Sunday, December 7, 2008

Musical Questions – Dani Leone

Hey, as advertised a new Musical Questions installment, & this time around with very good pal Dani Leone!

Dani’s had a 20-year career as a musician who plays for folks in venues from nightclubs to nursing homes. In the 80s, back in the wilds of Durham, NH & environs, Dani was an original member of Ed’s Redeeming Qualities, along with her cousin Dom Leone, Carrie Bradley, & Neno Perrota. Dani played baritone uke, one-string homemade bass, & sang & wrote songs for Ed’s.

Sadly, Dom Leone passed away, & the remaining band members moved to Baghdad by the Bay, where they became fixtures on the Bay Area music scene for the better part of the 90s, tho Neno left the band & Jonah Winter stepped in. Ed’s Redeeming Qualities signed a recording contract with Flying Fish (later a division of Rounder), & released four albums on this label: More Bad Times, It’s All Good News, Big Grapefruit Clean-Up Job, & At the Fish & Game Club. Dani (under the stage name “Boots” Daniels) also played banjo ukulele for another 90s Bay Area band, the Buckets, & appeared on their self-titled debut album put out on Slow River Records.

After the friendly break-up of Ed’s (Ed’s Redeeming Qualities plays occasional reunion shows), Dani hooked up with her brother Chris Leone in the Lipsey Mountain Spring Band, a very fun outfit that specialized in western swing & calypso. By this time Dani had put down her uke & one-string bass in favor of the steel drum, which remains her main instrument to this day (& which she also makes). After several years of touring with Lipsey Mountain, Dani & Chris (& a cast of—well, not 1000s, but a lot of folks) formed the Spurs of the Moment, continuing the country & western & calypso tradition, while Dani also now has a solo act as Sister Exister. She recently released a self-produced cd, Scratch. You can listen to her music here on her MySpace page.

Dani is a terrific friend to both Eberle & me, & she played a huge role in my getting back into music (sort of as poetry detox), & in fact getting into it in a pretty serious way. She has a wonderful punk rock "do it yourself" aesthetic (sad that the DIY term got co-opted by the home improvement TV folks), & a soul of old-time country & old-time calypso; but enough from me, & on to Dani’s answers!

Was there a childhood musical experience (either listening or playing) that you believe influenced you later or led you in a musical direction?

At a young age I was playing guitar in our church’s folk group. The difference between me and all my many many brothers and sisters who also played guitar in the church’s folk group was that I sucked. I mean, really sucked. Even then, I was all will and no talent. Story goes that Sister Darla Jean, who was (along with my father) one of the leaders of the group, stood behind me on one fateful occasion with her index finger pressed lightly over my fretboard, and I was like, strum strum strum, dum de dum de dum, never even noticing the utter absence of sound coming out of my guitar. Lucky me, I have always found failure to be inspiring, and my family’s telling and retelling of this story, my being the musical laughingstock of a an otherwise talented family … made me, I believe, the musician I’m not today.

What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome to play &/or compose music?

I don’t have a very good ear. After twenty years of being in bands and playing and playing and playing, I can now pretty much tell when sound is coming out of my instrument, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I know whether said sound is in or out of tune – let alone where to go next, notewise. The switch from uke to steel drum, and learning to make and tune steel drums, has improved my ear immensely

Do you have any superstitions connected with performances (or with the composing process)?

Not really. I’m not superstitious at all, except in situations where I am completely powerless and separate from the action, such as watching sports on TV. Which I rarely do, so …

What comes first: music (melody or chords), lyrics, title, concept, etc?

Lyrics and melody come first for me. Sometimes concept is mixed in with that. Mostly I write my songs in the car, and I’m a pretty good driver, so really it couldn’t happen any other way.

What attracts you to a certain song—what makes a good song?

As a wordsmith, I pay particular attention to the lyrics, but not always and it’s never that simple. I’m a sucker for a hook, and also a big fan of dynamics and departure. By which I mean a song that either lyrically or musically holds you in a certain orbit and then sends you.

Any one or two of your performances stick out as more memorable? Any one or two incidents during a performance that stick in your mind?

