Jeff Daniels on Songwriting and How Live Streaming Concerts Feels Like Making Films

The acclaimed actor has been writing and releasing songs for decades.

Jeff Daniels is best known as a film, TV, and stage actor with an incredible range, from Dumb And Dumber to The Newsroom to To Kill A Mockingbird to The Comey Rule. But throughout his long acting career, Daniels has also spent time writing songs, and he began quietly releasing music about 20 years ago. His latest full-length is the politically charged Alive And Well Enough, which features a song directly aimed at Donald Trump, as well as a duet with Thornetta Davis about unity, called “I Am America.” With venues across the country dark — including Daniels’ own theater in central Michigan — he has taken to live streaming concerts, including a string of dates coming up very soon.

 —Josh Modell, Executive Editor

I’ve been writing songs since the ‘70s. I’d finish one and put it in the notebook and move on to the next. I had no problem just writing what I thought — here’s a love song, here’s a funny song about going to the Upper Peninsula. It really didn’t matter, because I never intended to play out. So the notebook of songs that I have — many of which are horrible, but you’ve gotta write the bad ones to get to the good one — when it came time to play out back in 2001 or 2002, I had 30 years of songwriting.

It was interesting to go back through the songs for those first gigs and just see if any of them could be played in front of people, or if they were just a musical diary where you’re just gazing into your navel. That’s when I started to write differently, thinking that something might make it into a set list. I have this song notebook of everything I’ve ever written, many of which will never see the light of day. They’re in there, in the order they were written, 400 some songs, which isn’t bad when your day job takes you away so often. People have written far more than that. 

But it changed when I started playing out. I couldn’t get away with something that was personal to me and didn’t relate. That’s what I learned from the theater. When I walk out and sit in a chair with an acoustic guitar, you’ve got to have a connection. The song has got to connect with the audience. So with things like “Grandfather’s Hat” or “How About We Take Our Pants Off And Relax” or “Have a Good Life and Die” — these are things that people can relate to. That’s when I started writing to relate. With Alive and Well Enough, there are songs where I’m not trying as hard to relate. I’m trying to pull them into the song with the quality of the writing and the imagery in a way that creates a connection versus going to them. It’s a strange little dynamic change, but it’s kind of resulted from doing live streams.

Even in the club, sitting in 200-seaters, you’re going out — the show, the song, the performance is going out. I’m coming to you. It’s like being on stage on Broadway. You’re going to those 1400 people sitting in front of To Kill A Mockingbird. You have to go to them. It doesn’t mean you have to go all the way to the balcony, but you still have to make sure it’s going out, where with the live streams, it’s more like film acting. You’re pulling them in. You want to pull them through the lens into your voice, your song, your guitar. It’s the opposite. That’s been fun to explore.

With the live stream, you’re playing to one person sitting on a couch in their living room who’s really interested. That’s your audience. It doesn’t matter how many people are actually watching, you’re playing to those one or two people who are really into it and really want to hear the next song. That allows you to go, “Good, I don’t have to win you over.” I’m not going to be able to tell if I’m winning them over anyway, it’s a live stream! There will be some that click off, and that’s OK. 

But it’s got to hit them different, these live streams. I’ve seen some artists go on the Ryman stage or wherever and they try the light show and the whole thing, and it’s everything except the audience. Instead of trying to give them something that it isn’t, is there something that that doesn’t do? That’s what I’ve tried to figure out with the live stream. It’s like shooting a medium close-up when you’re film acting. And if you’ve got a floating camera like we do — our third camera kind of moves in and out — that’s bringing the audience in. You’re showing them where to focus. It’s like the difference between movies and theater. Theater you sit in the audience and you’ve gotta be the editor. You have to look over there, or cut to him. You’re the one turning your head. In movies, we do that for you. We cut to her, or to the car. We’re doing a little bit of that with the live stream, but nothing too fancy. At the end of the day, either the song holds up or it doesn’t.

I don’t look at comments while I’m playing. My sons do, so I get some kind of gauge as far as how many signed up, how many stayed. Do you have the same number at the end that you had at the beginning? That’s kind of key. And we tend to! With me, nobody really knows what to expect, though I guess they can go on the internet and find enough of me to figure it out. It’s like what theater is. To Kill A Mockingbird, I was in it for a year, and even in the ninth month, these 1400 people paid a lot of money to see you do this thing. You have to make it look like it’s happening for the first time. They shut the doors at the back of the theater, and the people in the room — we’re doing it just for them. It’s just for you. There’s an immediacy to that, an urgency, and electricity, that theater has always had. You can feel it. It’s the same thing with a gig. I try to create the same thing with a live stream. You try to make each one unique enough that it’s like the theater, where it feels like we’re just doing it for you tonight, nobody else.

It’s never been about curtain calls for me. I’ve always found those a disconnect. Maybe since I’ve done so many movies and TV work, in front of the camera. Even Dumb And Dumber, we don’t find out if they laughed until nine months from now. We crack a joke and then we wait nine months. It’s the same thing with the live stream. And I like it. I hope it lasts. And God knows you can’t beat the lack of travel. Who knows what live venues will be when we come out of this horrid time in our country? I’d like to see venues who have live music also have a couple of live stream artists, for however much money. The venue gets a piece of it, the artist gets a piece of it, and it doesn’t take away from whoever’s playing live that night. I think that could complement it. We’ll see if it sticks after this is over. We’re binging Netflix! We’re real comfortable sitting on a couch with a remote!

I stopped reading reviews as an actor easily 20 years ago. It took about 10 years or so to stop, but once I did I never went back. To go into your Twitter feed or whatever — I just don’t do it. I have no interest. I don’t need it. I get why as an actor you don’t say things because you might lose half your audience. “He’s just a lefty Hollywood liberal, so I’m never going to his movies again.” At this point I’m 65, so I’m just, “Okay. See ya!” It’s too important what’s been going on, certainly with Trump. I wasn’t going to sit back and just be quiet and then show up after the election. It was nip and tuck. This country would be in a very different place if Trump had won. I had kids and grandkids, and it was so obvious to me that people had to speak up. I go back to artists…

Stars don’t say anything. Stars won’t say a word. But artists… You can use art as a weapon, you can use art as a response. Just ask Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, Dylan, Tom Paxton, Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, you know? They speak up, and that’s part of what art can do. To not do it, you’re also making a statement about who you are. I chose to say something. To the degree that impacts my career, I’ve had a good run. I’m okay with it.

The “Trumpty Dumpty” song I wrote in April. I wrote it when he was talking about everybody going to Easter. Fuck you, are you kidding me? I wrote it just to get my outrage into something, some kind of form. And then I did The COmey Rule, which was coming out. One of the interviewers asked me, “What are you going to do when Trump hate-tweets you?” Where on Google is the page that explains what you do when the President of the United States hate-tweets you? Google doesn’t have that. There is no plan. 

I knew that I would respond instantaneously. I knew I had the song. Hit him back with art. So The Comey Rule aired at the end of September, and nothing. He didn’t hate-Tweet it. Maybe he hasn’t seen it — possible, but not probable. A few days later they called Comey in front of the Judiciary Committee, where Lindsey Graham got to tap-dance on his forehead five days before the election. And that night, Trump hate-Tweeted Comey, and I said, “Close enough.” We had done a video and we launched it immediately. A day later, Trump got COVID. To which I said, “You’re welcome.”

As told to Josh Modell

Jeff Daniels loves acting, but he doesn’t get to do it every day. What he does do every day is pick up his guitar and play, often writing songs to add to an impressive pile of them. His latest album is Alive And Well Enough, and he’s virtually on tour now.