Danny O’Keefe photo by Davis Freeman
Danny O’Keefe On Circular Turns and Why Compassion Is Key
Danny O’Keefe has recently released a new collection of songs via Sunset Blvd. Records titled Circular Turns. It’s a dual-structured release since it contains, firstly, a selection of seventeen lesser known songs from 1999 through 2017, and secondly, a full live concert performance hailing from a house show in an excellent sonic environment. With that double aspect, you really encounter the two parts of O’Keefe’s long career in music, as a songwriting studio artist, and also as someone who brings his stories to intimate, often totally solo performances.
O’Keefe’s work has been famously covered by a fairly mind-blowing list of performers, including Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Waylon Jennings, Miranda Lambert, Glen Campbell, Alison Krauss, and Jackson Browne, just to name a few. That provides yet another aspect to his songwriting and recording. It’s a certain transmissibility that seems encoded in his work, one that may come down to some of his philosophies about songwriting and recording. I spoke with Danny O’Keefe about many aspects of his personal songwriting and the way that he views his work, whether he’s taking songs onto a stage solo, or listening to a favorite interpretation by another artist.
Americana Highways: How did you select songs for this collection working with Sunset Blvd Records? They span a significant period, so I imagine it was a tough choice.
Danny O’Keefe: I love all the selections, but they were made by Len Fico. I was glad that he had gone through all those recordings and found them. It was a surprise and a delight, really.
AH: That’s got to be a special thing to get that personal reaction from someone, that these songs spoke to him.
DO’K: Yes, and none of them had been singles. But he liked them. What could be better?
AH: The second half of this record is a live show recording. Was that something you had been thinking about releasing, or was Len part of choosing that also?
DO’K: I’m not sure how he found that! There might have been a video on the ubiquitous Youtube, though I didn’t put it up. I have a friend, Glenn Elvig, who has converted what’s basically his house into a small concert hall. It’s great and has a great stage, sound system, and lighting. Glen recorded it. There’s an hour plus of it, which I’m happy about.
AH: The sound quality is really solid on those live tracks.
DO’K: That place has great sound. I call it the “Carnegie Hall of house concerts.” It’s really the best location I’ve played. You wouldn’t have a rock band in there, but it’s perfect for acoustic music, with a raised stage. I have family and friends there, in the St. Paul area, so periodically I go back to touch bases. When I go there, I play at his place!
AH: I feel like this album’s dual aspect, with its live performance alongside songwriter studio work, reflects the two aspects of your life, which have always been dual, going way back for you.
DO’K: Yes, since if you come to see me performing, the chances of me having a backing band are pretty slim, so that gives you a good idea of what I do in concert. The joy of being in the studio, along with the luxury of other players, is to make the kind of dream-tracks that you want to make, at least as far as the studio allows.
AH: So studio work is the more expansive palette where you can extend to further reaches, but when it comes to live performances, you have a specific adaptation?
DO’K: In a solo concert, it really comes down to the essential techniques that you used when you wrote the song. It’s still how I write, with a guitar. That gets translated by the variety of musicians you can bring in. It’s like painting. You try not to put too much paint on it, but being in the studio, that’s part of the luxury.
AH: I know that a number of people won’t write a song unless they feel they can play it solo, live. Is that part of your mindset too?
DO’K: Not really. Each song is a canvas, and what does it ask of you in terms of coloration, meaning, and depth? Some can be line drawings, and some are like Jackson Pollock where you throw all the cans of paint that you have at it.
AH: So it’s very much about what the song wants or needs?
DO’K: Yes. Every song asks something of you in its interpretation and you usually hear that when you’re playing it. Even if I’m just playing it acoustically on stage, I still hear all the other stuff in it.
AH: Does that mean that your experience of performing the song is expanded compared to the audience? You’re hearing all the things that have been composed for the song?
DO’K: I’m hearing all the things that I can’t play. [Laughs]
AH: That’s so interesting because some of the songs have had a long lifespan.
DO’K: Most of these songs had been recorded but were somewhat obscure, so I’m glad to have them available in a distribution situation rather than just someone’s version being put up on Youtube.
AH: It seems like you have a pretty constant process in your life of songwriting followed by recording. Is that true?
DO’K: Years ago, it was at the whim of a record company as to what you would do and what they expected of you. Fortunately, I was on both Atlantic and Warner Bros. I had a fairly free hand in what I wanted to record and play. Whether that was a good thing or not, I don’t know! Now I have a studio engineer who is also my bass player, and we put down tracks that, if they continue to speak to us, we add percussionists or a keyboard, however we need to finish it up. Mostly, they start as demos, then we add paint to them.
AH: Do you find that you need to be working on something creative?
DO’K: I don’t think I’ve ever thought towards releases. You write. And the ones that hang around, that turn into performance pieces, or you record in the studio, they count. You may return to them, rewrite them, or rearrange them, but they have to have that spark that kind of moves you. It doesn’t necessarily need to bring a tear to your eyes, but it needs to have emotional value, and it needs to be musically interesting.
Some of my favorite songs I can’t play, since the music was written by others I’ve worked with, and that’s a limitation. They are “other” in that sense.
