A Conversation with Local Rocker Dan Israel


Local artist Dan Israel’s You’re Free is a response to personal, political, and cultural crises by a singer-songwriter who happens to be in midlife. The album, Israel’s fourteenth studio creation, was produced during a transitional period for the Twin Cities native. After twenty-one years on the job, Israel left his editorial position at the nonpartisan Revisor’s Office of the Minnesota State Legislature. This leap of faith has let Israel—for the first time in his adult life—concentrate chiefly on his music, and in addition to writing and recording, he’s been pursuing an active performing schedule, playing his own material as a solo act and bandleader, and putting together sets in tribute to some of his formative influences, including Bob Dylan and Tom Petty.

We spoke with Dan Israel ahead of his record release show at The Cedar on May 9 about dedicating himself to music full-time, making his 14th studio album, and the political and personal turmoil that inspired it. Read the full interview below and get tickets for the show here.

You went through a lot of personal transitions while making your new record, You're Free, can you discuss what changed and how that affected your music?

Sure.  Well, the big change that happened during the writing and recording of this record was that I finally decided to leave my job.  I had worked for the Office of the Revisor of Statutes (a nonpartisan office in the State Legislature that helps to draft, edit, proofread, and publish all of the state's bills/statutes and administrative rules) for 21 years - that's a long time!  It had its ups and downs, but in recent years had turned into just too many downs. I wanted to finally focus full time on music rather than trying to juggle it with a demanding day job. The struggle to balance all of these things (along with being a single parent of two beautiful children) had become too much for me, and my health (both physical and mental) suffered.  It didn't help that I live in St. Louis Park and had to commute to St. Paul every day, a task that had become particularly more onerous over the years as traffic congestion spiked in the Twin Cities. So all in all, this became, essentially, an album about self-liberation. The "you" in "You're Free" is me! And while it's a bit scary out in the world of finding your own health insurance and not having steady paychecks, I left the job about a year ago and honestly have no regrets about leaving.

Leaving the job also gave me time to focus a bit more on this new album - recording it, and promoting it - I was able to not feel as rushed and harried as I often had in the past while making records.  I'm still finding my way in this "new world" a bit - but most people who know me have commented that I seem happier these days - and overall, they're right. I still struggle with anxiety and depression, and sometimes with physical health issues (in my case, a fun chronic problem of the gastrointestinal variety, which is significantly more under control than it was a few years ago, at least), but I also have time to deal with things, at a more sane pace, and I don't have to constantly worry about being stretched too thin between two dueling careers.  I always did top-notch work at my day job, even when I was exhausted, but I'm not going to lie - my life was very hard, and it's a bit easier now. I think you can hear it in this new album - I sound a little more relaxed and optimistic - the darkness isn't gone but it also isn't dominating my every moment as much.

You're Free is your 14th studio album. How did the writing process for this album compare to your previous releases?

I don't know that it has changed very much over the years.  I still go in and out of "writing mode" - right now, I'm definitely NOT in writing mode, I'm in "promo mode", and I find it difficult to shift gears quickly.  I have to go to a certain mental "place" to be even in the right mindset to create music, and usually that has to involve a decrease of stress, an ability to let my mind wander and go places, and that tends to be when musical ideas start coming to me.  When they do come, I usually "capture" them at first with a tape recorder (yes, a real tape recorder, although I did start to transition out of the Stone Age in the last couple years and started using a digital recorder rather than a clunky old cassette tape recorder) and some scribbles of lyrics (usually just "dummy" lyrics first, sometimes completely nonsensical, though some of those first drafts do survive into the final version of the song, occasionally) in a notebook.  What I've done more of in the last few years is then I just "live with" the song ideas for a while. Sometimes I play them back to myself over and over, in a totally passive way, just let the song ideas "pour over me", sometimes even while I'm half asleep. Then I see which songs stick in my head. The ones I start finding myself humming at odd times - that tends to be a signal to me that something is worth pursuing further - if it's that catchy that it becomes my own little earworm, I figure it might be worth trying to expand it into a real song.

Of course, sometimes I just sit down and a song pours out, more or less all at once.

It's both things - and probably most of my songs have evolved somewhat out of the "listening back incessantly to my song ideas tape" method and some are more "all at once" type songs, that didn't require a long gestation period!


Dan Israel's 14th Studio Album, "You're Free"

The album title and title track feel optimistic and empowering. What messages are you trying to convey with this album?

