and roll band, and later won a scholarship to Phillips Academy, in Andover, Massachusetts.
In 1981, Dan went off to Oberlin College in Ohio, where his number one goal was to start a really cool band. In the breakfast line on the very first day at Oberlin, he met Tom Lloyd. Zanes and Lloyd took their breakfast back to the dorm and right then and there started a band and soon left school and headed to Boston ("It was between Boston and Austin," according to Zanes), where they became known as The Del Fuegos. The Del Fuegos played in lofts, bars, small art galleries, clubs, barns, college dining halls, fraternity houses, gymnasiums, auditoriums, and, finally, big theaters.
Rolling Stone named The Del Fuegos "Best New Band" in 1984. Once, Bruce Springsteen jumped on stage to play "Hang on Sloopy" with them. As a Del Fuego, Zanes made several records-The Longest Day (1984), Boston, Mass (1985), Stand Up (1987), Smoking in the Fields (1989)-and had a hit single, Don't Run Wild. In 1987, Zanes married Paula Greif, the director of the video for The Del Fuegos song, "I Still Want You."
In 1991, after The Del Fuegos had broken up, Zanes and his wife moved to Cornwallville, N.Y. in the Catskills. There, Zanes grew chard, chopped firewood, and listened to a lot of gospel groups from the forties and fifties, and learned how to record music on his own and made a solo album called Cool Down Time.
When he and his wife, Paula, had a baby, they all moved back to New York City. Dan subsequently began playing music with a bunch of fathers that he had run into on West Village playgrounds while they were all playing with and/or standing around and watching their kids. The fathers playing music together eventually became The Wonderland String Band, which played at parks and parties and on a tape of songs that Zanes started to record at home.
The tape was a hit locally-i.e. on the playgrounds where he and his daughter played-and Zanes realized that he liked making music that families could enjoy together, as opposed to music that is just for kids or just for adults. So, he began making a full-fledged homemade CD, enlisting the help of some people he'd met when he was a Del Fuego - Sheryl Crow, Suzanne Vega, and Simon Kirke, the drummer for Bad Company, for instance.
The Dan Zanes story had a lot to do with a rock and roller who started a label for family music, brought funny guests into the mix, sold a lot of records, and toured the country with his spirited and soulful band. Now the story has evolved as the music has evolved. In the process of digging up old songs for the family music CDs (while writing many new ones it should be said) Dan has rediscovered the traditional music that was so inspirational to him when he was growing up. It's being turned on its head and brought into the new century as he and his musical comrades take the songs from the past and sing and dance them into the musical future as a shared experience for people of all ages.
Dan and I met for an early morning coffee recently -- great way to start the day! Dan is as interesting to listen to as he is to look at. His perspective and his energy are innovative, fresh and I am left wondering what new thing Dan Zanes will do next.
DR: Tell me about your work or your life...
Well it's all rolled up into one package. It's been one continuous interest for as long as I can remember. I guess that's my way of saying "I'm kind of a one trick pony". I like the consistency of it all.
From as early as I can remember, what I loved was music that I could listen to that sounded like somebody playing in a room. At that time it was Leadbelly or Pete Seeger, Woodie Guthrie. When I was a teenager I listened to Doo Wop music and fifties Rock 'n' Roll, but it all sounded like the same thing to me. I never really saw the difference between Woodie Guthrie's music and the Penguins or the Moonglows or anything like that. It all seemed super organic and I could always picture it happening in my house. And I always wanted to be making it myself and that's what I have always done.
I played Rock 'n' Roll for awhile and what happened in Rock 'n' Roll -- that was during my 20's which was also the 80's - but what happened was,
I was in a band. It was very communal in the beginning and as we got more success, we became very separated from our audience and even from each other so, the spirit of it all evaporated over time. So the big lesson to learn was that:
You can still be making music and the soul of it all can really leave if you are not careful.
You have to attend to it. It is a very special thing and it's not to be taken for granted. And, that's what I thought - as long as it's music and I'm making it, it's gonna be cool and that really wasn't the case.
It was a really big lesson to learn.
Right before my daughter was born I went to a Bluegrass festival in West Virginia and I saw the biggest stars in the Bluegrass world playing on this big stage. It was out in the woods. They would get off the stage and they would say "Hello" to every last person that wanted to meet them. So even though there was a bit of a hierarchy, there was still this communal feeling amongst the musicians and the fans. And then the fans all went off and made their own music by their trailers and their RV's and their tents. It was paradise! And I just thought "I am never ever going back to that; that world where the stars are on the stage and then the "little people" are in the audience and there's this wall between them...I just saw that there was another possibility. It was a real eye opener. So that's what I have been trying to do ever since.
