Dan Israel “See The Morning Light” Interview
Published in Blog Archive, Culture Bully. Tags: Interviews, Music, Twin Cities.
In 2007 Dan Israel worked with a number of friends and musicians in releasing his most critically acclaimed album to date, Turning. Noting of the release in his sparkling review, Luke Torn wrote in the the U.K.’s Uncut Magazine, “The world-weariest songs on Turning continue to prick at the emotions and insecurities of the strive-a-day life with a graceful, eloquent brand of everyman’s poetry.” But following its release, the album would prove to be a somewhat of a curse as accompanying Israel’s deteriorating health and worsening depression would be something creatively and artistically shattering.
In the same review Torn alluded to Israel’s 2000 release, Dan Who?, reflecting on it as “A withering examination of the troubadour’s life in a hollow age.” At an age where indie-cred is almost universally moot and artists are routinely passed over in favor of their youthful contemporaries, Israel found that just quickly as Turning had been received with open arms, it was forgotten. Perhaps you could call it a dark symptom of a society that has an accelerated need to dispose of what-is in favor of what’s-next (who would know more about that than someone with a music blog, right?)… but whatever the cause, it nearly drove him mad.
Having released nine albums in 10 years Israel was tired, burnt out, and at his wit’s end over what to do next. His songs had never been flashy, nor geared toward shifting trends, and his lifestyle had never offered lavish stories or provoked scandal—the end result was a man who, for all his efforts, was passed over. Not that Israel is alone in that sentiment, nor is he lacking in artistic support or begging for sympathy, but instead, channeling such negative emotion and finding positivity in that emptiness. Emerging from the despair that he had been submersed in, Israel returned to his roots and recorded an acoustic album primarily by himself and on his own. This is See The Morning Light:
#1) “Think I Know”
I think the song reflects how easy it is to get lost amongst thoughts of what is unimportant in life. You begin to focus solely on those things, and become lost within yourself. It’s something I think everyone has done, but in your case you conclude that your daughter helped bring you back to life. I think that’s a great statement about how it’s easy to become selfish in one’s thinking, likewise, how truly important family is.
Dan Israel: Yep. What’s strange is that I wrote the song about a year ago and didn’t add the verse about my baby daughter until after she was born. One might say it was “tacked on” but it didn’t feel that way. It just felt like the song would have been incomplete without it. The song, in another sense, is about doubt. I’m kind of describing all of these things that I feel relatively certain about, but then… I’m not so sure. The only certainty comes in the form of the love you feel for your child. In that, there is something that transcends doubt and insecurity.
#2) “The Only Way”
The ideas of aging and surviving are apparent here, but I think that the song has more to do with becoming more comfortable with the idea of self. You can’t control other people, how they think, what they do, or they way they perceive the world, so you’ve got to just keep yourself on the level.
Dan Israel: Uh huh. I’m talking about letting go—especially letting go of bitterness. There’s a lot of frustration at the outset of this song—artistic frustration, career frustration… but then I guess I reach a sort of acceptance and latch onto that classic rallying cry of hope in baseball: wait until next year! I was watching a documentary on the old Brooklyn Dodgers and it turns out that that particular sports cliche really does originate from the long-suffering fans of the Dodgers, who would get their hopes up every year, only to see them dashed at the end by the always-hated Yankees (or some other team, but usually the Yankees). The expression carries a whiff of pathos—because, so often, next year is no better than this year. But there’s always that hope, and that’s what a lot of this album was about.
#3) “Another Day”
“Another day wakes up the world.” This line stands out but could easily mean different things to different people. To me, I hear that and I think that it’s a statement of hope, rather than reality… like I hope that by the time tomorrow comes around, the world will be a different place.
Dan Israel: For sure. I’m kind of fascinated with dawn. That time of day. It’s in the album title and it’s in a lot of the songs. Back in some of my young adult years, my most intense times, emotionally, would be when I would stay up all night (often under, the, um, influence of one thing or another) and watch the sun come up (the Big Star song “Watch the Sunrise” comes to mind). There’s an intersection of sadness and joy and liberation and some kind of enlightenment that happens at that time of day, and I guess I keep coming back to it when I write lyrics. These days I’m up before the dawn often, but it’s because a baby or a three-year-old wakes me up! Still, it’s a sublimely beautiful time of day when all is (relatively) quiet and the truth is easier to see, somehow.
#4) “Hard Times Falling”
It’s a funny word to use, but “Hard Times Falling” is an anthem—it’s an anthem for seasonal depression. It’s already easy to let depression take you over when the winter is in full swing and the sun rarely shines, but toss into the mix a bunch of disingenuous “season’s greetings” and things can easily being to spiral. Wow, that sounds negative.
Dan Israel: Well, negative is necessary too, I think. Seasonal depression is definitely part of this song, as are life events that take you over and find you staring into the abyss and wondering what the fucking point of it all is sometimes. Then, strangely, the song took on a new meaning with the hard times that have fallen over all of us in the least year or so, economically speaking. This song is strange in that I wrote it, recorded it, and essentially forgot about it—and then kind of rediscovered it while going through the songs I had on my 16-track recorder. I don’t even really remember recording it, but obviously I did. But there it was, and it certainly seemed to fit the album, so there you go.
“Demon” feels like a turning point for the album. Thoughts bottom out… but in asking how to change things, or how to beat your problems, you’re showing that you want out and you’re not going to let things get the best of you. Part of beating those demons is confronting them, right?
Dan Israel: Yeah. But in this song, I don’t sound all that confident about my chances of beating them, do I? That’s OK, not every song has to resolve every conflict, internal or external. We’ve all got demons, to be sure—I just seem to have a real battle with them quite often. All kinds of them. The song may not conclude that I’ll be declared the victor, but at least by writing a song about them, I shine a light on them and bring them out into the open a bit. That oughta show those demons, huh?
