Jeff Daniels harmonizes music and acting


Courtesy Luke Pline

Jeff Daniels harmonizes music and acting

By Miranda Manier

Jeff Daniels’ acting career has spanned small and silver screens to regional and Broadway theater. He has been nominated for Tony and Golden Globe awards and even won an Emmy for his performance in the TV show “The Newsroom.” The first thing that comes to mind when his name is mentioned might be his role in “Dumb and Dumber” opposite Jim Carrey, or his award-winning role of Will McAvoy, the grounded, morally righteous news anchor. 

A less familiar image is Daniels gripping an acoustic guitar, strumming alongside his son’s band, The Ben Daniels Band, and crooning to a song somewhere between folk and blues.

For the past 15 years or so, Daniels has pursued music alongside his award-winning acting career, releasing several albums and touring both solo and with others. The Ben Daniels Band joined him in 2015 and will do so again on a Midwest tour this autumn. 

Daniels and The Ben Daniels Band will appear at City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph St., Oct. 26. The Chronicle spoke with Daniels about music, acting and his creative relationship with The Ben Daniels Band.

THE CHRONICLE: How would you describe your sound on this tour?

JEFF DANIELS: I’m acoustic guitar driven, so this particular tour with Ben’s band is an acoustic version of [my sound]. So it’s fiddles, mandolin, slide guitars, acoustic guitars, acoustic bass and [vocal] harmonies. I really like the clarity of it. Not just of the instruments but also the songwriting. There’s nothing too abstract coming out of my mouth. The music is acoustic, finger-picking, bluesy, funny— and also moving. 

You’ve been writing songs prolifically for years, but you only started performing publicly for the last 15 years. What made you pursue music more seriously?

I was always just back porch, doing it for the love of it. Creatively, too, it kept me sane because, as an actor, you’re waiting for the phone to ring for decades, and in between those phone calls, you can go nuts. So it was a great creative outlet I could completely control. I never played [outside]; I always just did it for me. And then to raise money for [the Purple Rose Theatre], they pushed me out there, and it was terrifying. After about three Christmases of the shows, I figured out how to do it. An agent saw me and he said, “You know, you could do this if you wanted.” So I pursued it because I thought the acting career was falling down. I thought, “This might be what I do,” and I was getting ready to do it, and then “Newsroom” happened. 

What do you get, creatively, from performing music that you don’t get from being onstage or on camera?

For film and TV, you’re just giving the performance to other people, and they’re going to put it together without you there and six months to a year later you’re going to see what they did with it. With the music, I’m the writer, performer, editor, director [and] studio. I’m everything. You have complete creative control. It also marries that live audience that Broadway has. You took the time to drive here, you paid money to see this, and we drove a long way to come here and do this for you. There’s an immediacy to that you don’t get anywhere else. 

What advice would you give to people who want to pursue an art they may not have trained for?

It’s nice to have a focus. I always was focused on being an actor. I was never going to be a musician and hit delete on actor. As a writer, I became a better actor. Once you’ve written, then you can see what the writer’s trying to do. It makes you a better, more well-rounded, informed actor. The great writers have a rhythm. Once you find that, it’s like a song. It’s like lyrics. 

What responses do you get from people who only know you as an actor?

Shock. I’ve seen jaws drop. It’s gotten better because of the internet; people can go, “Let’s go on YouTube and see what he does.” But early on, maybe 15 years ago, some would just buy the ticket to see the guy from “Dumb and Dumber,” and after 10 minutes, they would realize they had seen me, past tense, and now I was going to continue playing this guitar for what could be another hour and a half. [They would think], “Oh my god, this could be God-awful. Is this going to be sad and pathetic?” My first few years of [performing music], I would open with a song called “If William Shatner Can, I Can Too.” Then you play, and they go, “Oh my God, he can actually play. Thank God.” 

Do you enjoy that subversion of expectation?

Yes. It’s glorious, because you realize the expectations really are low. And then you lower them. By the time you’re singing, you’re like Barbara Streisand at the Hollywood Bowl. They’re so relieved you don’t suck that you play into it. Then with Ben’s band, you turn them loose, it sounds great, and it’s music no one’s aware of. You follow it like someone is telling you a story—except it’s a song.

Why have you integrated your son’s band into the show, rather than using it as an opener?

I didn’t want them to be an opener where people could look in and go, “Oh, it’s the opening act, never mind. Let’s go back out and have another drink.” I walk out [and] I open. They get that for 10 minutes, and then I bring [The Ben Daniels Band] out and it builds. [After intermission], the band comes out, and they’ve got 15 minutes. People like the show by that point. It didn’t suck, and here’s Ben’s band doing what they do. You build it, so it’s all part of, “What are they going to do next?” 

Why have you kept your roots in the Midwest?

I was thinking about that the other day because I’ve been in New York since April, which included Morocco in September. I’ve been gone a long time, and when you come back to a small town in the Midwest where you’ve built a house, [it’s] a bit jarring. Living in a small town in the Midwest is a sigh of relief. There’s a relaxation, a simplicity here that you certainly don’t have in New York City or Hollywood. People are yelling and screaming and being important and making all kinds of incredibly important decisions for somewhere else. Right here, we’re just wondering what the dog’s thinking.