One of the truest things I ever read about my first band, Ed’s, was that our live performances were sometimes sublime, and sometimes painful. Same could probably be said of Sister Exister. It’s a sad statement on the nature of my brain that the ones I tend to remember are the train wrecks. Songs falling apart. Whole shows falling apart. Bandmates getting food poisoning. A heckler telling us we took too much acid in the 60s. Once I was in the back of the bar, in the bathroom, on the toilet, wiping, when the band was introduced over the PA system.

But, seriously, pretty much all of my rock-and-roll memories (sublime and painful) were erased by the more recent experience of touring nursing homes and senior centers with my brother Chris and our friends Bernie & Jason, playing cowboy music for old folks. There was this little girl, Emily, who joined us with a shaker as we went from room to room at a hospice in Colorado, playing “Don’t Fence Me In” to bedridden terminally ill patients. Emily’s mom was in one of those rooms, my age and dying of I-think cancer. We couldn’t go in because the priest was there, administering last rites. Emily wanted so badly to play for her mom, and eventually we did, after the priest left. I forget what songs we played, but I’ll never forget Emily, or the important nervous breakdown we all had in the parking lot, in the van, afterward.

When performing how much are you focusing on communication with the audience, & how much on the other members of your band?

Way way way on the audience. I’m probably too much focused on the audience, if you ask all my past and present bandmates. Some of whom insist on being as far away from me as possible on stage.

Any instrument that really intrigues you that you’ve never gotten around to learn? What’s interesting to you about this instrument?

Well, I want to make and learn to play a set of bass steel drums. And might. I will never learn to play the cello, but would love to meet a compatible cellist, because I have long thought that it would be the perfect partner to the tenor steel drum. Low, sweet, and stringy to my plink plonk plunk.

What’s on your playlist these days? What are you listening to?

Lately I’ve been listening to big band records. It’s always been on my radar, but I’ve never really paid attention. Until now. Leon Redbone is kind of permanent playlist. Louis Jordan. Ella Fitzgerald. Bessie Smith.

Where do you see yourself in relation to music right now? How has your relationship to music changed over time?

I don’t care any more if I play music or not. The passion comes and goes for me. I will always like to listen, and probably always have occasional spurts of creativity – I tend to write music in batches, nothing at all for a year or two, and then five songs in three days. When I started playing 20 years ago with Carrie, Dom & Neno, I was completely unjaded and it was kind of a charmed experience. After recording and touring for a while, I got jaded and uncharmed. Then I went back to the beginning when I started playing old western swing and cowboy music with my brother, as an instrumentalist. This was a huge revelation. “Look ma, no words!” … Now I don’t know where I’m at, and it doesn’t much matter to me, honestly. I can write or not, play or not … and people can listen or not. And: this can be a bad attitude, or not!

Where do you place yourself in relation to a musical tradition or heritage? Could you talk a bit about musical influences?

Long ago I wrote a song about this, but in terms of tradition/heritage, it’s still true: I’m a calypso singer trapped in a rock-and-roll body. I crave complex counter-rhythms, syncopation, and a kind of spontaneous lyrical lilt. What I come up with is generally quite different.

In terms of influence, three words: Maggie, Terry, and Suzy … Roche, of course. I probably never would have had the guts to retry music if I hadn’t discovered Jonathan Richman when I was in college. And if I hadn’t met Carrie Bradley in grad school … forget it! She really really taught me how, literally – by instruction and exposure – to syncopate, to solo, and now, as my voice changes, to sing. Both she and my cousin Dom inspired me immensely to write better songs.

Do you have any advice for people who are starting out as performers &/or composers?

Performers: Be brave, but not clueless. Know your weaknesses and try and work them to your advantage. Composers: Work it! Don’t hurry any part of a song. There are a gazillion songs in the world, and we can wait a few days, or weeks, until you think of the exact word, or rhyme, or chord change. Trust me, it will be worth it.

Is there a question about music/musicianship you’ve always had a hankering to answer? If so, what is it, & what’s the answer you’ve wanted to give?

Q: Will you sing to me on my deathbed? A: Sure!


  1. Hey John, I love your blog and think your response to Asleep in New York was very appropriate....glad I finally got on and viewed your blog! I love the picture of you and Eberle!!Gayle


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