Dan Navarro photo by Jeff Fasano
Dan Navarro’s Horizon Line Is Built on Positivity
Dan Navarro recently released the album Horizon Line, produced by his longtime friend and colleague Jim Scott (Tom Petty, The Chicks, Foo Fighters) and for both it was a return to form since Scott has worked on some of the earliest Lowen & Navarro records. The experience followed many months of lockdown livestreaming for Navarro as well as a return to the road for a “Nomad Dan” tour. Both experiences were full of growth for Navarro and confirmed for him that his focus on this album would be positivity and human connection.
Navarro’s history as a songwriter is very full and has weathered many changes in the music landscape, and spans 18 albums. He’s also a voice actor who you’ll hear in Encanto, Coco, Happy Feet, and many other films. Behind the scenes he’s also written songs for Pat Benatar, The Bangles, Dave Edmunds, Dionne Warwick and more. But lesser known are his current roles as a Board member of SAG-AFTRA, and a Trustee on the AFM Musicians’ Union and the SAG-AFTRA Intellectual Property Rights Fund. In that role he helps distribute royalties earned by side-singers and side-musicians and is also on the unclaimed royalties committee, trying to make sure that streaming services distribute royalties to songwriters and publishers. I spoke with him about his new album Horizon Line on his 70th birthday while he was attending a conference in his role supporting music non-profits.
AH: I think that I am talking to you on your birthday. Is that true?
DN: It is! It is a major milestone birthday, and I have decided to throw caution to the wind and change my Facebook profile to a picture of me from last night and the number 70. We live in a world where we hide that stuff, but we also live in a world where it all can be found out easily. But I’m kind of owning this because I’m kind of happier, more productive, and feeling better than ever. Why not celebrate it and let the world realize that this is good if you want it to be?
AH: I really applaud that. I understand that some people are not comfortable sharing their age, but I’ve always had a lot of older people in my life, and it seems normal to me to talk about it. I’ve also seen a lot of older musicians performing in recent years and have been totally impressed by them.
DN: I actually believe it’s energizing. It’s not that we do it in spite of our ages, it’s that doing it makes the age go better. It’s great to be productive, and it’s great to be busy, but this is about staying engaged, which is something that’s needed from age 7 to 70. I actually have a hero who I met 25 years ago. I’ve been hanging around with him for 15 years. He’s a classical composer, jazz french horn player, and has done film scoring. He goes to festivals and conferences, wears multiple amulets around his neck, and skinny jeans. He played in my Folk Alliance room until three or four in the morning. He hung with Dizzie Gillespie, and Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger. His name is David Amram. He’s going to be 92 in November, and he’s my role model.
AH: That’s incredible.
DN: He calls me “Pops.” We have a lot of negativity in our world right now, but I have realized the benefit and value of positive energy, hard work, commitment, and positive input. That’s what Horizon Line is all about, both the song and the nature of the album. I went back to my old producer from the first Lowen & Navarro records, Jim Scott, because his skillset has increased, we’re the same age, and he’s had a celebrated career. I also know that he really gets it, and I wanted that feeling again. I knew that we’d have the time of our lives making a record that sounds as complete as it can be. I also want to tell people that life is what you make of it. If the world is filled with dirt, and rust, and decay, then why not pump up the good to support your community?
AH: Was it a decision at a specific time to embrace that attitude and make this album?
DN: No, it was more of an evolution. When Eric Lowen retired in 2008 after we had been together 20 years, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with myself. I knew that I wanted to keep going, but I didn’t know what I had to say or why I was continuing other than that I loved it. I found the solutions over time. My first tours were surreal to be alone in a car and play for smaller crowds. I found a way of doing it that I could own. The pandemic basically stopped me dead in my tracks and I pivoted without even really thinking about it. I decided I’d stream a song. I did that, and I said, “I guess I’ll see you tomorrow.” I started in on 250 streams, going six days a week for up to two hours each time.
I realized something in it, which is, “This is it. You’re engaged.” I had actually written “Horizon Line” in 2017, so it didn’t come out of the pandemic, but there was this energy of, “Let’s see what’s next.” But the ideas on it became part of real life. It led to a way of thinking, because New Year’s was on a day that I wasn’t usually streaming, but I decided to throw a Zoom party and invite everyone in. I thought, “Let’s meet. Let’s talk.” We rang in the New Year in every time zone.
AH: That’s really sweet because a lot of people were just stuck at home with nothing to do that year. Did spending that much time off the road shift your thinking about your music at all?
DN: One thing I realized is that I’d like to spend a lot more time mentoring. I’ve done workshops, but I’ve realized in the last couple of years that young people need me to talk about how the music industry works and how it’s changed. The profitability has changed. Recorded music has shifted so dramatically. Techniques are at an all-time great, but the reason for recording is almost gone due to economic factors. That means recorded music has changed. I actually coach young artists, writers, and creators on how to stay motivated and inspired to continue to create, and that’s not actually age-specific.
AH: What was it like for you and Jim Scott to get into the studio together again? Did you find that brought energy to the recording?
DN: We would go into the studio every morning asking, “What task are we going to do today?” And that just felt really, really good. We’d spend time reminiscing. “Walking on a Wire,” “Broken Moon,” “Pendulum,” “Scratch at the Door,” and “Learning to Fall” were all done with Jim Scott. I actually found studio photos of the very first sessions that we did together in December of 1989 and we looked at them.
AH: Do you remember what you made of each other when you first met?