It's about self-liberation - a reminder to myself that this is what I always wanted - a life where I could be free to make music. And now I have it, and I don't want to squander it.  I get more time with my kids now too. That is a real gift. Life is precious, and when you have kids, TIME is so precious - of course, time is precious for all of us, I just mean that all those clichéd things about "they grow up so fast" - well, it's actually true - they DO grow up so fast.  My son is now almost a teenager, my daughter isn't far behind, and it can feel like that happened overnight. So this is largely an album about joy. About doing the things you really want to do while you still have time to do them. Seizing the moment and going for your dreams, I guess - I'm not under any illusions, either.  I don't necessarily think I'm suddenly going to go from "prolific local singer-songwriter who plays tons of shows and has a small, dedicated following" to "major rock star" - nor do I necessarily think that would be good for me (but I would be willing to try anyway!). But I do feel like this is a time I want to go for it, as I may not have that many more chances to.  I am always wanting more people to hear my music - but I'm also stubborn, in that I've never wanted to shape my music to fit trends or what other people want. That just doesn't interest me. Why would I want to make music that isn't authentically "me"? I don't even know how, and don't want to try....ever, really!

The album is about the times we live in too - it's personal mostly, but it's also political.  We can get to that more a little bit later, but I do have strong political views about many things, and do not always see eye-to-eye with my friends on every issue either.  Some of the social commentary on this album, and to some extent on previous albums, isn't so much strictly "political" as it is "observations" about the world we live in these days - especially the many ups and downs that come with smartphones/computers/social media.  I personally feel stressed out by all of these devices and means of communicating with them - and yet I use them all, a LOT. So sometimes my songs explore my feelings about that, the contradictions that are inherent in constantly utilizing technology that a part of me HATES to its very core.

I think we are losing a lot in this world - civility is practically a thing of the past.  Nobody seems accountable for anything, everyone passes the buck, people don't take responsibility for the situations that threaten the planet - so I feel obligated to speak up about that.  I am far from perfect, and have a lot of work to do on myself with regard to becoming a better person and learning better how to handle a complex, often-bewildering, modern world in 2018.

You seem to take a lot of influence from classic rock bands. What groups and sounds influenced You're Free?

I am a classic rocker - there is no getting around it.  I grew up listening to American Top 40 with Casey Kasem on my AM transistor radio (the album cover for the new album "You're Free" is a parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey with a transistor radio in place of the "monolith", in something of an ode to the huge impact that hearing music on the radio in my childhood had on me).  Then I switched over to KQ, and the rest was history.

Nowadays, I can't listen to KQ!  Not much, anyway - way too much repetition.  But those classic rock songs of the '60s and '70s and '80s really form the foundation of my musical influences.  I also have been influenced by folk and punk and country and R&B and so on - but at heart, those rock songs that I first latched onto in the late '70s remain my primary musical touchstone.

So....there's all the stuff that was popular at the time - you know, Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles and so on - and then my real bottom foundation is always the Beatles and the Stones and Dylan and Neil Young and Tom Petty and all of that.  Some people hear my music (especially in the last few years) and comment that it sounds a bit like the Traveling Wilburys - I consider any comparison to a band that featured Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison to be a HUGE compliment, regardless of how it was intended (perhaps NOT always a compliment?  not sure).

And of course growing up here....Prince....the Replacements....the Jayhawks....Husker Du....etc. etc.  So many of my favorite artists, still, are from Minnesota. It's the Land of 10,000 Great Songwriters, even more than it's the Land of 10,000 Lakes.   The talent that continues to emerge from the Twin Cities, especially in terms of songwriting, never ceases to amaze me and make me feel like this is still the right place for me.  I did play music in Chicago in the late '80s/early '90s and Austin, TX in the early-mid-'90s, so I do have some point of comparison here, and, to me, nothing beats the Twin Cities for music.  Nothing. Anywhere.

Now as for this specific album, there was one more "phenomenon" of the rock music of the '70s that made its way onto this record - guitar harmonies, or "guitarmonies" as they are sometimes called - you know, like the kind employed by Thin Lizzy, the Allman Brothers, etc.  Rich Mattson and I grew up on a lot of that and we really had fun being "mad scientists" on guitar in the studio, coming up with some pretty interwoven guitar parts on some of the songs. I think we went further with that than we had ever gone before - too far? Not sure, but it really was a blast for us to record that stuff.

Can you talk about the process of making the "You're Free" music video?

