INTERVIEW: Daniel Carlson



 Daniel Carlson


THE new album from Daniel Carlson is out in a week…


PHOTO CREDIT: Shinji Otani

so it is a good time to ask the man behind it about its creation. He discusses life and experiences in N.Y.C.; what goes into his new single, Problems, and the evocative artwork that fronts Not a Drawing. It is an exciting time for Carlson so I was eager to discover how he came into music and his evolution; the artists and music he was raised on – and why he splits his time between Amsterdam and the U.S.

I hear about a unique artist with a rich and multifaceted talent; someone who has ambitions for future success; a backstory many would envy – a sense of determination that has led him to where he is now…


Hi, Daniel. How are you? How has your week been?

Yeah, I’m great - having a really good week. Enjoying some very warm weather here in N.Y.C.

For those new to your work; can you introduce yourself, please?

I’m a musician and songwriter, originally from Chicago - but now dividing my time between N.Y.C. and Amsterdam.


Not a Drawing is out on 10th November. Can you give us an impression of what to expect from the album?

A little bit of this; a little bit of that… 

The idea was to make a record where the songs felt tied together: like they were pieces of a larger puzzle. I have a real fondness for albums where the songs are linked and have extra bits at the ends - and street sounds and things like that; surprising and secret kinds of moments. So, although I certainly took a lot of time on the songwriting itself; I spent just as much - if not more - time working out how these songs would fit together. My hope is that it feels like a trip for the listener, a journey. But, more specifically, there are guitars and drums - and Mellotrons and Moogs and those kinds of things.

No horns - but only because I can’t play them.

Problems is the latest single. Is there a story behind the song - and what was it about the track that meant it has singl-status, as it were?

In terms of the lyric; I’ll leave it open to interpretation. But, I think it’s one of the songs that felt more immediate - maybe just catchier - and so, I thought, it might be a good way to draw people in and get them curious about the whole album.

Daniel Carlson - video still.jpg

The video looks like it was a cool experience. What was it like putting the video together?

It was a lot of fun to do.

I have a background in film and photography and, living in N.Y.C., you’re always trying to think of ways to show it that bring something new - even if it’s just a little bit - to the table. One of the things that I love about living here is how many people are on the street at just about any hour, day or night - it’s just a constant stream of people. So; I had this idea of showing just that - slowed down a bit - and then creating, through superimposition, an abstraction of people and traffic; a way of showing the familiar in a slightly unfamiliar way.

It was all shot within a hundred-meters of where I live; on corners and sidewalks that are very familiar to me. The editing was pretty automatic - once I’d come up with that main strategy, the mix of shots. There was some trial-and-error but it came together pretty quickly. I’m interested in learning about your attachment to art and putting album covers together.

Not a Drawing ’s cover looks extraordinary! Tell me who you worked with on that? Do you collaborate with artists in N.Y.C.?

Like so many of my peers, I was drawn to interesting album covers growing up. Even much later, in the pre-Internet days - when it wasn’t always so easy to hear something before you bought it - I’d often use covers as a guide; as a way of finding new music. In the 1990s; there was a label called Minty Fresh and, solely because of their great album art, I bought records they put out - by The Aluminum Group, Komeda; Kahimi Karie…probably a few others - that ended up becoming huge favorites of mine.


But, the idea that the cover could look great as well as give you some indication of what the record might actually sound like - that’s always been interesting to me. The other aspect of it is one of collaboration: handing off what I’ve done - a set of songs - to a visual artist and asking them to interpret it visually. Not only will they bring a highly developed visual sense to what they do but they’ll also bring a degree of objectivity that it’s impossible for me to get.

Living in N.Y.C., I’m literally surrounded by great artists. For the new record: I reached out to Nayland Blake - who’ve I known for a long time and whose work I think is brilliant: provocative, smart, and moving. In addition to be a super-accomplished artist, Nayland is also someone for whom music is a really big part of who he is - so the hope was that it might be an interesting intersection for him (as I don’t think he’d done a record cover before). But, in terms of process - and this is how I’ve done it each time - Nayland got a very early version of the record and was asked to come up with both the cover-art and the title of the record. What you see is exactly what he handed over to me.

I absolutely love it.

Daniel Carlson - Amsterdam studio 1.jpg

IN THIS PHOTO: An Amsterdam studio where Carlson recorded

I believe you were going to record (the album) with L.A. session musicians - who you have known a while. Why did the recording shift to New York?!

I’ve worked a few different ways in the past and thought, with this record, that I might take a bit from all of them. With Aviary Jackson (2010); Michael Leonhart and I were basically locked up in a room for a year, playing, singing and arranging. So, when it came time to do the next record (Me You You Me, 2014), I thought it might be fun to work really quickly. So, Chris Bruce put together a band and we cut those songs very quickly: I think we were done in three or four days.


There were things I liked and didn’t like about both of those processes; so I thought that - this time around - I’d work in L.A. for a bit; then bring the multitracks back to N.Y.C. and do overdubs there - take a bit of time to put it together. But, after having spent a couple of years writing and demoing the songs (mainly in Amsterdam, where my wife and I live part of the year) I realized that those versions - with me playing all the instruments - were sounding pretty good; that it was already beginning to sound like a record.