DN: I thought he was a cowboy, in a good way. He was no-nonsense. When we talked about doing the first record, he said two things that stuck in my head. I’ve reminded him of this. He said, “I’ve engineered a lot and I’ve been producing with other people. I’ve never produced a record solo, but I’m not worried about that. I’m a dandy recording engineer.” The word “dandy” stuck out in my mind, and his confidence! He just makes stuff sound so real. You can hear that on my new record. The other thing he said was, “You’re on a small label with a low budget. It’s an aggressive schedule, but it has to be, and we have no time for bad days or bad attitudes.”
AH: That’s a great motto.
DN: That never left my mind, coming up on 33 years down the road. One other thing I remember is that when I wanted to change a song once, he said, “Okay, go on. Go in there and make it count.” Something about “make it count” stayed with me. He’s still that guy.
AH: Did you know every song that was going to fit onto the album before you went in, or is that something you decided later?
DN: There were two songs that got cut, that just didn’t fit. It’s like having a tuxedo and then having a pair of brown shoes. I think I’ll wait for another record where the brown shoes fit. I already know where both of them are going to go. I want to do a jazz trio record with a very paired down, very acoustic jazz group with a couple of older songs, a couple new songs, and a couple of standards. Living in the songs in the studio allowed them to find their homes better.
AH: That sounds lovely. Songs often really differentiate from each other in the studio, so that’s not surprising. A song like “Rose in the Window” is really distinctive. It’s pretty fascinating. It’s haunting, in a good way. It’s not clearly spelled out how one should feel about the elements in the song, but it’s very emotive.
DN: Preston Sturges is the son of the famous film director by the same name, one of the first true auteurs as a producer/screenwriter/director. Preston senior had a mercurial rise and a mercurial fall, and that element of his life, I’m sure, informed the lives of his kids. Preston junior co-wrote with Eric Lowen many, many times, but he and I never had, except for one little song where I added some things. But for this song, he sent me the lyric, and I thought, “This is dark. It’s not negative. It’s a search inside.” Just the opening lines of, “I’ll give up my sadness, I promise. I’ll give up my anger, I swear” made me realize that it demanded something else.
I was sitting at home all alone during the pandemic, and I started planning something. I was thinking, “This is not what I normally do, but this feels right.” As I was making it up, it had a haunted quality to it, and I’ll say “haunted” rather than “haunting.” There’s a haunted nature to this lyric about what this person is doing and feeling. I said it was a little short, so I asked for one more section, and he wrote the bridge. Then I also looked at the chorus and thought it needed a couple of lines, so I put a couple in, and he loved it. I contributed the search lights and the sirens. It’s part of the haunted mind in this chaotic, dark, film-noir scene. I felt the rose needed to grow out of the crown of thorns.
AH: Those are some really strong images to add. They really stood out to me as dramatic elements.
DN: They wouldn’t have come out of me if I hadn’t been asking, “What would Preston say?” Because Preston is also a novelist as P.G. Sturges.
AH: I was wondering how you approached the music on that. The music felt bluesier, but maybe that was due to the film noir feel.
DN: Exactly, and that came to me naturally. It’s meant to have that haunted quality. When I finally found the key, I made a demo and sent it to Preston. As we were recording it, I was aware that it was unlike anything I had ever done before, but everyone really rose to the occasion.
AH: I know that “Come Around” is another unusual song since it’s been with you for a really long time.
DN: A very long time. That one was a song I pulled out when I was doing two shows in Minnesota right before the pandemic. I wrote that song in 1974 when I was 21 and I shelved it by around 1976. There was a dark period in my career between 1977, when I ended a publishing deal, and 1984, when my song with Pat Benatar came out. During that seven-year period, I worked in music management, I was a singing waiter, I worked for my uncle’s ad agency. I sort of stopped making music for a while, then I joined a band as a side-guy, and when I left that, out of that energy came “We Belong.” That brought back my confidence, but I was already in my 30s. Everything that was written before that was forgotten, and everything that I wrote after that came to the fore. I was then much more active and busier.
But when I threw that song into a set, people responded. I can still hear the 21-year-old in that song, and it can be a little embarrassing for me. Begging someone to feel something is not something I would tell a friend to do. Jim responded to the song, though, when I sent him 16 songs, and he said, “I want to do that one.” I never thought it would feel as good as it does now. The vocals on it have a Crosby, Stills, and Nash feel to it, which is very much of that era. It came from a natural place, which was the right thing for the song.
AH: Obviously, a lot of time has passed in music since the time that you wrote it, but that almost feels like a good thing here. The bones of the song have a quality to them that you don’t come across as much these days.
DN: People write differently now. The cut-and-paste nature of modern recording has translated into modern songwriting. People are stringing snippets together so that melodies are the same. I don’t mean to be derisive of modern songwriting. There are songwriters out there who are new and killing it, like John Fulbright and Calista Garcia. They blow my mind. But what you hear on the radio is often lazy songwriting. Sometimes it’s catchy and works, but to me it’s lazy songwriting.
AH: Something a lot of these younger songwriters of obvious quality have going for them is that they are writing from a very natural, authentic place and haven’t been as influenced by the trends of machine-like composition.
DN: Maybe the key word should be “authentic” as much as “Americana.” Pop leaves me cold compared to Merle Haggard and Dolly Parton. The Americana umbrella is designed to include everyone in the tent who comes from an authentic place. I can’t think of a fake Americana artist. It doesn’t matter if you’re singing loudly or quietly, or being silly, it’s still authentic. I refuse to do anything less than that.
Thanks so much for talking with us, Dan Navarro. And thanks for the amazing album.
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