It was shot and edited by my good friend Steve Cohen, who is a noted local music photographer/videographer (and also helps me with my website, promotional ideas/implementation, career advice, general "strategery".   I was a film major in college too, so I'm not totally clueless about the process (though the technology has changed dramatically since I was in college). We try to come up with some location ideas first - usually we scout on our own, sometimes together, drive around, look for cool spots to shoot - in this case, I had also rented a rehearsal space for a couple months and that really came in handy when we wanted to shoot the band live performance scenes.  We mounted a GoPro camera on the end of my new Rickenbacker 12-string guitar (all Steve's idea), and he had me walk out onto the middle of a frozen Lake Harriet while singing along with the song. My feet were very, VERY cold - but I look happy, because it was beautiful out there that day, despite my numb toes. Steve also is great at capturing lots of motion - sometimes just shooting from a car while I drive. He got footage from Rich's studio in Sparta on the Iron Range too - and of me hanging out in Rich's yard, petting his new puppy Minnie (who doesn't love puppies in videos?), etc.  We had a lot of fun making it, and hopefully that shows. Steve has become a real whiz at editing, and it shows in this video - it really "moves", I think....we know everyone is deluged with videos everywhere and that we have to hold people's attention, and I think Steve did a great job of making a "not boring" video! I have higher praise for it than that, mind you, but I think ultimately one of the goals these days with music videos should just be to make something that doesn't immediately put people to sleep - so I can proudly say, I don't think this one puts people to sleep, and I really personally like how it came out quite a bit!


How do you think present day politics play into the tone this album?

They are all over this album.  I'm very frustrated by our world.  I try not to let it overwhelm me, to overcome it....the desperation can be hard to avoid, though.  We are in uncharted territory with Trump. For years, because my job at the Legislature was nonpartisan, I couldn't speak 100% openly in public about my politics (though I think most people who knew me knew where I was at).  Now? Well, I'm worried. Trump is awful and I hope he is not our President for much longer. I am a bit more conservative than many of my friends on some foreign policy issues, but that sure doesn't mean I support this guy. He's bad for our country and bad for the world and the sooner he's no longer in the Oval Office, the better.  I never believed he could win - I guess nobody did (except maybe the Russians, who helped make it happen). But he did, and that should have been a wakeup call. And Democrats have to get their act together and stop the in-fighting and start winning elections again. I'm very frustrated by the Far Right and the Far Left - yes, of course I abhor the racism of the Far Right, but there are some very disturbing trends on the Far Left too, especially for me as a Jew.  I have seen examples of anti-Semitism creeping into the rhetoric of the Far Left at times and it can really piss me off. And I feel like the Far Left has way too much power to sabotage whoever the Democratic candidates are and damage them in the general election by forcing them to move so far to the left that they become unelectable. That's my opinion - nobody has to agree with me! But I was really upset to see people voting for Jill Stein or writing in Bernie Sanders in such a close election in 2016 - to me, that had a lot to do with why Trump was able to eke out a victory (the numbers back me up on this).  Anyway, maybe not everyone loves all of my politics, but I'm not running for office (for now, anyway) so I hope that people can take me for what I am as far as my music and if you don't like all of my politics, I hope you can still enjoy my music - though I get how strongly people feel about politics these days, and I mean no offense with my comments. And I won't be giving any political speeches at the upcoming show, promise!

What can the audience expect from your Record Release Show with Rich Mattson and the Northstars?

A lot of fun.  A lot of people onstage - Rich and his great band will kick things off, and then Rich will join our band for much of our set, on lead guitar.  We'll have our core band of drummer Dave Russ (who, along with Rich, co-produced the new album), bassist Mike Lane, and keyboardist Jim O'Neill - and we are not just playing the new album, but also some choice "back catalog" cuts, so our old friend Pete Sands (of the Honeydogs) is going to sit in on keys for a few songs too.  Another old friend, Dan Neale (of Martin Zellar and the Hardways) will be adding lead guitar, and the great Jillian Rae will be sitting in on violin, while incredible vocalists Katie Gearty and Jenny Russ will provide backup vocals on a number of tunes, and our friend Paul Odegaard is sitting in on trumpet on some songs as well.  An all-star cast, playing tunes from many of my 14 albums (plus a few fun covers). It will be a rare event, and I hope people can come check out this big, awesome lineup live on stage!


Rich Mattson & the Northstars

What's inspiring you lately?

Honestly? Still human beings.  As much as they disappoint me and infuriate me, they also inspire me - starting with my beautiful kids and my family and friends, who have gotten me through some hard times, especially in recent years with my divorce in 2014, health and work troubles, etc.  Music - always. Tom Petty was my hero and I still can't believe we lost him last year, but he continues to inspire me. With everything wrong in the world, it can seem hopeless - often BECAUSE of the behavior of other human beings. But human beings are also what gives me hope.  Quite a species - sometimes I'm even proud to be a human!

So many people are quiet heroes.  They don't get any attention for surviving in a tough world.  They find a way to persevere - people in poor countries who have nothing but somehow carry on, take care of their loved ones, and occasionally get to be happy and enjoy life even in the midst of tremendous suffering.  That will always inspire me.