#6) “Believe I’ll Be Ready”
That turning point with “Demon” kicks into full-swing with this song, with it comes a renewed sense of hope. It’s interesting to hear a story play out over the course of more than a song…
Dan Israel: Those songs are really a pair. You nailed it there. “Believe I’ll Be Ready” is essentially a sequel to “Demon” (Demon II – The Dan Strikes Back). After concluding that I don’t know what it’ll take to kill the demon (wow, so violent!), I declare that, come what may, I’m ready for whatever happens, personally or in the world at large. I do think this song in particular has a rather apocalyptic tone to it, and I definitely wrote it with some very intractable problems in the world raging on in the background. I hope for my sake and my family’s sake that the worst-case scenarios never come to pass, but I think it helps to have a mental and emotional “first-aid kit” ready as well as a physical one, just in case.
#7) “All You Did”
This is probably as close to a love song as you might come on the album, though the lyrics easily translate to something other than a romantic “love.” Your words here are very warm and embracing, are they aimed at someone in particular?
Dan Israel: It was actually written for the woman who was my next-door neighbor growing up, Shirley Baker, who was like an aunt to me. She was taken before her time, and it all felt very unfair, in a cosmic sense. As the song illustrates, she was someone who put all others before herself—all she did was give of her soul, as the chorus goes. I wanted to pay tribute to her in a song, so there you go. I loved her very much.
#8) “Right Here”
We all have our little sayings that we hold on to, and one that’s stuck with me for a while is “It is what it is.” “Right Here” has a connection with “Think I Know” in that it deals with self and disallowing other people to influence how you think or feel.
Dan Israel: Believe it or not, that phrase was on the bumper sticker of a co-worker! Weird how it worked its way into the song—and I haven’t even told the co-worker. Yes, I think you nailed it with this song… definitely about not looking elsewhere for gratification and contentment, but instead looking inward and to your own inner circle, to the people you most love and trust and care about. In this case, that’s my family, but not everybody is so lucky to have a family like I do, and believe me, I don’t take it for granted. This one also ends up being a little bit of an anthem for the down times we are in right now, though I don’t think I intended for it to be so. I can cope, I can see hope… kind of a mantra for getting through the “New Depression,” perhaps.
The instrumental feels a little strange, though not out of place, amongst the other tracks considering the ongoing themes that are battled with. What was the thought behind including it?
Dan Israel: It’s a little riff I’ve had for a while and it felt like a breath of fresh air—optimism and beauty without annoying strings (or lyrics) attached. Plus, it’s real short—really just a little interlude.
#10) “I Howled Out Your Name” (feat. Molly Maher)
Is Molly the only guest you have on the album? Did you write the lyrics for the song? It follows “Daybreak” in that it’s a tangent from the rest of the album, was that intentional?
Dan Israel: Yes, she and Steve Murray, who played bass on this song. Molly wrote the whole song, lyrics and all. All I did was play lead guitar on it (and record it). This is the “oddball” section of the album, really—I thought, why not break it up and throw a few curve-balls in on what is otherwise a straightforward “Dan Israel solo acoustic album.” “All You Did” is a bit off the path, too, because it has a lead guitar and piano and bass, whereas the other tunes have some accompaniment. Trying to keep it interesting.
Well, this is really more than just an “oddball” song—I included it on the album because, in addition to being a bit of a “breather” from me singing my own songs, it feels like it truly belongs on this album. There is real pain in the lyrics, and even though in some sense it feels “lighter” somehow, it also provides a sort of counterpoint (in terms of feel) to the other songs, and the bluesiness of it feels totally “in place” on this record. I also love that it’s like turning the radio dial for an interlude back in time. It sounds “old-timey” and it’s recorded with one mic in a room with three people playing at once—old school. I think I was at least attempting to channel Dave Ray (of Koerner, Ray and Glover) or one of my current Minnesota favorites, Charlie Parr, with my guitar playing—not quite reaching those heights, but that’s what I was aiming for. Another bluesy reference point for me, subconsciously, was probably George Harrison—yeah, for real—in this case, I think I kind of had “For You Blue” off of “Let it Be” in mind a little bit, or something.
#11) “All That Lasts”
Was there one event in particular that influenced the line “love’s all that lasts”? So often is the complete opposite at the heart of music, it’s kind of refreshing to hear such an optimistic take on the subject. (sidenote: For what it’s worth, the pattern of the lyrics reminds me of an episode of the Fresh Prince [4:54 in the video].)
Dan Israel: It’s actually a song that comes out of some pain and desperation—those “demons” again. My life can often seem more than just “hectic,”- it can seem like plain old “madness.” All of the crazy things can come to a head and make me lose sight of what’s important. This song sounds like a person frantically searching for a salve, a way to make himself feel better, and finding a great hole of emptiness and loneliness and in all of those things that purportedly can accomplish that aim. Fleeting relief is just that—fleeting. Love’s all that lasts, baby. That’s it.
#12) “While It Was”
The sentiments echoed in this song seem to end things on a bit of a downer… almost like you’re reminiscing on what could have been or what was. Is that what’s at the heart of this song Dan? Why did you end the album with “While it Was” rather than an “upper” like “All That Lasts”?
Dan Israel: This song was really written to my son, Isaac. It’s my statement of “I try, and I try, but sometimes, no matter what I do, I’m just a human being and can’t always live up to what I want to be for you.” I know I’m a good dad, but I’m not perfect, and this song really goes to the heart of what a painful realization that can be. I actually think this song is uplifting, in some sense, because it asserts the value of the things that didgo right—”we’ll hold onto the memories, forever long.” No matter what.