I didn't know any parents and I didn't know anything about Family Dance music. I hadn't put that part of it together. Then my daughter was born and I just assumed that there would be the updated version of what I grew up with - that it would be hand-made and that it would be rooted in tradition, sounding like it was recorded in a house...and I went into the store and it all seemed to be tied in with a TV show or a movie - super corporate. And that is not to say that's bad, but it was just not what I wanted.
Dan Zanes and Friends: Family DanceWhat is family dance? Hello lovers of trains, guitars, ferris wheels, thrift shops, fiddle tunes, rhyming songs, days at the beach, human beatboxers, animal sounds, drum sounds, drum sets, sing-alongs, ackee, and everything else that might go into a rollicking dance party.
All around the kitchen cock-a-doodle-doodle-do. It's a crazy sound that echoes through the neighborhood as we waltz across a dusty parlor floor, walk the dog through the bedroom, do the bump out in the yard, the swim up on the stoop, and the mashed potato out in the autumn leaves. It's a throw down at the hoe down. We're insisting on some twisting. There's a sidewalk jamboree, walk and wobble your knees. Skip, flip, slip and slide, reach and wave the clouds goodbye.
We dance because it's a chance. A chance to be a tiptoeing wombat, a howling thunderstorm, a link in the chain, a splinter of winter sunlight, a swooping airplane, or a laughing palm tree, and we can do it together. Anywhere, anyhow. there's a dance party whenever we say so. Well, how about now?
Click here to learn more and buy Family Dance...
I think it's important to avoid any of the judgment about it for me because underneath all of that there are real people doing their best to make what they consider to be good music. I really respect that. But it wasn't the sound that I heard in my head that I wanted for my own house. I wanted something that we could listen to together and...
Early parenthood is such a special time... Your brain is rattled from lack of sleep and you are really open to all kinds of experiences...
When we were bringing Anna home from the hospital my thought was "What's the first record I want to play for her?" I was really focused on "What's the first song she's gonna hear?" And now if we were gonna do it all again, which we're not, my thought would be "What's the first song I'm gonna sing to her?" So even though I was a musician I hadn't come to that place where I would make my own music around the house - even as a musician I was thinking of turning it over to someone else! And now my goal ever since then has been to try and, usually by attraction rather than promotion, is to encourage people to make their own music around their own house. My records and concerts and everything I do is just a stepping stone for people to do their own thing. It's so easy and it's so much fun and it brings people together in a way that TV and computers don't do. Theater will do it and there are so many other creative pursuits that will bring people together but this is the one that I know. Music is the one that I have always been connected to.
DR: Well you said that you always wanted to be a musician and that music was always the thing that you wanted to pursue. What is it like to have always wanted to do something and then be doing that? I would imagine that there were things that threatened to get in the way and take you off track...
DZ: I was blessed with no other skills... I didn't have any thing else that I could really do and I have always been so naïve and believed that whatever I did would work out. I've just always thought that way and that's always been the case.
But there have been times in the past when it has worked out and I have managed to ruin it through my own willful behavior. But that's, I think, part of the learning that I had to do when I was in the Rock 'n' Roll band.
And, I never was able to get the technical side of music making to any real victory. That's come later for me but fortunately Punk Rock came around and it just felt as though anybody could do it - kind of "do-it-yourself". So that was really it for me. The door was wide open.
DR: What would you say is the biggest source of inspiration for you?
DZ: That's a good question. That's a good question.
I think being around young people has been really inspiring. I think for the last several years, any kind of amateur music making has really been, for me, the biggest...Whether it's here in the school community at Saint Ann's or in my travels.
I went to Mexico and heard good music there...Any music that's being integrated into its community that is being made for the sake of music...It sounds kind of vague...
For about four years when Anna was born I was obsessed with Jamaican music. What I loved was the idea that people would record a forty five and then play it. It could be played at a dance that night or that week and that if people at the dance didn't like it, the song would never get press and never get distributed. It felt so democratic. It was always the people's choice and it was totally integrated into the communities. So that's what interests me.
When we travel now, we always ask the presenters if there are any groups of young people in the community that are playing horns or doing any thing interesting, that we could bring to be a part of the show with us, for a song.
I think the best thing I've heard recently -
In Seattle there's a Marimba band. It was nine kids and a woman who ran the ensemble and they joined us for a couple. They had home-made Marimbas and they just, they completely rocked. I always think that if I don't cry when I hear something, that it's not at that top level and I could not stop weeping. It was so, so moving.