So, although I knew that using outside musicians would’ve brought a level of playing to it that I’m not capable of; the thought of asking those players to copy what I’d done seemed ridiculous, a real waste of their talents. That’s how it ended up being all me this time around.

Before I move on; I am fascinated by the Gizmotron. You use it on the album but there is a childhood connection, I understand? Tell us more about that….

Yeah, that’s a good one.

When I was a kid - just learning how to play - and spending way too many hours in the local guitar store, I stumbled across this little plastic device; a sort of guitar effect. It fit over the strings of an electric guitar and produced a bowing sound - not unlike a heavily processed violin or cello. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard (or seen). Much (much) later; I was reading an interview with Godley & Crème, and they were talking about this thing they’d invented called the Gizmotron - and I realized that that was it: that was the plastic thing with the multicolored buttons I’d seen all those years ago.

So, I searched and searched and never found one in working condition - they were apparently badly engineered and not terribly sturdy, so that was that. Then, last year, a guy came up with the idea of re-engineering the whole thing and started making them again as the Gizmotron 2.0 - and so I immediately got my hands on one. As it happened, the record was just about finished; but I spent a month or so laying on a bunch of Gizmo-ed guitar tracks on - and was thrilled with what those parts added.

It’s a brilliant device.

Daniel Carlson - photograph by JB Letchinger.jpg


Is New York the finest and most productive area for music? How inspiring is it for an artist right now?

For me, it’s always inspiring.

There’s a sense of creative competition here. While it’s friendly and healthy I think, it’s still competition and that pushes me to work - to actually get things done. With any city like this - whether London or Paris or Tokyo - you just never know who you’re standing next to and what kind of amazing project they’re working on. This is a city where your waiter could be a published novelist; where the person standing in front of you at the supermarket might – might - be the director of the documentary you just saw and loved.

It’s that kind of place and, for me, it’s a motivator.

Did you get introduced to music quite early? Who were those musicians you discovered as a youngster and compelled you to get into the scene?

Yes. Both my parents listened to a lot of music - so I was exposed to a ton of stuff as a kid: The Beatles, Leon Russell; Ray Charles, Deodato; Frank Sinatra - all kinds of things. But, it was The Beatles that inspired me to pick up a guitar; to actually figure out how to play. From there, it was onto Elvis Costello, Steely Dan; XTC, Robert Wyatt - people like that, who all remain big influences.


IN THIS PHOTO: Shuta Hasunuma

Who are the new artists you recommend we check out?

Funny thing - somebody asked me just that question the other day...

There’s a Japanese musician named Shuta Hasunuma. He’s got a record out called Melodies that I really love: it’s kind of smart and well-constructed Pop record. Then there’s Forever Pavot; a French artist who put out an album called Rhapsode - that’s really terrific. I liked that Lemon Twigs’ single - the first one.

Then it’s back to people like Phoenix, Jens Lekman; METRONOMY, Testbild!; - artists like that - although they’re not all that new.



What tour dates do you have coming up? Will you be coming to the U.K. soon?

I don’t have anything on the books right now. There’ll be a few N.Y.C. dates over the winter - but I’d love to come to the U.K. next year.

We’ll see.

Daniel Carlson - photograph by Tim Soter.jpg


Christmas is not too far away. Do you have plans already - or will you be busy working?

It’s always a good time to catch up on films and spend time with friends and family - so there’ll be a lot of that.

If you could select the three albums that mean the most to you; which would they be and why?

Ah…that’s tough! Ten would be easier - but I’ll follow the rules:

Aja by Steely Dan; Gideon Gaye by the High Llamas - and The Hissing of Summer Lawns by Joni Mitchell are all records that I come back to time and time again

WaitPop På Svenska by Komeda

I cheated...

What advice would you give to artists coming through right now?

Do something!

When I think back to all the years that I spent not really putting pen to paper (so to speak); it makes me a bit crazy. Yes, I had the excuse of studio-time being expensive - but that’s really no excuse at all. The fact is that it took me until my late-30s to really treat writing and playing in a serious way; to actually sit down and do it - which I learned from my wife and observing her studio practice as a visual artist.

Daniel Carlson by Bridget Benge 9303.jpg

IN THIS PHOTO: Bridget Benge

So, my advice to people coming up right now would be to get as much done as you possibly can. Work on your own. Collaborate. Say ‘yes’ to anything interesting that comes your way. I’m just finishing an E.P. with a Swedish musician who came completely out-of-the-blue and asked if I’d sing on his record - his songs, his production - and it’s been a wonderful experience.

Years ago; I would have made some excuse or other and not done it.

Finally, and for being a good sport; you can name a song and I’ll play it here (not one of yours as I’ll do that).

Yes, absolutely: Ian Dury and The Blockheads - Inbetweenies

(Didn’t know it until a few years ago - and now can’t stop listening to it).


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Daniel Carlson by Bridget Benge 9304.jpg