AH: Your songs have been so translatable over time, and so many people have performed your songs in various ways. Are you thinking about that when you make songs?
DO’K: It’s always a great compliment, that someone hears something in a piece that you developed and recorded that they can make their own in various ways. I remember that one of my favorite versions of “Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues” is by Waylon Jennings. He pretty much made it his own and turned it into a Waylon song. I love to hear that version rather than someone just mimicking the version that I recorded.
AH: Do you feel that you can recognize the original spark of the song in the new versions?
DO’K: I don’t want them to change the basic structure, but it means something when they can find resonance in it and adapt it to where they feel their own connection. That’s huge. I love that.
AH: I can see wanting the same story to carry through in the song despite changes that may occur.
DO’K: There’s a quote from one of my favorite writers, Barry Lopez, that says, “Everything is held together with stories. That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.” That’s such a great quote and idea. Without even thinking about that, necessarily, that’s what motivates me when I write a song. It’s a story that’s changed and adapted within me, but compassion is the key, whatever form it may take, whether a funny or sad context. That’s what you’re trying to connect to the ear of the audience.
AH: That makes sense, because that’s the primary response from the audience that causes connection.
DO’K: The beauty of that is that everyone sees their own pictures. They don’t see the author’s pictures in the music, they see their own. That’s what creates an intimacy that you need to have for something to really work.
AH: Is there a visual aspect for you, when you write music? I agree that people are constantly picturing visual things when it comes to music.
DO’K: Always. I think it’s essential and integral. It may start out with someone that you knew or a situation that you were in, and you change it as art dictates, but there are still those images. There have to be. I still see them on stage when I’m singing. People populate those songs.
AH: These songs are quite a range of possible types of stories and that introduces audiences to how widespread your songwriting is.
DO’K: Thankfully, that’s what one’s life is. If you’re only seeing life from a barstool in Texas, you’ll write the same song over and over again.
AH: One of the songs specifically connects with the visual arts, which is “Runnin’ From the Devil.” I read in the liner notes that your friend, Terry Turrell, was the inspiration for that song. That’s such a universal song about restlessness, nervousness, and anxiety. There’s a lot about the human condition there.
DO’K: Yes, and that’s the painting on the cover of the album. He’s one of my favorite artists. He’s a self-taught, outsider artist, so he’s not coming from any kind of school. He has these very powerful images, at least to me. That one was just sitting in his house, and I don’t even know if he’d completely finished it at that point. Graciously, because I loved it so much, he gave it to me.
AH: Did the colors there impact you in terms of the mood of the song?
DO’K: Absolutely. And just the imagery. He used to sell t-shirts and sweatshirts with the images that he painted in the Pike Place Market in Seattle. He sold them at an outside table. I have a whole collection of them because I loved the imagery. Then I started going and seeing his paintings, and he started having shows, and still does.
AH: That’s great that he’s still creating. That song feels a little bit Americana, with bluesy aspects, but maybe I’m just influenced to think that way by the lyrics. Were you thinking that way at all?
DO’K: I don’t know that I’m that intentional. When something is inspirational, you go with it and find out what all the threads are. When you finally get something that you can play on a guitar, that’s the gift. To analyze where they come from doesn’t make any difference to the song. [Laughs]
AH: I can tell from this album that you don’t put a lot of restrictions on yourself in terms of where each song might go. It’s clearly an excavation process for you.
DO’K: It’s musical archaeology, yes. That’s kind of what a song is. It bubbles up from the depths of your own experience and your own feelings. When it finally arrives and begins to speak to you in some kind of context or symbology, it may take you some time before you finally get the complete experience of it. That’s why I say that the ones that tend to be the most important songs move you, at least in the process of writing them. You may get emotional. You may get a little teary because they may be connecting you to lost, or to your own personal history in some way that is gone, except for the history.
AH: That makes me think of songs as a kind of preservative of a human experience. You might also capture something in the moment that you may later feel was very much from another time.
DO’K: Yes, and maybe you didn’t initially, as you’re writing it, realize. The song called “Quits” was one that I initially started writing as a throw-away country song, and then I realized that this one was talking to me. I had a marriage that was going South and I don’t think it’s particularly artfully crafted, but the core of it is embedded in much of our common experience of loss. Over the years, it’s grown, and people ask me for that song much more than I thought they ever would. It’s a constant reminder when I play it.
AH: That’s quite a minefield having written so much over a long period of time. When playing it, you have to decide how you feel about it now.
DO’K: You have to decide how it speaks to you. Especially when you’re playing it alone, with the song stripped down to its bones. How it works at that simple level is an indicator of the importance of the song. I still feel them, they are not just exercises.
AH: Is each time you play it a new opportunity to engage with the essence of that song?
DO’K: Yes, with the story of it. The story is still within it.
Thanks very much for speaking with us, Danny O’Keefe. Find more information and details on his website here: https://dannyokeefe.com/
Enjoy our previous coverage of Danny O’Keefe here: REVIEW: Danny O’Keefe “Circular Turns” 2 CD Set