That was inspiring because it was people doing it purely for the love. No one is out trying to get a record deal or anything like that. It's all for the love of music. And you can also see what it did for the way these kids felt about themselves. They all carried themselves in such a confident way. That was a one woman vision and she brought all these kids along.
That's another thing that inspires me -
what one person or a group of people, motivated people, can do within any community - musically or in any way.
It's just, for me, I know it to be true. But when I see it, then it really hits me in a deep way. That's what inspires me and it translates into the music in some way.
DR: What do you think inspires other people about you?
DZ: I don't really know. I think it might be the idea that what we are doing is a loose collection of people that come together in a somewhat informal way and that it sounds as though...I mean I think we really try and make it sound like people in a room playing together and I think that is sort of what it is. I think it sounds like we are having fun. I think at the shows its pretty clear to people that we are having fun. I think that's what it is! It's just an element of fun and everybody's in it together. I think.
DR: Would you change anything about your life right now if you could?
DZ: Um yeah. I would have already learned how to speak Spanish. It's the only thing I would change. Everything else is a dream come true but I do, I need to learn how to speak Spanish.
DR: In order for you to look back one day at the end of it all and feel like you have no regrets, what is one thing that would have need to happen?
DZ: It is a somewhat nebulous thing but I think that the biggest dream for me really is the sense that I was able to inspire people to play their own music. I mean that is the biggest goal; the biggest thing in my mind and that's impossible to gage.
I get a lot of emails from people saying that they started playing an instrument or they picked an instrument up after leaving it in the closet for twenty years. I get glimpses into what can happen. I think that's the big goal. I mean I think we probably, most of us in the parenting realm, feel that any opportunity to do good in the world that we take it or see it when it comes and grab onto it. I know I was so unbelievably self-centered when I was a childless pop singer...
DR: (laughing) "A childless pop singer" sounds like the title of a song...
DZ: (laughs) ...and so now I have the opportunity to do it again...I think it's incredible to have the opportunity to make music in a public way and do it differently. I am grateful everyday. It's so much more rewarding this way.
DR: What would you say to somebody who never really pursued, for whatever reason, their dream. Maybe they gave up on it and they regret that they did that. What would you say to someone who has given up and is not O.K. with that?
DZ: Well there is only one thing to say really, which is
"What are you waiting for?"
But I think it's also just good to remember that everything is little teeny steps. It's like my learning to speak Spanish. Sometimes I get so frightened by the prospect of the work that goes into it but its just one little step at a time and then there you are.
Dan Zanes and Friends: Rocket Ship Beach"Through his own sunny-spirited, well-crafted songs and traditional tunes, Zanes' 'handmade' acoustic singalongs come with a dance party vibe and a Woody Guthrie simplicity that make everyone welcome, young and old."
- L.A. Times
Click here to learn more about Dan Zanes music...
I am so glad that when I started doing this that I had no idea of the work that would be involved. I just thought "How hard could it be? I'll start a record company and make records." And it's been a lot more than what I bargained for so it's sort of good to be naïve. Maybe that's what I would recommend -
holding onto any that you can and just jump in.
DR: Yeah. Not knowing; forgetting that there are rules.
DZ: The doing. Just get in there and do it. Easy for me to say...
DR: Do you have a secret passion, Dan?
DZ: No. I think that they are all pretty much right out on the table. I don't, but...
hanging out in Mexico - that's my dream....
I have only been there once but I connected to it in some way that I can't even understand and I barely understood what I was happening when I was there. It is so mind boggling to me that there is this incredible web of cultures just to the south of us and it is so rich. Now it is so much a part of American culture which is so exciting. I am dying to know more about every aspect about it. I don't even know what it is that I am thinking about or talking about but in the back of my mind it is always there.
DR: So Spanish will come in handy.
DZ: I think that would be a really good start.
DR: So tell me Dan, a hundred years from now, what do you want to be remembered for?
DZ: I think that it would be nice to be remembered for some good music.
And, I don't like to say it too much but, it would also be nice to be caught up with someone that would help me to figure out how to do some good things along the way in these nutty times that we live in. There are a number of people that have always managed to do that.
I would like to be amongst that crowd.
Catch That Train
Dan Zanes doesn't make children's music, he's a purveyor of what he refers to as "all-ages albums." The distinction is essential to understanding the multiple Parents Choice AwardTM-winning artist.
Zanes, the former leader singer for the Del Fuegos, strives to write and record songs that appeal to folks big and small. Here he enlists a captivating assortment of friends, including Natalie Merchant, the Kronos Quartet and the Blind Boys of Alabama.
[»] Visit Starbuck's Hear Music to listen and buy Catch That Train.